Sunday, May 20, 2018

Big Lazer Creek WMA

The 2018 Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage hosted by the Georgia Botanical Society was a nice romp through the counties of Upson, Meriwether, and Talbot during the first week of May. The area is considered to be within the Southern Outer Piedmont area (45b) and our sites were largely on or near the Pine Mountain ridge (45h). The map picture below, sourced from The Natural Communities of Georgia book (my favorite resource for understanding the different communities in Georgia), illustrates the area where we were. My first field trip was to Big Lazer Creek WMA.

That shoals spiderlily is just a little out of reach

From The Natural Communities of Georgia
Wildlife Management Areas are state-owned, DNR-managed properties that are open for many recreational activities; for the 7,200-acre Big Lazer Creek WMA, these include:  hunting, fishing, geocaching, boating/canoeing, camping, hiking, and wildlife watching provided you have the proper licenses to enter (hunting, fishing, or lands pass) and follow any rules posted by season.

We started our hike near Potato Creek. As we waited for everyone to arrive, we explored the roadside, pointing out good native plants as well as pesky weeds. The sunny side of the road had a beautiful population of false indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa) that was just starting to bloom. The bees were loving it. Once inside the wooded portion, we found blooming partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and plenty of familiar plants that enjoy good moisture, like silverbell (Halesia sp.).  We were looking for something really special, however, and after about 30 minutes, we found it: Eastern fringed catchfly (Silene polypetala or Silene catesbaei). Although this species is propagated by several nurseries, it is rare in the wild because of habitat destruction and listed as G2/S2 endangered (both in the state and at the federal level).

Amorpha fruticosa, wild indigo bush
Silene catesbaei, fringed catchfly

The population we found was happily blooming in a sunny opening in the woodland canopy. Several of us left after that and traveled further into the WMA to a recommended viewing area for the shoals spiderlily (Hymenocallis coronaria) along the Flint River. We were advised that the lilies were not quite blooming yet but expected to see beautiful views of the river regardless.

Our first attempt to find the recommended area was incorrect, but we enjoyed the spot we found anyway and it had beautiful views of the shoals. We saw lots of beautiful and blooming mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), and partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). On our way back to the car, we found a blooming dutchman’s pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa) complete with last year’s seed pod and this year’s caterpillar!

Aristolochia tomentosa flower
Kalmia latifolia on the edges of the shoals

We left there and found the right path. Although the lilies were not yet blooming in mass, we found plenty of interesting plants to admire. I was excited to find, for the third time ever, a population of wild oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). This population is even closer to where Bartram originally found it in 1775. We found more of what we found at the earlier site plus reticulated clematis (Clematis reticulata), alumroot (Heuchera americana) growing on rocks, black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus), mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata), even blooming poison ivy!

Who needs a cultivar? Heuchera americana in the sun

Clematis reticulata

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Happy Mother’s Day To All The Mothers

Hallmark holiday or not, it doesn’t hurt to remind people to celebrate mothers at least one day a year. I’d like to also remind you to consider the non-human mothers. Their selfless acts of nurture mean we have baby birds year after year, more bees to pollinate our flowers, and more butterflies to delight our senses (and to feed those baby birds).

Monarch female depositing eggs on milkweed in 2017

Help those mothers out by letting them go about safely as they perform the business of raising the new generation of the rest of the critters in this world. Give them pesticide-free plants and safe places to raise their young.
  • That bee boring a hole in your wooden structure is a single mom making a nest for her eggs. Or she might be excavating a hole in the ground for the same reason. Don’t get mad, share a little smile in appreciation of her hard work (and the tomatoes she pollinated for you on her way to gathering pollen for her babies). 
  • That butterfly flitting from plant to plant is looking for a host plant on which to lay her eggs. Make sure you have some native plants in your yard for her to find. Need some inspiration? Listen to/watch this talk by Doug Tallamy
  • The bird that keeps trying to build a nest in your hanging planter or the one who stole all your moss for her nest – think a little more kindly of her efforts.
Mother bluebird making her nest
Bee gathering pollen and nectar for babies

These are some of the many mothers in our world, and each one has a maternal job to do. Their efforts help make this world be the one that we know and love. Best of luck, ladies, and we're here to support you!

