Thursday, September 26, 2013

Duke Gardens Fall Plant Sale preview

Clematis 'Charissima'
By Erika Zambello

It's time! Sarah P. Duke Gardens' Fall Plant Sale is coming up this Saturday, and I have seen for myself the hundreds of beautiful plants to choose from. I sat down with Jason Holmes, curator of the Doris Duke Center Gardens, to find out what we can look forward to this weekend.

Jason Holmes
"We are going to have a large selection of hellebores, day lilies, and irises," Holmes says. "Lots of blooming perennials and shrubs, a fantastic selection of camellias, numbering over 50 different cultivars, and lots of fruits, herbs and vegetables to choose from." 

Yucca filamentosa 'Color Guard'
Highlighting one of the species of camellias, Holmes says, "The lovely Sasanqua that blooms this deep red is one of my personal favorites because it blooms right around the time of Christmas, and you have that wonderful red and gold flower." 

The Fall Plant Sale will also feature shrubs and trees, including many Japanese maples and flowering cherries, Holmes says. Below is a particularly red Japanese maple he showed me.

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum)
Holmes is looking forward to the plant sale, and so am I. To me they really did seem to have everything, and I definitely look forward to choosing a few plants for myself!

Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue'
The Fall Plant Sale will begin at 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013 (8 a.m. for Gardens members, and you may join on site), and it will run until noon.

For more information on the plant sale, please take a look at the following videos (1 and 2) featuring Holmes, as well as the event page on Duke Gardens' website.

Heuchera 'Berry Smoothie'

Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Spotted! Tufted Titmice and Other Duke Gardens Residents

By Erika Zambello
It's official, it is autumn and the temperatures are beginning to cool off. Even we students are aware that the winds of annual change are a-blowing and soon the leaves will be a-falling. Birds have begun to migrate, but one cast of characters is around and active. On any visit to Sarah P. Duke Gardens you are nearly guaranteed to see one of a number of species flitting around the canopy or hopping along the paths.

This week I had an extra half hour and, determined to enjoy a beautiful day, I pulled out my camera and wandered through the Gardens. I started in the new Kathleen Smith Moss Garden. Water had pooled in the cavities of the larger rocks, and tufted titmice were chasing each other and bathing in the tiny reservoirs, looking impossibly cute as they ducked under the water and ruffled their light blue feathers. Titmice weren't alone in the Moss Garden; Carolina chickadees buzzed beneath the foliage. Whenever I hear Carolina chickadees I always think of giggling; their voices just carry the same laughing quality. Tiny birds, they nonetheless can make a whole lot of noise.

Leaving the Moss Garden, I traversed the shaded path around the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. Catbirds were everywhere. Aptly named, these slate gray birds have black caps, and when they call they really do sound like a cat's meow, albeit a very unhappy-sounding cat. These catbirds were hunting, and one of them captured a giant tiger swallowtail butterfly and devoured it right in front me. I, like most living and breathing humans, love butterflies, but I have to admit it was pretty impressive watching the catbird snatch the butterfly from its zig-zagged flight.

Finally, I circled the large pond in the Culberson Asiatic Arboretum. A ruby-throated hummingbird zipped past me toward the Historic Gardens. People are always impressed when a hummingbird zooms by, more blur than bird, and I can instantly identify it as a ruby-throated. Well, I have a secret. In this area, any other species of hummingbird is exceedingly rare. Am I sure? Not 100%, but I'm about 95% sure, and who can question me--the  hummingbird is already gone!

The pond itself is of course teeming with avian life. There are dozens of mallards and American black ducks, as well as other exotic species. But there are also a few wood ducks, native to North Carolina, an unbelievably bright and colorful species that I had never seen so close up before moving to Durham.

Forty-five minutes and about one hundred pictures later, I was forced by my class schedule to leave the Gardens and return indoors. I was thrilled with all the species I had seen in my brief walk. As the season continues to change, I look forward to looking out for more of our daily residents, as well as the many species migrating through and looking for a place to rest for a while. I can see why they'd choose Duke Gardens.

