The Natural World

In Fisher Park, a seed grows, a finch sings

By Ross Howell Jr.

Driving east on U.S. Route 421 near Liberty, I heard the North Carolina public radio announcement that my neighbor, Rob Brown, had just won the WFDD photo of the week.

I was on a sad trip. I was going to see Becky, my mother-in-law, who was in hospice care at her home in Lillington.

My wife, Mary Leigh, was already with her mom. Over the summer, we’d made many trips together — first to the facility where Becky received regularly-scheduled infusions; later, to a rehabilitation facility in Cary after she had broken a hip; and, more recently, to her bedside.

We were near the end.

Still, I smiled when I heard the radio announcement about Rob.

He lives across the street from us in Fisher Park with his wife, Lane. He’s a professional photographer. I’ve interviewed him for the pages of this magazine — a story in his own words about how the COVID pandemic had brought him back to doing the thing he’s loved since he was a kid: taking photos.

I knew quite a bit about Rob’s prize-winning picture.

It started with a sunflower seed a bird had sown in front of our house. I’d noticed the lone volunteer in the spring, sprouting about six inches from the edge of a flower bed.

If I had just taken the time to move the sprout from the edge farther into the bed, maybe I could’ve forestalled its demise.

But I didn’t. All I did was keep it well mulched.

The sunflower grew like Jack’s beanstalk.

On July 1, Mary Leigh took a snapshot of me with the volunteer. The sunflower stood higher than the gutters of the house, some 12 feet tall, with at least a dozen flower heads sprouting midway on the stalk all the way to the very top. Its broad-leafed foliage was profuse.

Neighbors emailed, thanking me for growing such a beautiful specimen. Passersby voiced their admiration. I protested that I had little, or nothing, to do with its success — that it was truly a self-made sunflower.

I thought about staking it because of its size and weight — but didn’t.

At least I thought to ask Rob to photograph the extraordinary plant when its bright yellow flowers opened.

Which he did, one hot morning while Mary Leigh and I were visiting Becky.

When we returned near dusk, twigs and leaves scattered on the street foretold what we would find. A thunderstorm had taken the sunflower down.

The leaves hadn’t yet wilted, so I hoisted up the stalk and tried to brace it with stakes. But to no avail. The roots were broken, so the stalk teetered and spun with the slightest breeze.

As the light faded, neighbors murmured encouragement and went inside. Warm light spilled from their windows into the dusk.

Near dark, I gave up, too.

We’re all under a death sentence, when you think about it. But it doesn’t pay to think about it too much.

When I was growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I often sought refuge in the natural world. There was conflict in my household, but outside, I found solace. Quietude. Beauty. Hope. And a myriad of interesting things.

The spring wildflowers I discovered in the woodlands were treasures. In school, I was careful to learn their names and characteristics. Likewise for bugs and spiders, and all number of slimy or slithering creatures.

It seemed to me that among the wildflowers and critters, death was a natural part of life. The large and constant pattern of their lives was indifferent to sorrow and death.

Early the next morning after the thunderstorm, I clipped a few of the wilted sunflowers. I arranged a place for them to dry out, planning to give seeds to the neighbors at Christmas and to plant some myself come spring — in the middle of a flower bed, so the roots could better anchor the stalks this time.

Then Rob’s photo arrived in my email inbox.


A goldfinch perched on a bower of gold singing to a blue sky. Indifferent to the coming storm. Captured by my neighbor’s skill, as a favor to me.

Just days later, Mary Leigh’s mom left us.

It was grim to watch her go, of course — to see how determined her body was to cling to the spirit that was leaving it.

But I’m sure Becky’s spirit found quietude and beauty. And her memory is our hope.

This spring, finches have returned and sunflowers will bloom — indifferent to destiny, indifferent even to their own beauty.

And that is the natural world.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributor to O.Henry magazine. Currently, he’s reading Margaret Renkl’s new book, The Comfort of Crows.



The Subtle Art of Leaf-Pinching

It can get a little embarrassing

By Ross Howell Jr.

The City of Greensboro’s recent policy change discontinuing the curbside pickup of leaves piled or in plastic bags has prompted quite a wide range of responses from homeowners — as new civic policies often do.

In my case, I’m concerned about a potential interruption of my supply chain.

So I did what any Greensboro resident would do. I consulted an economics professor.

My neighbor, Bob Wilson, has taught at Guilford College for decades. His wife, Mary Beth Boone, is a print artist. They’re both avid gardeners. In fact, Bob brought a house gift of blueberries from his garden when my wife, Mary Leigh, and I moved into the neighborhood years ago.

