Canada Milk Vetch

Astragalus canadensis.This native plant was welcomed the first full year (2017) – it attracted insects, suppressed weeds due to its prostrate growth habit, and produced prolific biomass. The second year, its sprawling growth overtook many companions and it crept into the paths, and its growth was not as dense.

It is a beautiful, functional plant, and its garden niche will continue to evolve.

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Thermopsis, seed pods

Thermopsis villosa, aka Blue Ridge Buckbean, Carolina lupine, Aaron’s rod, Bush pea, and other names, all for virtually the same charismatic plant.

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June 1, 2018.

Previous posts:

Mega thermopsis update

It’s that time of year. The thermopsis (Thermopsis villosa, aka Blue Ridge Buckbean, Carolina lupine, Aaron’s Rod) are nearing the end of their bloom, and (hopefully) the pods will follow.

This is a thermopsis summer! This has been their most prolific year. I mulched a few with compost, hoping it will encourage them to set many seeds.

Previously, I posted a photo of the thermopsis just as the raceme is emerging from the apical meristem.

In the beginning…

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May 17.
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May 17. The blooms are peeping out of the lowest buds, nearly ready to see the light of day. (I’m not sure why this photo and others are so washed out)
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May 20.
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May 21. What a difference a day makes. A heath or some other aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) has snuck into this photo (right).
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May 21.
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May 21. Three-year chestnut hybrid (Castanea dentata x) in the foreground, flowering sorrel (Rumex acetosa) in the back left.

The following photos were taken about five days later.

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May 27. It may be evident that the lower blooms are fading away, while the top-most buds have not yet bloomed.

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May flats

That is to say, flats that I started a while back, and how they look now, in May.



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Tomatoes. I’m trying a couple of different varieties: Abraham Lincoln, Eva Purple Ball, and Green Zebra Stripe. I’ve also started some German Johnsons, but I may not ever plant them. Sadly, I did not start any Cherokee Purples.


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Some I’m experimenting with. Clockwise from top left: natives not yet germinated; nasturtium + partridge pea; thermopsis/baptisia + amorpha + partridge pea; partridge pea; natives not yet germinated; baptisia/thermopsis; marigold + Jewels of Opar; Matchbox pepper (from seed I saved + Eritrean basil + Jewels of Opar. 

Legumes in flower

You will notice that the Astragalus canadensis (Canadian milkvetch) is conspicuously absent from this post on native legumes. Fear not, I am gearing up for a post all of their own, hopefully soon. Some did not make the winter, but most braved the brutal cold and lived to tell the tale. But that’s a story for another day.

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Thermopsis villosa. Blue Ridge buckbean, Carolina lupine, Aaron’s rod. Looking closely, the bud can be seen emerging from the tip of the stalk. This two-year old plant had at last ten budding stalks. Note the three-fingered leaf-hand to the left (and the smaller one to the right, alternate), extended as though to welcome the flower bud into the light of day.  May 8, 2018
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Amorpha fruticosa. False indigo bush. The leaves of this legume are less clover-like (or trifoliate), and more like the black locust (odd-pinnately compound). May 8, 2018
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Amorpha fruticosa. Flowers from the growing tip of the woody stalk. May 8, 2018.
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Just a few days later, Amorpha fruticosa in flower. Appreciated by some species of bumble bee. the pollen-bearing stamens, yellow, emerge from deep violet flowers, giving each inflorescence an iridescent sheen. May 11, 2018.

Amorpha fruticosa

April 22. Indigo bush. A native legume that grows taller every year. Note the last inch or so of the growing tip (apical meristem) died, and so a new growing tip has emerged. We have about 25 of this species growing in the garden, and all have exhibited the same response. I suspect it is due to the cold winter and the false spring in February.

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Note the Amorpha to the left, has not produced leaf buds yet. This may be a survival trait of the species – some emerge early from dormancy, and others emerge later, in case a final late frost hits.

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I will aim to post more photos of this amazing plant later. I’ve top-dressed with a compost to stimulate abundant seed production. We shall see.

Garden roll call

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, in flower. Photo taken April 3. Previous post – redbud in bud, around March 22.

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April 14. Goji berry (Lycium barbarum, Gou qi zi 枸杞). I’m experimenting to see how much fruit all of this new growth will produce. Also, I’ve heard anecdotally that the dried goji berries at the store are treated with a colorant to give them a redder hue. I will investigate this further.

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April 14. Jewels of opar (Talinum paniculatum). They survived the winter!!

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April 22. Heuchera spp. Enjoys the shade of the elderberry.

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April 22. A bit washed out due to the overcast sky, I suppose. A nice perennial polyculture, front, from left: figwort (Scrophularia marilandica), comfrey in flower (Symphytum spp.), back: Carolina lupine/Blue Ridge buck bean (Thermopsis villosa).

