Spring is here and we will be adding photos of plants as they begin to bloom on the ORNL campus! In the meantime, enjoy reading about your favorite plants found growing around campus.
Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa
Across the Oak Ridge Reservation during the summer, you’ll find a Tennessee-orange flower between two and three feet tall called the butterfly weed. It is one of thirteen milkweed species native to Tennessee. It attracts a multitude of different butterflies and moths, such as the coral hairstreak, the corn earworm moth and even the monarch butterfly, which not only visits to eat the nutritious nectar, but also to lay its eggs. Monarch caterpillars are picky eaters and will only eat the leaves of milkweed plants. Additionally, many other pollinators, such as bees, are attracted to the nectar and pollen this flower provides.
The roots of this plant were also traditionally harvested and eaten by Native Americans as a cure for pleurisy and other pulmonary ailments, giving light to one of its other common names, pleurisy root. It is a great addition to dry gardens with good drainage. It is a popular target for aphids, so having ladybugs on-site will help, though it can withstand being forcefully sprayed down with water to remove pests once it is established and hardy enough.
Great Blue Lobelia, Lobelia siphilitica
A showy perennial, great blue lobelia draws onlookers with its bright blue flowers that bloom in summer. The flowers are small and crowded together on the upper portion of the stem, which can be branched or unbranched.
You’ll find this 2 to 3-foot-tall plant naturally in open, wet woods. It grows best in moist to wet soil and has very little drought resistance. But be sure to keep your little ones or pets from eating this pretty plant, as it’s poisonous if eaten in large quantities. Symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, exhaustion, weakness, convulsions and even a coma. Warning label aside, L. siphilitica is known for attracting many bees, birds and hummingbirds. If blue doesn’t suit your fancy, the plant has a red counterpart as well—the cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis.
Eastern Bluestar, Amsonia tabernaemontana
Eastern bluestar, also known as willow amsonia, woodland bluestar and blue dogbane, is named for the delicate star-shaped flowers that grow in loose clusters atop its 1-foot to 3-foot stems. This perennial native can be found across Tennessee and was selected by the American Horticultural Society as one of the “75 Great Plants for American Gardens.”
A member of the dogbane family, eastern bluestar contains a latex sap that makes it unpalatable to herbivores like deer or rabbits, but other animals don’t mind. One species of butterfly larvae, the coral hairstreak butterfly caterpillar, has actually developed a taste for the sap. Hummingbirds, large carpenter bees and some species of moths and butterflies seek out the sap-free blue flowers looking for nectar.
Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida pinnata
Prairie coneflower resembles many others in its family, complete with drooping, yellow rays that surround a pronounced, grayish central disc. It is also known as the gray-headed coneflower because of the coloring on the disc. It has a slender, hairy main stem that grows three to five feet in height. It can be found in prairies, hence the name, as well as thickets and woodland edges. The flower blooms from May to September, depending on location.
The prairie coneflower likes full sun but will tolerate some shade. It is also adaptable and will grow in both moist and dry soils. It attracts many pollinators, including birds that heavily feed on and may damage the seed head. The plant is also palatable to livestock, so it is vulnerable to grazing as well.
Wild geranium- Geranium maculatum
Commonly seen in moist woods and woodland meadows, wild geranium’s lavender clusters of flowers are easily distinguished in the setting. One of the best ways to identify them is to note the five-petaled, purple flowers, along with the 5-6 sharply lobed leaves. The flowers begin to bloom around late March to May and will remain up until July. While it does prefer the soil to be acidic and moist, it is adaptable and will grow in dry conditions. Additionally, it is tolerant to deer and rabbits. Wild geranium goes by a few other names as well, such as spotted geranium and cranesbill, which comes from the beak-like seed pods. The seeds also attract bird, like Mourning Doves and Bobwhite Quail. An interesting fact about this plant is that it has a multitude of medicinal uses, such as a cure for diarrhea, sore throats, and inflamed gums; it is also a mild coagulant. While it is not native to Tennessee, it is not aggressive. However, it does colonize. If you look for it on ORNL’s campus, you may notice a few hungry snails and slugs getting a snack!
