The sometimes symbiotic life of gardeners and snakes

betsjukofsky@aol.comDecember 8, 2013 

Marion Gosson, Xeriscape Garden Tour Leader, planting Georgia Mint and 'Paper Whites' with students from Hilton Head Island School for The Creative Arts.



    It's exciting news that when American Gardener magazine ran a poll on the three most popular flowers of 2013, all are hardy in our Zone 9. They are: Lanai Candy Cane verbena, Zahara Cherry zinnia, and SunPatiens Compact Electric Orange impatiens. The Verbena Candy Cane with its masses of rose-colored stars on white ranked first.

Gardeners often find themselves living with nature in unexpected ways. Butterflies in January; bees buzzing around you as you cut back spent flowering native plants; copperhead snakes that slither up the side of your house.

Our yard has it all. Most times I pay the snakes no mind; they are harmless. One thick snake was adept at digging holes in the ground to go after destructive moles. You might say I cheered him on. Poisonous snakes are a different story, and the story begins in the Missouri Ozarks when Mother, Dad, my two brothers and I went through woodlands to reach a favorite picnic stop. To get there we had to cross over a narrow stream. Luckily, there was a small patch of earth midway. As the oldest sibling, I was told to "jump to the island." I did so, and my father again yelled "jump." When I looked back, I saw there was a water moccasin, or cottonmouth as we called them, where I had been standing.

Flash forward to 25 years spent in Bergen County, N.J. -- two houses and two yards, and the only snakes we saw were the teeny-tiny varieties often called garden snakes. But a week after we moved into our Hilton Head Island house, I ran barefoot out to the deck and there was a rattlesnake, coiled and making with the rattles. I screamed and my husband, Larry, ran. The snake left and was never to be seen again.

Maybe the copperheads scared him off.

One year, a pregnant copperhead gave birth to several worm-like babies outside our front door. Larry killed them with insect spray. He has a thing about copperheads, having been bitten on the ankle by one while attempting to place a ladder on the walk so as to clean the roof gutter. He was laid up for weeks.

As to why a copperhead would climb up the house, could he have been after the chimney swift bird babies nesting in the chimney?

Butterflies and bees in the garden last January were a first for me. Because of our record-breaking mild winter, the many butterfly weed plants that the monarchs love were still loaded with blooms; several native wild plants were hanging on to their flower heads. I did not cut them back until they displayed new growth.


What is a native plant? Likely it was present prior to European development. In this narrow definition, we may include plants of algae, mosses, ferns, grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees, butterfly weed, Joe Pye Weed, asters and evening primroses. Some say the word "native" has become a buzzword, such as "organic," good and wholesome. For many years, it meant they evolved on the site. With their present popularity, they are being propagated and sold to the homeowner who makes them a part of their garden for their beauty, attraction for wildlife, and little care as to water and feeding.

Needing care, feeding, some sun, almost no sun, is a plant with its own native history, and that would be the comeback Coleus, native to Java. Now here is a colorful foliage, season-long plant that was popular in the Victorian age in England and rediscovered in the 1980s. It is now one of our most popular bedding plants. Grow it in your garden or in a complementary container, it will give you color that can pop for months -- not to mention next spring, summer and fall when the plants you've grown from cuttings, rooted and potted, will be of a perfect size to set into the garden. If you've not yet had a freeze, you may still do this. Coleus roots in a few days, in fact. It so easily roots that if you pinch off the top of a plant and throw it in the garden, it will root in five or six days. If you have an Alternathera shrub or two in your garden, this colorful plant propagates just as easily. I love this plant for serving as a screen for something that needs to be hidden; it is the fastest-growing plant I've ever grown.

Sixty-year master gardener and environmentalist Betsy Jukofsky has spent three decades on Hilton Head Island learning the peculiarities of Coastal Lowcountry gardening.


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