Situated on a corner lot in Fisher Park, Bob and Mary Beth’s house is surrounded by a lovely cottage garden. Filled with perennials, it’s colorful throughout the growing season, from creeping phlox in the early spring to the purple foliage of oakleaf hydrangeas in the fall.

Bob, Mary Beth and I share a little secret.

We pinch leaves from neighbors’ curbsides in the fall.

“Bob likes to call me the bag lady,” Mary Beth laughs. When she sees those clear plastic bags on the curb, stuffed with oh-so-tempting leaves, she’ll stop her vehicle on the spot and sling the bags into the trunk.

Mary Beth tells me about a recent encounter. She was stuffing bags into her car when a young woman happened along. She stopped and removed her ear buds.

“Excuse me,” the young woman said. “What are you doing?”

Mary Beth explained that she was loading up leaves to take to her house to spread on her plant beds.

“Oh, like composting,” the young woman said.

“Exactly,” Mary Beth replied.

“Cool,” the young woman said. She replaced her ear buds and nonchalantly went on her way.

Bob, Mary Beth and I share a smile.

I ask Mary Beth about her favorite leaves for mulching. She prefers white oak and maple.

My own preference is the slender, slippery willow oak leaves, though raking them can be like trying to rake water.

I just roll my trashcan down the sidewalk to somebody’s curb and start raking. I’m not as subtle as Mary Beth.

I expect some of my neighbors find this behavior eccentric, but excuse it because I’m a writer, and we’re supposed to be eccentric.

For some of us, leaves are the best type of organic mulch you can find.

“Problem is, most people don’t like the way they look.” says Bob. For homeowners with grass lawns, piled leaves can be unsightly. But I’ve found that if you mow over them weekly during leaf drop, they disappear like magic.

Of course, scattered over perennial beds, the leaves hide quickly on their own.

“Leaves are a great mulch for stopping weeds from coming up,” Bob continues. “And they’re the perfect fertilizer.”

He explains that as trees take nutrients out of the soil to grow, they transfer most of those nutrients into leaf production. When leaves fall, the nutrients are returned to the soil.

“So rather than trying to figure out if I’m buying the right fertilizer,” Bob adds, “I know I’m getting the perfect fertilizer.”

“It’s always made sense to me,” he concludes.

Just as the young woman with the ear buds commented to Mary Beth, it’s like composting.

Bob’s even written a book strongly influenced by his experience with gardening over the years. Developed from a course he taught, Greening the Economy describes essential characteristics of healthy natural ecosystems that can be applied to building and sustaining healthy economic systems worldwide. The text has even been translated into Mandarin.

All well and good, but Bob’s book doesn’t solve our dilemma. The curbside leaves that he, Mary Beth and I have pilfered for years apparently won’t be so conveniently available in the future.

And those clear plastic bags that made it so easy to identify the leaves will be relics of the past.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributor to O.Henry magazine. Not all leaves are suitable for mulch. For helpful tips, visit



Blowing Rock Hydrangeas

And their Greensboro roots

By Ross Howell Jr.

If you’re planning a fall foliage trip to the mountains, you might want to add an earlier excursion to your calendar.

By late August, the Hydrangea paniculata in Blowing Rock reach their peak. These white, cone-shaped beauties — along with their ball-shaped relatives (Hydrangea macrophylla) — are abundant in neighborhoods and gardens throughout town. (A fan of North Carolina native plants, I’ve landscaped our place with Hydrangea quercifolia.)

Greensboro textile magnate Moses Cone and his wife, Bertha, were serious conservationists who played a major role in this visual delight.

In 1900, the Cones began to plant a variety of native and non-native plants on the grounds of Flat Top Manor — their 3,400-acre estate overlooking the town of Blowing Rock.

According to the National Park Service, among the shrubs and trees the Cones planted were “PeeGee” hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata “Grandiflora”, or PG), imported from Japan — popular with American landscapers in the 19th century.

Some of the Cones’ original hydrangeas can be seen on the southern side of Bass Lake, one of the water features of the estate, now Moses H. Cone Memorial Park.

For the blossoms of these century-old shrubs, we can thank the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and volunteer Bob Stout — now chairman of BRPF.

Moving from Charlotte to the mountains after his retirement from a 40-year career in food service, Stout says, “I needed something to do.”

And do he did.

Working with the National Park Service as a volunteer under the direction of now-retired NPS interpreter ranger Chuck Robertson, Stout and other volunteers — like my Blowing Rock friend, Greensboro native Eric Miller — began to clear the Bass Lake hydrangeas of the wild shrubs and pines that had overgrown them.