Alumroot- Heuchera americana
Heuchera americana, or alumroot, is a native, herbaceous perennial that is prized for its foliage as a groundcover or for edging your garden. The leaves are a pale green that highlight the attractive dark to bronzy veining. Its flower stalk is less impressive in terms of appearance but still provides nectar and pollen for many bee species, including many Halictid (sweat) bees. Moreover, the oligolectic Plasterer bee Colletes aestivalis is a specialist pollinator of Heuchera spp. Other insects, like flea beetles and aphids, prefer to feed on the foliage. The plant tastes bitter to most mammals, however. You can find this across Tennessee in rich woods or on rock outcrops.
Woodland phlox- Phlox divaricata
Woodland phlox, sometimes called Wild Sweet William, is a showy perennial well received as an ornamental, as well as a food source for numerous butterflies. Larger insect pollinators, such as the clearwing hummingbird moth, the eastern tiger, or the spicebush swallowtail are all found feasting on its nectar. It stands about a foot tall, and the flower color can vary from nearly white to lavender to blue. Its bloom persists throughout the most of April and into early May. You’ll find this particular plant naturally growing along woodland edges where the soil is moist and rich. It needs to be partly shaded, but it grows well in both acidic and alkaline soils. Interestingly, the flowers of this plant in the eastern portion of the United States are notched and lobed, while the flowers in the western portion are not.
Smooth/Summer/Crawling Phlox- Phlox glaberrima; P paniculata; P. stolonifera
In general, phlox grow best in shade and have poor tolerance to drought. The do best in moist soil that is well-drained and rich. They make excellent garden choices as many of them come in a variety of colors, which is where the genus name comes from; Phlox is Greek for flame, which is in reference to the intense flower colors some varieties are known for. However, phloxes are known to be highly susceptible to powdery mildew. There are many varieties that have some resistance and P. glaberrima, or smooth phlox, is highly resistant to the fungi. Speaking of smooth phlox, it is much shorter than other Phlox species and blooms in the spring, which is earlier than most phloxes. Summer phlox blooms later, of course, and will even tolerate more sun than most. Lastly, creeping phlox also blooms in the summer and makes an excellent ground cover.
Wild ginger- Asarum canadense
Wild ginger, also known as Canadian wild ginger, is a low growing, colony-forming perennial that grows only 4-8 in. high. It provides good groundcover for shaded landscapes and Eastern woodlands. It has heart-shaped leaves that are velvety to the touch. For some people, this can cause a minor skin irritant. Beneath the layer of foliage lies a small flower that is red-brown to green-brown in color. This flower attracts butterflies, gnats, flies, and beetles to help in its pollination. Additionally, wild ginger is a larval host plant for the pipeline swallowtail butterfly. As you can guess from its namesake, the fleshy rootstalk smells and tastes strongly like ginger; if cooked with sugar, it can be used as a substitute in recipes.
Solomon’s seal- Polygonatum biflorum
Solomon’s seal is an herbaceous perennial with stalks that range anywhere form 1-5 ft. long. Its name is in reference to the alleged resemblance the leaf scar shares with the official seal of King Solomon. The flowers that hang in pairs from the leaves are greenish-white and bell-shaped and bloom from March-June. The plant also grows blue-black berries that form after the flowers. These berries are slightly poisonous, however, and may cause vomiting or diarrhea. Adversely, the rootstalk is edible and was used as a source of food for the Native Americans and colonists, due to its starch content. The shoot can be boiled for 10 minutes and served like asparagus, the whole shoots can be cut up and put into salads, and the rootstocks can be added to stew or boiled for 20 minutes and eaten like potatoes. These roots are also eaten by mammals, and birds can ingest the fruit. You can find this plant in rich, dry to moist woods, thickets, and calcareous hammocks.
Virginia bluebells- Mertensia virginica
Virginia bluebells are a beautiful perennial and are most spectacular when planted in mass. The flowers bloom from pink bulbs and have the same color hue in the spring but gradually fade to a nice lavender-blue. The foliage has a nice gray-green color as well. You can find this flower naturally occurring in moist woods, clearings, and river bottoms. It does best in partial or full shade and in moist soils that are rich and have a circumneutral pH. Large bumblebees push themselves through the flower tubes to reach the nectar and pollen, but many butterflies and moths champion the pollination of this plant. As it is in the same family as Forget-me-not, lungwort, and comfrey, some gardeners may share a familiarity with Virginia bluebells.
