A Striking Contrast

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

It’s hard to imagine a contrast that’s not striking. In fact, one definition of contrast  is, “One thing that is strikingly different from another.” I’ve been enjoying an example of this right in my backyard.

The elderberry bushes at the edge of the yard, although beautiful on their own, are enhanced by the dark backdrop of the forest edge. And though I’m content just to sit and enjoy the view from the porch, those dark shadows beneath the shrubs make the forest mysteriously inviting. Continue reading


What’s one of the best ways to improve your outdoor environment? Plant some shrubs! They provide variety, shape, form and balance—all elements of good landscape design. If you stick to annuals and perennials alone, you’ll be missing out, and so will your garden.

A recommendation I’ve read is to buy one shrub for every five perennials. The gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site suggest that Selma Steele followed this formula, then doubled it. Leaving aside identification, just taking an inventory of the number of different shrubs planted here would be quite an undertaking. Any volunteers?

shrub_deutziaIn full flower this week is another shrub that I was unfamiliar with, and I wanted to I.D. it before someone asked me about it. Fortunately my book had a good picture, so now Deutzia and I are on a first name (Genus) basis. We’ll have to get better acquainted before I know its species.

Forsythia, Flowering Quince, Lilac, Wisteria (pruned into a bush form), Mock Orange, Carolina Allspice, and now Deutzia—with Rose of Sharon and Hydrangea yet to follow. I’ve already lost count of all the bushes that have bloomed and it’s not even June. The site lacks only identifying tags to make it a botanical garden.

Why did Selma Steele include so many shrubs in her landscape? Was she inspired by one of the many Purdue publications she ordered to help her plan her gardens? Did her art background and training tell her that a shrub would make a great focal point? Perhaps she wanted to introduce fragrance into her garden. She may have appreciated the combination of native wildflowers and understory shrubs in the nearby woods. Likely all of these reasons played a part.

Shrubs are not for those wanting instant gratification. They are a long term investment, one that grows over time. Selma understood this. Always with an eye to the future, she planned it so that not only the shrubs, but her husband’s paintings, would be around for others to enjoy for many years (64 so far).

Buying a T.C. Steele landscape is out of the question for most of us, but there’s no question that our own landscapes would benefit from adding a few shrubs — it worked for Selma.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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Spicing Things Up

Carolina Allspice, or Sweetshrub, is one of our most asked-about plants at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. I can think of at least three reasons why people notice it.

carolina-alspice-close-up_loFirst, it’s an old-fashioned shrub (but not as familiar as forsythia or lilac), so its not too likely to be found at nurseries today. Next, the specimens along the edge of the patio are large, covered with dark glossy leaves. My shrub identification book lists a mature height of nine feet, and these are easily that tall. But the blossoms are probably the shrub’s most noticeable feature — at least in the spring.

Their shape and color are both out-of-the-ordinary. Maroon colored, spider-like flowers contrast with the more common pinks and lavenders of the season. It’s one of my favorites though, along with two other maroon-bloomers also seen in the spring.

Way down yonder in the Paw-paw patch, you can find more reddish-brown blooms, if you know where to look for them. Paw-paws bear their blossoms above eye level, so they’re easily missed. At the other extreme, Wild Ginger hides its blossoms barely above the ground — so low that its maroon flowers are pollinated by crawling insects. Three very dissimilar plants, all sharing the same striking color.

Carolina Allspice has a long bloom time. These had already been in flower for a few weeks when I took this photo. By summer, it becomes just another shrub constantly in need of trimming, or the stone walkways will disappear beneath it. But when I wield my clippers, I’ll be reminded of its better qualities, as the spicy aroma that gives Carolina Allspice its name fills the air.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.