Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mountain Pilgrimage – Raven Cliff Falls

Each year the Georgia Botanical Society holds a 3-day Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage. The location of the event varies from year to year. Last year it was in the southern part of the state, in and around the Okefenokee Swamp. This year it was held in Dahlonega and waterfall trails were a popular field trip option. This post is about my trip to Raven Cliff Falls in White County.

Raven Cliff Falls
The trail to Raven Cliff Falls is long but well-traveled (and quite crowded on a weekend). This trail follows Dodd Creek through the Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area to 80 foot cliff formation about 2.5 miles from the parking area. The area is large and full of a wide variety of native vegetation as well as abundant birds so there is opportunity for birding as well.

Cordyceps-infected bug, frozen in time

Our first find was spotted by our trip leader –it was the corpse of a Cordyceps-infected bug. Cordyceps is a fungi whose spores invade insects and take over their brain, directing them to crawl to and then die in a spot where the fungus can have the best spread, in this case at the end of a branch.

As we proceeded along the trail we spotted fat magnolia petals on the ground. Looking up we spied a tall mountain magnolia (Magnolia fraseri), blooming far above (we used binoculars to see the blooms). 

Medeola virginiana

Alongside the trail we found a large colony of Indian cucumber root (Medeola virginiana). Small but elegant blooms were abundant among the colony; the plants are showier in the fall when plump purple berries are present.

Nearby, the creek alternately roared and gurgled while the path meandered through small feeder streams that we had to hop over.

Hexastylis shuttleworthii

Further down the path we found the large and showy flowers of Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) close enough to examine and photograph.

Rhododendrons grew nearby but it was too early to see their blooms. Moss-covered birch trunks (Betula lenta) and rocks, as well as abundant fern colonies, contributed a deeply lush feel to the forest.

Trillium vaseyi

Determined to reach the falls, we increased our pace, walking quickly past Catesby’s trillium (Trillium catesbaei), Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), Appalachian barren strawberry (Waldsteinia fragarioides), large Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and so much more.

We stopped briefly to admire Vasey’s trillium (Trillium vaseyi) but moved on with the expectation of seeing the species again at the falls.

With fewer people than we started with, we finally reached the falls. In order to see them, you must scramble over some large boulders so that you can peer into a split between two 80 foot cliffs. Next to the path, the rich red blooms of Vasey’s trillium and dainty foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) were nestled among poison ivy and blackberries.

After a brief rest and some pictures, we hit the trail for the 2.5 mile walk back to the parking area, anxious to make it back to Dahlonega in time for dinner and the evening program.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Roses and Raspberries

Winding down on the side of the road is a floral show of thorny branches with white flowers. One might tend to think that they are all blackberries and raspberries, but tucked here and there is an invasive impostor – the multiflora rose. As delicious as it may smell, this rose is no friend to our native roadsides, and learning to distinguish it from our native Rubus plants will help you be able to remove it.
Rubus occidentalis

The native Rubus genus contains a bountiful collection of edible berries: raspberries, blackberries, dewberries all have bright white flowers that turn into a fruit that is actually an aggregate of drupelets. These fruits are much loved by animals, birds, and humans alike. Raspberries and blackberries grow on stiff canes while dewberries ramble along the ground like a prickly vine.

You can distinguish raspberries from blackberries most easily when you pick the fruit. When you pick a ripe blackberry, the stem inside the fruit stays with the fruit. When you pick a raspberry, the stem stays with the plant, leaving a hollow center. You can see this on the fruits you buy in the store as well.

Blackberry fruit
The canes on blackberries and raspberries take two years to mature enough to flower and bear fruit. So if you whack them down each year on the wild edges of your property, you’ll just have thorny plants and none of the benefit.

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora)

Multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) is a non-native rose that was imported sometime in the 1700-1800’s as rootstock for ornamental roses. It was recommended as a “living fence” to control livestock, a crash barrier for highways, and as a cover plant for wildlife. It is adaptable to a wide variety of conditions, from roadsides to fields, forests, and some wetlands. It develops huge thorny branches that catch onto other plants, allow it to climb and then cascade back down.

