Sunday, September 16, 2018

Giants in the Garden

Late summer can be a time for bold floral statements, with tall perennials towering over the remains of those that have finished. It’s almost like the garden keeps building on itself, with late summer flowers being the tallest of all. If you’d like to add a little more height to your garden, consider some of these native giants.

Rudbeckia laciniata rises above the fence
In my garden, cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) has had a very good year, reaching heights and flowering stem counts that I’ve haven’t seen before. We must have had good rain right when it needed it. It can reach 8-9 feet tall in ideal conditions, which for this plant is moist and mostly sunny.  Bees and butterflies appreciate the flowerheads which are composed of tiny disk flowers in the center and bright yellow ray flowers at the edges.

A couple of other moisture-lovers are ironweed (Vernonia spp.) and hollow Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum).  Both of these are often found near me in low, wet ditches where they are covered with pollinators. Some of the ditches are so deep that if it wasn’t for their height, I wonder if we'd even notice these two? It is a joy to see them stretching above the other plants, the jewel-like purple of ironweed catching your attention at any speed while the soft, billowy blooms of the Joe Pye weed are almost too airy to notice above 40 mph.

Eutrochium fistulosum
Vernonia gigantea lives up to its name

Some of our perennial sunflowers can be quite big. Blooming now is Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) and I drive every year past a wonderful garden full of it at an old house. People still live there and the patch is well-tended, with the plants easily reaching 8 feet tall. Perhaps they harvest a few tubers for pickling. Next month will bring the tall bright blooms of swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). By the time that the 10-foot stems are blooming, they usually could use a little help with staking (especially if we get a summer thunderstorm). Count on people asking you about your plant if neighbors can see it.

A large stand of Helianthus angustifolius at a nature center

Similar to the sunflowers are the rosinweeds (Silphium spp.). They’ve already finished blooming now, but species like cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) and kidney-leaf rosinweed (S. compositum) can easily reach 8 feet with numerous yellow flowerheads. Kidney-leaf is my favorite because of its handsome foliage.

Cirsium altissimum
Blooming now in my yard is an oft-overlooked group of biennial plants – the native thistles (Cirsium sp.). I have come to love these prickly giants as I watch bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds take delight in their flowerheads. I know the goldfinches are probably equally happy with the seedheads afterwards. Two years ago I had one so tall that I could stand on the deck and take pictures of butterflies on it from above.

Silverplume grass (Saccharum alopecuroides) can be spotted on the side of the road now. The flowering spikes can reach up to 10 feet tall and a small group of them is a very pleasing sight. The wide, strappy blades can be a very attractive and bold statement as well. It likes lean, well-drained soil – you know, like a roadside!

Silverplume towers above the field (Saccharum alopecuroides)

Another good native grass is Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) which might only reach 7 feet. It would pair nicely with big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), no shrimp itself at 8 feet. I love how the Mimsie Lanier Center for Native Plant Studies at the State Botanical Garden of Georgia grows some of these native grass from seed for their Connect to Protect Native Plant Sale in the fall.

So, if you're looking for some plants with late-season oomph, look for some of these.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Georgia Grows Native for Birds

Our Georgia birds definitely need the services that Georgia native plants provide. Some people think that if we provide berry-producing plants (native or not) that birds will be fine. Not all birds eat berries, and, for those that do, not all berries are equal when it comes to nutrition.

Having a landscape full of native plants supports all birds much more effectively, and I was pleased to hear last year that the National Audubon Society is now putting emphasis on educating people about why native plants matter to birds. Locally, Atlanta Audubon’s awareness efforts on the topic have been wonderful, and recently they spearheaded an effort to have September declared as ‘Georgia Grows Native for Birds Month.’

I have written about how much native plants support birds before; here are a few of those blogs (click on the links to read them):

The Insect Diet: Natural Bird Food

If you're interested in supporting birds in your landscape, look into why and how our native plants are really in their best interest.

And if you're near Atlanta, check out the events that Atlanta Audubon has planned for this month, including their upcoming garden tour of homes that use native plants in the landscape.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Caterpillar Tales 2

A couple of years ago I wrote about finding caterpillars this time of year. I decided to make another dedicated effort this year and found some amazing things. When I read the post from 2016, I found it interesting that I didn’t find any one of those caterpillars – this year’s finds were completely new!

The caterpillars above are all stinging caterpillars. On the left is the white flannel moth, found on redbud (Cercis canadensis). In the center is the puss caterpillar (Southern flannel moth), found on boxelder (Acer negundo). On the right is Nason's slug moth, found on persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).

