Sunday, October 23, 2016

A Bog Visit in South Georgia

Sarracenia flava
Trips to the Coastal Plain region of Georgia are often on my mind but seldom turn into reality. It’s not for lack of opportunity - Georgia has an awesome resource in the Georgia Botanical Society (BotSoc), a group of botanical enthusiasts since 1926. In late September, I finally got a chance to participate in a trip to a southern bog; it was part of their Year of the Bog focus.

A little background on BotSoc field trips: Volunteers put together a field trip calendar each year; it is an enticing schedule of over 40 trips from January to November in locations throughout the state. Field trips are open to members and the public, although occasionally the number of participants is limited. This trip to ‘Dixie Bog’ (in Dixie, GA) was limited to 15 people. Participants were a mixture of experienced botanists, conservation professionals, and amateur enthusiasts.

The drive south was long but an interesting travel through some of Georgia’s agricultural areas. We saw pecan orchards and big fields of cotton – some cotton plants were still blooming, others ripening, and some of them were already harvested into great rectangles of baled cotton. We also saw miles of morning glories – it was the perfect time of the morning to see them.

Once we arrived at the site, we loaded up with bug spray and piled into the vehicles that would transport us around to the places of interest on this large tract. On our way to the first stop, we passed through wooded areas, some dripping with Spanish moss, and open fields. This area is managed for quail hunting (we flushed just one as we drove past where it was resting). The open areas are maintained with occasional use of fire, a practice that has benefited the herbaceous plants as well.
Helianthus floridanus
Eryngium integrifolium

We walked in to an area with pitcher plants, yellow (Sarracenia flava) and hooded (Sarracenia minor), as well as an amazing array of other plants. Florida sunflower (Helianthus floridanus) and savanna eryngo (Eryngium integrifolium) caught my eye first because they were so prevalent. As we looked closer, we found pineland rayless goldenrod (Bigelowia nudata), several species of blazing stars (Liatris spicata was one), and the curvaceous stems of toothache grass (Ctenium aromaticum).

Ctenium aromaticum
Bigelowia nudata

As the group spread out to explore, cries of excitement rang out with each new treasure discovered. A fruiting fevertree (Pinckneya bracteata) was identified. The first of many green lynx spiders was found, and Coastal Plain tickseed (Coreopsis gladiata) and Nuttall’s thistle (Cirsium nuttallii) were examined closely. Thick stands of Indian plantain (Arnoglossum ovatum) were breathtaking to see so much of it.

Coreopsis gladiata
Cirsium nuttallii

Green lynx spider (thanks to Henning for holding it)

We got back into our vehicles for the next stop where there were not only more pitcher plants but also dewthreads (Drosera tracyi), a member of the carnivorous sundew family. Another new (to me) plant in this area was blacksenna (Seymeria pectinata), a prolific annual plant whose flowers were very popular with bees.

Sarracenia minor
Drosera tracyi

Seymeria pectinata

Bee on Seymeria pectinata

Marshallia graminifolia

Again the group spread out, different groups examining and discussing plants in more detail.

The hooded pitcher plants (S. minor) were very nice in this location, and we found one of the last flowering Barbara’s buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) as well as a few meadow-beauties (Rhexia) with their urn-shaped seedpods.

Open area with sunflowers and blazingstars

As we headed back for lunch, we saw great stands of purple false foxglove (Agalinis fasciculata) with buckeye butterfly caterpillars on them.  We had also seen several adult buckeyes flying around, visiting Eupatorium, bluemistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) and other flowers. Seeing insects in their natural relationships is one of my favorite sights and these caterpillars were a highlight for me.

Agalinis fasciculata
Caterpillar of buckeye butterfly

We relaxed with our brown bag lunches at the owner’s house while a quick rain shower blew through. There were several more hours of exploring ahead of us in new locations, but I’ll have to do a part two for those adventures.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Thug Buddies

Not everyone appreciates a thug in the garden, but there is one way you can deal with them if you still want to keep them around. Get them a thug buddy! They are perfectly suited for working around each other. I can just imagine them saying “You’re growing there? I’ll just go around you over here ….”

Bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum)

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) is a wonderful fall nectar plant but a well-known thug. In a dry month like October (traditionally our driest of the year), however, it can be nice to have the blooms so I always try to keep some of it. Last year, it got a bit out of control so I pulled out a ton of it this spring (knowing that what was left would bounce back).

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Bumblebees love asters!