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Canadian milk vetch

Astragalus canadensis, a legume native to many counties in Western NC (including Rockingham County).

I was weeding, and pulled up a big clump of grass, which revealed the below-ground structure of the astragalus. I guess this could be called a stolon? Or maybe an underground runner? I’ve read that legumes do not respond well to division, but I’m tempted to clip off one of the “suckers” from the “stolon” to propagate the plant.


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Raising awareness with aplomb

Last night, I was invited to speak about our farm at one of the local Garden Clubs. In the South, a Garden Club is a proper noun. And, while they engage in service and support various causes, it is infrequent that they actually get their hands dirty in the art and science of gardening.

So, it was a breath of fresh air to have an audience that was so receptive to what I had to show and say.

While they took care of club business and socialized, they shared with me a piece of vanilla raspberry cake with a thick fondant and a cup of coffee, on matching china with a mauve border. I was afraid I would drop the coffee cup and it would shatter into a thousand pieces.

Then I presented.

After an update on the garden, I launched into my own PSA (public service announcement).

Perhaps you’ve heard of what the New York Times describes as an “insect armageddon.” This may seem like sensationalism, but hear me out. An entomological society in Germany has found that local populations of flying insects have declined by some 75% in the past three decades. Given that North America is more similar than not to German in terms of industrialization and resource use, it would seem that we have probably experienced similar declines. This can be anecdotally corroborated by observations that we make after hours of driving on the highways – these days, it seems there are hardly any bugs plastered on the windshields anymore. And I do seem to remember, as a kid in the backseat of the station wagon, seeing numerous bugs splattering wherever we went, as well as an insect-ridden front grill.

I wanted to come prepared when talking to this group of ladies, so I did a little more digging in the cyber ether, and found that, a couple of years ago, Yale University supported a study showing similar worldwide declines in the Lepidoptera order (butterflies and moths), and even sharper losses in other invertebrates. Crucially, the author makes a link between this somewhat abstract interpretation, and some concrete warnings that we’ve been hearing about for at least a decade or more – the falling populations of honeybees and monarch butterflies.

Fellow blogger, the entomologist Simon Leather, wrote an excellent post about all this when it was breaking news.

Back to the Garden Club – I let them know, in no uncertain terms, that I was not there to say “shame on us all,” just simply to bring this compelling trend to their attention, and to describe what I was doing to mitigate it. I concluded by showing them my work with native legumes (if you’ve gotten this far in this post, you are probably aware of my ongoing fascination with native legumes), and how these legumes support native insects and other fauna.

The meeting ended well. They were grateful, I was grateful, the meeting was adjourned, and we all departed, going our separate ways to our homes and families.

What is to become of the insects?

Scarlet Runner Bean

This bean has considerable potential for the market garden.

According to Suzanne Ashworth, author of “Seed to Seed,” Scarlet Runner Bean (Phaseolus coccineus) has numerous attributes that set it apart:

  • it originated in Central America. The dry bean, characterized as mealy, is part of the local cuisine in some places there;
  • widely used in England as a snap bean, and green shelly bean;
  • in colder climes, the tuberous roots can be dug up, stored in damp sand, and replanted in spring – this way, it will produce much more quickly than those planted by seed;
  • fairly easy to shell by hand;
  • they attract numerous pollinators.

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Saving the seed

Ashworth notes that bean seed is fairly easy to save. Frozen storage is essential, as bean weevils tend to lay their eggs in the pods. The eggs die off after three days at 0°. If they hatch, one could lose all of the seeds. Before freezing, ensure that the beans are entirely dry: take several beans, place on a hard surface. Hit each with a hammer. If they shatter (instead of being squashed), they are ready to freeze. When removing from frozen storage, do not open the airtight container in which they are stored, because they’ll take in too much moisture at once. Wait 12 hours.

My experience

These beans were taken in after several days of rain. They were swollen with water. I let them dry inside out of direct sunlight for a week. Most of them seem dry enough to store, but I’ll do the hammer test and sacrifice a few.


I’m looking forward to growing these next year. I’d like to see if I could train them up an elderberry (though I may have to prune them back considerably as the elder give off considerable shade). I could also experiment with the indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa); but this would be a true experiment, as I’ve never intercropped with two legumes.

For a while, I dreamed to developing a cold hardy perennial bean, by crossing P. coccineus with P. polystachios, thicket bean, which is a native perennial. This could still be an opportunity.

11122017 purple hyacinth

Edit: this post was originally titled “Purple Hyacinth Bean” – I continue to get those two names mixed up, though they are completely different genus and species, and the purple hyacinth bean is toxic. My apologies.