The Artful Garden

For 19 years, Suzann and Jon Partridge have turned their beautiful country property near Bracebridge, Ontario into an outdoor gallery featuring the garden-inspired art of dozens of talented Ontario artists.

Artful Garden Sign

Welcome to the Artful Garden, with the 2016 show running from July 23rd through August 14th.

Artful Garden-Partridge-Bracebridge

It is a generous gesture from these accomplished and well-known potters, who met in art class at high school in Toronto more than 45 years ago.

Suzann & Jon Partridge

Jon’s pottery is in collections throughout the world.

Partridge-Pottery Sign

Though the show started almost two decades ago, it was 1974 when the young couple moved to what was then a neglected 100-acre Muskoka farm. Their house is modest and typical of the old brick farmhouses that dot Ontario. It’s also visitors’ introduction to the Artful Garden, which I have been photographing through the years. (Note: Some photos below are from my previous visits.)

Artful Garden-Monarda & Metal Flowers

Suzanne has worked tirelessly developing her gorgeous gardens, which now total more than a dozen areas. They feature sun-loving perennials like blazing star, left (Liatris spicata) and daylilies.

Suzann Partridge-Daylilies & Platycodon

…and purple coneflower…

Echinacea-Partridge Garden

….and hostas for her shady corners….

Suzann Partridge-Shady Garden

… and vines like the honeysuckle that climbs an arch in June….

Honeysuckle on arch-Partridge

…and beautiful annuals in windowboxes.

Window box

There are vegetables and  herbs….

Suzann Partridge-Vegetable Garden

….a pond….

Suzann Partridge-pond

and several pottery fountains.

Artful Garden-Partridge Fountains-

Jon & Suzann share their property with a chocolate Lab…

Chocolate lab


…a gaggle of specialty fowl that roam freely throughout the gardens…..

Partridge-Fancy Birds

…and loads of butterflies and bees, like this honey bee nectaraing on the common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)….

Milkweed-Honey Bee

…. in the huge field adjacent to the garden. On busy Artful Garden days, some of the other neighbouring fields are conscripted for parking.

Milkweed Field

There’s also a summer arts camp for kids, and on the day I was there this week, they were making delightful fresh floral ‘paintings’.

Artful Garden-Kids Art Camp

Suzann is especially skilled at knowing exactly which little corner will make the perfect vignette for the art displayed for three weeks each summer, like Laura Moore’s artistic rendition of a virus, set in verbena and osteospermum.

Artful Garden-Laura Moore-Virus Number3

And Mark Clark’s “happy pills’, in a carpet of calendula.

Artful Garden-Mark Clark-Happy Pills

Here are bulrushes in echinacea, courtesy of metal artist Lino Barbosa.

Artful Garden-Lino Barbosa-Bulrush

I loved this hummingbird cut-out screen, also done by Lino Barbosa.

Artful Garden-Lino Barbosa-Hummingbird Cut Out

Jean Pierre Schoss always has a big display of his metal work.

Artful Garden-JP Schoss Peace signs

This is his Flying Bird.

Artful Garden-JP Schoss-Flying Bird

The 2016 poster art is of multimedia artist Jamie Brick’s beautiful ‘Vines’ sculpture.

Artful Garden-Jamie Brick-Vines

This cottage-themed mailbox of Derek Green’s is fun.

Artful Garden-Derek Green-Big Bird Mailbox

Robert Graves’s glass art was shimmering in many of the garden beds.

Artful Garden-Robert Graves-Whimsical Glass

Tod Waring’s metal garden stakes are beautiful. These are calla lilies…

Artful Garden-Tod Waring-Calla Lily Stakes

…and he’s also done some fancy birds in flight.

Artful Garden-Tod Waring-Fancy Bird

There are lots of artful flowers, naturally, ready for visitors to purchase and take home. These ones are by David Hickey.

Artful Garden-David Hickey-Flowers

These colourful flowers were in front of the pottery showroom…

Artful Garden-Flowers

…where Jon Partridge’s work is featured.

Jon Partridge Showroom

His beautiful pieces are in collections throughout the world.

