Monthly Archives: March 2010

Native Shrubs and the Carpenter Bee

Pinkshell Azalea and Carpenter Bee

While planting for design clients and organizing plant lists for the class I am teaching at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University I thought you would like to know about some of the great shrubs we have been working with. A well-sited flowering and fruiting shrub will often provide at least several, if not four, seasons of beauty; are long-lived (as compared to woody perennials); and provide sustenance and shelter for songbirds, butterflies, and bees. The following are several native favorites well worth considering when planting for people and for pollinators.

The accompanying photograph is of pinkshell azalea (Rhododendron vaseyi) and the much-maligned Eastern Carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica), taken in mid-May at the Arnold Arboretum where a stunning massed bank of R. vaseyi is planted alongside the Meadow Road. Carpenter bees are an important pollinator for many open-faced spring flowers such as the blossoms of fruiting trees—crabapple, apple, pear, peach, plum, and wild cherry—as well as holly and brambles. The damage done to wood is usually minimal and cosmetic. X. virginica has an especially bad reputation with blueberry growers because they have strong mouthparts (capable of boring into wood), which will easily tear flowers with a deep corolla—blueberries and azaleas, for example.

Xylocopa virginica

Class: Insecta

Order: Hymenoptera

Suborder: Apocrita

Superfamily: Apoidea

Family: Apidae

Subfamily: Xylocopinae

Genus: Xylocopa

Species: virginica

Carpenter bees are regularly mistaken for bumblebees. Their shiny black abdomen most easily distinguishes them, although in the photograph, this carpenter bee was covered in shimmering golden pollen, which could lend a similar appearance to that of a bumblebee. While photographing at the Arnold I observed dozens of carpenter bees and at least half a dozen other species of native pollinators nectaring at the blossoms of the pinkshell azaleas.

Pinkshell is a deciduous azalea discovered in 1878 by George Vasey, the botanist in charge of the United States National Herbarium. Named after Vasey by Harvard botanist Asa Gray, pinkshell is found growing naturally in only six counties in the mountains of western North Carolina. R. vaseyi was introduced into cultivation by the Arnold Arboretum in 1880 and is now widely grown. Although able to attain fifteen feet in height, the pinkshell azaleas at the Arboretum are pruned to approximately chest height. The blossoms of pinkshell are typically seashell pink, but can vary from white to reddish-purple. The upper lobes are usually spotted red, but pink, green, and brown spotted blossoms are also common variants. When grown in a sunny location, the leaves turn a striking reddish hue in fall. R. vaseyi is very easy to grow and is highly adaptable to a wide variety of conditions from mountain ravines, swamps, bogs, stream banks, and high elevation coniferous and oak forests. At the turn of the previous century, it was once found in the wild in Massachusetts, apparently having naturalized at an abandoned nursery near Halifax, and was growing in a swamp as well as in sandy soil. Native species azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) are a nectar source for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail butterfly and Ruby-throated Hummingbird and larval host plants for the Azalea Sphinx Moth (Darapsa choerilus).

Ilex glabra, or inkberry, is a fine-textured evergreen shrub, often confused with the less cold-hardy Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Inkberry is found growing naturally along the East and Gulf coasts, from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to Texas. The species form matures at approximately eight feet high and equally as wide, with an upright oval growth habit. The commonly available cultivars, with names such as ‘Compacta’ and ‘Densa,’ are generally more compact, less leggy, and less suckering than the species form. The compact cultivars and species are ideal for creating year-round screening to disguise a neighboring eyesore. With periodic shearing, the plants can be maintained to the desired density.

The Atlantic (or Holly) Azure butterfly caterpillar (Celestrina ‘idella’) feeds on the male flowers of Ilex, including inkberry and American Holly (I. opaca). The diminutive cream-colored flowers appear in June on male and female plants. When a male pollinator plant is growing nearby, by September green berries ripen to ink-black berries on the female plants, providing sustenance for many songbirds including the Mourning Dove, Northern Bobwhite, and Hermit Thrush. There is much misinformation regarding which cultivars bear fruit; adding to this confusion is the fact that plants are often mis-labeled. When selecting plants for a client, I make a point of looking for remaining fruit on the individual specimens to ensure that we are indeed purchasing a fruit-bearing plant. Inkberry grows in part shade to full sun and prefers moist acidic soil, but is highly adaptable to soil conditions. To avoid winterburn, in general, broadleaf evergreen shrubs should not be sited in a south-or west-facing exposure, although inkberry performs better than most in such adverse conditions.