The clearing process was followed by careful pruning of the hydrangeas and, later, soil improvement.

“I’ve personally counted some 460 of the original PeeGee hydrangeas,” Stout proudly adds.

But you can find hydrangeas all around the Blowing Rock area.

Susan Sweet has lived with her husband, David, in Greystone — a neighborhood outside Blowing Rock that overlooks the eastern continental divide — for the past 16 years. There are many hydrangeas in Greystone, but Sweet, a past president of the Blowing Rock Garden Club, insists she doesn’t know anything about growing them.

“I just sit back and enjoy the show,” Sweet says.

And she always takes note of a PeeGee in a neighbor’s yard.

“It’s always so full of blooms,” Sweet says. “Some are as big as a good-sized water pitcher!”

While she may claim ignorance about cultivating hydrangeas, Sweet knows plenty about preserving them.

For years, she harvested hydrangea blossoms for the Blowing Rock Women’s Club. Members collected hydrangeas late in the season to create dried arrangements, selling them at Blowing Rock’s “Art in the Park” events to raise money for local students’ college scholarships.

“You have to cut the blossoms at just the right time,” Sweet explains, “when they’ve turned pink, but haven’t started to turn brown.” She and fellow volunteers gathered hydrangeas in bunches of about five, hanging them upside down under shelter.

“You want stems at least two feet long,” she adds. “The blossoms dry out in about a week and hold their color beautifully.” The dried arrangements will last for an entire winter.

Sweet’s fellow women’s club member, my mountain neighbor, Jane Meyers, remembers another tradition, the “Hydrangea Ball” at the Blowing Rock Country Club. Meyers moved to town with her late husband, Mark, from Coral Gables, Florida, in the late ’80s.

Meyers tells me when she attended her first hydrangea ball in 1994, she and her husband realized that “these people really know how to party!”

Mandy Poplin, director of membership, marketing and communications at BRCC, says the hydrangea ball was always “the last big, formal party of the summer.”

BRCC member Valerie Purcell is a physician who lives in Blowing Rock’s historic Robert O. Colt III house with her husband, Peter, also a doctor. She tells me that the ball, a black-tie event, was “very, very successful for many years.”

Poplin adds that the party is now called the “President’s Ball.”

“We still incorporate hydrangeas into the ball decorations,” Poplin continues. “When those blooms start showing tinges of pink, we know winter’s coming.”

So don’t you miss the tradition of Blowing Rock’s hydrangeas this season. They never disappoint.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer to O.Henry magazine. Please send your garden or history ideas to



Remembrance of Things Past

Old-fashioned bleeding heart

By Ross Howell Jr.

A heart shape signifying romantic love was already a popular symbol on Valentine’s Day cards way back in 1846, when botanist Robert Fortune returned to England after a three-year-long expedition to the Far East.

As a youth, the Scotsman had apprenticed in local gardens, then taken a position with the Edinburgh Botanical Garden. He was serving as a superintendent with the Royal Horticultural Society garden in Chiswick when he was commissioned to search for plants in Asia.

During his trek, Fortune endured shipwreck, pirates and fever, entering China in disguise, since acquiring plant specimens for export to Europe was strictly forbidden.

Among the many plants that Fortune sent home to England were a beautiful tea rose called “Fortune’s double yellow,” a Chinese windmill palm (Trachycarpus fortunei) and a Japanese anemone, along with various tree-peonies, azaleas and chrysanthemums.

Fortune also sent a kumquat (Citrus japonica) and a flowering plant that would become a Valentine’s Day tradition.

Lamprocapnos spectabilis had long been cultivated in the gardens of northern China, Japan and Korea and was also found in the wild.

The bleeding heart.

Fortune had brought to England nature’s living manifestation of the romantic heart, arranged in delicate, pendant rows of red or pink. Later in the 19th century, the bleeding heart made its way into American gardens.

The first blooms I remember seeing grew by the Dutch door that opened from the kitchen to the garden in the mountain farmhouse where my mother was born. The foliage of those plants reached about to my chin, and each pendant heart was considerably larger than my thumb.

The lobed shape of the bleeding heart was so different from other flowers I’d discovered in the fields and woods. They didn’t seem real. Their deep red color was the shade of my mother’s lipstick.

Descendants of Fortune’s Asian plants — like the ones I’m recalling here — have come to be called “old-fashioned” bleeding heart.

Recently I inherited two when my wife, Mary Leigh, and I purchased a townhouse in Blowing Rock.