This fall I was surprised to realize that small-flowered white asters - which can be a bit pushy - had jumped in the bed with it. What a gorgeous combination they make, weaving in and out among each other. The bees are happily visiting the asters while the skippers and butterflies like the mistflower. It’s been fun to watch them all dashing around each other, not unlike what a wild roadside might look like.

Growing above them is tall thoroughwort, Eupatorium serotinum. It has mostly finished flowering now and, while a bit of a thug itself, was never a bother to these guys. Occasionally a stem of tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) pops up, adding a cheery splash of yellow. This goldenrod is also a thug but it doesn’t get much of a chance here.

Thug life!
Come spring, some of these will get pulled again just to keep the place a bit more tidy (for the neighbors, you know) and to let the spring things have their turn. In between the editing and the competition, most of these will be just this side of rambunctious for next fall.

So, if you’re got a thug in your garden, at least get him a friend to keep him company!

Sunday, October 9, 2016

What Happened to the Asters?

Eastern tailed-blue on Symphyotrichum dumosum
A friend of mine has a wonderful expression to describe certain plants – she calls them “ex-Asters.” If you haven’t been paying attention the last 10 or so years, the North American plants that were in the plant genus Aster have all been moved to new genera (yeah, that’s plural!). The “Old World” asters got to keep the name, and all our plants now have an assortment of real tongue-twister names.

Here’s a short accounting of the ones in Georgia. Most of the reclassifications went to Symphyotrichum. Other Georgia ones went to Ampelaster, Doellingeria, Eurybia, Ionactis, Oclemena, Oligoneuron, and Sericocarpus. With 30 different species in Georgia, Symphyotrichum alone is enough to keep me flipping through identification resources. Of the other genera, I have only found Eurybia, Doellingeria, and Sericocarpus species so far. I hope to come across the others one day (and this is probably a good time of year to be looking).

Eurybia spectabilis
Sericocarpus asteroides

Guy Nesom has a webpage with a great explanation of the changes. In case you don’t like any of the “new” names, apparently we can’t fault any living person for what we have to deal with:
“Some of these Latinized scientific names were ‘invented’ and published long ago and, by the rules of nomenclature, must be used.  The ‘principle of priority’ establishes that the first name published in a specified manner is the correct one.  Symphyotrichum, which displaces the more euphonious Aster in the majority of the species, seems especially peculiar and tongue-twisting, and although it has almost never been used until very recently, it was first proposed in 1832 and can’t be denied its rightful place.”
Georgia aster, Symphyotrichum georgianum

Late purple aster, Symphyotrichum patens
Of course, all our plants have kept the old names as synonyms so you can still find them in search engines (Aster georgianus = Symphyotrichum georgianum). Did you know that for a time it was also proposed as Virgulus georgianus? Let’s hope the taxonomic studies have paused long enough for us to learn how to pronounce the new one (sim-fee-oh-TRICK-um)! I’m not averse to using “ex-Aster” in a pinch!

Symphyotrichum cordifolium (flowers not very blue)

Symphyotrichum shortii

You can see one of my earlier aster posts here; it features some of the other species I've photographed. If you are looking to add more native asters to your garden, there is one more week left for the fall sale at the State Botanical Garden. They have the finest offering of native asters and goldenrods that I've seen in Georgia. Look for it each October - about the time that asters start blooming.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

A Butterfly’s Place for the Winter

Many people wonder what happens to butterflies in the winter. Aside from the now well-known story of the Monarch butterfly’s migration to Mexico, many of us don’t know where others go. We do know that not all of them migrate; some of them overwinter as caterpillars, in pupas, or even as adults in sheltered places. This week, a trip that I made to Florida revealed where the Gulf Fritillary goes. It was like finding the end of the rainbow!

Gulf Fritillary on Bidens alba
According to NABA (the North American Butterfly Association), the following butterflies do spend winters in warmer places: Cloudless Sulphur, Little Yellow, Gulf Fritillary, Painted Lady, American Lady, Red Admiral, Common Buckeye, Long-tailed Skipper, Clouded Skipper, Fiery Skipper. I had certainly noticed that some butterflies don’t arrive in my garden until summer when their favorite flowers are in bloom, but I didn’t realize they might be traveling to get there.

Our trip to St. George Island on the Gulf side of Florida had us traveling through south Georgia where the roadsides were lined with fall flowers.  In sunny places, I saw yellow goldenrod (Solidago), white thoroughwort (Eupatorium), and tall pink false foxglove (Agalinis). Tucked into part-shade areas was a prolific white flower that I finally realized was Bidens alba (which has various common names like beggarticks).

