Friday, January 28, 2011

Sunrise in a January Ice Fog

Whining about winter is a waste of time! This morning's sunrise shrouded in ice fog and a wintry Powell Gardens' landscape forced me to grab the camera and savor such a glorious experience. Moments like these are special and to be savored as part of our 525,600 minutes we're lucky to enjoy each year.

Sunrise over ancient oak January, 28, 2011: our ancient White Oak (Quercus alba) just below the sun in this image and below our lake's dam has stood on that spot for well over 150 years.
It is alive and I wonder what the morning brings to it....

The sun's warmish glow through fog behind the two ancient trees in front of the Visitor Center also captured my imagination. The ancient Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) left, is in decline but oaks are well known to grow 100 years, thrive 100 more, decline 100 years and take 100 more years to depart. The ancient tree to the right is a sturdy Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata).

The camera barely captures the essence of bands of ice fog shrouding the grounds -- here with Chapel in the background.

A look to the south is fog free and the waning sliver moon punctuates the icy scene. (Do you know how to tell the moon is waning?)

The Visitor Center ensconced in its woodland grove at the brow of the hill on this wintry morning -- An E. Fay Jones - Maurice Jennings classic piece of architecture.

Here you see the Meadow Pavilion and sweep of meadow on the east hill opposite the Visitor Center. My what a different view this will be in a short time. The meadow will be burned in March to stimulate the billowing prairie grasses and wildflowers for 2011's growing season. What will our summer be like?

I noticed the layers of ice fog were not perfectly horizontal but followed the lay of the land! This image is from the outer part of our parking lot, which is an arboretum of the native trees of Kansas and Missouri. You'll see more species of oaks here then you ever thought there were and future generations will be able to park their cars under their shade.

You can barely make out the Heartland Harvest Garden in the background. What an ethereal moment! The barn is left, corn crib almost center, arbors far right.

This Redbud (Cercis canadensis) silhouette in the morning fog begged a photo. This wonderfully gnarly tree is actually less than 30 years old.

Sunrise over the Trigg Building with Perennial Garden just below... "red sky in the morning, sailor's take warning" is NOT to be today. The forecast is for an exceptionally mild day between 50F and 60F degrees across Greater Kansas City. May everyone take a moment to enjoy this day and come visit the waning wintry landscape of Powell Gardens this weekend. A big thank you to all who have helped make Powell Gardens a reality where such a beautiful garden can be experienced throughout the year.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Winter Plants in the Perennial Garden

Powell Gardens received 8 inches of sparkling fresh, powdery snow overnight creating a clean insulating blanket of white over the gardens. Today's crystal blue skies and peaceful atmosphere made a walk through the Perennial very special. Here's what some of the "bones" of this delightful winter landscape look like now:]

A view from the south "Shade Native Garden" end of the Perennial Garden across our frozen lake to the Visitor Center on the far hill depicts the quiet beauty of the garden's scenery. We have cleared a walking path through all the main walks of the garden so any visitor may experience the beauty of our winter landscape. Rarely do we have so much snow!

The sculpture armillary and its shadow: we are a day short of one month past the Winter Solstice so the long shadows are getting shorter each day as we are now two months out from the Vernal Equinox (Spring!). Tomorrow, 2/3rds of the dark half of our year is over!

The Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) grove in the Woodland Garden portion of the Perennial Garden shows off very lovely wintertime trunks caked in bluish-gray lichens. Every time I walk through these clumps of trees I think of why I never promote "standard spacing" for plants. This would not have the same feel if they were all 10 or 20 feet apart! Be brave, dare to plant things (other than birches) in clumps and groves.

The horizontal branches of a Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) still support snow. I actually like the brown pea pod fruit as a bit of extra ornament. Some have told me they hate it that the pods hang on the tree and look ugly, to each their own I guess but this is how our native redbud is supposed to look in winter.

The pods of the Japanese Pagodatree (Sophora japonica) make a nice contrast with the blue winter sky. This color would not be anything special in the brilliance of our summer sun but adds a good bit of interest to the winter landscape. This tree is much revered in Eastern Asia where it graces many temples in China, Korea and Japan.

The twisting-pendant branches of Scarlet Curls Willow (Salix x erythroflexuosa) are almost cranberry red on the sunny side but the camera mutes them to an almost champagne color. None-the-less this is a very lovely tree in the winter landscape. It's a hybrid between the Corkscrew Willow and the Golden Weeping Willow. You can see the snow-covered tapestry hedge in the background.