I noticed them sprouting on a steep, partially shaded bank the first spring we were there. They bloomed feebly. Their foliage faded by early June.

That summer I became friends with one of our neighbors. Turns out, we’re the same age. He’s a cigar-smoking, whiskey-drinking, pacemaker-wearing man with hands like bear paws, a successful entrepreneur, a gifted, self-taught artist, and a curmudgeon.

One day when I was on the bank pruning a rhododendron, my neighbor told me the bleeding hearts had been planted by his wife. She’d passed away suddenly the first night Mary Leigh and I spent at our place. We saw the EMT vehicle but knew no one in the neighborhood at the time and had no idea what had happened. They’d been married for 43 years.

That fall I scattered a little topsoil and layered the steep bank with leaves and hardwood mulch. The following spring, the bleeding hearts answered.

They produced thick foliage that cascaded down the bank with a profusion of pink hearts.

Sometimes from the kitchen window I’d see my neighbor stop to look at the plants when he was out walking his Pomeranian, a gift from his late wife.

A smile came to my face — watching that big, grumpy old man with the fluffy, little dog on a leash, gazing at the bleeding hearts on the bank.

I’m sure he was thinking about his wife. Just as I was thinking about my late mother.

Well done, Robert Fortune.

It’s good to remember those we love and those we’ve loved.

Happy Valentine’s Day!  OH

Ross Howell Jr. is a contributing writer to O.Henry. Interested in bleeding heart varieties, old-fashioned or native? Visit the University of Wisconsin-Madison Horticulture Extension www. and the North Carolina Native Plant Society,


Rhododendron Therapy

A cure for grumpy old men

By Ross Howell Jr.

This time of year in Blowing Rock, when visitors jam sidewalks, hiking trails and trout streams, a grumpy old regular like myself can start to nurse a grievance.

Midst the bustle, I resent the tourists’ mutts all sporting better haircuts than mine.

Then, like the Balm of Gilead, rhododendrons turn grievance to delight.

The rhododendrons paint neighborhood streets, parks, escarpments and hollows with purple, pink or orange hues. Listen, and you hear the drone of pollinators. Lean close, and you savor the delicate fragrance.

“I shall never forget so long as I live the day we discovered that plant,” John Fraser Jr. commented to the biographer of his father, John Sr., the Scottish botanist credited with finding and cataloging hundreds of North American native species.

In 1799 young Fraser accompanied his father on his sixth voyage across the Atlantic, another expedition in search of plants that could be taken back to England, propagated and sold through the family business.

“We had been for a long time traveling among the mountains,” Fraser said, in “a fog so dense that we could not see further than a yard before us.”

As the Frasers reached what was likely the peak of Big Bald Mountain, “the fog began to clear away, and the sun to shine out brightly,” Fraser continued. “The first object that attracted our eye … was a large quantity of Rhododendron catawbiense in full bloom.”

In natural areas the extent of the rhododendron thickets — sometimes called “hells,” a term that quickly feels apt if you’ve ever tried to make your way through one — can be surprising, especially given the dizzying slopes the thickets often cover.

Rhododendrons are especially effective at colonizing places that are — well, between a rock and a hard place. After a rockslide, for example, they will be among the first plants to take root in the rubble and debris.

Each year Grandfather Mountain hosts an event called “The Remarkable Rhododendron Ramble,” a celebration of summer, when guides lead guests on 20-minute hikes to observe the splendid array of blooms and learn about the history, characteristics and importance of rhododendrons in the mountain’s varied ecological domains.

This year the daily Rambles are scheduled for 2 p.m. from May 28 through June 4. The culminating event, according to Landis Taylor, assistant vice president of marketing and communications with the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, is an “All-Day Rhodo Ramble on June 5.”

Activities that day include 20-minute Rambles on the hour starting at noon through 3 p.m., along with kids’ crafts, information tables and “a special presentation given by a staff naturalist who specializes in botany,” Taylor adds. All these programs are included in the regular price of park admission.

Since there is nearly a 1,000-foot change in elevation from Grandfather Mountain’s base to its peak, visitors have a wide window of opportunity to see rhododendrons in bloom in different park locations.

Most plentiful on the mountain is the same one first noted by the Frasers more than 200 years ago, the -(R. catawbiense). Its deep purple blossoms appear from early to mid-June — depending upon the elevation — and can be found all along Grandfather Mountain’s trails and main road.

But there are other native species that can also be seen.

The pink-shell azalea (R. vaseyi) has a delicate pink blossom and can be found growing on the mountain in late April or early May, just before the Rhododendron Ramble. It can be seen at the Half Moon overlook, as well as at the Forrest Gump Curve picnic area.

