Sunday, November 16, 2014

Native Shrubs for Difficult Spots

Fall is a good time for garden reflection as well as for planting in Georgia (so it's a good time to reflect and then plant!). How has your landscape performed - are there spots to be filled, things to remove, problem areas to tackle? Luckily there are some native shrubs that you might consider, especially for those difficult spots.

Shady Characters

If you've got big and wonderful trees then you probably also have some shady areas. If it's a small area, shade loving perennials are probably your best bet, but a larger space can take a shrub. Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) in both species form and a cultivar like the variegated 'Shady Lady' is a good choice in both average and moist soils. For drier soils, consider mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). For average moisture, check out mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) which is now available in a range of growth sizes thanks to cultivars. Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in species form is more shade tolerant than cultivars.

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Bogged Down

Soggy areas can be troublesome until you see them as an opportunity to use some of wonderful moisture-loving shrubs. How lucky you are! For wet and shady areas, consider Florida anise again. For sunny areas, check out these ideas: summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), and hobblebush (Leucothoe axillaris). For a really large area, consider buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) which reaches tree-like stature on sunny, wet banks of ponds and streams. As a plus, all of these plants offer great pollen and nectar rewards to pollinators.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Dry Relief

A dry slope has lots of potential as long as it is protected from the harsh afternoon sun. Native shrubs that naturally grow in these conditions include sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and hearts a bustin' (Euonymus americanus). Consider also highbush blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). Remember that even though these are tolerant of dry conditions once they are established plants, they still need help in the first year after planting. Be sure to water them adequately and mulch to retain moisture.

Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)

Privacy, Please!

It's not uncommon to need a little screening in suburban yards these days. Whether its a neighbor or an awkward corner, plants can soften an unwanted view. For shady areas, look again to Florida anise or Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana). For part sun, consider mountain laurel or evergreen Rhododendron catawbiense. Sunny areas can use some of the native juniper shrub cultivars like Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl.' 

Florida anise (Illicium floridanum)

Oh Deer

I can only speak to what has worked for me. Every deer clan has its own tastes, so take these as suggestions, not guarantees. For sunny areas, an absolutely bullet proof shrub has been Florida doghobble (Agarista populifolia). For large areas, get the species, for smaller spots try the cultivar 'Leprechaun.' Other sunny ideas are beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). I have had little issue with spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Fothergilla 'Mt Airy' but they love the blue cultivars of Fothergilla for some reason. For shady areas, we're back to Florida anise again.

Agarista populifolia 'Leprechaun' grouping

Illicium floridanum 'Shady Lady'

So if you've got a problem area in search of a suitable shrub, give these ideas a try.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Fall Profile: Maples

Possibly the most beautiful maple ever - Acer leucoderme
Deciduous trees can offer a wide range of fall color and maple trees (Acer spp.) are an essential part of a good mix. Unlike some other trees, the color you get depends upon the species you choose and sometimes even the plant itself (unlike Hickory, for example, which is always yellow).

I've been comparing the fall color on maples around me lately and thought I could present some ideas on what to choose if you’re looking for specific colors. From yellow to orange to red, they’re all here.

All maples have opposite leaf arrangement and lobed, simple leaves. In general they are important to wildlife for a variety of reasons. The flowers, especially the early flowers of red maple, are sources of pollen for insects as early as February in south Georgia. The seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals.  The foliage is a host plant for 285 different species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), making it #8 on the top 20 list of woody plants that provide host services.

And, as we all know, the winged samaras that contain the seeds are a source of much amusement for children as they twirl to the ground. Some species of maples drop their seeds in the spring (red and silver, for example) while others drop their seeds in the fall (sugar and chalk).

Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a common wild maple throughout Georgia. The ones that I find the most have 3 primary lobes with serrated margins. Sometimes there will be 5 lobes but the two lobes closest to the base will be smaller compared to the others.

Not only is leaf shape variable, but this species can have fall color that is yellow, yellow with red highlights, orange or red.

Red maple - reddish leaves
Red maple - yellowish leaves
Nurserymen have created cultivars from red maple to produce reliable red fall color. Two excellent choices are ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset.’ Both are selections of the species itself, not hybrids. You can find them in professionally designed landscapes – they are especially noticeable when they all turn red at once in the same parking lot.