Blogger Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Friday, September 13, 2013

Discovering White Wood Aster

It was sunny and warm on a late Wednesday morning when I followed curator Stefan Bloodworth into the H.L. Blomquist Garden of Native Plants. We were on the lookout for a particular blooming flower, the white wood aster (Eurybia divaricate). 

With white petals and pink and yellow centers, the white wood asters were growing at the footpath's border underneath some of Sarah P. Duke Gardens' tall pine trees. Beautiful of course, the delicate blossoms also seemed dainty, refined, unassuming. I don't know about other Gardens visitors, but I always believe flowers have personalities as varied and vibrant as their colors. Don't get me started on the large leaf princess flower (Tibouchina grandiflora) - those purple blooms have serious attitude.
Habitat is just one aspect of the white wood aster that sets it apart from many other members of the aster family (Asteraceae). These asters are shade tolerant, and they are found along wood edges and breaks in the trees, Bloodworth says.

While these asters are thriving in the Blomquist's shady forest conditions, other flowers “would be languishing in a place like this,” Bloodworth continues. The flowers were buzzing with pollinators. I watched wasps, bumblebees, flies and beetles in frenzied activity around the asters, and as a fall bloomer white wood aster “fills an important niche in a fall woodland garden.” The flowers attract pollinators, and the insect pollinators are important sources of protein for birds readying themselves for their difficult migratory journeys.
The White Wood Asters, unassuming as they seem to me, also represent a significant shift in the field of botany in the 21st century. It used to be that a botanist would head out into the field, braving all weathers and animals and stressed out students (in the case of Duke Gardens staff) to study plants and their forms, separating them into different physical taxonomies. While those skills are still important, there has been a major shift from field taxonomy to molecular botany.

“There are no American asters anymore,” Bloodworth explains. “They have all been reclassified into other genera based on molecular botany.” Formerly Aster divaricatus, the white wood aster’s genetic code has earned the flower the new name Eurybia divaricata. 

Perhaps someday there will be an app on your phone, Bloodworth suggests, that will allow people, botanists or not, to take a sample of the molecular structure of a plant in front of them and instantly identify it. While part of me wishes for such a leap in technology, another part wishes I had paid a little more attention to my chemistry and biology classes if apps are to become more sophisticated than I am.
Molecular botany aside, the white wood asters are growing in a beautiful spot amidst the other native plants of the Blomquist Garden. Bloodworth left me to take as many pictures as I wanted (and there were many), and I listened to the birds and watched the bees pollinate the asters and fly on to other flowers in the Gardens. I am looking forward to coming upon the white blossoms in the middle of a Carolina forest. At the very least, anyone with me will be oh-so-impressed when I instantly know the revised Latin name for the white wood aster!
Columnist Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.

Monday, September 9, 2013

How and why to plant in fall

By Erika Zambello

Summer may be drawing to a close, but the ideal time for planting perennials and winter vegetables is fast approaching.

Fall is perhaps best known as the season of the harvest, when apples and corn and pumpkins and so much more are finally ready for picking, eating and pie-making. However, not all of us are aware that the autumn months are also the perfect time to break out those planting tools once again and prepare for future growing seasons.

Hilary Nichols, garden manager at the Durham nonprofit SEEDS, spoke with us to explain the importance of the season and to give a few tips for a successful fall planting.

“Fall is the best time to plant,” says Nichols, who will teach a “Gardening 101” class at Duke Gardens next month. “When it is way too hot or way too cold, plant roots don’t grow very much. They grow when humans really enjoy the weather the best, too, in the spring and in the fall.”

Ideal temperatures are not the only reason fall gives gardeners a jump on their growing season. Perennials, trees and shrubs need quality time to grow strong and healthy roots.

“If the roots start growing in the fall,” Nichols explains, “they have the fall to grow, and then they rest in the winter. They have the spring to grow before summer comes, and summer is really the big test for whether the roots have done a good job growing. If you were going to plant in the spring, you would only have one season before the big test, but if you plant in the fall you have two seasons for the roots to grow before they really get tested by all the drought in the summer.”