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Mosquito Control And Its Effects on Wildlife

Home mosquito spraying is gaining popularity thanks to increased advertising by new, specialized businesses that promise to make your yard a ‘no-fly zone’ because ‘what good is your yard if you can’t enjoy it?’

Another mail insert showed up the other day, promising us the freedom to use our yard again. More than the incessant roar of gas-powered blowers, this subject makes me want to stand up and shout: “Stop thinking that humans are the only creature that matters!”

I grew up in the South. We had mosquitoes. We learned how to deal with them. Remember these tips?

  • Eliminate standing water: Cover, turn over, or remove any equipment, containers, or toys that might collect water.
  • Unclog gutters; they hold water when clogged.
  • Check for sagging tarps or other covers that collect water.
  • Check for standing water around outdoor faucets or air conditioning drains and correct.
  • Ensure that rain barrels don’t have openings.
  • Remove English Ivy (The dense nature of ivy allows it to hold in pooled water where mosquitoes can breed, provides a humid area that mosquitoes like, and protects mosquitoes from pesticide sprays.)
We also built screened porches to use, lit citronella candles, bought bug zappers, and applied bug spray. But that was only after we took care of the above issues to ensure they had fewer places to breed. This April 2018 article from Consumer Reports says that the CDC and the EPA still say those are the best and first approaches to try. The article also says “The use of automated spraying systems, which function like automatic water sprinklers, is growing. But the devices are not EPA-approved, and ... you’re better off skipping them.”

Red admiral butterfly
Why does one approach to dealing with mosquitoes matter over the other? There is growing evidence that these chemical sprays do more than kill mosquitoes. They kill other bugs: bees, butterflies, fireflies. As a result, they reduce food for all levels of the wild food chain – for example, birds eat a lot of bugs!

They harm humans that come into contact with them. And improper usage can lead to insecticide resistance. These are powerful reasons to reconsider what one family’s choice means for the rest of us.

Here are some of the articles available on the internet about the serious downsides of using mosquito control companies:

This story from 2016 covered the deaths of millions of bees after aerial spraying in South Carolina. While home spraying would not cover such a large area, it shows that the chemicals are toxic to other insects.

This article from 2015 illustrates how spraying can introduce chemicals into water and onto plants. It also talks about the chemicals used – permethrin, one of the common ones in mosquito misting systems, is toxic to bees.

And this article indicates that lab testing “specifically found that butterflies are being exposed to naled, permethrin, and dichlorvos - insecticides sprayed locally for mosquito control - far more than is acceptable, as it was already known that these chemicals were toxic to many species past a certain concentration.” Permethrin is the one advertised by most of these companies as the one they use.

What about humans? The companies say their products are safe for humans, but has there been enough research? This article in 2016 references a study that found a potential health link: “The authors report that kids living in zip codes where the spraying was done each summer had around a 25% higher risk of an autism diagnosis or developmental problem compared to kids living in areas without the aerial spraying.” Obviously, more studies need to be done but are more studies being done?

Don’t be fooled by assurances from the companies themselves. Remember these companies exist to make a profit, not to do what is right for the environment. All they want is for you to believe their promises and so that you’ll sign up for a regular spray program. Listen carefully to what they say:

  • They will tell you that their products are biodegradable and that their systems are EPA approved (but the Consumer Reports article says not all systems are approved). You’d be surprised at what the EPA approves and biodegradable does not mean that the chemicals are not toxic and won’t kill every bug that comes into contact with it (that is their goal after all).
  • They will tell you that their systems are safe for children and pets (notice the use of the word ‘system’ not chemical). Ask them if their products are safe for bees, butterflies, and fireflies. They don't know. No one speaks up for the invertebrates (the insects).
Dragonfly = mosquito eater 
For many years humans have assumed that businesses have done their research and are offering safe products. We found that was not always true, usually after some species suffered as a result of our negligence (remember DDT, or the more recent research on neonicotinoids?). These home spraying programs have all the hallmarks of profit-driven, consumer-scare tactics. “It’s YOUR yard – take it back!”

