Archived Mountain Voices

A favorite time to watch the home garden

This time of the year is perhaps the best time to enjoy flowering plants in a home garden. Many of the larger and showier species are just now coming into full bloom and will remain so into fall. 


Several evenings ago, I came home tired and sat on the deck with a glass of iced tea, and the dogs and I just watched the plants. That was sort of therapeutic. Every once in a while, it seems the perfect thing to do. Just sit down and watch the plants.


Dominating and defining the yard between the house and the creek are the larger flowering shrubs: buddleia, swamp rose mallow, and a beautiful ornamental hydrangea that bears long cone-shaped clusters of snow white flowers. The rosy pink flowers of the mallow are delightful because they are the size of small dinner plates. On the other hand, I don’t usually like ornamental hydrangeas because the flower heads are often so large that they look top-heavy, awkward and artificial. But the hydrangea I purchased in Highlands during the early 1990s has compact flower clusters that look just right. 

Beds of black-eyed Susan, green-headed coneflower, bergamot and garden phlox glowed in the soft evening light. Observe phlox throughout the day and you’ll notice that individual flowers often change their colors from darker to lighter. Biologists call this “color morphing” and theorize that the plant is doing so in order to attract different pollinators under different light conditions. 

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The trumpet vines growing on the trellises situated above the stairs leading up to the decks are attracting an unusual number of hummingbirds this year. We normally have just one or two pairs, but in the last three or four weeks there have been dozens of males, females, and immature birds zooming here and there. Sometimes a male will perch deep in the trumpet vine foliage and come storming out when another hummingbird dares to feed at a nearby blossom. 

One day, we saw something that seemed incredible. A preying mantis that lived in the trumpet vine had captured a ruby-throated hummingbird. There was nothing we could do as the unfortunate bird was already half ingested.

The only plant we have that’s somewhat unusual is obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), sometimes called false dragonhead. Elizabeth rescued a few of them 30 or so years ago from a wet meadow on Toot Hollow near Bryson City that was going to be drained and converted into dry pasture. It now grows about five feet high in a several beds that currently numbers upwards of 100 plants. They are called obedient plants because the lovely pale purple or pinkish flower heads remain bent in whichever direction you turn them. If you’re looking for a new plant to propagate next year and then sit on your deck or porch to watch, you could do a lot worse than obedient plant. 

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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