As with spring planting, gardeners must weed, lay their compost and plant their seeds. But winter differs in terms of watering habits, says Nichols, who cautions new gardeners against over-watering.

“You don’t want to water on a schedule, because through the winter things won’t dry out as quickly,” she says. “You just need to be paying attention to the plants and to the soil to make sure you are watering appropriately, and that can be a difficult thing for a new person.”

Paying attention to the surface of the soil is important, Nichols says. But you’ll need to dig deeper to gauge your watering needs. “Try to stick your finger as deeply as you can into the soil and test how wet it is through and through. If you have trouble feeling how wet it is just by touching it, you might want to take a pinch of soil and feel it.”

But watching the soil is not enough, she adds. “Keep an eye on the leaves and make sure they’re the right color, really thick and full of water, and not dry and wrinkly.”

For more gardening basics, consider taking Nichols’ “Gardening 101” class on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 9 a.m. to noon. To register, or for more information, please call 919-668-1707. You can also learn more about gardening by volunteering at SEEDS. Volunteers at all ability levels are welcome. For information, go to or call 919-683-1197.

Stayed tuned for more advice from Nichols in our next column. And you can see Duke Gardens’ full schedule of classes, drop-in activities and events at Duke Gardens' calendar of events.

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens receives roughly half of its operating budget from Duke University. The rest comes from people like you, who value all that this public botanic garden has to offer. Duke Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Columnist Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment.This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

Learn from others at Duke Gardens

By Jan Little

Gardeners wear many hats. Over time as you garden, you pick up a wide range of other skills and knowledge. So you are a gardener, but you learn a little about arboriculture as you prune your trees, a little about agriculture as you expand your vegetable garden, and a smattering of entomology as you try to figure out what is chewing on various plants.

But from time to time all gardeners get stumped—a problem occurs that you have never seen before, or you see a plant and cannot identify it, and the internet doesn’t have a definitive answer for either situation.

Not to worry—there are considerable resources available to Durham gardeners.

Duke Gardens horticulturists lead programs in the Gardens throughout the year. Join us on the first Thursday of each month in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants for a “Walk on the Wild Side” program focusing on the ecology of North Carolina. For gardeners seeking a new perspective, the “Color and Plant Combinations” program in the Terraces and Historic Gardens will give you a fresh menu of garden plants and ideas. For a global view, try the “Autumn in the Arboretum” program to learn more about Asian plants useful in North Carolina and enjoy the colorful fall display.

Durham County Extension Master Gardeners can help you with problem solving. These gardeners are extremely knowledgeable and happy to assist you in identifying plants, weeds and insects, or learning how to help an ailing plant. Master Gardener Lynne Nelson coordinates their schedules and reports that they have answered hundreds of gardening questions at Duke Gardens this year. The Master Gardeners are in the Charlotte Brody Discovery Garden on Tuesdays and Saturdays and in the Terraces Gardens on Wednesdays. They also present lectures and seminars about gardening topics throughout the year.

For orchid enthusiasts the Triangle Orchid Society meets at the Gardens every month with displays and presentations to expand your orchid knowledge.

Nature photographers meet monthly at Duke Gardens to share and review images and teach each other (or learn from visiting experts) about techniques and tools. See their Facebook page for more information.

Additionally the Durham Beekeepers Club meets here to discuss working with bees in the garden.
Even just a walk through Duke Gardens can assist you with your own garden.

Duke Gardens is a living laboratory of beautiful plants and combinations. Here you can see specific garden styles and types, and examples of how to manage drainage, water and soil problems. Volunteers and staff work throughout the Gardens each weekday and are happy to answer questions.

Stroll around the Gardens to see mature plantings. You may finally find that plant for a special spot in your garden. You will also begin to understand which plants thrive in sun or shade, or in dry or wet situations.