Jon Partridge Pottery2

And his work can be purchased throughout the year…

Jon Partridge Pottery1

with visits on open days or by appointment.

Jon Partridge-clay landscape

Here’s one of the clay-working studios.

Partridge-Studio & Garden

The sales office, of course, has its very own lovely garden.

Partridge-Artful Garden-Shop

Here are a few more of the artful garden pieces I’ve enjoyed through the years.

Artful Garden-Metal Sculpture

I love these kinetic works…

Artful Garden-Kinetic sculpture

You can’t have too many birds in the garden…

Artful Garden-Birds & Artemisia

…or roosters, for that matter….

Artful Garden-Red Roosters

And finally, here’s a little video I made to celebrate Suzann & Jon’s immense contribution to the art scene in Muskoka. Enjoy!


My Cups Runneth Over (With Bees)….

(Hmmm. I just re-read my title and almost changed it, but decided not to. Snicker away – I’m going with “cups”.)

My second yellow-gold blog for July (the first was on companion plants for blackeyed susans) honours another composite prairie perennial that has pride of place in my meadows at Lake Muskoka.  Cup plant or Indian cup (Silphium perfoliatum) gets both its common name and Latin specific epithet from the way the leaves encircle the stem, thus making the stem appear to pierce the foliage – i.e. a ‘perfoliate’ habit.

Silphium perfofliatum-cottage

This clasping leaf arrangement creates a kind of ‘cup’ in which water can collect after rains, supposedly providing drinking water for birds and insects. Alas, insects are often found floating in the water, with some experts suggesting that it may actually act as a deterrent against insect pests that might climb up the stem.

Perfoliate leaves-Silphium perfoliatum

While it is a fabulous native, indigenous to moist woods and prairies in much of mid and east North America, including my province Ontario, its tendency to colonize makes it problematic. In fact, though it is classified as “threatened and endangered”in Michigan, it is “potentially invasive” and banned for sale in Connecticut. I received my fleshy roots from the compost bins of Toronto’s beautiful Spadina House gardens, and the gardeners gave me fair warning that it was invasive, and hard to dig up to control its spread. So I don’t; I merely enjoy it and give thanks for it when the bumble bees are nectaring on the big yellow flowers.

Bombus impatiens on Silphium perfoliatum

Here are bumble bees in action, along with a surprise visitor for whom those itty-bitty leaf pools are no deterrent, when tasty cup plant seedheads are the rewards for ascending that thick stem.

Honey bees love cup plant as well. There are no apiaries near my cottage on Lake Muskoka, but I photographed this one in the meadows at Miriam Goldberger’s Wildflower Farm an hour so south.

Honey Bee on Silphium perfoliatum

Butterflies like the monarch enjoy cup plant, too.

Monarch on Silphium perfoliatum (1)

I grow cup plants near my stairs so I can photograph the pollinators at eye level.

Silphium perfoliatum

But they’re in my meadows as well. Though they prefer adqequate moisture in the soil, they are surprisingly drought-tolerant (as they’ve had to be this hot, dry summer), but will develop yellow leaves and stunted flowers in time. Here’s a colony below my bedroom window amidst sweet blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia subtomentosa) still to come into flower.

Silphium perfoliatum in meadow

They make good companions to gray-headed coneflowers (Ratibida pinnata), which bloom at the same time.

Silphium perfoliatum & Ratibida pinnata

They are easily the tallest perennials I grow. Last summer (a season of good rains), I lay down the loftiest stems so I could do a measurement. Yes, 9 feet.

Silphium - 9 feet

I leave you with a little narrated tour…..

….and a cottage bouquet showing cup plant flowers in the bottom tier, surrounded by summer flowers like ratibida, perovskia, liatris and goldenrod.  Yellow/gold for July 2016, over and out.

Bouquet-Cup Plant & friends

21 Hot Dates for Blackeyed Susan

Here we are in July, my Paintbox Garden month for yellow/gold. and what more summery illustration of that sunny part of the paintbox than blackeyed susan!

