Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aster Love

Symphyotrichum cordifolium
Move over mums, when it comes to providing late-season support for bees and pollinators, it’s asters that master the season! Stores are pushing out containers of pinched mums that have flowers covering the surface of the plant. They’re gorgeous but notice that you don’t see any insects, especially on the double-flowered forms which are so prevalent. If only more native asters were propagated for fall gardens that could use them as true perennials.

I wrote about asters five years ago (has it been that long?), and I still have the ones that I wrote about then, plus I’ve added a few more. The asters native to my area are mostly leggy perennials so no one’s gonna pinch them into a compact ball. They do look fabulous mixed in with other fall perennials like clumping goldenrods and warm-season native grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Symphyotrichum puniceum
Native asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) also have another advantage over non-native Chrysanthemum. Native asters are host plants for 112 different species of butterflies and moths, making them the 2nd most used herbaceous host plant (number one is goldenrod (Solidago)). If you like to support butterflies and moths (or you like to feed the birds with caterpillars and seeds), add lots of asters.

Here are the asters blooming this week in my garden. The purple/blue asters include:  the large Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum), the smaller purple aster (S. patens), swamp aster (S. puniceum), heartleaf aster (S. cordifolium), Short’s aster (S. shortii), smooth blue aster (S. laeve), wavyleaf aster (S. undulatum), plus a hybrid of two natives, Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ my only one with a bushy habit.

When it comes to identifying asters, you have to employ all parts of the plant for clues - petal color alone won't do it. You also need to take note of the habit: different species can be found in wet places, dry sunny places, and part shade areas. I've also noticed that, among the species, there are those with bright yellow center (disk) flowers as well as many with tan disk flowers. The tan disk flowers usually turn a soft purple after a while. This coloring-changing disk flower characteristic is especially noticeable in the calico aster (S. lateriflorum) whose small flowers are clustered so close together.

Symphyotrichum cordifolium, tan centers
Symphyotrichum laeve, yellow centers

Symphyotrichum undulatum
Symphyotrichum shortii

The small white asters are heaven for the tiniest of bees and small skippers. They include: the delightfully bicolored calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), the rice button aster (S. dumosum), smooth oldfield aster (S. racemosum), hairy oldfield aster (S. pilosum), and the now-more-distantly related white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

Symphyotrichum pilosum, note the hairy stems,
has fewer blooms in part shade 

S. pilosum blooms heavily in sun on roadsides in October
If you don’t have any native asters in your garden, check out a fall native plant sale near you and pick up a species or two. Already have some - get some more! You can even branch out to the goldenasters if you’ve got enough blue and white ones.  When it comes to aster love, you just can’t have enough.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Vitamin N (the book)

Many of us could use more vitamins, especially Vitamin Nature. I recently heard about Richard Louv’s 2016 book entitled “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.” The title was intriguing and I wondered what practical advice he’d offer for people to get more nature into their life. You may recognize his name from the press about his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

From the beginning, I particularly like his statement of benefits to getting more nature: “The evidence indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits. Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

Now I think we can agree that sounds like a bunch of good benefits! If only we had some help figuring out creative ways to get that dose of Vitamin N. The author describes this book as a handbook offering ‘over five hundred practical actions’ that can help do just that. The actions included are for children, for adults, for people with different abilities, in both urban nature and wilderness environments, and composed of both organized activities and independent play.

An anole in my garden
The book is divided into chapters but I’ll admit that I have a hard time describing the logic of what goes into each chapter. However, it doesn’t really matter as you can just dive right in. Each section contains ideas and most of them are great; they resonate with me because they are things I’ve done or considered myself. I am especially fond of chapter 3: the nature-rich home and garden. I have always espoused the idea that you can have lots of nature at home if you plan for it.

Inside each chapter, there are subsections (like “Explore Nearby Nature”) and a related group of suggestions. You can really open the book to any section and find ideas. The ideas can be as simple as going on a backyard bug hunt or plant safari which includes learning about which plants are native and which are not (that one is in chapter 3). I really appreciate his emphasis on learning and using native plants throughout the book.

