Fabulous Fernbush

Chamaebatiania millefolium - Fernbush_XG_20090720_LAH_7320From a distance, a blooming fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium)  resembles a lovely white lilac bush, but no lilac would be in bloom at this time of year. Growing to seven feet high and wide, these shapely shrubs are covered in upright sprays of showy white flowers from June through August. Individual blossoms are reminiscent of single roses, and attract bees and butterflies. Come autumn, the flowers are replaced by russet seed heads.

A closer inspection reveals reddish peeling bark and the aromatic, finely dissected leaves that give Fernbush its common name. Even in our cold climate, these leaves stay on the bush for most of the year; branches are bare for a mere three to four months each winter. Fall foliage is an attractive copper color.

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Whitetop (aka Hoary Cress)

whitetop_fcnc-co_lah_0313Spring flowers are finally filling the fields. Milk vetch, penstemons, wild onions and marsh marigolds all caught my eye as I hiked though the towering cottonwoods along Fountain Creek, at the base of the Rockies here in central Colorado. I was particularly impressed by huge swaths of a foamy white flower I didn’t immediately recognize.

Counting the petals—each tiny flower had four—and examining the foliage led us to conclude the plants were Crucifers, members of the mustard family. Sure enough, we were enjoying the pretty flower heads of Whitetop (Cardaria draba), an aggressive import from Europe and Asia that is listed as a noxious weed here in Colorado (List B). Oh dear.

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The Pale Quail

gambels-quail-leucistic_colonatlmon-co_lah_4179It was like a bird-shaped ghost—we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. My friend Debbie and I were birding near Grand Junction, in Colorado National Monument—a spectacular place of sheer cliffs, rock pinnacles, and copper-colored sandstone.

We had stopped for lunch, and were alternately taking bites of our sandwiches and grabbing our binoculars. Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers, Rock Wrens, and Gray Vireos abounded. I was surprised to see Gambel’s Quail running under the junipers; I thought of them as living a bit more to the south. I was told that the species had been introduced to Western Colorado as a game bird.

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Powdery Mildew

powdery-mildew-on-pumpkin-dbg-19sept05-lah-572The huge zucchini leaf looked as if it had been dusted with flour. The man holding it was looking at me expectantly, waiting for my diagnosis. I was volunteering at our county’s Master Gardener helpdesk, providing free gardening advice to the general public. Sometimes we get stumped, but this time I immediately knew exactly what the problem was.

“Your zucchini plants have powdery mildew,” I told the man. “It’s pretty common around here, especially this late in the season.”

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Mountaintop Birds

mtevans-co_lah_4844nef

My husband and I aren’t the only ones who escape the heat by fleeing to high altitudes. A number of bird species do the same thing. Instead of migrating to the arctic, they head for the hills.

I was a first-year birder, a mere fledgling. Our local Audubon chapter was offering a trip to the high country. Of course I signed up. Surely there were amazing birds to be seen at such rarefied heights. I was expecting something new and exciting— a Williamson’s Sapsucker, perhaps, or one of the rosy-finches. Maybe we’d even spot a well-camouflaged ptarmigan!

We piled out of the cars at the top of the first pass, and I raised my binoculars to scan the scattered patches of melting snow and dwarfed willows. There! What as that moving in that patch of wildflowers? It’s a… it’s a… robin? I came all the way up here to see a robin? I have plenty of robins in my yard, munching on my gooseberries and chokecherries!

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Locoweeds

oxytropis-lambertii_locoweed_kcs-co_lah_3438nefI was hiking on a nearby ranch last week when we came across some spectacular wildflowers. As I knelt to grab some photos, my plant expert companion remarked, “You know that’s locoweed. We should pull it out!”

What? Destroy these beauties? Why? I was about to receive an education.

Locoweed (or crazyweed) is the common name for two genera of western plants, Oxytropis (left) and Astragalus (also called milkvetch), both in the pea family, and both including some species that contain the toxin swainsonine. Swainsonine interferes with protein metabolism and causes nerve damage.

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Snowberry – Symphoricarpos albus

Symphoricarpos albus_Snowberry_XG-CO_LAH_3119While most fall and winter berries are red, or perhaps dark blue, snowberries sport showy clusters of pristine white, berry-like fruit. If not eaten by the birds, the fruit will adorn the bare branches in winter. The upright, finely-branched shrubs are about three feet tall. Moderate growers, they are long-lived, with tiny pink, bell-shaped flowers that appear in early summer.

A Colorado native, snowberry is well adapted to our growing conditions, and is hardy to zone 3. Soil type doesn’t matter, so long as it’s moderately fertile and reasonably well-drained. Plant in full sun, and water until established. While mature plants are highly drought tolerant, they also survive once-a-week watering, which also results in heavier fruit crops. Prune only to remove old, dead wood.

symphoricarpos-albus-snowberry-dbg-lah-263While the slightly toxic berries are considered inedible by people, deer will browse on the plants. With its dense foliage, snowberry makes a good foundation shrub. For a woodland feel, plant with other natives such as Oregon grape and ponderosa pines.