Save the Seeds: Rudbeckia and Wild Asters

To celebrating this first week of autumn, in my Mother’s garden, the deep-yellow flowers of the hybrid form of our native Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) are ripening into dark chocolate seed heads. Interlaced with the Rudbeckia are the newly-opened white flowers of one of our wonderful native fall asters.

While it’s good to clean up in the fall, the pictured plants and all others with edible seeds should be left until early Spring. As you know, our small seed-eating songbirds, whose bushes and meadows have become condos and malls, desperately need winter food from our gardens. Leave the seeds, and you’re rewarded with the winter beauty of the seed stalks and pods graced by wrens, finches, warblers, and sparrows (against the snow if you’re far enough North). Consider this: the birds feasting on my mother’s Rudbeckia seeds last winter left behind a thoughtful hostess gift: the aster’s seeds.

By the way, I recommend the hybrid Rudbeckia over the native version. The hybrid is more compact and resistant to powdery mildew, and has a longer blooming season. As to the native asters, they’re prefect as is. If you find them a bit tall, pinch them back during June and July. Both plants are drought tolerant, sun worshipers; many asters also do well in part-shade. Both plants are rated zones 4 to 8 but “In My Garden” readers in zone 9 (California, Louisiana, and Florida) and zone 3 (Ontario) are probably also familiar with these garden treats. Let me know.


And the readers said…

[Sorry about the late picture last Sunday. Sue]

There’s no picture!! But I think I know what flower you are talking about and yes it is quite pretty. Thank you for the email…I was hoping for a picture lol. Talk to you later. Kim (ONT)

I do enjoy starting the week with your emails! Judi (CO)

Can you send the pictures too? thanks for sending the emails. Linda (FL)

So beautiful!!!!!! Carmen (FL)

I love the photos of your garden. What steps on the computer do I have to go through to use one of the photos as a screen saver? Nancy Anne (CT)

I believe this is great, I mean “In my garden”.. Saludos Julia (CT)

thanks for the second sending == I thought my computer was acting up not loading the picture! Always look forward to these pretties. Gregg (NY)

BTW Diane’s beautiful Louisiana garden has pretty much survived both hurricanes.–Sue

Native Vines



Autumn officially came this past week. Here’s a catbrier turning red on a fence in Stamford’s Scalzi Park to prove it.

When we think of native perennial vines that look great in autumn, native bittersweet (endangered) and woodbine (ubiquitous) tend to come to mind first. And then there’s the mixed blessing of poison ivy. But there are several other wonderful native vines that look great in fall, including catbrier, and climbing boneset, and groundnut.Catbriers, also known as greenbriers, are members of lily family. The most common of the North American species is the round-leafed Smilax rotundifolia, pictured above. Southern and Asian cousins include the sarsaparillas (or zarzaparrillas), well-known medicinal herbs. Catbriers have spines, small green flowers in spring, curling tendrils for climbing, and woody stems. The glossy leaves are semi-evergreen. Humans tend to consider catbriers a nuisance but the young shoots, leaves and tendrils are edible (prepare like asparagus). Birds find the black berries delicious and like the dense catbrier thickets for nesting. White tailed deer are reported to enjoy the leaves.

Climbing boneset, also known as climbing hempweed (miikania scandens), is a vine in the sunflower/aster/daisy family, is a relative of the famous and fabulous Joe Pye Weed and (non-climbing) boneset. Like catbrier, it can get out of hand when happy and it stands up to the invasive foreign competition (Indian bittersweet , English ivy, rosa multiflora and porcelain vine , for example). It’s found throughout North America in sunny, damp places; I find it climbing over the railing along Stamford’s Mill River walk, usually covered with pollen-loving insects. Here it’s mixed with another native vine, the large-leafed moonseed.

Ground nut (apois americana) (pea or legume family), a relative of the peanut from the eastern half of North America, was extensively used by Native Americans for food. The cooked tubers are reported to be high in starch and protein; the pea-type seedpods are also edible. It’s a good example of why we need to save all the weeds. For the past 200 or 300 years, it has been considered a bit of a nuisance and has been overlooked as a food crop. However, it’s now being re-investigated because it’s easy to grow and yields both roots and seed pods of high food value. The flowers are pretty too.