Spiderwort- Tradescantia virginica
Spiderwort is named after the appearance of its long, bright-green, narrow leaves that resemble a squatting spider. It has blue-violet, sometimes white, flowers that have showy, yellow stamens in a terminal cluster. These flowers attract butterflies and many bees and bumble bees with their nectar and pollen. Unfortunately, the flowers last less than a day; blooming in the morning and then subsequently wilting by midday, turning into a jelly-like fluid. This perennial is fairly adaptable, however, able to tolerate both wet and dry conditions. Be careful to not mess with the leaves too much as you may be allergic to them; the leaves are poisonous and can cause minor skin irritation, complete with redness and itchiness.
Dwarf crested iris- Iris cristata
Being an iris, Iris cristata, or the dwarf crested iris, is a favorite ornamental in gardens or landscapes. They are named after the Greek goddess of the rainbow. This one stays true its common name, being only 4-6 in. tall. The flowers range in color from blue-violet to white. It also has crests, called beards. The sepals are also distinctly marked with a central yellow or white, purple striped band. You can find this plant in peaty soils along rocky, wooded slopes, bluffs, and sandy stream banks. It also prefers its soils slightly acidic. However, if growing conditions are too favorable, dwarf crested iris will spread rapidly. It attracts hummingbirds and bees when the flowers bloom from March to May. This flower is not attacked often by insects and disease, but slugs and snails may be a problem down the road.
Wild columbine- Aquilegia canadensis
Wild columbine is noted as a stunning ornamental for shaded gardens. It stands out with unique flowers that bell-like in design. They droop downwards from the stem and have unique upward-pointed petal tubules that are a showy red color. A bundle of stamens dangle from below the petals that a re a complimenting yellow. The foliage is also attractive on its own merit, having a nice bluish-green color and unique shape. The petal tubs contain nectar that attracts hummingbirds and many long-tongued insects, such as some butterflies, moths, and bees. It is also the larval host for the columbine duskywing moth. Finches and buntings east the seeds as well. Reportedly, Native Americans would rub the crushed seeds on the hands of men as a love charm. Strangely, wild columbine that is actually “wild” and naturally occurring is more robust in comparison to the flower in gardens, reaching heights of 3-4 feet; this opposed to the height of 2 feet it normally reaches in the landscape.
“Fireworks” goldenrod- Solidago rugosa & “Golden fleece” goldenrod- Solidago rugosa
The two cultivars are possibly the most common goldenrods planted in native gardens. Their compact size (compared to the tall goldenrod we are used to seeing in fields) and production of multiple sprays of yellow flowers delicately draping downward. Although somewhat similar in appearance, these two cultivars come from two different species of goldenrods. “Fireworks” is a cultivar to rough goldenrod, so you can expect the stem to be rough and hairy. It differs in that the flowers are smaller and stand out more, resembling fireworks. It blooms in the fall (September to October) and as such, prefers a wetter environment that is well-drained. It grows best in full sun. “Golden Fleece” the cultivar for short-pappus goldenrod, blooms in late summer to early fall as well. This particular plant grows more compact than its original species and is better behaved, making it a better plant species. It prefers a drier environment, however. They both attract bees and butterflies. And both being goldenrods, they may be wrongfully accused of causing hay fever which is actually an allergic reaction to wind-borne pollen from other plants, like ragweed. If you plan on growing either one of these sun-colored flowers in your garden, be on the watch out for powdery mildew or leaf spot.
Brown-eyed Susan- Rudbeckia triloba
While they are often confused with black-eyed Susan, brown-eyed Susans are easily distinguished by their smaller in size flowers, leaf shape, and structure. The stems are hairy and are numerously branched. Because of the additional stems, the plant will have more flowers than its doppelgänger. Brown-eyed Susans stand 2-5 ft. tall, and are known for their leaves which may have 3 lobes; illustrating one of its other common names: three-lobed Rudbeckia. This short-lived biennial is fairly adaptable and will tolerate both drought and shade. It attracts birds and butterflies as well. You can enjoy these flowers in June to October, lighting up the landscape.
Rough blazing star- Liatris aspera
Rough blazing star distinguishes itself from other Liatris spp, by its larger size, rounded bracts, and roughness. In comparison, it prefers a much drier climate, acclimating it to withstand droughty conditions very well. As such, the plant thrives in full sun and dry soil, but will start to droop and grow poorly if conditions are moist and not drained. The large pinkish to lavender tufts of flowers are quite appealing to the eye, noting this as a popular perennial in a landscape. In addition, it provides nectar for hummingbirds, bees, and many butterflies, which include: tiger swallowtails, clouded sulphur, orange sulphur, gray hairstreak, Aphrodite fritillary, painted lady, and even the monarch butterfly. Did you know that the root has corms that were eaten as an emergency food for some Amerindian tribes?
