Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Visiting Oaks

We have so many native oaks in Georgia that folks don’t usually need to turn to others when choosing trees for their landscapes. Still sometimes people do, particularly if a landscape designer is involved and wants to use something unusual (although lately it seems like using a native better fits the goal of using something unusual as so many landscapes use the same non-native plants over and over).

Bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa)

I came across an unusual oak recently and, while it is native to the US, it is not native to Georgia. I was in the parking lot of a restaurant not too far from me and spied some large acorns on the ground. They had a noticeable fringe around the outer edge of the cap, so that really got my attention.

There are two oaks that have a fringed look:  bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) and sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima). Neither is native to Georgia, but bur oak can be found in Alabama, according to USDA. Sawtooth oak is native to eastern Asia and was brought to the US as an ornamental or as a wildlife food source.

Sawtooth oak (not native to US)

I have occasionally found sawtooth oak in parking lots, even just a few miles from this one. The leaves are noticeably different than what I was seeing here. They are long and slender with jagged teeth.

The bur oak has lobed leaves and a considerably larger acorn. The ones that I examined were almost square: equally wide as they were long. The biggest bur oak acorn was 2.5 inches by 2.5 inches (with the cap still on).

Quercus macrocarpa

I was excited to realize that I was actually seeing bur oak; I never expected to come across one of these in Georgia. It was surprising to see it being used as a landscape tree.

There were 4 trees in all and they were bearing a good crop of acorns even though it didn’t seem like they should be very old (that parking lot is about 15 years old). They ranged in size from 24-29 inches around (7.6-9.2 DBH) at 4.5 feet.

If you’d like to read some of my previous blogs about oaks that I have found in Georgia, here are links to them:

Sunday, September 27, 2015


The blue, purple and pink asters get all the attention in the fall. Tucked among the riot of yellow that is goldenrod (Solidago sp.), a group of yellow-flowered aster relatives wait to be discovered. They are the “goldenasters.”

In my area, there are 3 genera that share this common name: Chrysopsis, Pityopsis, and Heterotheca. Each genus has several species native to the state of Georgia, and these are the species of each that are found in my area (which is generally where the Piedmont ecoregion meets the Blue Ridge).

Maryland goldenaster (Chrysopsis mariana)
Maryland aster is a more common name for the first goldenaster known as Chrysopsis mariana. It is a stout perennial that thrives in dry conditions such as roadsides and meadows. The shortest of the 3 profiled here, it has a tidy, clumping form and dark green foliage with attractive 1-inch flowers.

Silk-grass goldenaster (Pityopsis graminifolia)
A slightly taller goldenaster is silk-grass (Pityopsis graminifolia) which is neither silk nor grass. Attractive silvery foliage is rather grass-like (graminifolia means leaves like grass) and looks good even without the flowers. In the fall, tall slender spikes topped with yellow flowers reach up to 2-3 feet tall. This plant also thrives in dry conditions and is reportedly aggressive in garden conditions with better soil and moisture.

Camphorweed goldenaster (Heterotheca camporum var.
Camphorweed (Heterotheca camporum var. glandulissimum) is the tallest of these goldenasters, reaching 3-4 feet with a statuesque, erect form.  I had not noticed this plant in my area before, but suddenly a large area of the roadside was covered with tall plants. The foliage of this species is a bit aromatic but not too unpleasant.

If you come across one of these lovely fall bloomers, now you know what they are. Goldenaster is a beautiful name for them as they light up their little corner of the world.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Be Curious

Learning requires curiosity. Discovery requires curiosity. Imagine the discoveries that would not have been made without someone being curious: “Hmm, this is different ….” Or better yet, imagine how much more we could discover if we were all curious?

Solidago porteri with modest flowers (in pot)
Recently I had a chance to participate in a discovery. About 6 years ago, a friend asked me about a goldenrod (Solidago sp.) that she’d had in her yard for about 12 years. It was just in a single location, near a couple of oak trees that the builder had left in place. Despite being an avid plant rescuer and having relocated lots of plants to her garden, she knew that this plant was original to the location.

The plant’s characteristics were not like any other goldenrods we’d found locally. We decided that we didn't have enough resources to figure it out then.

Four years later, she decided to move the plant to a sunnier spot and she potted up a division for me when she did it. I tried then to get some help identifying it, but I had no luck and existing plant keys still were not complete for the Solidago genus.

Then this spring, I bought a new book simply because it had a complete key for Solidago. The book is the Guide to the Vascular Plants of TennesseeWe’re only a couple hours south of Tennessee so I figured it might be useful. 

Solidago porteri foliage, mid-stem
When the plant bloomed again this fall, I pulled that book out and tried out the key. The plant keyed out to Solidago porteri, a species that has no county details in USDA although it was shown as native to Georgia (and Georgia only). I decided to get extra help and emailed photos of flowers and leaves to one of Georgia’s botanists in the Department of Natural Resources.

After some additional emails and a trip to my friend’s house to examine the plant with the botanist, the three of us were thrilled to realize that this appears to be a new population discovery in Cherokee County. Two previous populations documented in Georgia were in Jasper (1846) and Morgan (1979) counties; the plant has also been found in small populations in Alabama and Tennessee.

