Friday, February 19, 2010

Groundcovers in February

We are under a nice blanket of snow again, here in Massachusetts, but for a distressing couple of weeks the ground was largely bare. I am firmly against having a naked ground in the winter; it makes the nights bleakly dark, and exposes the ground to deep, hard freezes, which is tough on the plants.

But I took the opportunity to peek in on my various ground covers,to see what is still looking pretty at such an ugly time of year for gardens.

The cinquefoil is still surprisingly green!

And so is the bearberry. This plant seems to be doing well with a partial cover of leaves on top, which I tossed over it in the hopes of protecting it from cold and deer, which ate it last spring. (They were so hungry at the time that they were demolishing everything.)

Once the bearberry is better established, I'll leave it uncovered in the winter so it can be appreciated when everything else is so dead-looking.

This past spring I transplanted a couple of its running branches to other areas in the yard. One went to a very dry, sunny area; the other went to a moist shady area choked with weeds. Both were thriving as of last autumn.

I really hope this plant survives the winter. It's box huckleberry, Gaylussacia brachycera, a rare native with a background that makes the plant geek in me squeal with glee. It is, quite possibly, the second oldest self-cloning plant in the world. The oldest colony is possibly as old as 13,000 years old.

Want to know what the oldest cloned plant is? That would be a single colony of something called King's Lomatia, or Lomatia tasmanica, which clocks in at an estimated mind-blowing 135,000 years old. To put that in perspective, King's lomatia is old enough to be compared to its own fossil record.

Alas, there is only one colony - a single replicated plant - of King's lomatia left, so it will never be able to have happy plant sex with another member of its species. Box huckleberry is also self-sterile, and individual colonies are so far apart that sexual reproduction rarely happens. This information makes me want to acquire some box huckleberry from a different colony, so this poor sex-starved plant can get it on.

Rumor has it that box huckleberry colonies can be up to a mile across; but at a spread rate of six inches a year, I don't have to worry about being the epicenter of a mile-wide colony during my lifetime. Slow growth aside, who wouldn't want this groundcover in their garden: in the middle of the winter, it's flaming red! It also produces edible, if reportedly tasteless, berries.

Oh look, it put up a new shoot already! You can see it, there in the front.

My two box huckleberries came from the Garden in the Woods, and were planted in the front garden this past summer. Box huckleberry is likely quite hard to find at nurseries. This is one that you would want to buy only from a reputable nursery, to be sure that it wasn't dug from the wild.

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