The unexpected combinations of nature are an everyday delight in the garden;
false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea) and small aster yesterday

As the book continues, the ideas get bigger. They’re about involving the community, teachers, libraries, even considering nature-smart careers. It’s a handbook that you can grow with as well as one that helps grow you and yours into people that see nature, appreciate it, and learn to cherish it. A nine-page bibliography gives you plenty of other books to explore.

This is a great, practical book for everyone who wants to be more active in nature and encourage it with their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or any child that you have the opportunity to coach. I’m definitely saving this one. We all could use more Vitamin N.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

If Not You, Then Who?

Our natural areas are shrinking. It’s not hard to spot new development all around us, sometimes repurposing previously developed areas but often tearing into undeveloped land. In my area, even ‘wild looking’ land may have been used for farming 100 years ago, but it has grown back with oaks, pines, native shrubs, wildflowers and grasses (along with a few non-native plants at the edges). It wasn’t perfect, but it was becoming all the critters had left.

Development creates residences and businesses that are swiftly replanted with non-native grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees. The designers might throw in a native oak or maple, but these designs provide very few ecosystem services compared to what they replaced. Not only the services in the plant material (pollen/nectar/fruit/seeds/leaves) but in other services like: nesting areas in dense vegetation; water purification in dense roots and free-flowing streams; a feast of bugs for birds, reptiles and other insects; even decaying wood, snags, and rotting leaves for the critters that depend on those things.

We have the opportunity to make a difference. We can learn that a sweep of knock-out roses in our yard is not a replacement for the diverse set of vegetation that the bulldozer removed to make room for our house. Knock-out roses don’t support nearly as many insects or birds as native plants. Neither does a crape myrtle. 

We instinctively know that the company selling mosquito spraying contracts only cares about our money not whether bees die too. Throw that advertisement away!

Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) is local to my area

We can take steps to learn what might have been growing in our area and what native vegetation might be suitable to add to our landscape. We can research where to get these plants, go obtain them, and plant them. We can do that.

Some of us might remember 1971. In that year, “The Lorax” was published by Dr. Seuss. It was a children’s book with a powerful message represented, I think, in this single quote:  "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." 

Southeastern blueberry bee
This bee is the southeastern blueberry bee. It only forages on blueberries when they are in bloom in March and April. It completes its whole life cycle around this one type of plant - not roses, not crape myrtles, not geraniums. Blueberries are native shrubs that are found in almost every native woodland around me; there are wild ones on my property. They belong here and the bees need them. My landscape needs them and they need to be in landscapes throughout my county.

We can’t wait for someone else to care and for someone else to make the change. Butterfly populations are shrinking, fireflies and bees are fewer in number, therefore birds find fewer and fewer bugs to feed their babies. 

If not you, if not me, then who? It’s time to care a whole awful lot … and spread the message.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Don’t Be A Stranger

This blog post was inspired by an article published recently about ‘tree blindness.’ It was a story about people living in a city with trees all around them but they didn’t know what kind of trees they all were. The author led occasional walks to help people put a name on these mystery trees. I feel that people have a similar blindness to the concept of ‘native’ plants and the plants that are growing all around them.

The biggest purpose of this blog is to help people learn more about the native plants of Georgia. It’s my hope that readers might be inspired not just to appreciate them but also to use them in their landscapes: their personal gardens, their school gardens, community and church gardens, and anywhere they might be deciding about plants to use.

We see plants all around us: the plants the builder (or previous owner) installed in our landscape, the plants in parking lots and in professionally landscapes, the plants for sale in the nursery, and the plants in natural areas like roadsides and parks. Some of these plants are indigenous (that is, they were here before European settlement) but many of them were imported by humans. Wouldn’t it be fun to know which are which? Indigenous plants are our neighbors, we should get to know them.