Rosebay rhododendron (R. maximum) displays very light pink flowers and typically blooms in late June, though usually a few show blossoms during the Rhododendron Ramble. Linville Bluffs, across the park’s main road from the Wilson Center for Nature Discovery, is a prime spot to take them in.

But to my mind, the most spectacular of the rhododenrons is the flame azalea (R. calendulaceum), ranging in color from yellow to orange to peach or red. You can see it at Grandfather Mountain’s entrance gate and at Split Rock in late May through July.

See? I haven’t written a single disparaging word about doggy haircuts.

Rhododendron therapy works.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. lives in Greensboro but spends a fair amount of time in Blowing Rock. For more information, visit


Pick a Peck of

From heat to sweet, there’s something for every palate

By Ross Howell Jr.

Now that the azaleas are blooming, what better way for gardeners to dream of summer’s bounty than by thumbing through seed catalogs or browsing the internet?

I was searching for hot peppers. A friend told me she loved eating ghost pepper jam — though it made her sweat.

I hadn’t thought about eating one. I just liked the name.

You know the internet. Soon, I was reading how the ghost pepper was supplanted as the world’s hottest chili pepper by the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, which was supplanted by the Carolina Reaper, a pepper grown next door in the Palmetto State.

I can’t eat hot peppers. But I like growing them. However, I grew up eating peppers my mother harvested from her garden. Sweet, elegantly green bell peppers.

Turns out I found a kindred spirit.

Julie Hale is the community garden coordinator for Greensboro Parks and Recreation.

“I can’t eat the hot ones, either,” Hale says. “But I like growing them because they’re so beautiful.”

Last summer in Keeley Park Community Garden, she ran a program called One Hot Summer.

“The idea was that we’d teach hot pepper growing and eating,” Hale says. She spent weeks researching the 13 varieties she’d try in the garden demonstration bed. She also developed a field guide for the plants.

The guide includes color pictures, growing times to maturity, what to expect in terms of size and shape, and how hot peppers can be used in food.

“It was important to select varieties that weren’t too hot,” Hale says. “Some people just don’t like much heat or can have a bad reaction.”

In addition to seeing the demonstration bed, participants also could take free plants home to try in their gardens.

“The Jaloro Jalapeño is a variety we shared with folks who signed up for our program,” Hale says. She chose the Jaloro — developed at Texas A&M University — because of its mild flavor. Its yellow color is also unusual.

“Most people think jalapeños are only green in color,” she adds. Since the Jaloro is small, it could be grown in a container if people didn’t have garden space.

Best of all?

“It’s very productive,” Hale says. “We had lots of extra peppers we donated to the food bank.”

Another big producer is the Aji Dulce Spice Pepper, an heirloom originating in Venezuela.

“One of my favorites,” Hale adds. “The plants were covered with peppers all season.” She also recommends the Dulce’s small, thin-walled fruit that offers just a hint of heat. “Great to dry and grind for spice,” she concludes.

Another standout was the Czechoslovakian Black Hot Pepper, which is highly ornamental, with white-streaked, lavender flowers and purple-green leaves.

“With beautiful purple-black fruits, ripening to red,” Hale says, “it was the most commented-on variety in our demonstration.”

Another star pepper was the Mad Hatter, developed from a variety called Bishop’s Crown.

“Featuring spaceship-shaped fruit and minimal heat, this pepper also got a lot of comments,” Hale says. It was voted “very delicious” by official taste-testers at the garden.

Other hot peppers Hale grew were Sally’s Hot, Xochiteco Hot Pepper, Grenada Seasoning Spice Pepper, Carolina Cayenne, Aji Chinchi Amarillo, Baron Poblano, Jasmine Rissie, Hungarian Paprika Spice Pepper and Biquinho Yellow.

And for folks like me, who can’t abide spicy heat, Hale had the Ashe County Pimento. Cultivated in the Appalachian Mountains near Boone, it’s an heirloom sweet pepper with a flattened bell shape.

“Delicious when fully ripe,” she adds.

Hale grew most of the pepper varieties from seed. She recommends Southern Exposure Seed Exchange ( in Virginia and Johnny’s Selected Seeds ( in Maine.

Summer is a day nearer.  OH

Freelance writer Ross Howell Jr. asks that you put this Parks and Recreation program on your garden calendar: “Intro to Backyard Composting,” Thursday, May 12, 6–8 p.m., Keeley Park Community Garden. Call Julie Hale, 336.373.4549.