The caterpillars above: white furcula on the left on black cherry (Prunus serotina), red-washed prominent on redbud (Cercis canadensis) in the center, and the rose hooktip on viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium). The prominent and the hooktip are wonderful 'deadleaf edge' mimics, often nestled close to the edge they are eating to fool predators.

The caterpillars above: on the left is the red-humped caterpillar on sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tuliptree moth in the center on tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), and on the right is the question mark butterfly caterpillar on winged elm (Ulmus alata) - the last one being one that I've wanted to find for a long time and it was on a seedling elm that I have in a pot.

Finding caterpillars is a fun and challenging summer activity. Anybody can find plenty of those black and orange-striped oakworms (they seem to be everywhere for a 2 week period, don’t they?) as well those fall webworms mucking up the trees with their protective webs. You might wonder how does one go about finding these other caterpillars? Here are the tips that I’ve picked up from my own experience and what I’ve heard from others.

Look for damage – caterpillars chew leaves, so look for signs of them being eaten. They might be eaten from the edge inward, or straight across the tip or you might just see a bunch of petioles with no leaves.

Look for poop – on the ground, on other leaves, it could be big or small but that’s your clue that someone’s been there (and might still be).

Look underneath – most caterpillars feed from the underside of the leaf; it’s where they feel safe. If it’s a tree, stand under the tree and look up. If the plant is lower, carefully raise up branches or flip individual leaves to look for them. Watch out for stinging caterpillars! I am careful to not directly touch the leaf if I can help it.

Leaf damage
Caterpillar poop

One consideration is timing. Sometimes caterpillars move away from the eaten leaves to take a break or at night, so check the stems and branches while you’re looking. Some caterpillars eat at night so they might be curled up in a leaf or resting elsewhere. If they’re rolled up in a leaf, be considerate about exposing them to predators.

The best plants to check for caterpillars are native plants, of course, and woody plants in particular: oaks, sweetgum, persimmon, elm, maple, boxelder, cherry, hawthorn, sassafras, birch. I highly recommend the book I reviewed in this blog to help you identify them; always take note of the plant on which you found them (take a picture of the leaf if you don't know it). The Caterpillar Identification Facebook group is also very helpful.

One blog is not enough to show you all the ones I've found, but these were the most interesting and they are mostly moths (there are 11,000+ moths in North America compared to 800+ butterflies so you will mostly find moths). However, lest you think that caterpillars are taking over, let me assure you that I usually only find one or two of any species at once.

Two other blogs from this summer include pictures of interesting caterpillars I've found: this one on Virginia Creeper and this one about hiking the trails at Elachee in Gainesville. Now, go forth and search!

Sunday, August 26, 2018

Hiking Trails at Elachee Nature Center

Elephantopus tomentosus was one of the few flowers
This nature destination in Gainesville has been on my list of things to do for years and recently I used an available Sunday to give it a look. With 12 miles of hiking trails amid 1400+ acres, you won’t be surprised to learn that my slow pace only covered part of this north Georgia treasure on that day.

From their website:  "Elachee is a regional environmental education center and recreation destination to unplug, reconnect with nature and learn. For nearly four decades, Elachee and its devoted community partners have worked tirelessly to build a sustainable legacy for future generations to enjoy."

I started from the parking lot at the Aquatic Studies Center (2100 Calvary Church Road, Gainesville, GA 30504), hiking on the Eastlake Trail, turning onto Dunlap Trail and then crossing over the suspension bridge to the southbound part of the Westlake Trail for the return to the Aquatic Studies Center. I crossed five creeks in the process and passed through thick woodlands, packed with Piedmont plants that included an incredible array of plant species.

The number of woody plant species that I saw on my hike was phenomenal and almost every corner brought something new: maples (Acer sp.), multiple oak species (Quercus sp.), hickories (Carya sp.), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), ash (Fraxinus sp.), beech (Fagus grandifolia), and pine (Pinus sp.) were the canopy, at times providing thick cover and dense shade. Other areas were more open, sometimes due to recent storms, and large debris was on the ground, fungi blooming in their decaying carcasses. With all the recent rain, it was a great day for finding mushrooms. These six pictures are only a portion of what I photographed:

The understory layer of small trees and shrubs varied based on whether I was walking through moist low places or drier ridges. Some of the many things I saw were at least 3 species of blueberry (Vaccinium sp.), musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana), hawthorn (Crataegus sp.), horsesugar (Symplocos tinctoria), azalea (Rhododendron sp.), a huge grove of snowbell (Styrax grandifolius), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), dwarf pawpaw (Asimina parviflora), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), hobblebush (Leucothoe sp.), hazelnut (Corylus americana), alder (Alnus sp.) and so much more. I just kept thinking: “That too?!”

