Sunday, April 13, 2014

Okefenokee by Land

This is the first of 3 posts to describe the wonderful plants and environment that I found during the 2014 Georgia Botanical Society Spring Pilgrimage. Each year BotSoc chooses a botanically rich area to hold its 3-day pilgrimage. When I heard the 2014 trip would be to the Okefenokee Swamp, I knew I had to go!

Sisyrinchium angustifolium
The Georgia Botanical Society prides itself on its field trip program and justifiably so. They have personable and knowledgeable trip leaders for their trips throughout the year and the Pilgrimage trips are no exception. I knew that my first visit to the Swamp would benefit from having experienced leaders.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1937 by Executive Order. It is almost 402,000 acres; the Swamp itself is a little bigger, spanning 38 miles in length and up to 25 miles wide. It resides in 5 counties and two states. The swamp is approximately 7000 years old and is a peat-filled bog inside a saucer-shaped depression that was originally part of the ocean floor.

Longleaf pine and saw palmetto forest on Swamp Island Drive

It is one of the oldest and best preserved freshwater systems in America. Native Americans called it Okefenoka, meaning “quivering earth” or “Land of the Trembling Earth.”  The dark color of the water is from tannic acid which is a result of the decomposing plant material in the swamp. Rainfall accounts for most of the water in the swamp so the environment is significantly affected during droughts.

You would be surprised to know that the environment is so large that the swamp has its own islands and lakes within it. It also has “prairies,” which consist of their own unique types of vegetation. One might think that such a swampy area would be limited in the types of plants and wildlife it can support. That is not true.

There are well over 600 different species of plants found there, including many carnivorous plants like pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts and butterworts. The swamp is an important refuge for wildlife with over 200 species of birds identified there, 49 species of mammals, 64 reptiles, 37 amphibians and 39 species of fish. Birds were migrating through while we were there.

My first trip of the weekend was a Friday afternoon trip to Swamp Island Drive. Swamp Island Drive is accessed via the eastern entrance to the swamp, one of five entrances. Swamp Island Drive allows for scenic car travel with occasional stops to examine choice areas of flora (and yes we saw some fauna too).

Chaptalia tomentosa
Our first stop was a wet ditch. In a natural environment, relatively free from non-native invaders, a ditch can be a wonderful place to find interesting plants. This stop found us admiring blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), wooly sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa), grassy arrowhead (Sagittaria graminea), sunny spring helenium (Helenium vernale), and delicate bog white violets (Viola lanceolata).

Sagittaria graminea

Helenium vernale

After thoroughly examining these plants, we drove on to an area that bordered a saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) forest. Some of the trees were marked with white paint, a sign that the tree was home to a red-cockaded woodpecker nest.

Caterpillar on bloom of Asimina incana

This area contained more woody plants than the first stop, with blooming plants like dwarf blueberry (Vaccinium myrsinites), rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum), and the wooly paw paw (Asimina incana). All of these were in bloom, but it was the paw paw that attracted the most attention. Shrieks of delight went up when someone found a caterpillar hosting on it.

The grassy area next to the road was rich with flowers. We found colorful bog cheetos and candyroot (Polygala lutea and P. nana), bright deerbells (Crotalaria rotundifolia), and plants so tiny that you were stepping on them before you saw them: bladderworts (like Utricularia subulata),  spring bartonia (Bartonia verna), and sundews like Drosera capillaris.

Polygala nana
Crotalaria rotundifolia

Click on this for best view! Drosera capillaris

This little sundew appears to have snagged a small meal. The sundews were not the only carnivorous plants we saw. Who would have thought that plants with cute names like sundew and butterwort would be so sneaky? More on that in the next installment.

We continued on to areas that were more than just moist roadsides. Ditches and ponds full of water introduced us to real aquatic plants like water lilies, golden clubs, and inflated bladderworts. Next week I'll cover my trip in a canoe where we saw aquatic plants up close.

And yes, if you were wondering if we saw a gator even on our Swamp Island Drive, the answer is Yes.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What Is That Yellow Blooming Tree?

Driving along the highway offers opportunities to see some of our native blooming trees tucked into the woodland edges. The season starts early with the red maples (Acer rubrum) followed by redbuds (Cercis canadensis) peeking out from behind the pines, thickety plums and tall cherries (Prunus spp.), and the gracefully layered flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida).

Of course, we also see non-native opportunists like the ornamental pear (son of Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’), the upside down wisteria tree (Paulownia), chinaberry (Melia azedarach) and a few others. They love disturbed roadsides.

