Sunday, January 14, 2018

Underused Native Shrubs

Way back in 2011, I wrote a blog post about underused native trees. It was my intention at the time to follow that up with underused shrubs. Well, six years later, here it is.

Shrubs are an important part of the landscape but they seem to be viewed as filler, something to go between the trees and the flowers.  They also seemed to be viewed as something used to hide a house’s foundation, a function which isn’t needed for today’s homes. As a result, you can often see the same shrubs used over and over again, many of them shaped into evergreen blobs. There are some native shrubs being used, and that’s a good thing.

Common shrubs that I see in the mainstream trade or larger native plant nurseries include: dwarf witchalder (Fothergilla spp.), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), native azaleas and rhododendrons (Rhododendron spp.), summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), garden blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), winterberry (Ilex verticillata and I. decidua), beautyberry (Callicarpa americana, be careful to get the native species), and St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.). Some popular evergreens include doghobble (Leucothoe spp.), hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and evergreen rhododendrons.

Chickasaw plum
I’d like to spotlight some of the native shrubs that aren’t used very much. Some of these might be familiar to you, yet still are not readily available in nurseries. I’m going to group them by landscape size and indicate in the descriptions what special talents they might have (such as sunny, shady, wet or dry).

Sometimes you want to fill up a big space but it’s not a good place for a tree. Some shrubs get quite large, they might even be considered small trees. Some of these have spreading habits – that’s how they get to be big – so research them carefully:

  • Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in the summer to the delight of Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.
  • Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) - part sun shrub that blooms early in April in time for returning hummingbirds to enjoy.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with beautiful flowers in May and fruits that last through the winter for birds.
  • Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) - part to full sun shrub that blooms in April and has small plums. Host plant for 456 moths and butterflies.
  • Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) - full sun shrub that can handle very moist soil, blooms in June and has small fruits that birds love.
  • Shrub dogwoods (Cornus amomum or C. foemina) - part to full sun shrubs that can handle moist conditions and produce fruits that birds love.
  • Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) - part to full sun shrub that is our earliest blooming shrub that can handle most conditions;  host plant for several butterflies and the birds love the fruits.
  • Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) - full sun shrub that can handle wet conditions and has spectacular flowers in the summer that bees and butterflies love. Hard fruits are eaten by wood ducks.
  • Sumac (Rhus ssp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in the spring and summer; fruits are enjoyed by birds.
  • Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) - our latest shrub to bloom, often in November.
  • Osmanthus (Cartrema americana) - small scented flowers appear in late spring, leaves are evergreen.
  • Titi (Cyrilla racemiflora) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native that supports bees and can handle wet conditions.
  • Rusty lyonia (Lyonia ferruginea) - an evergreen Coastal Plain native with fragrant flowers that can handle wet or dry conditions.
  • Devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa) - tall and prickly, this shrub earns its name, but the flowers are adored by bees and butterflies and the birds relish the small fruits. This shrub has the largest leaves in North America.
Left: Aronia arbutifolia; Center: Aesculus pavia; Right: Lindera benzoin

Don't have room for such a big plant? Here are some smaller recommendations for smaller lots or tight spaces:
  • Huckleberry (Gaylussacia spp.) - part to full sun shrub with bell-flowers and fruit similar to blueberry.
  • Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions and which slowly spreads to form a colony.
  • Inkberry (Ilex glabra) - full sun, evergreen shrub with blue-black fruits from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dahoon holly (Ilex cassine) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Dwarf wax myrtle (Morella cerifera, dwarf forms) - part to full sun, evergreen shrub from the Coastal Plain; need male and female plants for fruit.
  • Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; has fruit that birds love in the fall.
  • Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) - part sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; flowers can be fragrant.
  • New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) - part to full sun shrub that can handle drier conditions; blooms in the summer.
  • Leatherwood (Dirca palustris) - part sun shrub that can handle moist conditions.
  • Honeycup (Zenobia pulverulenta) - part to full sun shrub with unusual foliage and fragrant flowers.
  • Amorpha (Amorpha fruticosa) - part to full sun shrub with gorgeous flowers; it is the host plant for several butterflies.
  • Spiraea (Spiraea spp.) - full sun shrubs that bloom in summer and attract a diverse group of insects as pollinators.
  • Staggerbush (Lyonia lucida) - an evergreen suckering Coastal Plain shrub of swamplands; good-looking with pinkish flowers and shiny leaves.
  • Alabama snow wreath (Neviusia alabamensis) - part to full shrub with suckering habit so it grows wide; rare in the wild but happy in gardens.
  • Viburnum obovatum and other Viburnums - viburnums largely do best in full sun but there are some that tolerate shade. I have blog post about them that provides more detail.
  • Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor) - evergreen trunkless palm with fragrant flowers.
Left: Spiraea latifolia; Center: Calycanthus floridus; Right: Amorpha fruticosa

Need something for a difficult place? I have written about shrubs for difficult places before and you can find that here. I’ve also tried to indicate in the descriptions above which plants can be used in places with shade, dry or wet soils. A comprehensive Piedmont shrub post that I did can be found here; it has links to many others inside it.