For information about all the events and assistance available at Sarah P. Duke Gardens please go to the calendar listings page at

Sarah P. Duke Gardens creates and nurtures an environment in the heart of Duke University for learning, inspiration and enjoyment through excellence in horticulture. The Gardens receives roughly half of its operating budget from Duke University. The rest comes from people like you, who value all that this public botanic garden has to offer. Duke Gardens is at 420 Anderson St.

Columnist Jan Little is Duke Gardens’ director of education and public programs. For information about Gardens programs, please go to This column first appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Students Gather for CLAWS Hawk Release

Text and photos by Erika Zambello

The late morning was already warm when the pack of five of us graduate students followed the signs for “Hawk Release” into Sarah P. Duke Gardens. It was our first official Saturday on campus, and even a full night of sleep hadn’t fully stopped our heads from spinning around extracurricular activities, paperwork due dates, course requirements, and the names and faces of about 160 new classmates. A full week of the Nicholas School of the Environment’s first year orientation had launched us into our Duke careers, and we were excited to explore Duke Gardens in our free time.

We were definitely not the first people to arrive. As we crossed the grass towards the crowd, kids chased bubbles, students discussed their classes, and local community members talked quietly or set up their photography equipment. We joined the crowd of nearly 50 and growing who had converged on the lawn to form a loose semicircle around the two rehabilitators and their five conspicuous cages. Milling around for a few minutes, we all enjoyed the beautiful morning in the gardens.

CLAWS Inc., a local nonprofit whose mission is to help “wild and exotic animals, through educating the public as well as rescuing and rehabilitating those animals in need,” had three young red-shouldered hawks ready to be released into the wild.

A hush fell over the crowd as Kindra Mammone, executive director of CLAWS, began to speak. The hawks had been raised by CLAWS since they were chicks and this would be their first free flight ever, she said. That amazed me. The first flight of a bird into freedom can be considered a pretty apt metaphor for new students beginning their undergraduate or graduate studies. I’m sure the other students in the audience felt the strength of the comparison. But more than that, we were watching a wild being returned to its natural habitat. Humans had helped!

The first hawk was carried down into the center of the lawn by rehabilitator Vinny Mammone, Kindra's husband. He was followed by a lucky woman whose name had been drawn to release the bird. Both adorned in heavy gloves, the rehabilitator gently transferred the red-shouldered hawk from its cage to the volunteer’s arm. After a brief pause to allow the hawk to acclimate, the volunteer turned and raised her hands to the sky. The hawk was off in an instant, swooping up and away and out of sight. My friends and I exhaled the breaths we weren’t aware we had been holding, and then collectively beamed at each other and everyone around us.

One by one, the hawks were transferred from their cages to a volunteer, and then just as quickly they were gone again. It’s possible that one of the three hawks could settle in Duke Gardens, but part of the territory is already spoken for by another pair of nesting red-shouldered hawks. Oh, well. I know if I see a red-shouldered hawk in the Gardens I can always pretend it’s the very same creature I saw spread its wings for the first time.

Luckily for us, the CLAWS staff had brought two birds we could keep watching, birds that are too injured to return to the wild and thus live with CLAWS permanently. If I thought seeing hawks in flight was amazing, seeing two species so close up (without fear of a beak or talon poking my eye out) was almost as incredible. It’s nearly impossible for me to tell hawks or any raptor species apart when they are soaring so high, but on the ground the differences between the red-shouldered hawk and the red-tailed hawk were easy to see. Most notably, the red-tailed hawk was so much larger than the red-shouldered!
Red-tailed hawk
Eventually, the wonderful CLAWS staff and their two feathered friends had to leave. My fellow students and I wandered the gardens for a while, and then each of us had to return to the piles of unpacking we still had to tackle. Though none of us said anything, I think we were each privately scanning the tree tops for any sign of the resting red-shouldered hawks. We couldn’t spot them, but we are all hooked – the next time CLAWS releases a bird at Duke Gardens, we will be clapping in the audience! 

Blogger Erika Zambello is a graduate student studying Ecosystem Science and Conservation at Duke's  NicholasSchool of the Environment.