We’ve got to think about our neighbors and the hundreds of other species that depend on us not to poison their world. It’s up to us to make the right decision – for us and for the critters around us.

Need a good resource for dealing with mosquitoes at the community level? Check out this PDF from The Xerces Society.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Supporting Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are back in North Georgia, and I’ve got a regular visitor or two at the feeder (is it just me or do all those females look alike?). The feeder is just a part of my support strategy; it’s a little something to make up for all the plants that have been paved over by humans. Plants are the most important part of my support because there’s research out there that hummingbirds get more of what they need from plant nectar.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) on a roadside chainlink fence

Hummingbirds come back to Georgia from their winter homes in Central America. Long before humans came along with sugar water feeders, the birds relied on the blooms of native plants. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the plants open up about the time that the birds are returning. The first of my hummingbird plants to bloom is coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). It is native throughout Georgia and the southeastern US, perfectly in the path of returning migrants.

On coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia
Next to bloom is red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), a large part-shade shrub that is found in central Florida, south Georgia and up into the Piedmont. In the Piedmont, Georgia buckeye (A. sylvatica), also called painted buckeye, takes over, ensuring that the hummers have a statewide support of buckeye nectar.

Another family of early blooming shrubs includes the native azaleas (Rhododendron). Large, tubular flowers open in early April at my house on the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens). Several other species follow, finishing up in July/August with plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium).

By the end of April, the large blooms of crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) are opening. Whether it is high up in the trees (like at my house) or on a fence or arbor, the hummingbirds know how to find them. The coral honeysuckle is still blooming at this point, so vines can be real winners. In the perennial garden, Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is blooming.

Speaking of high up, the tulip-like flowers of tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) open in May. I usually only notice them once the spent blooms hit the ground. These trees can be very common around here, but they support a lot of wildlife!

Salvias and penstemons are my next wave of blooms, long enough to finish out the spring. Lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) is a perennial salvia blooming now. Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is an annual that starts later; it needs warm soil temps for the seeds to germinate. This is a good time to mention that hummingbirds don’t need red/pink flowers; they need flowers that have the right shape for them to access the nectar (usually a tubular flower). I have two penstemons, the purple Penstemon smallii blooms first, followed by the white Penstemon digitalis.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Also spanning the spring to summer threshold is wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). It will be joined in summer by two other species: scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). The butterflies and bees love these too, and it makes me happy to have one plant support so many critters.

The heat of summer is a thirsty time, and I keep an eye on the liquid level in the nectar feeder. Between the ants, the heat, and the thirst of the birds, I find it needs to be changed/refilled about every 3 ½ days. In the garden, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is my strongest summer flower for hummingbirds. I also have skullcap (Scutellaria sp.) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), and I have seen hummingbirds visit both of them.

Last year I had great luck attracting butterflies with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), especially the long-blooming cultivar ‘Jeana.’ I hope the hummingbirds got a chance to enjoy the flowers too.

Malvaviscus arboreus
Hummingbird on thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Summer is also the time that my turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus arboreus) sneaks past the hungry deer and gets a chance to bloom. And somewhere, high up in the trees, a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) blooms because I find the spent flowers on the ground.

If I had a shady wet spot, I’d try to cultivate the annual jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). I do grow turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in a few damp patches but I have not seen the hummingbirds visit those flowers (but the bumblebees love it). There are some sources that say they like it.

If you do have a liquid nectar feeder: be sure to keep it clean, cleaning it more often in warm weather; don’t use dyes to color the water, the color of the feeder will attract them; and use only refined white sugar when you make the nectar (it is the sweetener which is most like plant nectar of all the sweetener choices).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tallulah Gorge State Park

I have driven past Tallulah Gorge State Park many times on trips to the Great Smoky Mountains for family vacations and to the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in the summers. Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to be in the area so we decided to finally visit the park.

Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum)
I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of plants, but I had heard that there was an uncommon trillium here. We decided to visit the suspension bridge first so we headed to the North Rim Trail for overlook numbers 2 and 3 and the 310 steps that would lead to the bridge.