Here's an overall view of the Scarlet Curls Willow in the middle of the Perennial Garden.
The curling bark of the "Paperbark" Chinese Fringetree (Chionanthus serrulatus) is completely different from typical Chinese Fringetrees (Chionanthus retusus) which have very dark stems. They are now considered the same species but they are two different plants in the landscape! The Paperbark form has prettier bark in the winter but is a shy bloomer of frilly-fringed white flowers in late spring.

The exfoliating bark of the Peking Tree Lilac (Syringa pekinensis 'China Snow') is polished with whiter horizontal dashes called lenticels that make it look a cherry rather than a lilac. Take a moment to feel how polished and smooth the fresh bark looks after the outer papery bark has peeled away.
I know the Seven Sons Tree (Hepatcodium miconioides) gets a write up in many of my blogs. The freshly exposed bone white bark with remnant strips of the sandy old bark always gets my attention in fall and winter when I walk by. The bark will age back to a sandy tan only to slough off again next season.

The interesting patchwork of gray and furrowed bark on this native Swamp White Oak (Quercus bicolor) trunk is the result of a fungus that makes it slough off. It doesn't harm the tree and is characteristic of the Swamp White and White Oaks (Quercus alba) which otherwise would have much more flaky bark.

The warty trunk of this Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) is exceptional in the "Woodland Garden" north end of the Perennial Garden. You can see the frozen lake, prairie grasses in the meadow and the chapel in the background. Can you identify the tree to the back and right? It's a Swamp white oak with its patchy gray trunk; the tree to the back left is a Shagbark Hickory with its characteristic shaggy bark.

The Sparkleberry Hollies (Ilex serrata 'Sparkleberry) have endured below zero temperatures and lost a bit of their red sparkle. We got down to -7F one night at Powell Gardens last week. The snow cover was a good insulating blanket for most plants. The more urban core of Greater Kansas City did not even drop below zero!
A Serbian Spruce (Picea omorika) is beautifully flocked with snow. This is one of the finest evergreen trees for our region. This tree in the middle of the Perennial Garden is atypical as usually Serbian Spruces are very narrow, tall pyramids. We have an unusual form: there's a 'Fat Albert' Blue Spruce but certainly we can think of a better name for this plant.
Powell Gardens' winter gardens are more beautiful than ever with such a brilliant white blanket of snow. Dare to come take a walk and experience the quiet, peace and serenity of the landscape. Remember that Cafe Thyme is open Friday-Sunday with Lon Lane's Inspired Occasions' new menu so you can have a marvelous meal before or after your hearty walk. The roads to and the paths through the gardens are plowed of snow and readily accessible.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Feather Your "Nest"

For the first time since the Powell Gardens conservatory opened to the public nearly 14 years ago in February 1997, our display inside it will focus outward! The massive floor to ceiling expanses of glass designed by Faye Jones - Maurice Jennings offer uninterrupted garden views outward and allow maximum light inward. Our "Feather Your Nest" display inside the conservatory features four "vignettes" of garden rooms for you to sit and look outward to the Terrace Gardens and their birdlife. The vignettes are by Perennial Gifts & Good Earth Gifts (the Visitor Center's and Harvest Garden's gift shops respectively); Downtown Kansas City's Retro Inferno; Brookside's Pear Tree Antiques; and Crossroads' Webster House. Come experience these beautiful garden rooms and watch the birds at our feeders right outside the glass. Pick up some great ideas of garden room decor from our generous vendors while in indoor comfort with the perfume of blooming flowers and the beautiful winter landscape all around.
Cardinals are always an attention getter in the winter landscape as the bright color of the male's plumage demonstrates. You will see these birds at the feeders! FYI their "official" standardized name is Northern Cardinal as there are other species found southward in the Americas. This photo was shared with us by volunteer and Friends Member Linda K Williams.

I took this shot looking out from the conservatory and you can see 3 male cardinals and other birds at the feeders, the Visitor Center's stunning icicles and the bones of the winter landscape beyond.

The Terrace Gardens on the north side of the Conservatory are lit by the low angle of the winter sun which really shows off the beautiful evergreen Southern Magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora). Southern Magnolias are not only beautiful in the winter landscape but provide cozy shelter for wintering birds.

The Terrace Gardens to the south of the conservatory are more backlit and thus the evergreen Southern Magnolias look much darker, almost black-green.