While the trails were well-marked, I carried a paper copy of the map with me so that I could anticipate the turn towards the suspension bridge. Another distraction along the way was an attempt to spot caterpillars. The many young sweetgums that sprout along the trail are perfect places to find some of our large moths and I was thrilled to spot one with a regal moth caterpillar.

Regal moth on sweetgum

Tiger swallowtail on ash

As I crossed the bridge, I spotted another caterpillar high up in the canopy of an ash tree next to the bridge. Resting on a silken hammock, it was the caterpillar of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail. This was my first time seeing this caterpillar in the wild and I must admit that I squealed a bit. After a few pictures, I hurried on my way because raindrops showed up and I was only halfway through my hike.

A carpet of ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum)

As I approached Chicopee Lake at the end, the herbaceous layer was especially rich, with several kinds of ferns and thick carpets of ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum syn. Lycopodium digitatum). I even found a small population of groundpine (Lycopodium dendroideum perhaps and it probably has a new name too). This seems to be a good area for bird watching. The last part of the trail crossed over the dam by the lake, a hot and sunny stretch of meadow-like growth full of blooming plants like thoroughwort and partridge pea. Down at the water’s edge, I could see huge stands of Joe pye weed (Eutrochium sp.). Butterflies swirled around the area. At the parking lot, blooming plants included downy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) and ironweed (Vernonia sp.) and there was good butterfly watching there too.

Joe pye weed at lake's edge
Partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)

Viceroy on Helianthus mollis
According to their website, they have recorded “38 species of upper story trees, 18 species of mid-story trees, 44 species of shrubs, 25 species of vines and 197 herbaceous plants” and the preserve is “one of Georgia’s largest, protected green spaces”.

I certainly plan several trips back there. I need to hike the other side of the trails as well as visit in the spring to see more of the herbaceous plants in bloom (although the fall goldenrods and asters look promising for a good show along with great leaf color). Don’t wait much longer to visit this woodland treasure.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Native Annuals In My Garden

When we think about annual plants, the colorful ones that you buy in six-packs are more likely what come to mind. We certainly don’t think of annual plants like those being native, but there are plenty of annual natives and some are quite garden-worthy. I usually grow mine from seed – either seed that I gathered, bought, or that was dropped from plants in a previous year. Occasionally, someone else grows them  – either my friend Sheri, who is a very talented propagator, or a local nature center that has spring plant sales. Here are some of the ones that I try to keep going in my garden.

In the spring, tiny annual bluet (Houstonia pusilla) pops up along low-growth roadsides (even bare dirt) and is only noticed if there are sufficient numbers to make a spectacle, often a wash of pale purple about ½ an inch high. I have collected seeds and plants from places and have had some success with it returning the next year.

Houstonia pusilla
Salvia coccinea

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is one that Sheri shared with me and I absolutely love it. Bright red flowers decorate the plant until frost and it grows in dry, sunny areas.  Hummingbirds and long-tongued butterflies like it. The only problem is that it is late to germinate (it depends on soil temperature) so usually I buy it from the nature center because they grew it in the greenhouse. A few seedlings pop up later in my garden (see first picture in this blog) and add to the display.

Partridge pea (either the large-flowered Chamaecrista fasciculata or the small-flowered Chamaecrista nictitans) has bright yellow flowers and small compound leaves. [Unfortunately, it looks very similar to chamberbitter as a seedling and gets pulled by many people as a result.] This plant is popular with bees and has a special characteristic: it is a host plant for sulphur butterflies. The small-flowered species reseeds well in my garden, but this year Sheri grew some of the large-flowered one for me and it is blooming beautifully right now.

Chamaecrista fasciculata
Sabatia angularis

I have tried for years to transport seeds from roadside populations of rose-gentian (Sabatia angularis) but have met with limited success until this summer. Suddenly, the side yard was covered with seedlings! I have been ‘forced’ to suspend cutting the lawn in that area in order to let them thrive. Apparently, many of those seeds sat dormant until this year.

Other seeds that I have gathered from roadsides include purple false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea) from the parking lot of a shopping center and blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) from areas near my neighborhood. Agalinis requires a relationship with grasses to do well and I’ve had it return from seed once but it appears to be taking this year off. It is a host plant for the common buckeye butterfly. Both of these bloom in late summer/early fall.

Agalinis purpurea

Helianthis porteri, also known as Stone Mountain daisy
Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri) is a summer-blooming member of the sunflower family. I have had limited success with this and usually get seedlings from friends or plant sales. Some wild animal ripped out most of mine this year. I have several friends that grow it very well and it reseeds for them and comes back every year. In the wild, it thrives on granite outcrops where it no doubt enjoys great drainage.