Acer rubrum 'October Glory'
Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'
Red maple has also been hybridized (crossed) with silver maple (Acer saccharinum) to create a group of maples known as the Freeman maples (Acer x freemanii). One of the cultivars I have seen is ‘Autumn Blaze.’ This cultivar has the good red color of the red maple parent plus the attractive leaf shape and tolerance for adverse conditions of the silver maple. I see them often in business parks. 

Another species that can offer dazzling red color is chalk maple (Acer leucoderme). This species resembles a small sugar maple with 5-lobed leaves that have wavy edges. The common name is based on the pale colored bark. The underside of the leaf is softly hairy, distinguishing it from sugar maple which is largely hairless.

Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) leaves from Lisa's tree

Fall color range is yellow to orange to red, sometimes all at once on the same tree. A roadside tree (see first picture in this post) near me turns a brilliant red each fall while its neighbors are more orange-red. They make a spectacular group.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is not native to Georgia but it is widely planted here for its reliable yellow-orange fall colors. Sugar maple seed matures in late summer and early fall, a trait that it shares with chalk maple, although sometimes there are years with no seeds. The 5-lobed leaves are familiar as the symbol of Canada where it is also native. Unlike the chalk maple, the back of the leaf is smooth and only the veins have hairs, if any.

Maple syrup comes from the sap of this tree. The tree is sometimes visited by sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker that drills for the sap; they do feed on other maples and other trees as well. The bark can blacken over time as a result of this activity.

Acer saccharum var. floridanum
Southern sugar maple is considered to be a subspecies of sugar maple (Acer saccharum var. floridanum). It is sometimes classified as Acer floridanum or, more rarely by a much older name, Acer barbatum

The leaf is very similar to chalk maple and sugar maple with a few hairs on the back side (but fewer than chalk maple). A local population in my neighborhood (including my yard) has clear yellow foliage with only occasional hints of orange.

Maples are a worthy part of local ecosystems where they are native. Research your conditions and see if one of these can find a place in your landscape.

Note: click on any picture to see it full size.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fall Preview

Fall is getting started here in the northern half of Georgia and a visit to an area north of me this week brought a lovely preview. Lunch contributions in hand, several of us traveled up to see longtime friends Jim and Margaret in Dawsonville. Their home is on a ridge of land that affords residents on both sides of the road with spectacular views of the mountain foothills. Native trees were half-dressed in their fall colors and the mix of green and fall colors was gorgeous.

The patchwork view of color is gorgeous; Marcia spotted the lone red tree.

Sourwood tree with seed capsules
The morning drive up was at first rainy but as we reached the highest point a thick fog enveloped the country road. The deep red of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) foliage peaked out from the wooded edges while maples offered leaves of yellow dripping with red tips. 

Occasional overlooks promised spectacular views of multi-hued landscapes. It was hard not to stop at every view and capture the moment, but we were anxious to arrive.

As we approached our destination, small vacation bungalows were mixed with larger year-round residences. Expanses of wild woodlands were interspersed with knockout roses and crape myrtles, but it was clear that everyone appreciates the views. Large decks and strategically placed chairs were common. Lighthearted whimsical touches imparted a sense of relaxation and artistry.

Hydrangea quercifolia

After lunch we walked along the small road, enjoying a closer view of the changing leaves. In between the houses there was wild sumac (Rhus spp.) and shrubs like mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) in outstanding colors. Several homes had native shrubs like oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), evergreen rhododendron, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa). I know Jim probably was influential in some of those native choices.

At the lane’s end we reached a home with a generous deck and a spectacular view. Maples, sourwoods, sassafras, black gum and scarlet oaks were well on their way to their fall colors. Under foot were acorns aplenty and a few squishy persimmons.  

The leaves weren’t the only show in town. Several evergreen rhododendrons had somehow allowed themselves to be persuaded into blooming. Equally surprising was a Cumberland azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense) that had dropped its leaves but was blooming like mad. Not so surprising was the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom. This is the normal bloom time for it. Tightly pressed against the twigs were the seed pods of last year, just starting to crack open.