Like this goldenrod here. This is the common goldenrod (Solidago altissima) you see on the side of the road. If you don't know what it is, you might think 1) it's invasive, 2) it causes allergies, or 3) it's not native. While it is aggressive (point #1), it is a major source of pollen and nectar for native pollinators (including the beautiful Monarch butterfly). In addition, its pollen is so heavy that it doesn't get picked up by the wind and blown into your nose. Furthermore, it is a host plant for 115 different butterflies and moths. Letting it flower in vacant places and along roadsides is a wonderful way to support insects.

Liriodendron tulipifera
How can you learn which ones are the native ones? First of all, you need a powerful sense of curiosity. Plants don’t wear name tags but they are draped in lots of clues to their identity: they have leaves, flowers, overall habit, and location to start with. You can use this information to get started in books, online, and with dozens of identification apps that are being published (LeafSnap, iNaturalist, Georgia Wildflowers, as examples).

Once you get more experienced in being curious about plants, you’ll start to notice more clues like leaf arrangement, flower characteristics, fruits, bark, and even the insects that use them.

The tulip-shaped flower shown here is the flower of the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), a large tree that is native throughout Georgia. If you learned more about it, you'd find out that it 1) gets tall quickly, 2) supports bees in the spring, 3) is one of the host plants for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail which is a large yellow butterfly that is the state butterfly of Georgia.

You can join groups of people who are just as curious: Georgia Botanical Society, Georgia Native Plant Society, and online groups (if you’re on Facebook there are many of them). You might enroll in courses such as the popular Master Naturalist courses, and the Native Plant Certificate program at the State Botanical Garden.

I love being able to notice native plants and appreciate them for their sense of place. The beautiful deciduous magnolias have been a part of Cherokee County long before I got here. I can find them in natural woods and peeking out of roadsides throughout the county. I rescued them from development in one part of the county and brought them to my garden; I later found out from a neighbor that they grow naturally in his backyard. How’s that for sense of place!

Magnolia macrophylla, native all around me

Liatris pilosa and Solidago nemoralis
Sunny, natural areas are full of color this time of year as the goldenrods and asters burst into bloom. They’ve been blooming here for thousands of years. Having them in my garden is a way to honor the heritage of Georgia’s natural beauty. It also supports the complex local ecosystem that depends on their presence: insects and critters of unbelievable diversity – well, until you get to know them and then you are just amazed at what lives beside us every day.

Don’t be a stranger to what grows around us. Get to know Georgia’s native plants. I think you’ll be delighted with what you find.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Oh, The Butterflies I've Seen!

Question mark butterfly
I enjoy seeing butterflies in the garden; I think of them as one of the fruits of my labors, along the lines of “Build it and they will come.” I lamented about the lack of them in 2014, but the numbers have rebounded a bit since. I’m still not sure that they are what they were during my childhood, but I could chalk that up to overly idyllic memories of a more carefree time.

The other factor could be that I’m really paying attention these days and so it might seem like there are more. Unlike my summary of 2014, Gulf Fritillaries have been noticeably absent this year in my garden. Other people have remarked that they seemed late to migrate up to our area from their southern winter homes. They are around, even if they aren’t much in my garden; I’ve been collecting caterpillars from the roadside down the street and will have released several dozen by the end of the season.

The interesting news this year is that I’ve seen a few butterflies (and moths) that I haven’t seen before. I attribute these discoveries to 1) paying attention, 2) serendipity (being outside at the right time), and 3) using the right host plant. A fourth reason might be having more floral resources: for example, I think the bountiful April blooms of golden ragwort (Packera aurea) helped steer two Monarch females to my yard in April (where they laid eggs!).

Question Mark butterfly
The first new-to-my-place butterfly was spotted in the third week of March. Poised against the still brown leaves of an oak tree, I almost didn’t realize the butterfly was there. A quick flash of open wings revealed the colorful upper wings of the Question Mark butterfly. It is likely that this adult hibernated around here over the winter.

The second new one showed up in May: a Gray Hairstreak. Hairstreaks are small butterflies, and the Red-banded one is very common here. Last year I also found a Coral Hairstreak. I’m sure that there are other species out there but they are small, fast, and skittish.