A view east from the Conservatory shows our thriving evergreen Hazel Smith Giant Sequoia (Sequoiadendron giganteum) taking the center stage with the winter garden landscape beyond. Next year I mentioned to staff that we should decorate the Giant Sequoia as a Christmas Tree now that it has grown tall enough to be readily seen from the conservatory and Terrace Gardens. This plant was donated to us by Marvin Snyder as a small, trial plant. Yes, this is the largest tree species in the world from the Sierras of California and can live over 2,000 years. I always wonder what it will look like many generations from now. Note the wonderful icicles too -- makes me think I'm looking outward from a monster's mouth!

Blue Jays are another colorful bird you will see at our feeders. They always stuff themselves with food then fly off to cache it for a "rainy day." By doing this with nuts and acorns, Blue Jays have planted many of our wild forest trees. Photo by Linda K Williams.

Downy Woodpeckers are the most common woodpecker here and have been coming to the feeders regularly. You can tell this is a male bird by the red on its head -- females are simply black and white.

You will also see the beautiful Red-bellied Woodpecker. YES, that's its name! Everyone notices its brilliant orange-red on the top and back of its head and the gorgeous black and white zebra patterning on its back first. It was named back before binoculars when birds were shot to see up close and museum specimen birds are lying flat on their back in trays so the first thing noticed when curators were naming our birds was their RED BELLY, which you can see in this photo by Linda K Williams. I always laugh when I remember my then young nephew asking me to "call the president" to rename this bird!
Here's our biggest woodpecker the Pileated Woodpecker (its almost the size of a crow) taken right outside Cafe Thyme by our Education Director, Eric Jackson one day at lunchtime. This magnificent woodpecker shows up in the gardens from time to time (actually there was one around this week). This particular one was oddly tame and would allow visitors to step outside and take its picture!

This White-breasted Nuthatch is another bird you will see, it's our "upside down" bird that forages on trees in the opposite direction as its unrelated woodpeckers. Photo by Linda K Williams.

Black-capped Chickadees always cheer up winter days with their busy antics. Their winter plumage always appears well tailored and spiffy too. Photo by Linda K Williams.

You'll see many American Goldfinches at the tube feeders as well. Yes, this is what they look like in their winter plumage. Photo by Linda K Williams.

I had to show a reminder of what the goldfinches will look like in a short 10 weeks in their bright breeding season plumage! Photo by Linda K Williams.

White-crowned Sparrows are one of my favorite winter birds at the feeders. These birds nest way "Up North" in Canada and spend the winter down here. The white racing stripe on the top of their head makes this adult bird easy to identify though to some, a sparrow is a sparrow even though we have many species here in winter. Photo by Linda K Williams.

Here's a test for beginning birders: Sparrows! The front one is a White-throated Sparrow, you can tell by the yellow in front of its eye even though you cannot see its characteristic white throat. But what's the sparrow in the back? It's a immature White-crowned Sparrow with auburn stripes on its head. Photo by Linda K Williams.
If you are suffering from the winter doldrums come out to Powell Gardens' "Feather Your Nest" display and enjoy the view and all the birdlife. Also remember that we will have feeders outside Cafe Thyme which opens Saturday (January 15th) as a Lon Lane's Inspired Occasions venue with a fantastic and delicious NEW menu. Come enjoy a magnificent, fresh lunch and I guarantee some interesting birds will be just outside the windows to add to the ambiance.
Thank you to Linda K Williams for sharing her bird photos for this blog. Visit her website at to see more beautiful images of local nature.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Winter Landscape Surprises

The winter landscape at Powell Gardens embraces the spirit of the season with beautiful dried grasses, bare bones of deciduous shrubs and trees, an abundance of fruit and a diversity of evergreens in many shades beyond green. Some nifty smaller perennials and surprising seedlings have added to the wonder of the garden. I am always humbled that there is something new to see and learn on every one of my routine inspections of the gardens.

Winterberry Hollies (Ilex verticillata) outside the Visitor Center are still ablaze with fiery red berries. This is the cultivar 'Winter Red' which becomes a large shrub over time (>8 feet) and can even be pruned into a mini-tree as our Horticulturist Duane Hoover has done at the entrance to the Kauffman Memorial Garden.

Red Sprite Winterberry is a much more compact cultivar that seldom matures taller than 4-5 feet. Remember these beautiful berry-studded shrubs are female plants and require a pollinating male -- actually 'Winter Red' is a late bloomer and requires the male cultivar 'Southern Gentleman' to set fruit while 'Red Sprite' is an early bloomer and requires the male cultivar 'Jim Dandy' to set fruit. We have several other cultivars of winterberry holly planted near the Visitor Center and 'Scarlet O'Hara' and 'Maryland Beauty' are also very beautiful now.