Hamamelis virginiana

Hamamelis virginiana

Nyssa sylvatica

Back at our friends’ house we admired the plump fruit still on the black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). They told us the story of the young black bear that climbed one of their other Nyssa trees to eat the fruit one year. Beautyberry (Callicarpa) fruit was still heavy on the bush and a hawthorn (Crataegus) was covered in red fruit. Nearby a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) had littered the ground with nuts – where were the squirrels? With permission we stuffed our pockets with the fat nuts.

As we headed home in the afternoon, the fall colors that we left behind were but a short glimpse into the future. Very soon our own native landscapes would be just as colorful.

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) that Jim grew from seed

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Trees that Heal the Land

Well, that seems like an ambitious title, doesn’t it? The development boom is going again and tracts of land are rapidly turning into subdivisions. Some tracts are wooded and some are pasture. No matter how they start out, the “homesites” often end up being cleared to the dirt from one end to the other because it is cheaper that way.

The developer pops the house up and carpets the area with sod and pine straw and a sprinkling of shrubs around the foundation of the house. The end result is so far from what might have been there naturally that it looks like plastic. Given that the sod and the landscaped shrubs are 95% non-native, this is literally an engineered wasteland … from the perspective of the native insects and birds around it.

Oak leaves in spring
This is where healing the land comes in.  What would bring life back to this place? Native plants would do the job. Recent talks by entomologist Doug Tallamy present an approach that encourages us to flip landscaping norms 180 degrees. 

Rather than putting lawn everywhere and then adding a few decorative plants, the approach advocated by Dr. Tallamy spins that idea around: put lawn only where you need to walk or play and fill the rest of the space with non-lawn plants like perennials, shrubs and trees. These are the plants that support insects and birds, and locally native perennials, shrubs and trees support them more than any other.

How can one transition to that approach?

Not everyone has room for a lot of plants or a budget to make large changes. Small changes can still be meaningful and that’s where the idea of TREES healing the land comes in. Tree selection can make a big impact. Research shows that indigenous trees can support a lot of wildlife.

The best approach is first to see what is native in your area. If you live in Georgia, chances are there are oaks and maples, perhaps a hickory, a willow and a hawthorn. These are all excellent candidates to be your tree (or two). “Let It Be An Oak” is one of Tallamy’s recent talks for a very good reason. His research shows that over 500 insects use the oak genus (Quercus) as a host plant in the mid-Atlantic region.

Baby oakworms on oak leaf
Can you imagine choosing one plant and instantly having that kind of impact? Now don't be alarmed - they are not all-devouring insects, let me assure you. Sometimes you hardly notice them.

Sure, sometimes they can get a little crazy – one little sapling had dozens of caterpillars this year. The trees always survive and they often send out new leaves. Nature knows how to take care of itself.

Not every caterpillar makes it to adulthood. Plenty of them are picked off by birds to feed their chicks or for their own meal. Migratory warblers are insect eaters and wouldn't you like to have them stop by for lunch? Other caterpillars are taken by predatory bugs. A healthy environment balances itself out even without our intervention.

This guy would love a baby oakworm

So if you’re in a position to restore some life to your landscape big or small, consider the healing power of trees to make a difference to wildlife.

To get you started here is a list of the top 12 trees when it comes to being a host plant. Of course these also offer other benefits like nuts, seeds and berries and some of them provide nectar and pollen for pollinators.

Common Name

Plant Genus

# Butterfly/moth species supported


Black cherry























Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Week in the Fall Garden

Mid-October always makes me feel like I’m straddling the seasons. Leaves are changing and falling, birds are on the move and yet the last of the summer flowers are giving it their all. Those flowers know it is their last chance to make a few more seeds to continue the species. Let’s take a walk around and see what’s happening.

Symphyotrichum racemosum
Fallen leaves get tangled in aster stems, a lovely contrast of old and new. Who needs store-bought mums when this white aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum) is so full and alive? Unlike the non-native mums, this one offers pollen and nectar to still-visiting insects.

Symphyotrichum georgianum

Symphyotrichum concolor

Purple asters are still going. This Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) that my friend Kim shared from her yard has been beautiful for weeks. The flowers seems especially large and prolific. Eastern silver aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) is just hitting its stride. 

