Monday, February 20, 2012


                              “I can’t drive 55.”—Sammy Hagar

                               “…you move too fast,
                                Got to make the mornin’ last.”—Paul Simon

Decompose faster!!!!!

            This envelope arrived in the mail last Wednesday. I looked at it, turned to Tim and huffed, “We stupid Americans even want stuff to rot faster these days. Hmph.”

No one could ever mistake me for a ball of fire. Speed holds no appeal for me whatsoever, unless the activity being referenced is childbirth. And maybe not even then. Tim upgraded our Internet service from a moderately glacial pace to one more like Al Gore’s prediction that that the Himalayas will be iceless by 2035; I barely noticed. When we’re staying at a hotel and Tim remotely blips through all 700 TV channels (30 damn times before deciding nothing’s worth watching), I get a headache.  Amusement-park rides make me nauseous. Back in the day when I piloted small planes, I liked to keep pace with the traffic on roadways, at reasonable altitudes of between 2000 and 5000 feet. (You have to be able to see the cars.) And Sammy, I can’t drive 55 either: whizzing along at such a rate unnerves me.

            Nope, don’t care for the gallop. I’m most comfortable with the amble, the stroll, the mosey. This phenomenon arises partly from my timid nature, partly from a congenital lack of ambition, partly from a Zen-ish proclivity to feel the moment. People who live in hyper-drive miss too much, in my opinion. Where do they think they’re going so quickly anyway? We all end up in the same place—dead—in the end.

(Click to enlarge. Please.)
            In keeping with my walk-in-the-park world view, yesterday I leavened housecleaning chores with a ramble around the rain-soaked yard, looking at stuff. Plants viewed from ground level are so amazing, so ordered, so perfect. The live oak on the north side had dropped a beautiful lichen-covered twig that stopped me in my tracks. See?

            A few words about lichen. Often people will point to or bring Tim and me branches to diagnose, worried that lichens are a sign of disease or decline. Not to worry, y’all. Lichens are as benign as that iconic Southern epiphyte, Spanish moss (Tilandsia usneoides), which, by the way, is neither Spanish nor a moss. It’s also not a lichen, although the specific epithet means “lichen-like.” True lichens are—are you ready for this?—symbionts, a cozy arrangement between a fungus and an alga and maybe a cyanobacterium thrown in for good measure. (Cyanobacteria used to be called blue-green algae, but the taxonomists feared we’d forget they were still out there, beavering away.) The fungus collects water and nutrients from the surface it's attached to, which is why it can live without soil or roots; the alga enables photosynthesis. Together, they function as a single organism. How incredibly cool is that?

            Lichens come in three main forms: crustose, the low-growing, crust-like (duh) ones that we usually associate with rocks; foliose, with leaf-like structures; and fruticose, or shrubby growths. My oak twig grew the latter two types.

Parmotrema hypotropum
      This is Parmotrema hypotropum, the foliose powdered ruffle lichen. It’s one of the aptly monikered shield lichens. Do yourself a favor and check out the University of Georgia website linked here: Their picture shows the tiny eyelashes on the edges of the “leaves.”

Usnea strigosa

            And here is the delicately lovely fruticose beard lichen, Usnea strigosa. Those suction cup-like structures are the fungus’ fruiting bodies, called apothecia: their presence means these particular lichens reproduce sexually. Not all lichens have that pleasure.

Tortula ruralia
            So far, my perambulations had taken me about 30 feet from the back door. Not bad for 20 minutes. I trundled back inside for the camera, collecting the trash for take-out on the way. (I was meant to be cleaning house, after all.) After dumping the week’s bio-bagged garbage—just the one bag, since we compost or recycle most of our refuse—and wheeling the cart to the curb, I wandered over to peer at the emerald moss adorning the base of a willowleaf cotoneaster (Cotoneaster salicifolius, pronounced “coh-TONE-ee-ass-ter,” not “cotton-easter”: see how easy it is to go off-topic when you’re moving at the speed of molasses?). 