Rudbeckia hirta closeup

When Carl Linnaeus named the genus of North American plants that include the ones we call blackeyed susan as Rudbeckia, he was honouring someone very cherished in his life, his Uppsala University mentor and fellow botanist Olof Rudbeck the Younger (1660-1740).  In 1730 Linnaeus moved into Rudbeck’s house where he became tutor for his three youngest children (of 24 in total by three wives!). It was Rudbeck who recommended Linnaeus as lecturer to replace him and as the botanical garden demonstrator, even though he was only in his second year of studies.

In Wilfrid Blunt’s 1971 biography, Linnaeus, The Compleat Naturalist, the author quotes Linnaeus: “So long as the earth shall survive and as each spring shall see it covered with flowers, theRudbeckia will preserve your glorious name. I have chosen a noble plant in order to recall your merits and the services you have rendered, a tall one to give an idea of your stature, and I wanted it to be one which branched and which flowered and fruited freely, to show that you cultivated not only the sciences but also the humanities. Its rayed flowers will bear witness that you shone among savants like the sun among the stars; its perennial roots will remind us that each year sees you live again through new works. Pride of our gardens, the Rudbeckia will be cultivated throughout Europe and in distant lands where your revered name must long have been known. Accept this plant, not for what it is but for what it will become when it bears your name”.

The painting of Rudbeck, below, hangs at Uppsala University.

Olof RudbeckYounger















I am a great fan of biennial blackeyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta). They have been an integral part of my little meadows here on Lake Muskoka since we built our home in 2002. In fact, they were the plants I sowed initially, along with red fescue grass (Festuca rubra), to retain the sandy soil we placed on the property once construction was finished.  And it’s a bit of an understatement to say that they grew well, given they had no competion yet from other tough customers.  They grew extraordinarily well here.

Rudbeckia hirta-Lake Muskoka

When I think back to the summer of 2003, it’s of having these amazing ‘lawns’ of blackeyed susans, which later evolved (with a lot of research and work on my part) into more complex meadow-prairies.

Rudbeckia hirta-Blackeyed Susan Meadow

I spent summer 2003 photographing them, and had a little photo show the next summer – long before I switched to digital.

Janet Davis-Rudbeckia hirta

I even wrote about them for Cottage Life magazine, given that they seemed like the ‘way back’ for our property from construction site to buzzing, fluttering habitat (and, ultimately, a much more bio-diverse place than our little shore had ever been).

Cottage Life-Blackeyed SusansThey became part of the pollinator landscape here, attracting all types of bees and butterflies.

Rudbeckia hirta - leafcutter bee

Over the years, I’ve chronicled the lovely plant pairings that pop up – because I never know where this little biennial will be next. Unlike its more refined, floriferous, multi-stemmed, perennial cousin Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldsturm’, which I’ll talk about later in this blog, common blackeyed susan is a single-stemmed will-o-the-wisp, its seeds spread by birds, its short 2-year lifespan all there is (leafy rosette the first season, flowers the next). Occasionally, depending on the length of the flowering season, it might emerge and flower in the same year, or it might even hang around to flower a second year, but that is rare. However, individual plants can begin flowering from June well into September, so its plant partners can be highly varied – as varied as the ones in this cottage bouquet I made years ago.

Rudbeckia hirta-in bouquet

Hot Dates for Susan

1)  In my own garden at the cottage, wild beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) is a hardy perennial that I adore for its attractiveness to bees and hummingbirds. In fact, I have two small meadows that I call my “monarda meadows”.  And this is how it looked growing alongside Rudbeckia hirta at Niagara Botanical Garden’s Legacy Prairie

Rudbeckia hirta & Monarda fistulosa-Niagara-Legacy Prairie

Here’s a closer look at this duo in another garden. Note the dark streaks on this blackeyed susan; it’s one of many selected strains that come under the heading “gloriosa daisy”. Genetically, they’re no different from common Rudbeckia hirta wildlings, but have traits that make them worth growing as separate seed mixes, in this case ‘Denver Daisy’.

Rudbeckia hirta & Monarda fistulosa

2) Here is blackeyed susan at the Legacy Prairie with swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). Note that it will tolerate very dry, sandy conditions and remain quite compact, but if grown in the kind of moisture-retentive soil that swamp milkweed prefers, it will grow much taller.