After arriving on the island, I began to notice the orange Gulf Fritillary butterflies, but I didn’t think anything of it as they are still flying at my house. They were happily nectaring on the Bidens. After a while, it became apparent that there were a LOT of them. One patch of roadside would contain dozens if not hundreds of them! Something was different here.

Gulf Fritillary on Liatris (St. George State Park)

I searched on the Internet for more information and found references that they do migrate into Florida for the winter. Now the name “Gulf” Fritillary makes more sense – we were on the Gulf side! It was an amazing aspect of our visit to see them in such large quantities wherever we went on the island. Thank goodness for the fall flowers like the Bidens, beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati), false rosemary (Conradina canescens), blazingstars (Liatris), and October flower (Polygonella polygama).

Tattered Gulf Fritillary on Conradina canescens
Many other butterflies were there too but not in such abundance. I even found one Monarch among them – noticeably different in size despite the similar color. All in all, finding the butterflies was a great addition to an already fun trip.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Back From The Dead

This year seemed to be a very “good” year for tent caterpillars. I had more people remark on seeing them than ever before. The caterpillars (or rather the parent moths) seemed especially fond of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees this year. As is my way, I left the trees alone to let nature run its course.

Tent caterpillars on sourwood

The small persimmon next to the street light was 100% engulfed and surely looked fit for a Halloween decoration by the time the caterpillars were done with it. Nearby, several medium sourwoods looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss story, with large pompom-like nests on the branches. I know that the neat-nik neighbors down the street must have been horrified every time they drove past.

Datana caterpillars finish off the leaves

One sourwood in the back was doubly cursed. The leaves not eaten by the tent caterpillars were consumed by a different species until nothing but the thin leaf veins were hanging in wispy groups. I was truly concerned for this tree. Could it possibly survive such devastation? 

While the caterpillars themselves don’t kill the tree, without the leaves to gather sunlight and make nourishment for the roots, the tree might actually perish.

New leaves beside remnants of the eaten ones

I am happy to report that all the affected trees, including the one in the back, have started to put out new leaves. We might even get some decent fall color on these trees (sourwoods have awesome fall color when they have leaves).

So if you ever wondered what happens to trees with tent caterpillars … now you know they can make it just fine!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Roadsides: Trash or Treasure?

I think about roadsides a lot this time of year and there are several reasons why. 1) Sunny roadsides with good native plant populations really shine this time of year. 2) Roadsides that got whacked by utility contractors are really ugly this time of year. 3) Roadsides that are overgrown with invasive plants are at their tangled peak by now. I wonder what other people think. Do they look at roadsides and see trash or do they see treasure? The answer, I think, lies in how much they know about what they see.

You see roadsides can be full of trash or treasure. It depends on how they are treated, and humans play an important role in what’s there or what’s missing. What would make a roadside be considered trash vs. treasure?

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the distinction lies in the type of plants that reside there. A roadside with native plants tips toward the treasure end of the spectrum. How far along the spectrum it is depends on what kind of native plants are there. A roadside rich in a diverse mix of native plants is desirable compared to one that is composed of just a few types. For example, a roadside composed of all one type of tree (for example, pine trees) won’t support as many insects and birds as one with a dozen different plants. If that diverse mix includes flowering plants across several seasons, the treasure score goes even higher.

Small residential area with part lawn and part wild roadside
A good roadside is a sunny strip that might be bordered by a bit of a tree line with 2 or more different kinds of native trees and shrubs. It would include some rambunctious annuals, some biennials and a few perennials as well. In my area that might be daisy fleabane (Erigeron), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia), thistles (Cirsium), goldenrod (Solidago), thoroughwort (Eupatorium), milkweeds (Asclepias), ironweed (Vernonia), sunflower (Helianthus), and native grasses. The tree line has sweetgum, oak, pine, sassafras, sourwood, tuliptree, muscadine, and maples.

A wet ditch roadside might have wingstem (Verbesina) and ironweed (Vernonia)

At the trash end of the spectrum is the roadside choked with non-native plants. The very worse (at least to humans) might be one smothered in kudzu. However, it doesn’t even have to look that obvious to be a place that offers very little sustenance to our native insects and birds. (A roadside composed of crape myrtles and Bermuda grass would do the trick, and surprisingly, these types of manicured roadsides are being installed more often around interstate exchanges – imagine the maintenance!) Usually, roadsides are havens for non-native plant seeds to settle and take root, free of most human intervention to dislodge them (until they get in the way of a utility).