Pipevine Swallowtail
Gray Hairstreak

By June I was seeing plenty of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, clearwing hawkmoths, Silver-spotted skippers, American Ladies, and even a Spicebush Swallowtail. In mid-June, I was delighted when a Pipevine Swallowtail came through but alas it was either not a female or it couldn’t find my pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa). Throughout the summer I would also see similar large dark butterflies like the Red-spotted purple and the dark form of the female Tiger Swallowtail.

July brought in the Common Buckeye and finally a few Gulf Fritillaries. I finally identified a dark ‘spread-wing’ skipper as a Horace’s Duskywing.  I have plenty of oaks for that species. Speaking of oaks, at the end of the moth, a cocoon that I’d found in the oak tree finally opened and a beautiful female Polyphemus moth emerged. You can read out our experience with her here.

August brought an abundance of Carolina Satyr butterflies and I was able to chase down a pair who was too busy mating to escape my camera. This is a small, dark-colored species that prefers to hang out in the forest understory until it’s time to lay eggs on grass relatives and I often startle them just by walking by wherever they were resting.

Carolina Satyr couple
Zebra longwing

Mid-August had an exciting surprise when a Zebra Longwing showed up in the backyard. This is considered a bit of an uncommon visitor here. I was hoping it was a female who would lay eggs on my passionvines, but I don’t know if that happened. The butterfly was gone the next day.

Silvery Checkerspot butterflies joined their smaller lookalikes the Pearl Crescents in the garden while the Tiger Swallowtails increased in numbers. The backyard, which has flowers that are protected from the deer, became the hotspot. At the end of August, two more new ones showed up: a Northern Pearly Eye and a Red Admiral. The Northern Pearly Eye was only around for a few minutes; it doesn’t usually nectar on flowers, choosing instead to get nourishment from dung, fungi, carrion, and sap.

I believe the appearance of the Red Admiral is thanks to the addition of its host plant. I ordered seeds for false nettle and scattered them around in a couple places. I never saw the caterpillars but I could tell that something was feeding on the plant. The adult that I saw was so fresh that I believe it might have grown up in my yard. Sometimes you just have to plan for butterflies!

In early September, one of my roadside Fritillary collections emerged as a Variegated Fritillary; I knew it would be because the chrysalis looks different. What a beautiful one! That same day I caught a glance of something different and snapped a couple of pictures of an American Snout before it took off. I knew this species must be around because there are some large hackberries (Celtis spp.) nearby.

Variegated Fritillary
American Snout


I’ll wrap up this year’s discoveries with two new caterpillars that I found on redbud (Cercis canadensis). August is a good time for caterpillar searching. This year I found a bunch of white flannel moths and several American dagger moth caterpillars, and just this week, I found an imperial moth caterpillar in the woods on sweetgum.

Imperial moth
Want more butterflies and moths? Here are a few of my earlier posts that may be of interest:

Gardening for Butterflies (review of book by The Xerces Society)
Native Plants for Butterfly and Pollinator Gardens (including downloadable plant list files for Spring, Summer, Fall)

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Praying for the Real Thing

Carolina mantis

Praying mantis is a pretty well-known insect; kids love ‘em, and they're always fun to see, right? That’s the way I used to feel until I learned that these insect predators aren’t all the same: we have both native and non-native species here in Georgia.

I was thrilled recently to find a native Carolina mantis in my yard after years of finding only the non-native ones.

Here are 3 quick identification tips to help you realize what you might find:

  • Carolina mantis is smaller overall (up to 2 inches) and has a black dot on each of the hind wings (so it looks like the back has two black dots since there are two wings). 
  • The wings on the Carolina mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) do not cover the abdomen; the wings on the non-native mantis (Tenodera sinensis) completely cover it and even extend beyond it a bit. 
  • The egg case of the Carolina mantis is oval shaped and adheres closely to a flat surface. The egg case of the non-native mantis is shaped like a pyramid and usually surrounds a small stem on a plant (3-dimensional).