None of these trees has bright yellow blooms. Yet along the southern roadsides in the spring, there is a striking yellow flower to be noticed. Sometimes it is blooming at shrub height and sometimes it is blooming up to heights of 20 feet. It is one to catch your eye, even at 60 miles an hour.

What is this tree?

I drove along many a roadside this past weekend and saw this “tree” blooming everywhere. I knew it wasn’t a tree. I knew it was Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). But I wondered how many other travelers might whiz by and think it was a tree.

This evergreen vine has no clasping method so it must rely on its ability to drape itself over the branches of trees and shrubs, climbing a bit higher each time. This casual approach on the roadside creates a rather open and airy plant, allowing the vine to take on the shape of the plant it is climbing.

Wiry thin stems pause along each branch of the tree it climbs while other branches turn upward. That is why it looks like a tree. But it’s not a tree. It’s pure Carolina gold. Enjoy.

Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Nature Ramble

Early spring days are the sweetest when the sun is shining and the temperature is mild. Last Sunday was just such an occasion, and I had the opportunity to join a scheduled “nature ramble” through parts of the State Botanical Garden in Athens, GA. 

The trip was organized by the Georgia Botanical Society as one of their field trips, but the leaders of this trip ramble through SBG’s gardens on a regular basis (weekly it seems according to their blog).

Trillium decipiens
For this trip we started out in the Dunson Native Plant Garden along a lovely winding trail through a collection of ephemeral spring wildflowers. Although the wildflowers were planted by humans originally, they have moved and spread into new areas, creating pleasant drifts of color and texture. The garden has good signage although the squirrels have etched some embellishments on some of them.
Always exciting for me is to be able to see new plants. Trillium decipiens (known as the Chattahoochee trillium) is a sessile trillium with strong markings on the foliage. In areas where different species have mingled, it is noticeably different from Trillium cuneatum by way of a strong contrast on the leaves between the pale stripe on the center and the dark mottled sections.

Claytonia caroliniana

Next on the new list is the Carolina spring beauty (Claytonia caroliniana). I am more familiar with Claytonia virginica, Virginia spring beauty. While the blossoms are similar, the foliage is bolder on the Carolina species, and less grass-like. Neither species appears to be native to this county, but the plants appear very happy here.

We wound our way through the trail, enjoying the blooms of other trilliums, bloodroot and trout lilies. Soon we came upon toothwort (Cardamine), ragwort (Senecio) and liverwort (Hepatica). 

Dirca palustris
Among the leafy young buckeyes (Aesculus) we began to see a smallish shrub with bright green oval leaves and the remains of small yellow flowers. It was identified as leatherwood, Dirca palustris. The common name comes from the strong yet flexible property of its branches, used by Native Americans as a type of binding material.

Nearby were sweeps of Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), lovely with a mixture of blue and pink flowers. A small population of Trillium persistens brought a story of why some folks call it “Edna’s trillium.”

Sanguinaria canadensis

Throughout the area, the crisp white petals of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) offered a delightful juxtaposition of fresh new growth against the dry, drab leaves of winter.

We continued to ramble through the different trails of the garden, identifying weeds and flowers alike as we went. Every plant had a story or its own tale to tell. Our trip through the Endangered Plant Garden found a huge stand of Alabama snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis) beginning to bloom. The delicate blooms and the endangered status seem at odds with the reports from people that have this in their garden. When it’s happy, you can be sure you’ll have plenty of this colonizing shrub to share.

Neviusia alabamensis

We moved on to the Heritage Garden where tall blooming paw paw trees (Asimina triloba) were admired for their unusual blooms. We were told that flies pollinate these flowers which smell like rotting meat, but our noses were apparently not attuned to that frequency. I could not detect any malodorous scent.

Asimina triloba

The garden was filled with old-fashioned (and non-native) ornamentals as well as a variety of fruit trees. A mason bee box was included to help support the bees that are so effective in the pollination of fruit trees.

We plunged back into the woods to complete our walk. Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), violets (Viola spp.) and Geranium maculatum were naturally scattered along the trail. As we paused, someone spotted a small orange butterfly. One of our leaders identified it as a Harvester butterfly (Feniseca tarquinius), a species that is right at home in this stream-lined deciduous woods. The caterpillars of this species are carnivorous, eating woolly aphids, scale insects and treehoppers. The adults feed on aphid honeydew, not flower nectar. What an amazing discovery on our ramble!

At the end of the day, the ramble was a delightful low-key way to reconnect with the natural world. From being outside, to admiring plants, to learning about new insects and creatures ... I can't imagine a better time.