Rubus occidentalis

The tight clusters of small white flowers on the rose as well as the compound leaves might allow you to mistake it for the native raspberries and blackberries.

At a distance, you might notice that the rose grows higher than the grounded native Rubus. The native Rubus has arching, stiff canes that are often 4-5 feet tall and wide while the rose is hanging down from where it has climbed over a nearby tree, shrub or fence.

Fringed stipules on Rosa multiflora

Once you get up close, the rose is more noticeably fragrant and the compound leaves have more leaflets (5 or more). Examine where the leaf joins the stems and you’ll find distinctive fringed stipules, a sure giveaway for Rosa multiflora. The thorns are fierce, especially when dead.

If you find that you have this invasive rose on your property, please get rid of it. The growth of this plant creates dense shade, outcompeting native vegetation and reducing plant diversity. Any stated or perceived benefit to having this plant can be easily satisfied by a number of native plants which would also contribute to the local plant community in other ways as well.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sosebee Cove Trail in Spring

Spring wildflowers are some of the most beautiful native flowers and several groups organize pilgrimages around viewing them. Georgia Botanical Society’s spring wildflower pilgrimage is this weekend, and you can be sure that I am happily tiptoeing through some beautiful sites even as some of you read this. As one of the field trip leaders this year, I made an exploratory trip up to Sosebee Cove in Union County two weeks ago so that I could speak knowledgeably about what we’ll find there.

Yellow mandarin (Prosartes lanuginosa)

Sosebee Cove is a 175-acre area in the Chattahoochee National Forest located between Vogel State Park and Wolfpen Gap on Hwy Georgia 180. There is a very easy trail that makes a figure 8 loop, allowing visitors and photographers to see some beautiful flowers up close. Although this is actually a second growth forest (it was last logged around 115 years ago in 1900), the state champion yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava) is found here as is one of the tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) co-champions.

Sosebee Cove is a high-elevation cove forest whose north-facing aspect allows it to remain moist and support a rich diversity of wildflowers. Wolf Creek runs through the trail area and if you make the full loop you will cross it three times, twice on wet rocks and once on a foot bridge. A boulderfield on both sides of the road nestles the flowing creek and the sound of running water compliments the calls of birds that pass through.

Trillium simile

As a result of the rich and moist soils, plants are abundant, crowding the trail almost as if clamoring for your attention. We visited there in the third week of March and found early flowers such as toadshade trillium (Trillium cuneatum) and springbeauty (Claytonia caroliniana). The emerging leaves of many other plants were a tease of the show yet to come. By the time we returned 4 weeks later, the Dutchman’s breeches (Dicentra cucullaria) were already finished but I think that was the only one we missed.

Pale colored flowers make up the bulk of the April flowers. Two white trillium species were blooming, the creamy white Trillium simile and the white-pink Trillium grandiflorum. Star chickweed (Stellaria pubera) and toothwort (Cardamine diphylla) decorated the ground level while white-pink spires of foam flower (Tiarella cordifolia) rose above.

Trillium grandiflorum, white phase
Trillium grandiflorum, pink phase

Rich stands of early meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum) stood shoulder to shoulder with the similar looking blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides). Blue cohosh’s tiny yellow flowers were being worked over by pollinators.
Blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)
Scattered throughout were the pale yellow flowers of mandarin (Prosartes lanuginosa), the still greenish bells of Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and the mostly tight buds of Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum). I was glad to have the ability to recognize them among the sea of vegetation and pointed out several plants to other visitors.

Umbrella-leaf (Diphylleia cymosa)

Moisture loving mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) were just beginning to open their single flowers while the similar (and related) umbrella-leaf (Diphylleia cymosa) plants were blooming along the creek’s edges. That is a very special plant to see. Also there were jacks in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and waterleaf (Hydrophyllum canadense) with tight flower buds.