New England Aster- Aster novae-angliae
New England Aster can be seen throughout the Oak Ridge Reservation and stands out with its showy, rose-purple flowers with orange-yellow centers. There are several varieties for the landscape, ranging from different colors, such as blue, white, or pink. It plays an integral role in the ecosystem as it is a later blooming flower, providing nectar for pollinators in the months of August to October. It is also a food source for the monarch butterfly and the larval host plant for the pearl crescent and checkerspot butterflies. The flowers will persist until frost. New England Aster is found in moist and open wooded areas, meadows, mesic prairies, disturbed sites, and stream banks.
Beebalm- Monarda didyma
Beebalm stands out in meadows, as atop a 3-4 ft. stem lies a dense cluster of tubular flowers. The grouping of flowers gives the appearance of one large, terminal flower. They are showy, bright, and red. It gets its name from the folk-use of crushing the leaves into a balm to soothe bee stings. Other medicinal uses it has are expelling worms and treating for gas, fever, and stomach ailments. Beebalm also goes by another name, Oswego tea. It is named such from the Oswego Native Americans of New York using the leaves to make a tea, similar to Earl Grey. It is a very popular ornamental but is susceptible to drought and powdery mildew. There are cultivars, like Jacob Cline, that are mildew resistant. You may see a few sphinx and hawkmoths enjoying nectar, along with hummingbirds!
Wild bergamot- Monarda fistulosa
Wild bergamot lies within the mint family and, like others related to it, is frequently called beebalm as well. Additionally, it resembles other Monarda spp. and has a cluster of tubular, lavender flowers. It grows anywhere from 2-5 ft. in height. The leaves are quite fragrant, smelling minty, and can be used to make tea. The oil can also be used to treat respiratory ailments. This perennial is very showy, attractive to both gardeners and pollinators. You’ll be able to enjoy the pompom-like flowers for long summer, as they bloom around July and persist to September.
Indian grass- Sorghastrum nutans
An import aspect to the prairies in the Midwest, Indian grass is an attractive, tall bunchgrass. It is generally 3-8 ft. tall that has blue-green blades and golden plume-like seed heads. This plume makes this grass a showy perennial and ranges from a deep orange to purple which will eventually fade to gray. When it is in bloom, the plume, or awn, is a pretty red/rust color. Livestock enjoy this plant, and it provides structure for small wildlife, like birds or rodents. Once established, it is tolerable to occasional flooding, burning, drought, and is not picky on the soil it is introduced in. This makes it a great choice for any garden.
Big bluestem- Andropogon gerardii & Little bluestem- Schizachyrium scoparium
Along prairies and plains, you may find a mixture of grasses, including both little and big bluestems. The two bunchgrasses are very similar to one another. The main difference is the size. Little bluestem will reach only to 3 ft., while big bluestem can reach upwards to 8 ft. tall. The bigger version is also differentiated by its seedhead, which is branched into three parts and resembles a turkey’s foot. This is why big bluestem is often referred to simply as turkeyfoot. Big bluestem will also tolerate periodic flooding and high-water tables, whereas little bluestem does poorly in wetter areas. Both grasses are highly deer resistant but are favored by cattle. They also attract many birds as cover, nesting material, or food. Little bluestem is a larval host for the Delaware skipper and dusted skipper. Its counterpart is a larval host for the Ottoe, Indian, crossline, dusted, and Dixie skippers, and also the larval host to the cobweb butterfly. Both grasses are named after their blue-green stems, which will turn a pleasant maroonish-tan color. Look for both of these grasses across the ORNL landscape.
Pink muhly grass- Muhlenbergia capillaris
Pink muhly grass is most notable for its hair-like inflorescences that can grow to be 12 in. long. It because of this that it is often referred to as pink hair grass or something of the sort. It is a perennial grass found in sandy soils in pine openings, prairies, or dry, exposed ledges. It does not require a lot of water and enjoys full sun, making it drought resistant. However, it does grow taller with consistent moisture. The feathery inflorescences create excellent cover for wildlife. It also resists deer. The plant was named in honor of Gotthilf Heinrich Ernst Muhlenberg (1753-1815), who was an accomplished botanist and credited for classifying and naming 150 species of plants.