Rudbeckia hirta2 & Asclepias incarnata

3) In contrast, this is how it looks growing in sandy soil with the more drought-tolerant butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) here at Lake Muskoka.

Rudbeckia hirta & Asclepias tuberosa

4) Similarly, in dry soil blackeyed susan will be happy with hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), one of the toughest customers in my meadows….

Rudbeckia hirta & Verbena stricta

5) ….. while more moisture-retentive soil creates conditions for blue vervain (Verbena hastata) – and taller blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Verbena hastata-Niagara-Legacy Prairie

6) There is simply no better bee plant than mountain mint (Pynanthemum sp) (unless it’s calamint).  Here is Virginia mountain mint (P. virginianum) at Niagara’s Legacy Prairie growing with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Pycnanthemum virginianum - Legacy Prairie - Niagara Botanical Garden

7) I grow the smaller veronica Veronica spicata ‘Darwin’s Blue’ in my meadows. Surprisingly drought-tolerant, it is lovely with blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Veronica 'Darwin's Blue'

8) Another blueish-purple plant that makes a good sidekick to blackeyed susan is English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), shown below along with Anthemis tinctoria. A surprisingly hardy subshrub, its main requirement is dry feet in winter; it will languish and die if the soil stays moist.

Rudbeckia hirta & Lavandula angustifolia

9) There aren’t many glamorous plants in my meadows, but a brief flirtation with perfumed Orienpet lilies (half Oriental-half Trumpet) several years ago added a touch of the exotic. And I simply love the juxtaposition of a sophisticated lily like ‘Conca d’Or’ with the humble blackeyed susans.

Rudbeckia hirta & Lilium

10) Annual mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’) is beautiful with fancy gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta cv.)

Rudbeckia hirta & Salvia farinacea

11) I adored this colour-echo combination of golden Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris ‘Golden Sunrise’) with dwarf ‘Toto’ gloriosa daisies (R. hirta cv) at Montreal Botanical Garden.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Toto' & Swiss chard & carex

12) An ebullient assortment of gloriosa daisy cultivars mixed with blue cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) was used in this mini-meadow at Montreal Botanical Garden a few years ago.

Rudbeckia hirta - gloriosa daisies - & Centaurea cyanus

Here’s a closer look at that pairing; the gloriosa daisy cultivar is Rudbeckia hirta ‘Irish Eyes’.

Rudbeckia hirta 'Irish Eyes' & Centaurea cyanus-closeup

The other blackeyed susan I grow is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’.  After being named Perennial of the Year in 1999, this bushy plant soared in popularity throughout the world. In the “new American landscape” made popular by Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, it was deployed alongside ornamental grasses in massive sweeps of gold. It continues to be one of the most popular summer perennials, and spreads very easily (too easily, perhaps, for some).

13) In my city garden, I grow a host of pollinator plants in my front garden, and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is the perfect, long-flowering companion to purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Since I enjoy it so much, I suppose it’s not a surprise that the neighbourhood rabbit seems to like the blossoms, too – as I discovered last summer, finding a large clump deflowered.

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Echinacea

14)  My friend Marnie Wright (whose garden I have blogged about previously) uses ‘Goldsturm’ throughout her Bracebridge garden. I especially like it with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), and…

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Phlox

15) ….with agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus), and…. 

Agapanthus & Rudbeckia 'Goldturm'

16) ….with Marnie’s gorgeous daylilies (Hemerocallis ‘Jade Star’).

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Hemerocallis

At the Toronto Botanical Garden, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ is used in a few gardens.

17) Here it is with balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus), and ….

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Platycodon grandiflorus

18) …with ‘Diabolo’ ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) that has been coppiced to keep it compact, and….

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Physocarpus 'Diabolo'

19) .. with the prairie grass little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and…..

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & little bluestem

20) …with great blue lobelia (Lobelia sophilitica).

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Lobelia siphilitica

At Toronto’s Spadina House gardens, Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’ provides huge colour from mid-to-late summer…..

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm'-Spadina House

21) …. when it celebrates the beginning of autumn with a brilliant splash of gold from (appropriately) goldenrod (Solidago sp.) 