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is one that I really don’t have the habitat for – it wants a damp, part-shade spot – but if you have that then you really should try to grow it. The hummingbirds love the flowers and the touch-me-not seedpods that burst when you touch them are a delight for kids. It is not sold as a plant very often but you can get seeds online.

Impatiens capensis
Coreopsis tinctoria

Coreopsis tinctoria is one of my favorite summer annuals but it’s not the best garden flower for me. It wants lean soils in sunny places and grows too big and floppy in the garden so I always have to stake it. Of course, now that I’ve criticized it, I’ll have an abundance of it next year and fall in love again. This is another one that is readily available as seed online.

So there you have it – the native annual wildflowers that I try to use in my garden. Several years ago, I wrote about native annuals and included some of the more undesirable native annuals (like ragweed) for a garden setting. We certainly have our fair share of annuals and I do have to mention one thing - they all have one goal: to make as many seeds as possible!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Old World Relatives

A visit to England gave me an opportunity to see some of the relatives of our own Georgia native plants. For example, we have oaks in Georgia and they have oaks in England. Taxonomists confirm that the plants are related by assigning them all to the genus, Quercus. Millions of years ago, they shared an ancestor. This blog is about some of the woody relatives that I noticed as we vacationed in several areas.

The very first one that I noticed was the London planetree (Platanus ×hispanica), related to our sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). However, this relative is unlike the others that I’ll discuss as it is not a true 'relative.' It is actually considered to be a hybrid between the American one and the Asian one (occidentalis × orientalis). This tree was common in parks and on streets, sometimes reaching very large sizes, offering a great deal of shade on some of the very hot days that we were in London (into the 90’s).

London planetrees provide a lot of shade in parks
My favorite relative was the English oak (Quercus robur).  It is fittingly the national tree of England and I found it used in several ornamental flourishes on signs and buildings. It is a principal part of the National Trust’s logo. I looked for it wherever we went and found many beautiful English oak trees in the Cotswolds in particular (notice the acorn on the post and in the Cotswold way decal in the top photo).

Stately oak in a pasture

Oak flourish on building

Lime or Linden trees (Tilia cordata) are relatives of American basswood (Tilia americana) and are used much more in England as a landscape tree. They were in parks in London and near homes in the countryside.

Linden or Lime tree (Tilia cordata)

European beech (Fagus sylvatica)

It was easy to spot the relative to our American beech (Fagus grandifolia) as the European beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) were heavy with fruit almost everywhere we found it. I saw it first in Avebury where the large trees grew on a hill overlooking the ancient stone circle. It was in parks and in the woodlands that we passed through on the Cotswold Way walking path.

Another plant in fruit was the European elderberry (Sambucus nigra), close kin to our black elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis).  Laissez-faire attitudes towards landscaping allowed it to pop up in a variety of places and I was always happy to see the clusters of fruit as we walked to different places.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Common ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

The ash trees (Fraxinus excelsior) were heavy with seed during our visit. They are related to the green (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and white ash (Fraxinus americana) trees found in Georgia. This apparently is a common tree in England and we did see it a lot.

Sorbus aucuparia near one of the Cotswolds crossings
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) is a relative of mountain ash (Sorbus americana) and was readily recognized by its compound leaves and bright fruits. We saw it quite a bit in the Cotswolds and occasionally in other parts. It is not related to ash at all but the compound leaves resemble those of ash.

Maples (Acer) were also very common and, based on the seeds that were present, I’d say that I saw at least 3 different species. Field maple (Acer campestre) was certainly one of them and the others may not have been native.

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) is good for hedges
Hedges are used throughout England and two of the plants that I saw used a lot, especially in the countryside, have American relatives: hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna and Crataegus laevigata) and blackthorn (Prunus spinosa). Both plants were forming fruits during our visit. The hawthorn I recognized readily as it looks very similar to our parsley-leaved hawthorn (C. marshallii). The blackthorn puzzled me for a bit as the large blue fruits looked similar to a blueberry. After a bit of searching, I found the right identification as well as references to it being used in country hedges.

Other plants that I saw were shrubby dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) and European cranberry tree (Viburnum opulus), both forming fruit (fruit always makes a plant more noticeable). In York, I found hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) in a large garden; it is kin to our American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana); it was also in fruit and there was no mistaking it! I’m sure there are many, many others but these were some of the ones that I enjoyed recognizing as we dashed from place to place (and thanks to my husband for his patience while I took photos of some of them).

Viburnum opulus
Carpinus betulus

I also saw many Georgia natives in use, similar to when I took a trip to France in 2015. This time I posted what I found on my Instagram feed instead; I found enough to do at least a post per day during our two weeks there. If you are looking to learn more about British trees, The Woodland Trust is a great resource.