Cinnamon fern- Osmunda cinnamomea
Cinnamon fern is named for its striking cinnamon-color that the fertile fonds exhibit. They are contrasted by green infertile fonds that create a vase-like shape, which will also turn a cinnamon color. This makes this a very pleasant plant to see along our landscape. It is picky in that it requires its soil to be moist to wet. If there is sun, it will require even more water. This allows it to have a useful niche that prevents other kinds of plants to grow. It also provides great nesting material for birds with the fuzz that covers the young fiddleheads. If it is naturally occurring, it will be quite a bit larger than you will see it here or in any garden. You can find it in boggy areas, shaded ledges, and bluffs. You won’t see this plant flowering, since it reproduces by spores in May to June.
Common serviceberry- Amelanchier arborea
The common serviceberry is the primary species of serviceberry found in the eastern portion of the US. You may have heard it been called as shadbush or shadblow, which is due to the tendency of the flower blooming during the same time shad ascends the rivers to spawn. It is a spring blooming perennial shrub, reaching 15-25 feet, with aromatic white flower clusters that droop. The berries it produces are edible, sweet, and range from red to purple in accordance to ripeness. The fruit is often used in jams, jellies, and pies. They are commonly referred to as Juneberries. In addition to birds, many serviceberries attract large numbers of native bee species, promoting pollination. Some butterflies, such as Weidemeyer’s admiral and western swallowtail, are also attracted to this plant for food during their larval stages.
Fothergilla- Fothergilla major
Seen abundantly across East Tennessee, Fothergilla major (large fothergilla or mountain witch-alder) provides great cover for birds with its leathery, blue-green leaves and nectar for native butterflies. Its white flowers appear to be a mass of stamens, giving it a distinct look. You’ll typically see this shrub growing in wetter areas, such as stream banks or rich, mountainous woods. If you plan on planting native vegetation for your garden or landscape, large fothergilla is a strong candidate as the flowers are aromatic, it provides a shrub border, and it boasts a tremendous resistance to harmful insects and disease. Large fothergilla has also shown to be deer resistant. Even in the fall, the plant remains quite showy, as the foliage changes to a nice blend of yellow, orange, red, and purple.
Virginia sweetspire- Itea virginica
Itea virginica goes by several names, such as Virginia sweetspire, Virginia willow, or tassel-white. The latter of which refers to the tassel-like, white flowers that droop from its branches. In addition to these tassels, its foliage turns to a beautiful crimson to shades of purple in the fall, prizing this as a showy ornamental. Your attention isn’t the only thing that is attracted to this plant; nectar-eating insects and birds enjoy the food it offers, and smaller mammals take solace in the cover it provides. If your garden or landscape is acidic with some poor drainage, Virginia sweetspire will establish well—maybe too well as it has been known to colonize.
Gro-low fragrant sumac- Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-low’
This week we will be jumping into fragrant sumac, particularly a certain cultivar of the species known as Gro-low. You’ll see this planted around ORNL’s landscape. The benefit of this cultivar, as the name suggests, is its dwarf size. It typically only grows from 1.5 to 2 feet in height with a spread of 6 to 8 feet. Additionally, Gro-low fragrant sumac is tolerant of most soils except for those that are poorly drained. This makes it a great stabilizer for embankments and for hard-to-cover areas with poorer soils. Aesthetically speaking, the senescence of this cultivar is very pleasing to the eye, as it changes from stunning colors of red, yellow, and orange in the fall. It is also good for those natural and rustic-looking informal hedges. And just like its not dwarfed counterpart, Gro-low’s leaves and twigs are aromatic if bruised or broken. Local fauna are also attracted to this plant; the berries it produces are a showy red that are tasty to many song birds, and adult butterflies are attracted to the small, yellow flowers it blooms as a nectar-source.