Here it is fighting for dominance on a guardrail along Stamford’s Mill River. Its other names include potato bean and Indian potato. Further reading at “Plants for a Future”

Garden calendar: Stop fertilizing t houseplants except tropicals in active growth. Outdoors, put in your ice pansies (see issue 33)


Winter Moss Mice

This moss is so insignificant when dormant that it’s functionally invisible. But add winter rain and get brilliant green cushions, sometimes called “moss mice”. This piece, in a retaining wall near my high-rise, does resemble a creature of sorts. It’s an appealing notion that the thousands of moss clumps adorning stone walls, pavement cracks, and roof gutters are actually lurking hoards of veggie mice.

During a winter rain, moss is suddenly everywhere. It’s on the tree trunks and town monuments; it’s covering the soil in my balcony pots, and transforming barren lawn into miniature wonderlands. Picking a single moss photo to share proved impossible, so you get two. Here’s a ground cover moss, shot at sunset just before Christmas in a local park:

Researching this article, I found out that there are 15,000 moss species, 12,000 of them present in the Americas.

Bryologists (that’s what you call people who can tell the 15,000 mosses apart) believe moss to be the second plant to evolve, between algae and ferns. Moss is so primitive that it lacks a vascular system to transport nutrients and has no roots. Instead it anchors itself with sticky-ended filaments, like a mussel shell, and absorbs nutrients directly through cell walls. See

Being very Zen, moss is beautifully serene unless you actively try to cultivate it. None of the 15,000 mosses do winter indoors, and, outdoors, moss doesn’t like change. Each variety is a niche-player that has had 400 million years to specialize by light, temperature, moisture, soil acidity, water minerals, etc. Moving grown moss, then, is only for the expert and the lucky. Further, the moss gurus all admit that a large, uninterrupted sweep of moss, while breathe-taking, results in disharmony with your squirrels, dedicated moss diggers. It also annoys the neighbors because it’s stoop-labor intensive, tempting one to resort to a (gasp!) leaf blower. Lastly, stealing moss from wild areas wrecks your karma; moss takes a long time to grow and is a vital part of the eco-system.

So, as far as I can see, the best way to bring moss in your life is to encourage small patches of pre-existing moss outdoors. Select spots you can keep moist, with sun and wind protection. With rocks and ferns is nice. Firmly pat down an inch or two of peat (for acidity and moisture retention) mixed with sand (for drainage and easy weeding). Keep damp and free of weeds, mulch, and litter. (This is work, so just do little spots). Air-borne moss spores will come. Alternately, crumpled-up bits of local moss can be pressed into the soil. Your new moss should be noticeable in 6 months and impressive in 2 years. Keep up the weeding and press the squirrel divots back down. Where moss grows in your lawn naturally, without all this effort, treasure it and lay off the killer chemicals.

To grow moss on pots, rocks, driftwood, brick windowsills, and other porous, rough surfaces, blend moss fragments with yogurt, thin with water, and paint on. Shade from full sun. Mist daily until the moss takes (a few weeks). Put rocks and empty pots in a shallow water pan.

Store-bought moss is a great winter mulch for outdoor pots but goes dormant when the spring bulbs flower. Try drying it out completely, as soon as it starts to turn. Then store it in an open bag in a well-ventilated area until late fall.


And here’s what readers said:

______Wow – this is great; I love your commentary and I love the picture of the “moss creature”. Kal (NY)

I have posted your article on my web site. Thanks again. Walter (ONT)

I do indeed enjoy your Monday morning page. I always learn something. My garden is fine … have just collected my last roses and cut back my 50 or so bushes. … I will probably have buckets of flowers within a month … until end of November. What a deal. Lars (CA)

And now I know the technical reasons why a rolling stone gathers no “moss”. Thanks for the very interesting article. Jack (CT).