Symphyotrichum patens with Symphyotrichum lateriflorum

Nearby two asters are tangled together: Symphyotrichum patens (late purple aster) and Symphyotrichum lateriflorum  (calico aster). Nature always knows how to make a beautiful arrangement. I found an aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) that the deer forgot to eat - one bloom.

Solidago erecta

Solidago caesia

In my garden and on the roadside the goldenrods are still blooming, especially those that were mowed or munched on by deer. Here a bee enjoys a late flowering Solidago erecta. In the shady area of the garden, shade-tolerant bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is still in its prime and the bees are busy there too.

Seeds are puffing out from the earliest flowers. Yesterday I harvested several types of seeds to share with friends. I will store them in dry envelopes or in the fridge, depending what is best for each type of seed.

Puffy seed heads from plants in the Asteraceae family (like goldenrods and asters) will be stored dry. Of course, the envelopes need to be labeled properly while I can still remember what I picked!

Cotinus obovatus

Some leaves are changing color already, sometimes just a branch at a time. Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) is one of the first to go. Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is starting too, but not all the trees go at once; we’ll have pinkish-purple leaves well into November on those.

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is also changing and the clear yellow is like captured sunshine.

Salvia coccinea

The annual scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) will keep blooming until frost. The cloudless sulphur butterflies take full advantage of that long bloom time and can be found fluttering around every afternoon.

This blooming stem seemed to highlight the color changes in the huckleberry (Gaylussacia) foliage behind it, reinforcing my feeling of having one foot in each season.

I think I’ll go sweep the driveway. The effort satisfies a need for order while giving me time to really look at what’s happening around me – before I lose that last bit of summer.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Skipping The Butterflies

It’s been a strange year for butterflies. I noticed it in the spring – there were hardly any butterflies around. It was a cold winter and I thought perhaps they were just slow to get started. With all the talk about the monarch butterfly’s decline, I was anxious to see some winged wonders.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies are usually common, but I went days without seeing one this year. Talk amongst friends and acquaintances didn’t provide any reassurance that my experience was the exception – a lot of people were missing the butterflies.

Long-tailed skipper
Spring turned to summer and the situation wasn’t much better. However, I noticed that there were a lot of skippers around. Were there more skippers than usual, or did they seem more numerous because of the shortage of butterflies? Without a multi-year scientific study, I suppose I’ll never know. 

One visitor was the silver-spotted skipper and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) was popular with it.

Skippers are generally fairly small and have a quick flight pattern that very much reminds one of skipping. As a result of paying attention to the skippers, I found at least one that I had never noticed before – the long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus). What a beautiful species it is. The fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) was a frequent guest.

Fiery skipper

Of the few butterflies that I saw, two species were the most prevalent: the gulf fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) and the cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). 

Cloudless sulphur

The cloudless sulphur is always a late season species for me. They come out just in time to partake of several flowers: cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and my pink turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus). Both flowers require a long proboscis to get to the nectar (both are also a favorite of hummingbirds).

Occasionally I saw an American lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) and a red spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis). I found a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar on my spicebush (Lindera benzoin) so there had to be one of those.  A pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) flew through.  

I did identify a couple of new ones: sleepy orange (Abaeis nicippe) and summer azure (Celastrina neglecta).

Sleepy orange

Summer azure

By mid-summer a few more Eastern tiger swallowtails came through, but only one at a time – nothing like the group of seven that I saw last year on the lantana at the front entrance (only fritillaries were there this year). Not seeing a monarch was not unusual, but I was pleased to find evidence of two within walking distance of my neighborhood, the second one only yesterday.

A fellow north Georgia blogger made an interesting observation: “I've noticed over the past few years that each year one species of butterfly seems to have a banner year in my garden.” For her, this is the year of the fritillaries.

I have been enjoying pictures of Georgia butterflies from afar with the Facebook page for Butterflies & Blooms in the Briar Patch in Eatonton. With an emphasis on abundant nectar and native host plants, they have had a lot of success this year. Inspired by them, I plan to amp up my nectar collection next year.

Well this year is almost in the books. We’ll see what happens next year. I’ll be paying close attention, you can be sure of that.