Common ninebark- Physocarpus opulifolius
Standing 5-10 ft. tall and just as wide, if not more so, is a beautiful flowering perennial by the name of common ninebark. It is named after how extremely the bark exfoliates itself in the winter, looking as if it had nine layers of bark. While that is appeasing to the eyes in the colder months, the flowers that bloom in the spring, from May to June, are also quite conspicuously charming, as they are clusters of white flowers with yellow centers. The stigmas look good upon the blanched background, starting with a nice pink color and then coming to resemble black pepper flakes as time progresses. Many native bees and honey bees are attracted to these flowers for their nectar and pollen, simultaneously helping in the reproduction of the plant via pollination. You can find this plant naturally occurring in stream banks, rocky hillsides, and woodland edges. It has cold hardiness and can adapt to different soil textures, moisture, and pH—making it easy to integrate in just about any garden. Additionally, if you don’t savvy the natural color, there are many cultivars of this species with flowers ranging from a multitude of beautiful colors, such as crimson, gold, and even green.
New Jersey tea- Ceanothus americanus
New Jersey tea is a perennial shrub that usually only grows to 3 ft. tall. It has small white flowers in large clusters at the tips of its branches at its top. The leaves are also pubescent, giving the plant a grayish cast. It is very adaptable to harsh conditions and will recover quickly from a fire, due to its massive, deep roots. The plant is a magnet for butterflies, bees, and many other insects. Additionally, it is the larval host plant for the mottled duskywing, spring azure, and summer azure butterflies. It is also prone to deer browse. Beyond its wildlife benefits, New Jersey tea was named for its heavy used as a substitute for tea during the time of the Revolutionary War.
American beautyberry- Callicarpa Americana
Rightfully named, American beautyberry is identified for the clusters of iridescent-purple berries that hugs the stem. The leaves protrude directly from the clusters as well. The fruit is very important food source for many species of birds, such as the Northern Bobwhite. The plant has some ethnobotanic uses as well, such as Native Americans used the roots and leaves in sweat baths for rheumatism, fevers, and malaria. In addition, they used the roots and berries in teas for dysentery, stomach aches, and colic. American beautyberry has some other uses as a mild mosquito repellent, as it was noted to be used by farmers in the early 20th century for themselves and their horses. This multipurpose, perennial shrub is found in moist thickets, wet slopes, low rich bottomlands, and at the edges of swamps.
Eastern redbud- Cercis canadensis
is a native tree, ranging from the Atlantic coast to central Texas. Its most obvious characteristics are its heart-shaped leaves, bright pink flowers, and abundance of seed pods. This plant can grow anywhere from 15 feet to upwards of 50 feet. Did you know that this is sometimes called the Judas tree? However, the name is more closely identified with another Cercis species. On most landscapes, Eastern redbud is grown for its pink flowers that screams spring and warmer weather. Additionally, the plant attracts large numbers of native bees for its nectar, nesting material, and structure. Early butterflies also enjoy its nectar as well as use it for food for their larvae. Humans can also enjoy a taste, if desired, as the flowers and buds are edible and have been commonly added to salads, breads, and pancakes. It’s a great source of vitamin C!
Sweetbay magnolia- Magnolia virginiana
A very popular choice amongst other ornamental trees and shrubbery across the landscape, sweetbay magnolia sets its self a part with its very aromatic branches and flowers. The leaves and twigs have almost a spiciness to their smell, while the flowers are sweeter in comparison. Many beetles are also attracted to these scents and feed off the pollen, providing them with a protein source. The foliage is the larval food source for the sweetbay silkmoth. The seeds are also a feed source for many migratory birds, and deer and cattle can be seen eating the foliage in the winter. Sweetbay is also adaptable, able to survive both flooding and droughty conditions with little loss in its root mass. Additionally, it has little to no serious disease or insect problems. These make it fairly easy to manage. Did you know its also called beaver tree? This is because colonists originally caught beavers in traps, using the roots of the sweetbay magnolia.
American basswood- Tilia Americana
American basswood is a tree commonly seen in the deciduous woods of Tennessee as well in urban settings. It provides a dense cover that creates welcomed shade during the summer season for animals and people alike. The tree itself grows roughly 60-80 ft. tall and is identified by its heart-shaped foliage and unique fruit that resembles a fishing lure. It is known for its flowers’ uncanny ability to attract honey bees, which prefer it over other plant species; the honey created from this tree is strongly flavored. Did you know Native Americans used this tree to create ropes, clothing, and woven mats? The inner bark is tough and fibrous allowing for such craftsmanship. Additionally, some tribes carved ritual masks on living trees and then split the masks away to hollow and dry the inside; if the tree survived, the mask was considered to have supernatural powers. Another little-known fact is that it is said that a hot bath with basswood flowers, followed by a cup of linden-flower tea will help soothe cold symptoms and enhance sleep.