Solidago porteri flowers, more robust (original plant)
So, feel free to be curious about the things you find, in the wild and in your own property. You’ll learn more and you might just discover something that will help the rest of us learn more too.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Twining Peas

I had a confusing summer of twining, prostrate pea-family relatives that was partially of my own doing. I had planted some seeds, and I had not done a good job of labeling them. Then Mother Nature decided it was time to set me straight on some similar plants.

You see, when it comes to pea-family plants (Fabaceae is the family), I tend to be a “lumper.” In the past, if a plant had 3 leaflets, and especially if it also had pink flowers, then I’d say “it’s probably a Desmodium.” The tick trefoil genus Desmodium has lots of species, is rather commonly distributed, and frankly most people aren’t interested in going any further with identification than that. So it was always a handy answer, but I should have tried harder.

What I hope my Apios americana looks like one day
This year started out with seedlings and pots of transplants for which I had specific hopes. I had gathered seeds of groundnut (Apios americana), Atlantic pigeon-wings (Clitoria mariana), as well as a transplant of butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum). I was excited to introduce all of these plants to my yard.

Groundnut, in a properly labeled pot, sprouted with leaves with 3 leaflets and grew in that fashion until late August. By then I was sure that my pot had been mislabeled after all since groundnut has more than 3 leaflets per leaf. Finally, the plant produced a leaf with 5 leaflets. Hooray!

In spring, I transplanted what I hoped was a pot of pigeon-wings into a planter with other native perennials. It happily twined all summer and even hosted a couple of caterpillars. Yay! Bloom buds finally formed this week and it is not the pigeon-wings. It is hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), easily recognized thanks to a recent Facebook post by the Georgia Botanical Society. I have no idea where that came from! So I am 1-1 on plants that I tried to cultivate and the butterfly pea is nowhere in sight (or is it?).

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)

Meanwhile, pink flowers were showing up elsewhere in the garden, and I decided to identify a particularly robust, twining vine that was developing smooth, plump pea pods in the front bed. Turning to my plant identification key for Desmodium, I ran into a snag immediately. Nowhere did it say that the fruit should be a single pod. Tick trefoil fruit needed to be a segmented pod-like structure (where each segment can break off and stick to you).

Desmodium seeds are segmented
I put the puzzle aside, thinking vaguely it could be a Lespedeza (bush clover) instead. A week later, the Internet came to my rescue. Someone else posted a picture of the plant on Facebook, and it was identified as milkpea (Galactia). Using that information, I confirmed that my plant was indeed Eastern milkpea (Galactia regularis) – a plant I’d never even heard of.

Milkpea (Galactia regularis)

Lespedeza repens
When I came across the next sprawling pink flower, the Lespedeza possibility was still on my mind, so I decided to examine it a bit more closely. It turned out to be creeping bush clover after all (Lespedeza repens) with tiny but single seeds. So now I am 2-and-2 for the pea family, but I feel I am all the better for the experiences.

This summer has also made me take a closer look at what I know to be Desmodium plants and I believe I have a better idea about those too. First, of course, they need to have segmented fruit, and second, they really don’t twine very often.

So from now on when I find one of these mystery plants, I have a better answer: It’s in the Fabaceae family.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Quality wild roadsides are shrinking. They fall victim to a variety of forces: development, overzealous utility crews, and man’s desire to control nature for tidiness or conformity. In the absence of these forces, roadsides can be incredibly diverse collections of native plants that support pollinators of all kinds (not to mention the birds that eat them).

Desmodium paniculatum
Not far from my house is a wonderful roadside with a wet edge and a long run. I have enjoyed exploring the plants there for years. Unfortunately, it is under some power lines. 

Two years ago, contractors for the utility company came through the area, hacking and spraying in a grotesque spectacle of plant ignorance and disregard for life of any kind. 

Mangled branch ends and a seemingly endless line of dead vegetation replaced what would have been a late summer feast for the insects.

Last year, the non-native plants in the area grew back quickly. Japanese honeysuckle and non-native grasses seemed hardly affected by the poisonous punishment. I was afraid that their rapid growth would out-compete the efforts of the native plants to come back; by fall of last year, my fear had grown as few flowers showed up.

Apios americana
I am happy to report that the natives are back this year and looking fine! Some surely came from roots while many others likely sprouted from the seed bank. While I am sure that many passersby see this as a riotous tangle, anyone that knows plants can see the immense diversity here, and there were insects galore. 

Here is what is blooming there this week:

Vines: devil's darning needles (Clematis virginiana), ground-nut (Apios americana), hempvine (Mikania scandens)

Perennials: anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora), wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum), ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), panicled tick trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum), woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Annuals/Biennials: jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Clematis virginiana

Impatiens capensis

Mikania scandens

Verbesina alternifolia

Vernonia gigantea

As I turned to go, a flutter caught my eye and I stayed to watch a monarch butterfly cruise over the buffet of flowers. For the moment, all is right with this little piece of the world again.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Seeds: The Next Generation

The blooming season is in the last quarter now and plants are busy making or ripening their seeds. Some seeds, like those encased in the fleshy fruits of spring plants such as plums and cherries, are long gone, gobbled up by hungry critters. Other seeds take a long time to form. For example, acorns on oak trees in the red oak group are ready in the second fall after they were fertilized and witch hazel (Hamamelis) seeds are ripe when the flowers bloom the next year. Other plants, particularly annuals and perennials, are ripening and dropping seeds throughout the season.