As usual, I am running out of space and time. A quick note about the early spring blooming pollinator magnets, Fothergilla, both F. major and F. gardenii. The fothergillas are native to the Allegany Mountain region, primarily around Georgia, but also occur in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and Florida. Fothergilla major ‘Mount Airy’ is a deciduous rounded shrub, growing from 6 to 8 feet with scented, white bottle-brush flowers. Although the species name gardenii may lead you to believe it to be more fragrant than

F. major, it is not, rather F. gardenii is slightly less fragrant. The flowers are also a bit smaller and less showy. Fothergilla gardenii fits the bill when a similar, but smaller than, shrub to ‘Mt. Airy’ is required. As we were planting F. gardenii at Willowdale Estate several weeks ago, immediately a Spring Azure butterfly joined the scene and began nectaring at the blossoms. The summer foliage of ‘Mt. Airy’ is a lovely soft shade of blue-green, turning brilliant red and yellow during autumn—making it, too, a lovely multi-season plant.

End Notes: You may find the following link helpful in identifying beneficial pollinators: Visual Aid to Pollinator and Beneficial Insect Identification

Cape Ann Magazine

Eye Pillows Designed by Kim Smith for Haiti ProjectsHaiti Projects Hand-embroidered Eye Pillows for Sweet Dreams and Yoga Shavasana

Look for my story about Haiti Project’s founder and Gloucester’s own Sarah Hackett, appearing in the current spring issue of “Cape Ann Magazine!” Also featured—Gail McCarthy, prolific journalist extraordinaire, has written an informative and interesting feature article about the history and restoration of Gloucester City Hall, as well as a great story about the local brewing industry. You can find “Cape Ann Magazine” at Toad Hall Bookstore, The Bookstore of Gloucester, IGA in Rockport, and other markets.

Sarah Hackett Cape Ann Magazine

Spring has Sprung! from Boston Mamas

Thank you Jennifer for this truly generous, insightful, and thoughtful review of my book. Jennifer writes: “…What a gift, then, to read Kim Smith’s Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! Notes From A Gloucester Garden. Using her own small garden as a backdrop, Smith deftly guides her reader along every stage of cultivation — from quiet observation, through planning and planting, and finally among the blooms — sharing successes, failures, and surprises along the way. Bursting with information, yet much more than a how-to guide, Oh Garden reads like a meditation. Smith envelops the senses with lyrical prose and exquisite watercolor illustrations, infusing poetry and wisdom from across the ages to tap into the soul of the gardener — which insists that the garden’s beauty stems not from finished product, but from the cultivation itself…” To read Jennifer’s full review go to Boston Mamas.


Do you know about the wonderful blog Boston Mamas? I wish there had been a Boston Mamas blog when our children were young. Founded in 2006, Chrisitne Koh has a passion for people, communication, art, food, retail, web-surfing, and all things mama-related.

Your Garden as Habitat

Pam Thompson of the  Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University has invited me back to teach my class Your Garden as Habitat, on Tuesday evenings, beginning May 11th. More information is provided on their website at Your Garden as Habitat. I hope you can take my class–I love teaching it and have crammed as much information as is possible in this four week program, and still, there is always more ground to cover…the time goes by so quickly!

Female Hairstreak native New Jersey Tea Female hairstreak ovipositing an egg on native New Jersey tea plant florets

Haiti Projects on Daily Grommet

Good news for Haiti Projects–a video about founder Sarah Hackett is shown on the Daily Grommet. I can’t take credit for designing the beautiful nightgowns featured. They have long been a staple in HP product’s line and are a favorite item of mine to both wear and to give as gifts. Go to the Haiti Project’s web store to see the full range of embroidery patterns. The nightgowns are made of pure cotton batiste–lovely and cool, comfortable, and flowing–beautifully embroidered, and constructed with typical HP care–French seams and hand crocheted edging. The nightgowns are easy to care for, simply wash on the delicate or gentle cycle and hang to dry.

Save the dates: Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival

Save the dates of Friday, June 4th through Saturday, June 5th for the first ever Cape Cod Rhododendron Festival and Garden Tours, presented by the Heritage Museums and Thornton W. Burgess Society of Sandwich, MA. I will be there both days with my book Oh Garden of Fresh Possibilities! and speaking about habitat gardening at 11:00 on Friday. Much more information and updates to follow. This promises to be a beautiful event!

Rhododendron vaseyii and Carpenter bee photographed at the Arnold Arboretum, Boston