By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
PICAYUNE — What wonderful visitors we met during our recent Spring Native Plant Sale. It was a constant stream of enthusiastic gardeners, and all seemed to arrive with a delightful story. Many were brand new visitors to the Arboretum. Some came because they had been attracted by the beautiful photo of the native “honeysuckle” azalea in last week’s column. It was so rewarding to see cartloads of plants being wheeled away to take root and thrive in their new homes. Spring is still springing, and though this writer will admit to having once said that spring is a wee bit garish, anyone familiar with this column will know that just about any aspect of nature will serve to inspire me in some way. Last week on a trip up to the MSU campus in Starkville, I was treated to a parade of our glorious native dogwoods along Interstate 59 between Hattiesburg and Meridian. The glowing white blooms of the dogwoods were mingled with a rolling sea of green, so many different shades, from deep olives to the fine textured wispy light greens set against the dark green of pine trees. The shapes were varied, too — from the broad, spreading, mushroom shapes of majestic oaks, to the conical forms of bald cypress and sweetgum. At the plant sale, our conversations kept returning to species that are low-maintenance and carefree. Several of these popular plants were vines, notably passion flower, and coral honeysuckle. And even though the passion vine plants weren’t blooming, they were quickly snapped up by those who knew of its virtues. The coral honeysuckle, however, was in bloom. It didn’t take long for this plant to make a complete exit, along with its bright yellow form called ‘Sulphurea.’ Passion vine (Passiflora incarnata) is known for being a host plant for the gulf fritillary butterfly. It is not unusual to have this plant arrive from the nursery covered with scary-looking orange caterpillars that have equally frightening black spines. Although the caterpillars look like they might sting, their spines are actually quite fragile and will break off easily. If you were to see these odd creatures devouring your beautiful flowering vine, you might be tempted to squish them immediately, which was once the response of a past garden client who reported proudly that she had taken care of the offenders. But when she learned that they would have turned into butterflies, she was not at all pleased! Last year, we were excited to find a few passion vines late in the year for our Children’s Butterfly Garden. Before I could even walk away after it was planted, a gulf fritillary butterfly flitted over and began to dance around the plant. Soon, it landed, most likely to deposit eggs. It never ceases to amaze me when pondering these insect-plant preferences. If you have a passion vine and see these butterflies paying it a visit, look closely to see if you can find tiny eggs clinging to a tendril or the underside of a leaf. When they hatch, the tiny caterpillars will begin to consume the leaves. Eventually, they will form a chrysalis, from which the butterfly will emerge. Passion vine is a perennial, and although it will die to the ground each year after the leaves are killed by frost, it will come back each year. The plant grows in full to part sun, and prefers moist, well-drained soil conditions. Let it ramble or scramble in your garden, perhaps up a tree, pole, or arbor. Passiflora forms maypops, which are about the size of an egg and contain seeds. It is best for the maypops to mature and fall to the ground if you are planning to collect seed for propagation. You can also propagate this plant by cuttings. Another favorite is the coral honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens), which can be found growing along our Pearl River County roadsides, often scrambling up a tree or a fence. I’ve seen gorgeous specimens with hundreds of blooms at the road’s edge. Coral honeysuckle grows in full to part sun, and is a virtual magnet for hummingbirds and butterflies. The fruits are eaten by birds. Let it scramble up a trellis or grow it on an arbor. Ours has been blooming in the Children’s garden for more than a month. Celebrate our spring rains with the children’s program titled “April Showers” on Saturday, April 20 from 10 to 11 a.m. with Master Naturalist Mary Cordray. Mary will discuss the water cycle and water conservation while children play “Go to the Head of the Cloud” and make rain sticks. Mark your calendar for the Crosby Arboretum’s Earth Day event on Saturday, April 27, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visit stations that are focused on nature and sustainable gardening on topics such as beekeeping, rainwater irrigation, birds & butterflies, and composting. Attend a presentation at 10 a.m. on home landscaping with an edible twist. Take home some new ideas for your yard and garden from MSU urban horticulturist Dr. Christine Coker, who will discuss “Delicious Design for the Landscape”. A spring wildflower field walk will be offered on Friday, May 3 at 11 a.m., and a program about our south Mississippi’s native orchids will be held on Saturday May 4 at 10 a.m. Later in the month, children will enjoy decorating a clay pot for a Mother’s Day gift in our “Painted Pots” craft workshop class on Saturday, May 11 at 10 a.m. Cost for most Arboretum programs is $5 for non-members’, and $2 for non-members’ children. Members attend free of charge. For more information, or to sign up for a program, please visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu, or call (601)799-2311. The Crosby Arboretum is located in Picayune, I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For further exploration: What native plants make their home in your yard? How many can you identify? Pick a few that you find attractive, and go to www.southeasternflora.com to use their identification key to discover their names. Visit the MSU Extension Service website at www.MSUcares.com for more gardening and plant information specific to Mississippi.