Along the way, we found lots of blooming lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), and I had numerous opportunities to photograph these beautiful flowers throughout the park.

Once we hit the stairs, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was the attraction. The buds were some of the pinkest I’ve ever seen and several flowers were open (which seemed early to me as they usually bloom the first week of May at my place).

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Gaywings (Polygaloides paucifolia)

In the sunny spots, serviceberry blooms were quite abundant. I believe this species is Amelanchier arborea. At the bridge we also saw blooming paw paw (Asimina triloba). We crossed the bridge (which moves gently with you) and found a new surprise – brightly colored gaywings (Polygaloides paucifolia, formerly Polygala paucifolia). It was so pretty that the phrase “This is too pretty to be native” crossed my mind – my apologies, little flower!

The suspension bridge (photo taken from when we were on the North Rim)

From there we took the additional 221 steps down to Hurricane Falls (yikes, that will be over 500 steps back up!). We passed a sign for a champion hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), but it was hard to tell if it was still doing well. At the observation deck at the bottom, silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) was in bloom and saxifrage (Saxifraga) was growing in the rock cracks.

Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

We successfully hiked back up and still had enough energy to backtrack along the North Rim Trail to Inspiration Point, passing the North Wallenda Tower along the way. Just past the interpretive center (which is very nice, by the way), we found a dry sunny area with huge clumps of blooming birdfoot violet (Viola pedata). Mountain laurel was blooming at the overlook there and we found a big common green darner dragonfly resting there.

Common green darner dragonfly
Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata)

Near the fallen Wallenda Tower, I found a very large population of the gaywings again. We continued on to Inspiration Point, passing huge populations of the low blueberry again. I imagined that in good years there would bears roaming through, feasting on the fruits.  The trail offered dizzying views of the gorge along the way, and I can’t say that the last overlook at Inspiration Point was any better but you were right on the edge!

Edna's Trillium (Trillium persistens)

In all of our hiking we did actually find Edna’s Trillium (Trillium persistens), but I won’t mention where. I was amazed that I found it without actually looking.

Finding it and the gaywings – both new to me - made the trip extra special. I think there would be plenty more to explore for a second trip to the park one day.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Milkweeds in Georgia

For several years now we’ve heard how monarch butterfly populations are plummeting (as measured in their winter locations). There may not be a single cause, but there has been a decline in milkweed populations in the US and milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the plant on which female monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Gardeners and communities have responded to their plight by planting more milkweed in their gardens and in places where wildflowers are allowed to grow (e.g., roadsides, interstate rest stops).

Roadside monarch butterfly on Asclepias tuberosa

Native plant sales had a hard time keeping up with the demand initially, but milkweed is generally available now at spring sales. Milkweeds are not the earliest plants to emerge in the spring, however, so it can still be a challenge for the early April sales to provide plants that people want to buy. Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell – which is not far from me – has particularly risen to the challenge and has propagated over 50,000 milkweed plants over the last four years. Director of Horticulture Henning von Schmeling (and the center’s very talented propagator) shared some details on what they’re growing.

CNC’s large-scale production currently is focused on Asclepias tuberosa (three varieties), Asclepias incarnata (2 subspecies), and a good amount of Asclepias amplexicaulis. Species they are growing for seed production or small-scale restoration include: Asclepias verticillata, variegata, exaltata, quadrifolia, hirtella, purpurascens, rubra, viridis, michauxii, obovata, viridiflora, longifolia, lanceolata, perennis, connivens, and humistrata. They hope to collect seeds this year from Asclepias cinera, tomentosa, and pedicillata if they can find viable Georgia populations.

Where have those 50,000 plants gone? Many were planted at the Nature Center itself or sold in their plant sales. Thousands of plants went to several seed production plots in the state. Many were used for projects or for sales through other groups: 2 large beautification projects along The Ray near LaGrange (Henning says the pollinator meadow installed at the visitor center coming into GA on 85 was gorgeous last fall; there were at least 12 species of butterflies there on one visit); Atlanta Botanical Garden; State Botanical Garden; a private restoration company; GADNR non-game, Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance; Georgia Native Plant Society; Monarchs Across Georgia; Captain Planet Foundation; Keep Cobb Beautiful; Easter Plantation; Chattahoochee River NRA; and The Nature Conservancy.

