Sketching the Spring Garden

By Jane Rabinovitch, Fairfax Master Gardener
sketching plantsIn my previous article about winter sketching, I described drawing plants in my garden. Winter is a great time to draw since I’m inside more and my specimens don’t wilt. So, it is probably no surprise that spring is my hardest season to sketch! I am busy in my garden planting everything I ordered during winter, and there is a burst of flowering that comes all at once. This year, I decided to keep a monthly sketching journal. It’s an 8 x 8 inch (20 x 20cm) journal and each spread of pages features a different month. There is space for a limited number of sketches, with the goal to fill the page by month’s end.

Spring in Virginia is gorgeous. There are numerous plants native to this area that have special appeal, so my journal does not contain typical spring flowers like daffodils or tulips. Nothing against tulips, but I like to feature the beauty of our native plants that are so important to our native ecology. For each monthly spring page, I will highlight a tree, shrub, and perennial that I have drawn and describe them in more detail.

March Journal

March Journal: Red Maple, Spicebush, Virginia Bluebells

Tree: Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Red maple blooms with small red flowers in early March, providing an early nectar source for native bees. The trees are male or female, or a mix, with different branches having male or female flowers. The male flowers have long stamens covered in yellow pollen, which make them appear golden. The fruit (samaras) develop from the female flowers and flutter to the ground. Red maples are fast growing and tolerate a range of sun and soil conditions. They reach 60 to 100 feet (18 to 30 m) and have a lifespan of 80 to 100 years.

Shrub: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
If you walk our local woodlands in March, you will likely pass shrubs with small yellow flowers. These are spicebush, named for the fragrance emitted when the leaves or stems are crushed. Spicebush is dioecious, with separate male and female plants, but both male and female flowers have the bright yellow color. They host over 10 types of caterpillars, including Spicebush Swallowtail, and the red berries provide food for birds. Spicebush grows 6 to 12 feet (2 to 4 m) and prefers full sun to partial shade and moist soil.

Perennial: Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)
All of the perennials that I drew in March are ephemerals, meaning they emerge in spring before trees leaf out and then die back to their underground structures. Virginia bluebells are known for gorgeous displays at local parks. Watching the pink buds mature to blue trumpet-shaped flowers is a treat. They are predominantly pollinated by butterflies and long-tongued bees and grow best in part shade in humus-rich soil.

April journal

April Journal: Pawpaw, Black Chokeberry, Golden Ragwort

Tree: Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
Our garden has pawpaw trees but they are too young to flower. Luckily, we saw some beautiful blooms on a local April walk. The green buds are hard to spot but they transform into deep reddish-maroon flowers. These are pollinated by flies and beetles, and it’s believed the flower color mimics the carrion where these insects lay their eggs. Pawpaws bear the largest edible fruit native to the U.S. and are a small, 10 to 40 feet (3 to 12 m) understory tree. They are a larval host for the Zebra Swallowtail and Pawpaw Sphinx Moth.

Shrub: Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Black chokeberry is a lovely native shrub with dark green leaves and small white flowers in April, which turn into edible berries. We first purchased the plant for the berries for use in baking and jams. Birds eat them as last resort, which gives us a chance to harvest them first! Chokeberries support almost 30 species of caterpillars and the leaves turn beautiful shades in autumn. It grows as a 6-foot multi-stemmed shrub (1.8 m) and has a wide tolerance to different soils.

Perennial: Golden Ragwort (Packera aurea)
Golden ragwort is very adaptable, growing in sun to shade and dry to moist soils. In April, flower stalks emerge, reaching 2 feet tall (60 cm) and topped with yellow daisy-like flowers. They bloom for three to four weeks and the leaves remain year-round as ground cover. Some people find them weedy, but I find them so attractive that I am growing them in my tree lawn. They spread but are easy to pull, or you can clip the flower stalks before they seed. The nectar and pollen feed small bees and flies, and they host 18 species of caterpillars.

May journal

May Journal: Tulip Poplar, Virginia Sweetspire, Spiderwort

Tree: Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera)
Tulip poplar is in the magnolia family and is a tall, fast-growing tree native to eastern North America. It’s named for its showy flowers which bloom in May. These flowers span 2 to 3 inches ( 50 to 70 cm) with yellowish-green petals that have patches of bright orange. Each center has a cone-shaped cluster of pistils surrounded by stamens. They produce large amounts of nectar which attracts hummingbirds, flies, beetles and bees. It is a host plant for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail and the Spicebush Swallowtail.

Shrub: Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Virginia sweetspire is a graceful native shrub with arching branches and small, white flowers that bloom on long racemes. The flowers open from base to tip so they appear to bloom for a long time through May and June. It grows 3 to 8 feet (1 to 2.5 m) in full sun to part shade, and the fall foliage is shades of red to purple. Sweetspire has suckers which can be replanted around the garden.

Perennial: Virginia Spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana)
Virginia spiderwort flowers open in the morning and last just one day, but the vivid purple blooms are worth their short life. Each flower has three petals with purple stamens covered in sticky hairs and bright yellow anthers. The flowers do not produce nectar but the pollen attracts bumblebees, honey bees and flies. It grows 1 to 2 feet tall (30 to 60 cm) in full sun to light shade with long, narrow leaves up to 12 inches long (30 cm) and 1 inch (3 cm) wide.

100 Plants to Feed The Bees, Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, 2016
Wildflowers of the Year, Virginia Native Plant Society
Collections List of Native Plant Species for Virginia, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Native Caterpillars, Moths, Butterflies and Host Native Woodies, Wild Ones Journal