These are some great shots. 🙂 Jordan (CT)

I enjoyed your Monday morning moss piece. Thanks. In those instances in which I have transplanted moss (to and from spots in my garden or to a bonsai container), I have used a knife to take a thin slice of native soil with the moss. The moss generally acclimates itself very well…. Margarethe (NY)

I love the moss message. Funny, I was just admiring my moss this afternoon. It really comes into its own in winter …. Liz (CT)

This is my single most favorite article you’ve written and photos you’ve shown. How could I not have known that you, too, are a moss lover. I like lichen a lot, too. Treasure is exactly what I do for the moss that graces my rear lawn. Barbara (NY)



How about contributing to the monarch butterfly survival fund? It’s easy: plant a milkweed today.

To grow our native milkweeds, you need at least half-day sun. Also, many varieties prefer their roots a bit damp. What’s in it for you? Dramatic flowers, interesting foliage, great seedpods, and nectar-seeking butterflies. If you’re really lucky, you’ll also be delighted by holes in the leaves and ragged edges, the sure-fire sign of baby monarchs. Look for fat caterpillars resembling tiny, horned tigers.

The first plant probably came from a wind-borne seed but in the garden, it spreads by underground runners. I half-heartedly tried to pull it up once or twice but it wanted to stay, so I’ve been leaving it alone. No bugs yet but perhaps we’ll get lucky this year. Design-wise, I think the height, shape, and foliage make it a useful contrast plant.

The curious thing about milkweed is not that monarchs are crazy about it and won’t eat anything else; it’s that practically no one else can stand it.

So, if someone’s munching on your milkweed, you can be pretty certain that you’ve hit the monarch jackpot. HOwever, according to The Monday Gardenreader, and awesome prairie planter and photographer, M.J. Hatfield, you might also get milkweed tussock moth larvae and milkweed bugs, (pop-up pictures courtesy of MJ Hatfield) which strangely enough have also adopted a striking orange and black color scheme – may be the food does it?

Other animals, regardless of species, think milkweed tastes awful and get sick from eating it. It is life threatening in large quantities but tastes so bad that you have to be starving to eat that much of it. Native Americans did eat the young asparagus-like shoots but had to boil them twice to get out the bad juices. Technically, the bad juices are said to be cardiac-active steroids (whatever they are). In many parts of the Americas, milkweeds are (very carefully) used for medicinal purposes.

Monarchs, as you’ve probably read, also taste bad. In fact, so bad that once a bird has tried one, it will shun the species for life. And as you’ve probably also read, viceroy butterflies look like monarchs to fool birds into thinking that they taste bad too. Viceroys, though, get the best of both worlds: defense against birds and something tastier to eat. The monarchs, of course, get the bad taste by storing the yukky cardiac-active steroids in their bodies.

It is said that there are about 200 native milkweeds, about 100 of them from North America, and countless garden hybrids. Most milkweed nectar will attract humming birds as well as butterflies. Around where I live, we have several native varieties. The most common three are the North American “common” milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), the orange butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberose) which is often seen as a gardener’s hybrid, and the swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnate). We also have two nasty invader milkweed vines: pale swallowwort (Cynanchum rossicum a/k/a Vincetoxicum rossicum) and black swallowwort (Cynanchum louiseae a/k/a Cynanchum nigrum, Vincetoxicum nigrum).

If you want to foster baby monarchs (a very good thing, indeed), note that monarchs only like some milkweeds. Web sites on butterflies tend to recommend the common milkweed and the swamp milkweed, both perennial North American natives. If you really want to roll out the red carpet, monarchs’ all-time favorites are reported to be certain tropical milkweed hybrids which you’d have to grow as annuals.

Picture: Common milkweed pod, bursting with seeds. The Mill River at Scalzi Park Fall 2004

The fluffy milkweed seeds are good for stuffing things like pillows and floatation devices. The seedpods, which are silky inside like seashells, look wonderful in the garden and in dried arrangements. The milkweed stems contain fiber which can be used like hemp or flax.