Rudbeckia 'Goldsturm' & Solidago

My work as a matchmaker is done. I hope you found a dance partner or two for your own blackeyed susans!

A Love Letter to Northern Catalpa

Though June is my designated purple month (according to my 2016 New Year’s resolution to blog one colour per month), I do feel compelled to add a little white delight for this last week of June before the lazy days of summer ensue.  And why is that? Because the spectacularly beautiful Northern catalpa tree (Catalpa speciosa) is in flower in Toronto, and I decided it needed a little love.  Though it’s often found in residential settings, its sheer size at maturity makes it a better choice for a park or cemetery – and that’s where I love to photograph this North American native:  Mount Pleasant Cemetery. Today it was a little sunny, when I drove through, but the trees looked resplendent.

Catalpa speciosa-Mount Pleasant Cemetery2

Northern catalpa trees can mature at heights between 40-70 feet (12-21 metres) with a spread of 20-50 feet (6-15 metres).  Though they grow naturally in moist bottomland from southern Illinois and Indiana south to Tennessee and Arkansas, the species is fully hardy in Toronto. Interestingly, some trees are columnar, and others have a rounded crown.   Catalpa canopies are so full…..

Catalpa speciosa-canopy

… has to remind oneself to peer closely to savour the beauty of each orchid-like flower in the big panicles.  Though I couldn’t find any bumble bees today, I know they were enjoying the fragrant blossoms – appropriately marked with purple nectar guides – up high in the canopies. This is one of those rare species that has both diurnal and nocturnal pollinators, with moths working the flowers at night.

Catalpa speciosa-Northern catalpa-flowers

Interestingly, some specimens had already flowered when I was at the cemetery today, pointing to their variability. The tree below, for example, is one I photographed two weeks earlier in 2010; today it was fully green, all the flowers spent.

Catalpa speciosa-Mount Pleasant Cemetery1

Catalpa speciosa was named by John Aston Warder (1812-1883), founder of the American Forestry Association.


Look how beautiful the flowers look backlit against the blue June sky. I can imagine each of those as a prom corsage.

Catalpa speciosa flowers-backlit

The big, heart-shaped leaves are arrayed to maximize sunshine and photosynthesis.

Catalpa speciosa-leaf array

The long, slender seed pods give the genus two of its common names: Indian bean and cigar tree.

Catalpa speciosa-seedpods

Here, sit under the canopy for a few minutes and enjoy the shade it casts from the warm June sun.

Catalpa speciosa-branching


Finding Purple in the Blue Ridge Mountains

My second June blog on the colour purple (see my first blog here) takes the shape of a travel journal. Not the one below, but one based on the fabulous natural landscapes described in the pages of this book.

Blue Ridge-Travel Guide

Did I know, when I left home in Toronto, that what I would find atop a mountain in North Carolina would fit into my June reflection of purple? Not at all. Did I know that my journey would be a celebration of a hue that some might argue rests more comfortably in the land of “magenta”?  No. But in looking back at the highlights of my few days last week in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains, it is “rosy-purple” that colours my memories.

From the beginning, then.

I am fortunate to have someone with whom I can share not just a love of the natural world, not just a passion for photography, but an enduring and easy friendship. And despite the miles between us, my friend Virginia Weiler (Ginny) of Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I have found several occasions to meet in diverse landscapes that celebrate our enjoyment of gardens and nature, like California’s Santa Ynez Valley mountain meadows and the Mojave Desert in 2004….

Ginny & Janet-2004-California

…. and New York’s fabulous High Line in 2012.

Ginny & Janet-2012-High Line

Our last time together had been on a little lake in Montebello, Quebec where Ginny and her long-time partner Claudine were married in September 2014. But there was no time for botanizing on that joyous occasion!

Wedding montage

This time, we decided to meet at the airport in Charlotte, NC on June 13th and drive north to the city of Asheville in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a sub-range of the Appalachian Mountain Range.  As a honey bee photographer, I had a particular desire to visit the Blue Ridge in early summer, in order to see the sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) in bloom.