If your head is swimming with all those milkweed possibilities, a new publication is available for people to better understand which of the many species of milkweed are appropriate not just for Georgia but for your area of Georgia. The publication is called Monarch Butterflies & Georgia’s Gardens, and it is available on the State Botanical Garden’s website. The brochure was created with the knowledge and efforts of the best milkweed experts in Georgia, and it is now the premier source of information that anyone in Georgia should consider. Here is a summary of the species mentioned.

The fab four: these four milkweed species grow in nearly every region and can be used throughout the state: orange milkweed, commonly called butterfly weed: Asclepias tuberosa; white milkweed, or red-ring milkweed: Asclepias variegata; whorled milkweed: Asclepias verticillata; and clasping milkweed: Asclepias amplexicaulis.

Asclepias verticillata
Asclepias variegata

The terrific trio for North Georgia: an additional 3 milkweed species are good for North Georgia landscapes: swamp milkweed: Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra (which may be sold as Asclepias incarnata); mountain milkweed, also called poke milkweed: Asclepias exaltata; and four-leaf milkweed: Asclepias quadrifolia.

Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra
Asclepias quadrifolia

Monarch lays eggs on
Asclepias exaltata in my garden

The brochure also includes a list of native milkweed species by ecoregions, a list of rare/threatened/endangered milkweeds in Georgia, and it answers the question of whether using two milkweed species not found in Georgia is ok (spoiler alert: it’s not ok).

It provides a list of places to buy milkweed in Georgia as well. It’s really a very well-done effort to educate Georgians about milkweed and helping monarch butterflies.

The monarch butterfly is but one example of the special relationship between insects and native plants. I hope that those who are inspired to help monarch butterflies will be further inspired to help other butterflies as well by researching and planting their host plants.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Mushrooms of the Georgia Piedmont (the book)

If you thought we had a lot of native plants, wait until you hear how many mushrooms and fungi we have! I love to find new mushrooms as I explore the natural areas looking at flowers; they are always a fun surprise. However, I’m often puzzled as to which ones they might be, and I certainly am never confident enough to consider eating one. A new regional book is now available to help us all learn more: it is Mushrooms of the Georgia Piedmont & Southern Appalachians by Mary Woehrel and William Light.

The hardcover book is thick and quite detailed. The first sixty pages are devoted to a thorough, and often illustrated, introduction to a more than basic understanding of what mushrooms and fungi are, where they fit into scientific classification, some important information on toxins and poisonous mushrooms, a nice overview of medicinal properties, and tips on collecting and identifying mushrooms in the wild. 

This book is a solid reference for any level of enthusiast. Of course, it wouldn’t be a modern book without including as references some of the better online sources available.

Morel mushroom
Coral mushroom

The rest of the book encompasses almost 600 pages of species accounts, organized by group. As thick as this book is, the authors acknowledge that it doesn’t cover all of the several thousand species found in this area. The familiar ones are there: morels, puffballs, stinkhorns, and chanterelles to name a few. The ones new to me had exciting names: carbonaceous fungi, Earth tongues, hydnoids, and corticoids (cedar-apple rust is an example of a corticoid).

Cauliflower mushroom (looks like a brain!)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

The photos are good but the words far outweigh the pictures. Each species featured has descriptive information on the cap, flesh, gills, stipe, spore print, chemical staining, microscopic details, occurrence, edibility, and comments that can run half a page! I’ve seen plant reference books with less detail per species.

Amanita mushroom (bulbous base)
Russula mushroom (gills are important
identifiers on mushrooms)

I’ve used the book to identify fungi that I’ve seen before and to identify something new (witches butter and devil's urn).  It’s a lot to read at once, but I look forward to digesting a group at a time to better understand this incredible category of the natural world. If you’re in the Piedmont ecoregion, you might consider investing in this excellent reference book.

Devil's urn fungi grow adjacent to a fallen branch in my woods