So if you have occasion to need a new shrub - or maybe you’d just like to be a little different - think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, add to biodiversity in your area, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

Witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)
Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  

For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Collection of January Blogs

I’ve been writing this blog every week for over 7 years now – the first entry was October 14, 2010. The history is all there and, since plants don’t change much, some of the older January blogs are worth reading again – especially if you weren’t following back then. The pictures may not be as good, but the words are spot on. If you find any broken links, let me know in the comments and I’ll fix them (or remove them if they don’t exist).

From 2011, you might like Learning by Doing, which is about my journey into learning about native plants. It might give you some ideas for increasing your knowledge.

From 2012, the post Birds Love a Thicket can give you ideas on what plants to use to give birds a safe haven in your landscape.

Are you looking for inspiration in the New Year? From 2013, Using More Native Plants in the Landscape is meant to jump-start your efforts with a fistful of ideas.

Some of my posts are about visits to Georgia State Parks. I blogged about a visit to The Little Grand Canyon in Georgia in January 2015. It’s a great place for a winter visit; I loved all the American holly (Ilex opaca) we found there.

Maybe you’ve pledged to add more native plants to your landscape this year. In 2016, I put together a compilation of my shrub posts in Native Shrubs in the Georgia Piedmont.

I’ll still be writing some original blogs in 2018 but probably not every week. When I'm not posting something new, I’ll be reminding you of some my previous posts like I’ve done here. Remember that the blog has a search box in the upper left corner or use the history list on the right side to browse for older posts. Most posts are seasonal so you can browse by month.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 in Pictures

I take a lot of pictures throughout the year and not all of them make it into a blog post. At the end of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the beauty of nature as well as share some of the extra pictures.

I believe that each day is an opportunity to find and appreciate something beautiful in the native plants and creatures of Georgia.

Buck on driveway
Just like January 2016, we saw snow in January 2017. I happened to be outside with the camera when this buck walked across the driveway. I also like the green frond of the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) sticking up in the foreground.

In looking through my pictures from February of 2017, I find it amazing how many things were blooming then. There was red maple, spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and blueberry (Vaccinium sp.).

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) on Feb 10th

Question mark
In March, I was very surprised to spot a question mark butterfly fluttering around. This species overwinters as an adult. The adult is not dependent on flowers, feeding on tree sap, carrion, dung, and rotting fruit. You can read more about the butterflies I found in the garden in 2017 here.

April brought a welcome visit from two Monarch butterflies who laid eggs on my emerging milkweeds, one on April 10th and the second on April 13th. The butterflies were noticeably worn looking. I raised over 25 butterflies from those eggs, a success rate of just 50%. You can read about some of the perils for young insects in my blog on critters that lay enough eggs to get some to survive.

Monarch laying eggs on Asclepias incarnata milkweed

I found this gray tree frog in May near the pool. I often hear them in the evening but they are so good about hiding during the daylight hours. The pool does attract a unique set of critters, not all of which belong. During June I found several of these unusual bugs around and in the pool. After some research, I figured out they were dung beetles (Bolbocerosoma bruneri). Some were saved but some drowned before I found them (as clearly they are not meant to be in water).

Tree frog
Dung beetle (Bolbocerosoma)

July brought a surprise set of blooms from my spider lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis). I guess I hadn't been watching it for buds so the bright white flowers were a delight to find.

Hymenocallis occidentalis
Bee on Pycnanthemum

In my evolution as an amateur naturalist, bugs excite me just as much as flowers these days (you may have noticed). August is a great month for mountain mint flowers (Pycnanthemum sp.) so I like to hang out near it and photograph the pollinators that stop by.

This year was a super year for my Southern monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) and it bloomed well into September. It even set seeds. I enjoyed noticing that the hummingbirds stopped by for nectar.

Aconitum uncinatum
Black and white warbler

I keep my windows pretty dirty but still a bird runs into them every now and then. In October I found this black and white warbler recovering in the potted plants on the deck. It flew off shortly after I took this picture.