Tulip poplar- Liriodendron tulipifera
Tennessee’s state tree is the tulip (yellow) poplar; it’s no wonder, because you can see it growing just about anywhere. This tree is a pioneer species that is often one of the first to colonize and grows when sunlight becomes available in a forest. You can find it growing even on ridgetops—although not well—and in basins. It is known for its tall and straight growth, which happens quite quickly. If provided with the right growing conditions, some yellow poplars can reach upwards to 150 ft. Because the characteristic and beautiful tulip-like flowers may be out-of-sight due to their towering nature, a good way to identify this tree is by the foliage. The leaves have a distinguished star shape to them. Moreover, the leaves have long petioles that cause them to “flutter” in the wind, which is an easy way to spot a poplar even if you’re driving 70 mph down a highway. Additionally, the tree has many uses as furniture, it’s a larval host to the eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly and tuliptree silkmoth, and First Nations used the inner bark for many medicinal purposes.
Pawpaw- Asimina trilobal
You may have heard about pawpaw trees here in Tennessee. They can be found along ditches, ravines, depressions, and streams within the forests. The tree itself is not particularly impressive, nor is the flower. What truly stands out about this particular plant is the fruit. It has a very tropical aroma and taste—a mixture between a banana and a mango. Additionally, it is great in desserts or raw. While it is extremely popular by enthusiasts, it is difficult to transport and does not stay fresh for long, making commercial marketing of the fruit challenging. If you do find the fruit, however, note that it generally reaches ripeness in August to September, possibly later. The fruit is also very popular with wildlife, such as opossums, squirrels, raccoons, and birds. Pawpaw is also the larval host for both the zebra swallowtail butterfly and the pawpaw sphinx moth. Be sure to be on the lookout for this tropical fruit the next time you are taking a hike on a trail!
Crossvine- Bigonia capreolata
Across Tennessee, you may come across some eye-catching flowers that are trumpet shaped and have the colors of strawberry lemonade—yellow and red. These belong to crossvine and will typically be in clusters of two to five. Additionally, you may see the flowers high in a tree as the vine has tendrils with claws, allowing it to climb just about any surface without support. The foliage is semi-evergreen and will hold a dark-green color until winter, where it turns a pleasant shade of reddish-purple. You can find this plant in forested floodplains and uplands, fencerows, and limestone escarpments. It is very adaptable and hardy enough to withstand wet or dry conditions and prefers a range of relatively neutral soil (pH 6.8-7.2). It is also a great nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies.
Trumpet creeper- Campsis radicans
Trumpet creeper has showy, orange to reddish-orange flowers, trumpet-shaped flowers that will begin showing in June and persist until September. It provides a good cover for fences, arbors, walls, or pillars. Additionally, because of the way it grows, it is a good control method for erosion damage. Many pollinators, like the Ruby-throated Hummingbird or various bees and butterflies, are attracted to the nectar as well. It is an aggressive grower, making it a nice choice to cover a trellis quickly. This also means that it can take over portions of your garden if left unchecked, but even this can lend itself to interesting adventures in landscape design. Let your garden get a little wild and the wildlife will thank you. A good method of keeping the vine in check is to plant it near concrete or areas where you can mow.
Virginia creeper- Parthenocissus quinquefolia
“Leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive” is a rhyme used to help distinguish Virginia creeper and poison ivy. Virginia creeper contains raphides throughout the plant, which can be a skin irritant but is far less likely to irritate and less irritating than poison ivy. The bluish berries that it grows, however, can be harmful if ingested and even fatal. Despite this, many types of birds, such as chickadees, mockingbirds, and warblers, enjoy the berries and often eaten most of them fairly quickly. Virginia creeper is also the larval host plant for several sphinx moth species. it is also a popular plant in many ornamental settings. As a climbing vine, it can provide great cover for walls or the ground. It also anchors itself with adhesive discs instead of penetrating rootlets, so it does not cause any structural damage, unlike other vines. Additionally, it is one of the earliest vines to show fall colors, which range from various shades of red and purple. These bright, showy colors make it extremely popular amongst many landscapes, including the ones found here at ORNL!