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Autumn: Oh, how sweet it is

When friends come to call in the spring they can't leave until I've walked them down the driveway to see the tall, tree-like native azalea "Florida Flame," flowering in all its golden glory.

Rhododendron austrinum begins its show with orange, reddish buds that open to bright golden flowers. This native is heat-, humidity-, and drought-tolerant, and it's intensely fragrant.

Standing in the driveway in September, visitors can't help but notice a 15-foot tree that's covered with star-like white flowers. Close inspection reveals that the plant is a vine that is growing over and around a gardenia tree. This "Sweet Autumn" clematis (C. terniflora) has escaped from a nearby trellis and in a year's time has grown to produce masses of creamy, white, fragrant flowers.

Is it invasive? You bet, and I'm loving it. Countless seedlings have been passed on to friends, but with this warning: "It's a vine that grows tall and can become rampant."

Beyond being decorative, vines in the yard can serve a practical purpose. They make great privacy screens and arbor covers. An unusual evergreen vine that could climb a shady arbor is the magnolia vine (Kadsura japonica). Climbing to 15 feet, it produces beautiful, small, lightly fragrant flowers spring to fall. If given a mate, female plants produce bright red berries. It grows in a well-behaved fashion -- it won't strangle nearby trees or shrubs.

Vines grow underground or from seed. Extremely invasive native vines of Virginia creeper and Dewberry can be used as ground cover, choking out weeds and remaining green and growing all year. Weeds you don't love in your garden grow from seed that is blown or dropped by birds or animals. Sun-filled yards will have varieties of weed not found in yards that are almost completely tree shaded. In my yard, a small sun-filled garden grows an ugly crop of spotted spurge -- bad weed -- alongside plants of purslane (Portulaca pilosa).

I dig out and discard the shallow-rooted spurge and cut and eat the more tender stems and leaves of purslane. Native to the Lowcountry, pink purslane is a low-growing succulent that attracts bees, butterflies and birds. I love the pink purslane hype about this raw, sweet and sour salad ingredient. It's been called pigweed and kiss-me-quick, the latter for its lipstick color as well as its fast-growing pace. The seeds spread fast too, giving pink purslane the nickname chisme, Spanish for "gossip."

True weed eaters don't limit purslane to salads; they steam, deep fry or pickle the raw tips. Purslane is rich in omega-3 fats, high in vitamins A and C and with traces of iron, calcium, potassium and phosphorus. Purslane is not seen until late summer, arriving when temperatures are at their hottest.

With winter's cooler temperatures comes the green mat and spreading growth of chickweed (Stellaria media) with star-shaped white flowers. I find chickweed growing in containers that are holding plants of fall-planted marigolds and calendulas. I cut the chickweeds' new growth to add to winter salads while wondering how much chefs at New York City restaurants are paying for a bunch that to me tastes much like fresh, raw corn.

To this A.A. Milne quote, "Weeds are flowers too, once you get to know them," I'd add, "They can be useful too."

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