Gardens are full of mysteries. Perhaps one of the most irritating: How can sprouts from elm and hackberry roots grow 6 inches overnight? And how can crabgrass get 3 inches tall in an afternoon when the ground is dry as concrete, while established perennials slump in the sun? I know I pulled out every one of them, roots and all, and three hours later, there they are back again between the bricks of the path, waving their blades at me like rude, insolent middle fingers. I can almost hear “nyah, nyah, nyah nyah, nyah,” as I pass.
How did one veronicastrum get from the studio garden to the front yard, where it is now happily ensconced behind Salvia guaranitica Black-and-Blue? In Nature’s unfathomable botanic mind, did she somehow deliberately choose that spot? The seeds are dispersed by wind: so why is it never growing with goldenrod, balloon flowers or any one of a dozen other places where seed could have fallen, as do black-eyed Susans, coneflowers and daisy fleabane? I would have planted it there had I thought of it first; its tall white candelabra flower spikes are the perfect complement to the tall, darkly intense cobalt blue of the salvia.
Veronicastrum virginicum, commonly known as Culver’s root, is a sun-loving Missouri native perennial of open woods and prairies, growing to 6 feet or more in moist soil but seldom over 4 feet in our dry Ozark rocks. Magnets for bees and butterflies, its long spikes of delicate, pure white or sometimes pale lavender flowers bloom for a month or longer from late July into September. While not to be confused with more well-known blue veronicas, it does belong to the same family (the “astrum” part of the name means false, which translates to “false veronica”). “Culver’s root” refers to an 18th century physician who discovered its healing properties, though indigenous Americans had used it long before in treating constipation, in childbirth and for coughs and fevers. With a vase life of up to seven days, it is an ideal cut flower. Not commonly offered at garden centers, it is one of our natives that should be grown more often and is well worth tracking down. Deer resistance and mostly problem-free attributes make it a desirable tall perennial for the back of a garden border, with the salvia it seems to favor or taller native purple ironweed that blooms at the same time.
And thereby lies another mystery: I have no clue where the ironweed (Vernonia missurica) came from. Only feet away from the veronicastrum, it appeared by the front garden gate unbidden one year and has since lived quite contentedly there. I’ve never noticed it anywhere else in our vicinity. Nearly 7 feet tall with a tendency to flop when in full bloom, the lanky stems are topped with showy magenta-purple flowers always buzzing with pollinators. Its seeds, also windblown, seem less choosy about location than veronicastrum; we now have at least four plants in various places. Another native worth growing but not usually in found in garden centers, it might be found at a wildflower nursery through an internet search — or wait for Mother Nature to bestow it as a gift sooner or later. A close lookalike it is often confused for, Joe Pye weed (Eupatoreum fistulosum) with pink, vanilla-scented flowers is more widely available. The two species are frequently found growing in the same areas in the wild.
This week’s intrigue involves my 30-odd-year-old, 8-foot-tall potted bay laurel tree. It became infested with scale insects last fall, and in the flurry of getting the garden winter-ready, it went into the greenhouse untreated. When I remembered, it couldn’t be reached without pulling out all the plants in front of it. I noted it again in April as I emptied the greenhouse, and I put off the chore (which involves scrubbing the pesky, sap-sucking scale insects off with soapy water and an old soft toothbrush — or fingers — effective but time consuming; we use bay leaves in cooking, so no insecticides) but cut off a few of the worst infested branches. The tree soon put on fresh growth, and treatment got put on the back burner again, while we tended to more immediate garden chores.
When I finally got around to directing my guilty attention to the issue, I couldn’t find a single scale insect on the entire tree. Gone. Every single one — gone. An army of ladybugs, wasps or lacewings? Did the heavy spring rains simply wash them off? Or did the tree mount a defense by manufacturing a repellent phytochemical?
Fragrant, aromatic bay leaves placed in containers of flour and other grains are well known repellents of weevils; and scattered in cupboards and tucked in crevices around the kitchen, they help repel ants and cockroaches. Smoke from burning dry bay leaves will repel mosquitoes — and an added benefit of inhaling the cocktail mix of natural chemicals contained in the sweet smoke, used for centuries, is reduced anxiety and enhanced mood.
In cooking, bay leaves infuse a delicate flavor to meats, stews and a wide variety of dishes but are always used dried (fresh bay leaves leave a taste like mouthwash because of the chemical eugenol that dissipates in drying.) Harvested and dried in bulk, they can be kept in the freezer and last for years. Bay leaves are beneficial for health; loaded with immune boosters and anti-inflammatories.
One last conundrum that always has me scratching my head in July: Why do our crape myrtles bloom two weeks later than anywhere else? I think I’ll sit on the deck with my feet up and a cold glass in hand, burning some bay leaves to discourage mosquitoes and enhance mindfulness whilst contemplating the mysteries of Chaos. I might not solve my puzzles, but I’ll be less fashed knowing Nature holds all the answers.
Including to that #*@% crabgrass, and she isn’t telling.
Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener and a Missouri master gardener. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at [email protected] and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.