Stalked spore capsules of star moss
I’ve always liked mosses, so tiny, so velvety, so secretive. There are eight classes of these miniature bryophytic (i.e., non-vascular) plants and dozens of species, both terrestrial and aquatic. The specimen in the photo above is, I believe, your basic star moss, Tortula ruralia. Mosses are as non-threatening to their hosts as lichens, absorbing water and nutrients through their leaves, not their roots. They do not flower, and so produce neither fruit, nor cone, nor seeds. Reproduction occurs by wind-disseminated spores from capsules carried on stalks.

(Wanna grow or encourage moss chez you? Both Artistic Garden and EHow websites provide salubrious recipes. And just for fun, take a gander at the work of practitioners of moss graffiti at Environmental Graffiti.)

Blueberry buds
Down the path from the cotoneaster, the blueberry bush our neighbors gave us waved its plump, pink buds in the northerly breeze. They look like tight, tiny rosebuds, even though they belong to the heather family (Ericaceae) and not Rosaceae. This particular specimen is a highbush blueberry, Vaccinium corymbosum: the rabbit-eyes (V. ashei) perform better in the South, but are unusual in the trade. The tag doesn’t name a cultivar—blueberries bear better if they have other cultivars’ pollen in the near-neighborhood—but I’ve got a patch already going, so we should be okay.

Toddling over in the direction of the New Bed, I spotted a surprise under the crabapple. Last summer’s experimental purchase of several allegedly cerise-blooming lungworts (Pulmonaria ‘Raspberry Splash’) had borne fruit, er, flower. Who expected that in February? In fact, who expected them to survive a droughty summer, especially as new transplants? The cunningly spotted foliage rosettes hug the ground, and if I hadn’t been taking my time I might have missed them altogether, blended as they are with the flashier ‘Sweetness’ daffs.

Pulmonaria 'Raspberry Splash'
Find the lungwort


Someone on a mission also would have passed right by the cache pot containing a drowning Artemisia ‘Silver Mound.’ Not slow-poky me. Always on the lookout for things to brighten winter containers, I bought this plant in September to see if it would hold its foliage when the cold weather hit. It didn’t, gradually devolving into a tangle of slimy black leaf remnants and stems. And that was okay, as I’m not a huge fan of the wormwoods anyway. But when I knelt down to inhale the scent of pansies in the adjacent pot, this lovely promise of renewal caught my eye. Now that the standing water’s been dumped out, ‘Silver Mound’ may live to see another autumn. Good thing I wasn’t in some almighty hurry, huh?

Poor ugly thing...
...or is it?

Respectable at last
Take this bottlebrush, Callistemon citrinus. Tim and I bought it our first summer on Oak Island because we loved the flowers. We planted it smack dab in the middle of the big bed in the front yard, inordinately pleased with it and ourselves. That was 13 years ago. Alas, Callistemon is only marginally hardy in our area: that first winter it froze back to the ground. Like it did the second winter. And the third. The fourth season, I moved the ratty-looking thing over to the south side and more or less forgot it, except for cutting off dead branches every May. But look at her now! Hardly any cold-scorched leaves, much less the massive dieback I’ve come to expect by February each year. Thirteenth winter lucky, I guess. Good thing I’m not a member of the instant gratification club.

The same is true of this little patch of hardy cyclamen (C. hederifolium) that started out as a single four-inch pot in 1999. It’s not exactly in the same class as kudzu when it comes to spreading, but it takes over another square inch or so of ground every year. We’re both pleased with the progress.

Gardening’s a good vocation for people like me. Very little in the world of flora requires human intervention before noon, before 4 p.m., before bedtime, before Thursday, before next week. There’s always next year. Or the one after that. We get there. And we know in our souls the journey is the reason for the trip.

Thanks for dropping by. Be slow.


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