Oxydendrum arboreum-Sourwood tree

Alas, though we saw lots of sourwoods and they were quite advanced in North Carolina’s June heat wave (90-95F), only the first nodding flowers had opened and the honey bees would not be in them for a while. (But check out the leafcutter bee holes in the leaves below).

Sourwood flowers opening-Oxydrendum arboreum

My request for sourwood gave Ginny the magical clue for our accommodation: a beautiful spot she knew well, having stayed there with Claudine before. The Sourwood Inn would be our home base for the next few days.

Sourwood Inn-Asheville North Carolina

At 3200-foot elevation on the richly-forested slope of Elk Mountain overlooking the Reems Creek Valley, the inn nestles on 100 acres. it is a family-owned bed-and-breakfast with 12 rooms. Ours was Room #5, a lovely, spacious aerie on the corner of the third floor with lots of windows for cross-ventilation. We loved our little balcony in the treetops….

Sourwood Inn-Balcony-Room5

….overlooking red maples, hickories (Carya cordiformis & C. glabra) and chestnut oaks (Quercus prinus), seen below.

Chestnut oak-Quercus prinus-Sourwood Inn

What a beautiful sound through the screen door as rain fell one night, stopping conveniently by daybreak. And the balcony was the perfect perch from which to hear songbirds early in the morning. Have a listen….

There is a lovely, Arts & Crafts furnished lobby….

Sourwood-Lobby sitting area

….and a big verandah with comfy rocking chairs. We ate our picnic dinner from town here one evening.

Sourwood Inn-Veranda

There are a few hiking trails skirting the slopes on the Sourwood property….


….and it’s fun to pick out the native shrubs & perennials I’m more accustomed to seeing as cultivated ornamentals, such as smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) and goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus), below, among many others.

Aruncus dioicus-Goatsbeard-Blue Ridge Mountains

Breakfast at the inn was served either in the dining room or on a lovely stone terrace outside. This is where Ginny perused the maps of the area before we started out in the morning.

Map reading-Sourwood Inn

Typical of the Sourwood Inn was this delicious breakfast: cheesy grits casserole with scrambled eggs & fruit. Yum! I could be a southern girl, y’all!

Sourwood Inn-Grits Casserole Breakfast

After a morning at the Asheville Botanical Garden, below, the heat and humidity made us reconsider our initial plan to visit more Asheville sites.

Asheville Botanical Garden

Instead, we picked up a picnic lunch and set out up the Blue Ridge Parkway, Ginny at the wheel.   She decided we would visit Craggy Gardens (a natural mountain ‘garden’) in the Pisgah National Forest of western North Carolina.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway

On each of our forays on the Blue Ridge Parkway, it wasn’t unusual for us to pull over to the grassy shoulder…..

Blue Ridge Parkway-photo stop

…. so we could snap breathtaking views like this one, further up the parkway, where the “Black Mountains” (for their dark conifers) begin….

Black Mountains-view-Blue Ridge Parkway

… or mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) growing right out of the rock….

Kalmia on rock-Blue Ridge Parkwayl

…. or capture wildflowers along the way, like the brilliant fire pink (Silene virginica)…

Silene virginica-fire pink

…and common golden groundsel (Packera aurea).

Packera aurea-golden groundsel

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in this area means going through a series of tunnels carved through the mountains.  These engineering marvels were dug mostly by hand by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Blue Ridge Parkway-Tunnel

After taking the turn at Milepost 367.5 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we drove a mile or so into the Craggy Gardens Picnic Area, where we ate our lunch. (Note, this is about 3 miles before the Craggy Gardens Visitor Centre at Milepost 364.6 further up the highway from Asheville).

Craggy Gardens-Picnic Area

Wild turkeys wandered about near the parking area here. They are plentiful in the Blue Ridge.

Wild turkey-Blue Ridge Mountains

Then we began the hike upwards through deciduous forest on this segment of North Carolina’s Mountains to Sea Trail (MST).  I wished I had done a little more training for climbing uphill at 5000+ feet elevation.  Breathe in, breathe out and keep those creaky knees bending.This was new ecological territory for me, with sun-dappled beech gaps (Fagus grandifolia) – a unique niche in these mountains.

