Small Delights

Small Delights

Among the many plants ​that invite a closer look here in late June is Striped wintergreen, Chimaphila maculata, or pipsissewa. The featured photo is of this diminutive and charming plant in bud, and here is a photo of it in bloom.

It can be found in dry (usually acidic) woods, the leaves visible even through winter. On a bloom stalk about 6 inches tall, the white buds hold for a month or more before opening to a downward-facing flower. Creek Indians called it “pipsisikwau,” meaning “breaks into small pieces,” and used it as a medicine to break down gallstones and kidney stones. Indigenous to the site, we’re seeing it along the stream trail and above the North Quarry.

By the roadside vernal pool across from the North Quarry, is a small group of native Winterberry hollies, Ilex verticillata, added last fall. Their tiny pale green blossoms nestle into the leaf axels on new growth in June, where they elude all but the most observant passer-by. By fall, the female plants will dazzle with brilliant red berries, a treat for birds throughout the winter. This is a plant that usually prefers acidic soil. The Quarry Gardens’ soil pH ranges from 7.2 to 8 in most places (7 being neutral and anything higher being alkaline). Devin Floyd, of the Center for Urban Habitats, collected soil samples this week for a detailed lab analysis to help us understand how such plants are getting the nutrients they need. We’ve noted several instances of apparently healthy dwarfism in acid-loving plants. For example, inspired​ by our legacy hollies, we’re using the acid-loving American holly, Ilex opaca, which normally can reach a height of 30 feet, as a screening shrub, hoping it will stay a healthy dwarf.

The gardens are young, and much of what is emerging is new to us. New Jersey tea, Ceanothus americanus, is one example. A dense, compact, shrub, it produces small rounded clusters of tiny fragrant white flowers in late spring. During the American Revolution, the dried leaves served as a (caffeine-free) tea substitute, hence the name. It will grow in dry, rocky soil—like much of ours—reaching 2-3 feet tall (if we can get the deer to leave it alone).

Another revelation this month—for one whose home garden includes cultivars of false wild yellow indigo whose blooming spires reach up to 4 feet—was Wild Indigo, Baptisia tinctoria. This perennial shrubby member of the pea family with small yellow blossoms, grows well in dry, sunny spots—like atop the south-facing wall across from the Visitor Center exit​. The low mounds may eventually reach 2-3 feet in height. Later this summer, the seed pods will turn black with seeds that rattle inside, accounting for the sometime-name “rattleweed.” It was once used as a substitute for true indigo dye, despite it’s yellow flower.

More than 600 visitors have toured the Quarry Gardens so far this year. Here is Armand last weekend ​with some of them at the overlook platform.