Spicebush is blooming

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) blooms are the latest sign of spring in the backyard. In my opinion, this is a first-rate shrub for suburban landscapes. This native Kentucky plant is easy to grow and does well in shade or sun.

It has small yellow flowers in early spring and attractive foliage in summer, and female plants have bright red berries in early autumn. The leaves have a pleasant spicy smell when crushed. It can grow up to 15 ft. high but it can be kept to most any size by pruning.

a native Kentucky shrub that's great for landscaping
1. flowering spicebush 2. close-up of flower 3. summer foliage 4. autumn leaves 5. late summer berries on a female plant

And if that isn’t enough, it’s also the major host plant for spicebush butterflies (Papilio troilus). I wrote about the spicebush caterpillar last summer and these images review the butterfly’s life cycle.

Papilio troilus life cycle
1. folded leaf covering small caterpillar 2. small caterpillar 3. full-grown caterpillar 4. chrysalis 5. spicebush swallowtail butterfly

Last summer I found several caterpillars on my two spicebush shrubs and saw the butterflies in the backyard. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more.

Spicebush is fairly common as an understory shrub in our Kentucky woods. Their yellow bloom makes them easy to spot this time of year. I’m glad to find them in the woods and I hope to see more of them in suburban yards.

March happenings

I’m seeing several signs of spring in the backyard. Most of them are small with varying shapes and colors.

Here are a few of the sights I found recently.

Kentucky backyard in March

From the top, left to right: Dogwood buds beginning to open (Cornus florida), Rue Anemone blossom (Anemonella thalictroides), buds of Redbud tree (Cercis canadensis), Hepatica blossom (Hepatica acutiloba), Ragwort buds (Senecio), tiny Gooseberry leaves (Ribes missouriense), Sessile Trillium bud (Trillium sessile), and Red Maple seeds (Acer rubrum).

I’m looking forward to seeing my first butterfly of the season, and I’ve had one report of a swallowtail in the Red River Gorge. So far, the only insects I’ve seen were small flies and honey bees.

I look forward to watching new developments, and I’d be glad to hear what signs of spring you are seeing.

A new dogwood tree

I like flowering dogwood trees (Cornus florida). One of my favorite memories is of an Easter Sunday in the Red River Gorge when I coined the phrase “dogwood lace all over the place.”

Previous owners of our home planted two dogwoods in the front yard. We’ve enjoyed the beauty and subtle fragrance of their showy April blossoms, summer foliage and shade, colorful leaves and red berries in autumn, and the branches and checkered bark in winter.

Our trees are 50 years old. Last week we removed one that was dying and replaced it with a young one. Looking toward our backyard you can see the newly planted tree and the older one.

In the wild, dogwoods are seriously threatened by a fungus, dogwood anthracnose. However, according to the Bernheim Arboretum, “the fungus requires high humidity for infection, so trees growing on moist, shady sites are most susceptible… Hearty, well-maintained flowering dogwood trees in sunny areas with good air circulation and proper soil moisture are rarely impacted by anthracnose.” Our location gets plenty of sun so we feel comfortable replanting.

Most of our tree has been cut up for fireplace wood. However, we saved a portion of the trunk for a small outdoor stool. I expect tree experts could extract data from this stump. I’m content to enjoy the beautiful pattern.

In addition to their visual beauty, dogwoods are a host for spring azure butterflies and various moths including the large colorful Polyphemus moth. Birds feed on the caterpillars in summer and quickly devour the red berries in autumn.

I look forward to watching our young tree grow and seeing what visitors it attracts.

Our rain garden

Rain garden? We had not heard of such a thing in 2005 when we decided to re-work the backyard with native plants. We now understand their primary purpose is to get rain water into the ground and keep it out of storm sewers.

Stacy Borden, arborist and photographer, helped us with the backyard, and suggested the slope from the house would work well for a rain garden. As a result, rain from our roof goes underground, comes out under a large rock, and travels down an otherwise dry creek bed to a depression.

We had a day of  steady rain last week with a total of about two inches. This is how the rain garden looked most of the day.

Lexington, Kentucky rain garden on a rainy day

Shortly after the rain stopped, the water disappeared. Evidently the roots of the bald cypress tree (Taxodium distichum), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), and other perennials help the rain soak into the ground about as fast as it collects.

In contrast to the wet, winter image looking up the ‘creek’, this is a view looking down the ‘creek’ on a dry, summer day. Note the bald cypress trunk to the left of the rock cairn. The pink blossoms in the background are swamp milkweed, a host plant for the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).

Lexington, Kentucky rain garden in summer

I’m glad we listened to Stacy. I like the diversity of plants and animals the rain garden adds. Butterflies enjoy basking on the large rocks, and various ‘critters’ hide under them. And I’m pleased to know we’re keeping water out of the storm sewers.

For more information about rain gardens:

Mystery Crocuses – first sign of spring

These crocuses mysteriously appeared under the red maple a few years ago. I didn’t plant them and I have no idea how they got there. However, I’m pleased to see these first blossoms of the year.

The blossoms are small – about one inch wide and two inches tall. They are not spectacular, but they’re big enough to be seen from the dining room window and they brighten my day.

It was only when I looked closely at the inside of a blossom that I noticed the richness and beauty within.

Crocuses are not native to Kentucky, but they provide an early source of nectar for insects. And I enjoy them as an early sign of spring.