Carolina mantis: short wings and wing spots visible
Carolina mantis egg case

Non-native mantis with long wings
Non-native mantis egg case
Photo: Wikipedia

The larger, non-native mantis grows to 4-6 inches and is the one that occasionally kills hummingbirds. It was introduced to the US in 1896. Now that I know how to recognize their egg masses, I cut them out and put them in the trash when I find them in my yard. Every year, I usually find one or two adults in the garden; I don’t always kill them but I do relocate them to another yard.

I found the Carolina mantis on the underside of a low-hanging oak branch. I took her down so I could take pictures and then put her on a branch of a black gum tree that had a few fall webworms. It’s been two weeks now and she is still there. I say hello on my way to the mailbox every day. After I placed her, I turned around and noticed a large non-native mantis on a small persimmon tree about 6 feet away. That one went for a long walk with me (crawling up and down the branch on which she was riding).

So now you know too. Do what you will with this information, but it's better to be informed than not.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Let’s Start a Garden Revolution

A new book came out last year by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher. It is titled: Garden Revolution: How our landscapes can be a source of environmental change. I didn’t buy it when it was new, although I don't remember why. At this summer’s Cullowhee conference, Larry Weaner spoke, and his message about working with natural processes really resonated with me so I got the book recently.

Two of Larry’s key points are that 1) nothing is static in nature and 2) traditional design and maintenance efforts are constantly working against this. We can enjoy our gardens more if we anticipate and embrace nature’s changes. Change introduces a sense of discovery through the element of time: a new composition of plant arrangement or perhaps even a new plant popping up.

I am always amazed to look at pictures of my garden from several years ago and realize how much has changed. Most of the changes are the work of nature’s hand as dominant plants were out-competed by something else over time. Larry’s principles take that kind of change into account. That’s not to say that the gardener can’t also take a hand in the change: there are times when you might edit something out such as tree seedlings or true weeds.

Front corner 2014, just planted, Penstemon smallii reigns

Front corner 2016, woody seedlings edited out, herbaceous
seedlings kept (except for weeds), Penstemon is minor player

The book is divided into 3 main sections  - The Learning Process, Design, In The Field - followed by lessons from his own property and a thick resource section. All of this is accompanied by beautiful photographs of actual projects influenced by his concept of ecological gardening.

The Learning Process section has a dual purpose. First we learn about some of the things that influenced his approach: writings, mentors, experiences, jobs, and even plants. Second is a primer on the terms and concepts (ecoregion, native, plant community) that are essential to the concept of ecological gardening. Armed with our new vocabulary, we’re ready to talk design.

However, design must start with a thorough site analysis so that when it comes time to choose what’s appropriate we can do so by understanding what we already have: the underlying geology (minerals that influence the soil), light, topography, hydrology, existing vegetation, and more. Next is creating a master plan; the authors have plenty of tips and guidance to consider. Finally, there is developing a plant list. Certainly, this is a lot of fun but you’ve still got work to do in your choosing. Points to consider include: using a dense ground layer to inhibit weed growth; choosing plants with multiple reproductive strategies (part of anticipating change); and a careful assessment of what to plant next to which other plants.

Implementation is covered in the “In The Field” section but it begins with the concept that this is just the start: “Decisions are made as the garden evolves, the vision adapted as the garden adapts. Some changes will be encouraged as they occur, others discouraged.” Prepare, plant, and manage are the in-depth topics covered here, each one with experience-based tips and guidance to steer the reader towards success. Three subsections are devoted to particular types of landscapes: meadows/prairies, shrublands, and woodlands.

Columbine pops up throughout the garden

The book is a pretty good read thanks to a generous sprinkling of relevant anecdotes that really illustrate the concepts. These are drawn from years of boots on the ground experience.

I think ecological gardening is a concept that can work for a lot of people, while also reducing the pressure that a garden needs to be tightly managed with labor and chemicals in order to be a garden. I’m glad that someone has put it into print.