Beech Gap-Craggy Gardens

There were beautiful wildflowers in the grasses, like the thyme-leaved mountain bluet (Houstonia serpyllifolia) here with the emerging leaves of filmy angelica (Angelica triquinata), a native of rocky slopes and balds which bears green umbel flowers in August and September (and whose nectar intoxicates the bees!)

Angelica triquinata & Houstonia

As we neared the summit, we rose above intriguing plant communities cloaking the slopes, like the one below: yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), mountain ash (Sorbus americana), Canada blackberry (Rubus canadensis), foreground and – the star of Craggy Gardens and the mountaintops around here – the beguilingly beautiful Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense).

Native forest-Craggy Gardens

There was mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) beside the trail here, too.

Kalmia latifolia-Mountain laurel

Then, suddenly, the woodland lightened, giving way to grassy meadows studded with Catawba rhododendrons. Without knowing it in advance, we had reached North Carolina’s spectacular version of ‘purple’ at just the perfect moment!

Craggy Gardens-Mountains to Sea-path

Also known as mountain rosebay, R. catawbiense is at home here on these mountains, where the air is cool and often foggy, and condensation from clouds provides ample moisture when the rains don’t come. It is a parent of the popular garden hybrid rhododendron ‘Roseum Elegans’,

Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

I watched Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies (Papilio glaucus) and this spicebush swallowtail (Papilio troilus) nectaring on the blossoms.

Papilio troilus-Spicebush Swallowtail-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

Though the trail seemed to end at this sturdy trail shelter, also built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, other hikers advised us to take the spur path to our right for the best rhododendron show.

Shelter-Craggy Gardens

I didn’t know it until I got home and did some research on Craggy Gardens, that the spur path took us onto the “bald”. That’s a fairly clear word that means what it suggests… a “bald” surface on a mountaintop that some sources call an ecological mystery. There are grass balds and heath balds, the latter featuring ericaceous plants like rhododendron, kalmia and blueberry and other Vaccinium species. The Craggy Gardens bald is a combination of both grasses and heaths.

Path-Craggy Gardens Bald

The rhodos here are old, their branches crusted with lichens.

Lichen on Rhododendron catawbiense

And the view of the Blue Ridges through those purple blossoms is simply breathtaking.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Grass Bald

I had to have my photo taken with that great background!

Janet Davis-Craggy Gardens-Blue Ridge Mountains

There were deciduous flame azaleas (Rhododendron calendulaceum) on the bald as well.


And the occasional gnarled red oak (Quercus rubra) was up here, too. The red oaks have been the subject of a study on this bald and others, their ‘encroachment’ considered to be the result of the cessation of historical sheep-pasturing on the tops of some of the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago. When animal grazing was stopped with the creation of the park, the encroachment of the red oak was considered to be harmful to these special environments.

Quercus rubra-Red oak-Craggy Gardens

In fact, Ginny liked that old oak so much, she encroached herself into its generous branches.

Ginny in the red oak

Whether or not natural succession/reforestation of the balds might be considered more ‘natural’ in these mountains is debatable; nonetheless, there is park management to keep out woody invaders and retain the heath/grass nature of the bald.

The rhododendrons were alive with bumble bees doing their noisy ‘buzz pollination’. Hummingbirds are said to be fond of the flowers too.

Bombus impatiens-Rhododendron catawbiense-Craggy Gardens

And the bald was popular with hikers, kite-fliers and dog-walkers too. Ginny struck up a conversation with two of them.

Craggy Gardens-Heath Bald-Virginia Weiler

After a short walk to an overlook, we enjoyed one more long gaze around this beautiful place – and thanked our stars that we’d hit peak rhododendron bloom (for the record, this was June 14th, 2016) without even knowing that’s what everyone who visits Craggy Gardens hopes to enjoy. Lucky us!

Oh, and on a purple note, these are the colours that the internet attributes to the Catawba rhododendron: “lilac-purple to magenta”, “deep pinkish-purple”, “rosy-lilac”, “lavender-pink”, “pink-purple”, “violet-pink” and “purplish-pink”. Remember what I said about “purple” being a muddy minefield of a hue? Well, turns out that was a “bald” exaggeration. It’s just open to creative interpretation!