Purple violets, yellow violets and buttercups (Ranunculus hispidus) provided shots of color here and there until suddenly we spotted the first showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) tucked close to the ground. This was my first experience with this colorful orchid and I photographed the heck out of it. What a treat to find it over and over as we continued along the trail.

Showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

Already we could see the foliage of summer blooming plants like turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) and plenty of others. It looks like it will be worth a trip back in late June.

Favorite Wildflower Walks of Georgia by Hugh and Carol Nourse
The Natural Communities of Georgia by Leslie Edwards, Jonathan Ambrose, and L. Katherine Kirkman

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Spring Roadside

I’ve posted blogs on summer and fall roadside flowers before and now I’m inspired to post a bit about the spring ones. Native roadside flowers are important sources of pollen and nectar for native bees and butterflies. As we transform land into sterile acres of carefully clipped turf grasses, insects are running short on supplies.

Erigeron philadelphicus
Wild and free roadsides are thick with tiny white flowers this week with punctuations of blue and yellow. The white flowers are fleabane (Erigeron spp.), small white aster-like flowers that range in color from bright white to pale pinks and purples. They do belong to the Asteraceae family and therefore have both disk (center) and ray (outer) flowers.

Erigeron philadelphicus

I believe the one flowering in my area now is Erigeron philadelphicus, which is considered a biennial or perennial. We also have an annual species, Erigeron annuus, but several differences distinguish them. First of all, E. annuus blooms later in the spring, and second, E. philadelphicus  has leaves which clasp the stem.

Last weekend I visited Union County and had a chance to see a species which has become very popular at native plant sales: Erigeron pulchellus, known as Robin’s plantain. This species is a true perennial and the soft white-to-lavender colored flowers are quite lovely. The patch that I stopped to photograph was quite popular with bees.

Erigeron pulchellus - how many bees can you count?
As I wandered the back roads around my house, it was also clear which flowers the bees favored. The small bees were always on the Erigeron while the larger bees worked the tubular blue flowers of lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata). Note: In the same area, non-native honeybees preferred the non-native ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) mixed in with the native flowers, and I don’t think that is a coincidence.

Salvia lyrata
The tall blue flowers of the sage are gorgeous in large swaths, and they have a nice long bloom period. Given how adaptable it is on roadsides, you’d think people would want it for their low maintenance areas. The shape of the foliage, as indicated by its name, is also attractive.

Dashes of yellow are also lighting up some roadsides. In some cases, it is the non-native buttercup that most of us remember from our childhood. Taller yellow flowers might be golden ragwort (Packera anonyma). Ragwort is in the Asteraceae family and has disk and ray flowers.

Packera anonyma

Support the bees!

I hope more roadside flowers can hang around. Every time that I get a chance to look at them closely, I realize just how important they are to local insects.

Plus, they are a lot more attractive than clipped turf grass!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Good Week in the Native Plant Garden

Flowers are busting out all over this week. The mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata) is at peak bloom this week and the hairy-stem spiderwort (that sounds scary, doesn’t it? Tradescantia hirsuticaulis) is finishing up an outrageous display.  But it takes more than flowers to have a good week in the native plant garden!

Spiderwort (Tradescantia hirsuticaulis) in a pot

It’s important that my plants are the gateway to something more. My plants need to feed their local ecosystem in as many ways possible. This week, my garden hit a home run. Let me explain.

Early in the week three baby wrens fledged from the nest near the garage. Their parents had built a nest in a basket that I had placed in a sheltered rack of shelves just for that purpose (thrift stores are great places to get baskets for $1).  Successful nests of baby birds are proof that my garden has the kind of insect activity that sustains life!

Baby birds were remarkably camera tolerant

One of the parents waits nearby

At some point during the week I noticed a good-sized caterpillar munching on one of the dwarf hawthorns (Crataegus) by the driveway. It was an unusual looking fellow with horns and a camouflage reminiscent of bird poop. With some help from a Facebook group, I was able to confirm that it was a red-spotted purple butterfly (one of the only ‘horned, bird-poop mimics,’ you see). Insects eating my plants – wow!