Roadside in 2014 with pears moving in; 2 years later it is thick as a jungle
A trashy roadside has non-native grass, lespedeza, mimosa, tree of heaven, princess tree, elaeagnus, privet, Queen Anne’s lace, non-native thistles, and vines like kudzu, Japanese honeysuckle, porcelainberry, and English ivy. It’s roadsides like this that give roadsides a bad name! They become overgrown with invasive plants, untended except by utility contractors and road crews anxious to get the job done and be gone (bush hogs are popular brush management tools in my area).

English ivy chokes both the trees and the ground

How can we have better roadsides? In general, I would recommend four concepts to foster more productive roadsides:

  • Protect roadsides that already provide good native plants
  • Manage roadsides for invasive plant removal and annual mowing and maintenance if needed
  • Create roadside habitat by seeding degraded areas with native seeds/plants
  • Educate people on why roadsides and edges can help local insects and birds if native plants are present
Imagine that road crews might be instructed to identify and remove the top 5-10 invasive woody plants rather than just hack them back (only to have them return with a renewed vigor). People could reseed disturbed areas with native seeds, instead of non-natives, and with plants chosen for low maintenance even while they support the local insects. People would use the power of the Internet to identify what plants are and decide to keep them or not!

So, are roadsides trash or treasure? The answer is both – for now. How long will that last, until all we have is trash? Let’s invest in developing more treasure. As more and more of our land turns to developed spaces, the roadsides are some of our last sources of food for insects, birds and small critters that live around us.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Useful Eupatoriums

Have you seen the plants with a haze of white flowers on the roadsides lately?  Many of them are 3-5 feet tall, thriving in both dry and wet ditches, holding their own against non-native weeds.  Small, individual flowers come together on flowerheads, which then combine together to form a larger inflorescence. The appearance of these inflorescences is as almost-flat clusters that together span the width of the plant. This is late thoroughwort, Eupatorium serotinum.

Eupatorium serotinum feeds a lot of insects

Eupatorium serotinum

This species and many others in the Eupatorium genus are late summer bastions of nectar and pollen for a variety of insects. Eupatorium is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) so it has many small flowers arranged on a flowerhead. Unlike what you might think of as an aster, these plants only have the non-showy disk flowers (the classic aster flower that you might envision has inner disk flowers and surrounding ray flowers).

I actually have quite a few species in my garden –  as many as 5 different ones. As I’ve been thinking about this post, I’ve been watching them, for this is the week that they have exploded into bloom. The insect community that uses them varies over the course of the day, and it’s an amazing parade to watch.

Eupatorium rotoundifolium

Morning visitors are the bees that spent the night on the flowers and who are just now waking up. There might be a few leftover moths as well, but generally, morning is the quietest time.

In the afternoon, fragrance emerges in the warmth of the day and it’s the busiest time. I see bees of all sizes, from the small green bees to the energetic medium-sized bumblebees to the largest carpenter bees (dragging down every stem they touch). I see flies like syrphid flies and bottle flies. Wasps love it too and there are at least a dozen species that visit!  

Small green bee

Carpenter bees are a bit big for this
Bumblebees are just right

Of course, we all love the Lepidoptera and, during the daytime, the tiny ones rule! A couple of red-banded hairstreaks have been constant visitors while an Eastern tailed-blue has stopped by several times as well. Skippers and common buckeyes also enjoy it when they’re in the area as well as American lady butterflies and other medium-sized ones. The flowers are too tiny for large butterflies like tiger swallowtails.

Red-banded Hairstreak
Eastern tailed-blue

It should come as no surprise that there are a few predators as well. Baby Carolina anoles patrol the inner stems for small bugs like mosquitos (yes, they visit too). I’ve also seen a couple of ambush bugs, carefully camouflaged and wedged between the flowers, and there are always spiders.

Carolina anole hunts
Green lynx spider on Eupatorium album

The flowers stay open all night so the moths continue to visit in the dark, their eyes shining like colored diamonds in the beam of the flashlight that I use to find them. It’s been fun checking on them at night and watching them slurp up nectar.

Actually a day-time moth (Desmia)

In addition to their flowers, Eupatorium members also serve as larval host plants for at least 42 different species of butterflies and moths. So if you’d like some late summer action in your garden, add some Eupatorium to it.

And don’t forget some of the former Eupatorium members like Joe pye weed (now Eutrochium) and blue mistflower (now Conoclinium). Even though they’ve been kicked out of the genus, they are popular with very similar insects.