Milkweed seed gets ready to fly

Now is a good time to keep an eye out for ripening seeds that you might have wanted to collect. I keep a list for myself so that I can remember what I wanted to gather. 

Seeds are a particularly fun topic to help kids learn more about the natural world. After all, seeds are the next plant generation just like kids are the next human generation.

I’m currently reading The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History by Thor Hanson. The author offers some fascinating information about these things which are, in essence, “baby plants in a box with their lunch.” Why are some seeds so big and others so small, don't they all need the same thing?

Impatiens capensis flower

With seeds on my mind, I noticed some particular seeds this week. I saw the summer blooming jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) which makes its seed pretty quickly and then disperses it at the slightest touch. 

In fact, it’s called “touch me not” because the seed capsule shatters when touched. It's a fun seed to share with kids.

Impatiens seed in pod
Impatiens pod after exploding

Silphium seeds are the dark spots

There are seeds that ripen but stay hidden until just the right birds come along to pry them out. Sunflowers (Helianthus) and rosinweeds (Silphium) are such plants.

The seeds are actually large enough for young hands to explore as you take a flower head, pull it apart a bit and point out where the seeds are hidden. The large plants are sturdy enough to hold the weight of the goldfinches that seek out the seeds.

Sanicula canadensis seed under microscope
Some plants have seeds with tiny hooks on them so that they attach to the fur of animals and the clothes of humans who pass by. This mechanism helps the seeds be dispersed over a greater area. You can use a magnifying glass to see them up close.

Other special considerations might affect how a seed is packaged. The overcup acorn (Quercus lyrata) has a larger than usual cap which acts as a floatation device. These oaks naturally live near river floodplains and poorly drained bottomlands so the ability to float is probably helpful. Maples and other trees have wings on their seeds to help them disperse. Milkweeds and dandelions have little bit of fluff attached. All these parts are not the seed itself but rather extra packaging.

Blueberry fruit with tiny seeds
Some seeds are meant to be eaten so that stomach acid and traveling by the organism that ate it provide two services: scarification and distance of dispersal (when the eater poops, of course). 

Blueberries are a fleshy fruit that contain many tiny seeds. The seeds are small enough that the eater doesn't mind eating them. Kids might be interested to know that, by eating seeds, they are doing just what the plant wants! The tasty fruit is the plant's reward to us.

Passiflora lutea seed under microscope

Still other seeds have intricate designs if you examine them up close. Surely there must be a purpose!

Next time you come across a seed, take a moment to appreciate and be curious about how and why it is what it is. And if you’ve got a young human nearby, take the opportunity to spark their curiosity too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Some For You and Some For Me

I like to think of myself as a “habitat gardener.”  I cultivate a garden to be a habitat for as much wildlife as possible. While I don’t pretend to support larger forms of wildlife (bear, deer, fox), I hope that insects, birds and assorted small creatures might find this area to be a place of shelter and nourishment. An important realization of being a habitat gardener is that things will eat your plants.

Cardinal flower - one plant eaten, others forming flowers

In fact, that is a key component of how I judge the success of my garden. In addition to the sounds of birds, frogs and insects, I look for visual clues:

-          A butterfly floating among the flowers, sipping nectar from their colorful blooms
-          A bee busily gathering nectar and pollen, pollen dusting her body or packed onto her legs
-          A caterpillar munching a leaf, growing long and fat on its way to becoming a butterfly or moth

That’s right, an insect eating my plant is a sign of success for me. Each one I find earns a little “Woo hoo!” from me. I know that we can’t have beautiful butterflies and moths without losing a little foliage along the way. When I’m growing plants, I consciously plant some for the insects and some for me.
Sometimes it's just one

Sometimes it's a lot

And it usually works out just fine. The insects eat some of what I grow – often not all the leaves on one plant and certainly they don’t eat all the plants. Frankly the deer are more of a challenge, but that’s another story.

Let’s not forget the birds – they are benefiting too and not necessarily in the way you might think. I do have some plants with berries, but that’s not what they want the most. They want the insects! By attracting insects, especially insects that eat foliage, I am also feeding the birds.

Wren with a caterpillar found on the Lobelia

"Grow caterpillars for us!"
There are a lot of birds that are insectivores and even those that aren’t insectivores will gather insects to feed their young chicks. 96% of birds feed insects to their babies, including hummingbirds (did you wonder what purpose mosquitos serve?).

Therefore, some of the caterpillars eating my leaves are destined to be food for someone else.

So the next time you’re planting, think of the insects (and the birds) and consider planting “some for you and some for me.” I guarantee you’ll enjoy the outcome a little bit more.