Caterpillar of red spotted purple butterfly on hawthorn

The next day I noticed that my plum (sold as Prunus americana but probably Prunus angustifolia actually) is sporting tiny fruits. This is a plant that feeds wildlife in 3 ways – flowers for bees, foliage for caterpillars, and fruit for birds (and me too). I am so happy to hit the trifecta on this plant finally (it had flowers last year but no fruit).

Developing fruit on Prunus angustifolia

Now for bonus points, on Thursday I was out taking pictures when I saw a splash of orange on the ground. It turned out to be a red admiral butterfly. What a great visitor and the first time I have seen one in my yard. Later I saw it in the backyard too but it is a quick moving butterfly and was gone after that. The host plants (nettles) for it are not in my yard as far as I know, but they must be nearby.

Double bonus points: I’m always happy to see new flowers. The pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) that I planted at the front of the house is blooming for the first time. I already have another plant about 20 feet away so I’m hoping to get a little cross pollination going on so that I can get some fruit on these beauties.

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

So there you have it – a spectacular week in the native plant garden. Hope yours was great too!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hello Yellow

The flush of spring foliage is so strong this week. Trees and shrubs are leafing out, lawns are greening up and leaves are bursting out of the ground as perennials wake up. It takes a bold color to outshine all that green and I think yellow is up to the challenge.

Chrysogonum virginianum
The nickel-sized blooms of green ‘n’ gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) opened up recently, at first only a few shy blooms. Once the plant has a large number of flowers, the brightness is hard to miss. I love this handsome groundcover and the leaves stay green year-round in my garden.

Coreopsis auriculata
Shortly after green ‘n’ gold starts, mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata) chimes in with its taller and larger yellow-orange flowers. There is no missing those blooms, whether it is one bloom or half a dozen of them. This species is also a bit of a groundcover and it does well for me right next to the sidewalk.

Packera aurea
If I walk around to the side yard, another screaming yellow display awaits me: golden ragwort (Packera aurea, formerly known as Senecio aureus). I started it with a few plugs from a friend and now it is ducking under the fence and spreading left and right. I still like it and happily dig up my extras to share. The 12-inch tall blooms are so cheerful.

Zizia aurea
Across the walk is a clump of golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea), a plant that I specifically bought as a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies. I consider the bright umbels of tiny yellow flowers to be a delightful bonus. I hope the butterflies will find it this year.

What welcome start to spring yellow is. It also pairs beautifully with everything.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Ladies Second

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are migrating back into the area and I saw the first one last week. Thanks to the Internet (i.e., migration details), I knew they were close so I had already put out my small nectar feeder about two weeks ago. My first clue that they were back was not by sight – they are so tiny – but the noticeable thrum-hum noise that they make when they pass you by. That got my attention and I started to look more closely.

Ruby-throated male hummingbird
The brightly colored males are the first to arrive. I’m not sure why the ladies lag behind, but it is true in both migration directions. After the males mate with the females, they will continue northward. In the fall, the males will be the first to head south again.

The males are very skittish when it comes to human observation. It takes much effort on my part to get a picture of one of them. The slightest movement sends them flying off. During the summer, the ladies stay so long that it seems they get comfortable and good pictures of them nectaring on flowers are possible.

A female ruby-throat on summer-flowering cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

If you like to support hummingbirds, having native plants is a good way to do it. Sugar water is not a perfect substitute for natural nectar although it helps to bring them closer to us for viewing. This article offers some detailed information on nectar calories.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is ready

In the spring I have 3 native plants blooming that are in the top ten native recommendations: coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is the first to bloom, followed by red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). I also saw him visit the newly opened Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) this week.

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Although I love seeing them at the nectar feeder, I’m always happiest to find them using the native plants. 

The coral honeysuckle has about 3 flushes a year and the spring one is always the fullest one. The display is amazing right now.

I hope you’re seeing hummingbirds too. These tiny birds seem like a mini miracle of life every time they come back from their winter homes.