Every fall and winter I photograph the 'Asian Beauty' Linden Viburnum (Viburnum dilatatum) and it did not disappoint this year again with a heavy crop of red berries to color the winter landscape.

Crabapples also color the winter landscape but are not as vivid red as the winterberry hollies or viburnums. They still add a very nice splash of color to the browns and grays that are the bones of the winter garden's plants. This is the Zumi Crabapple (Malus x zumi or sieboldii) on the Island Garden where 8 of these glorious small trees provide lots of food for wintering birds.

The textures and subtle shades of winter evergreens are much appreciated through the winter. Green Giant Arborvitae's (Thuja plicata hybrid)sprays of flattened foliage is a lovely olive green with hints of bronze and gold.

Chicagoland Green Boxwood (Buxus hybrid 'Glencoe') also has bronzy-gold highlights to its evergreen leaves. This hardy boxwood was selected in Chicago for its good hardiness and foliage color in winter.

This English Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens) donated to us by the late Andy Klapis has much more rich green winter foliage. English Boxwood is supposed to be marginally hardy here but this one from the long-time area nurseryman has always weathered our winters with beautiful dark green, shiny leaves. This shrub can actually become a small tree in milder climates -- a fun fact is that it is the heavy wood from which billiard balls were made from!
The remarkable chocolaty-purple winter leaves of Girard Fuchsia Azalea (Rhododendron Girard hybrid) offer a completely different color for the winter landscape that contrasts nicely with other greens. This azalea has vivid red-purple flowers in spring and is actually becoming one of my favorite of the evergreen azaleas. For the most part, the darker the flowers of the azalea, the darker its winter leaves are -- the light green-leaved azaleas in the garden now will all bloom white next spring.

The cute, fine Monkey Grass (Ophiopogon japonicus 'Sparkler') has jewel-like blue berries now. This is the first time I've seen this here. Is it an artifact of a summer with rainfall and humidity more like Louisiana? Our Propagator, Marie Frye has collected some of these fruits to grow and see if we get some interesting seedlings. Sparkler Monkey Grass is a very underutilized groundcover that has done very well in sheltered woodland areas of Powell Gardens. It is utilized abundantly in New Orleans as a never mow, evergreen groundcover around homes.

The beautiful winter leaves of Italian Arum (Arum italicum 'Pictum') are a fine addition to the winter landscape but with changing climate this plant appears to be becoming invasive at Powell Gardens. It used to never bloom here but now readily produces jack-in-the-pulpit-like spring flowers that produce wonderful wands of bright vermilion fruit in the fall. We are finding copious seedlings in the gardens now. Should we remove it before it becomes an invasive exotic?

This native sedge (Carex unknown species) near the beginning of the Byron Shutz Nature Trail is a contender as a wonderful groundcover to replace grass. It is shade tolerant, fine and evergreen, never needs mowing, water or fertilizer. We will be transplanting plugs into garden settings for trial and also sending some starts off to Missouri Botanical Garden's Shaw Nature Reserve for further testing where they have wonderful native groundcover trial beds and are even starting some new native turf trials! There are over 60 species of sedges in Missouri and very few of them have been tested for ornamental and turf purposes.

This cute tussock-type native (Carex unknown species) sedge only about 8" across also may have garden potential. It's evergreen, very fine and stays in a clump. A mass planting of these would be lovely in a garden! It's another native plant for trial in the gardens. Obviously I have some work to do identifying these sedges but their short bloom time in spring when you can key them out to species is when I am most busy!

I've found several seedlings of evergreen Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) around the gardens this winter. We never observed this until recently. A quick review of the USDA's Forest Service Agriculture Handbook states: "Neither seed nor seedlings can withstand a light freeze for 48 hours, and this may account for the limited natural range of the tree." Obviously our plants have not read this. The original native range of this tree was the deep South below the "Fall Line" but it is now naturally spreading northward from plantings.

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) has also began to self-sow in various parts of the garden. This magnolia is native into Arkansas and Tennessee farther north than Southern Magnolia.
Consider your own walk through Powell Gardens and its Byron Shutz Nature Trail this winter. I'm sure you make some surprising discoveries of your own. You will certainly get some ideas on how to enhance your own yard and garden's winter landscape.