Fall is a great time to find fungi and I found this one as I was chasing pictures of fall foliage in November. It looked like a sugar-coated pastry.

I've fallen into a routine of visiting my dad in Virginia in December. During this year's visit, we visited Jamestown, VA where there is a reconstructed fort area depicting how it might have looked in 1607. Unlike the decorations we'd find in nearby Williamsburg, the holiday decorations were true to what they would have found there naturally. This one was composed of American holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), and pine.

I wish you a Happy New Year, full of beautiful and productive encounters with our native wonders. For more pictures, you can also follow me on Instagram:

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas in Dixie

Juniperus virginiana
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, evergreen plants and decorations in the home and the landscape are a welcome sight in the South.  Evergreen trees and bright berries form the basis of these decorations, a delight to both humans and wildlife. Wildlife enjoy them in the garden, of course, using the plants for shelter and the berries for food.

Evergreen trees, particularly conifers, are the basis for many of the decorations whether they are the Christmas tree itself or the source of evergreen boughs and roping. Christmas tree farming produces a variety of trees available for cutting. One of the favorites is Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) which is not native to Georgia except in one high elevation county.    Other trees include sand pine (Pinus clausa), which is grown and sold in south Georgia, Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). 

Unlike most of the other trees that require extensive grooming to produce the right “shape”, eastern redcedar (which despite the name is really a juniper!) naturally produces a pleasing Christmas tree shape. It also has a wide native distribution, from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Great Plains. A southern form, Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola, is native to coastal areas.

Juniperus virginiana
Our native junipers have interesting features.  Juniperus virginiana has two different types of leaves (yes, needles are leaves). Juvenile leaves are needle-like while adult leaves are scale-like. Young trees will have only juvenile foliage, but some adult trees can have both types. The berry-like “fruits” are actually seed cones with fused, fleshy scales. Trees are usually dioecious so only female trees bear the cones.

While junipers provide excellent cover and food for birds, many farmers fight them. They are quick to sprout up in pastures, and they are the host plant for the cedar apple rust fungus. I had a chance to spot one of the galls on a local juniper this year – it was an amazing organism. 

Native junipers are more available in the nursery trade these days thanks to the introduction of cultivars like Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl' and ‘Burkii’. These plants make nice specimens and are certainly good for screening and wildlife shelter.

American holly (Ilex opaca)
Like red berries? Hollies are the major group of native plants appreciated for bright red berries in December.  There are a variety of species and forms to choose from – from dwarf shrubs to tall trees. American holly (Ilex opaca) is an evergreen tree as is yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria).  Yaupon holly also has dwarf forms (‘Nana’). 

Some of the deciduous hollies such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are used for floral arrangements.

Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua)

Other greenery that has been used through the years – but which I hope stays in the ground these days! – includes ground pine and ground cedar (Lycopodium spp.) and galax (Galax urceolata). Pine roping made from the branches of pine trees like loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is very popular and still used today.

If you are in need of some holiday decorations or just like a bit of greenery growing in your yard in the winter, consider some of these plants. As native plants and evergreen plants, they provide benefits to birds in terms of food and shelter while they brighten your view.

Some of you may recognize the title of this post as the song title ‘Christmas in Dixie’ by the group Alabama. It is one of my favorites. You can listen to it on You Tube here. Note: this blog was originally published by me in 2012 on another website that no longer exists.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wetlands - a Place for Water

Cattail (Typha latifolia)
You might think that is a strange title, but water really does need a place to go on its way to bigger places like rivers and oceans. Humans have spent much time draining wetlands, thinking they have a better use for that land. Places that hold water perform a special role: they help prevent floods as well as provide filtration services to clean water. They also provide habitat for birds, reptiles, and even mammals.

Two weeks ago I visited the Melvin L. Newman Wetlands Center, a part of the Clayton County Water Authority. This is a restored wetland which was used (i.e., drained) by humans for farming in the past. A well-constructed boardwalk trail loops ½ mile through an active wetland, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to see wetland-specific flora and fauna up close. The education center contains a big collection of educational materials, including stuffed animals and parts (like turtle shells). They have documented over 130 bird species alone at the center.

Trees that have died when
the wetlands were restored
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)

It takes special plants to live in a place like this. Depending on the amount of water in the wetland at any time (it varies), some plants’ roots may be dry, some may be moist, and some might be submerged entirely. Plants that can’t adapt to fluctuating water levels, especially being under water, will die. One of the trees here shows everyone how it adapts. The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which was planted here, has small grows around it that look like stumps. They are called cypress knees, and they seem to help the tree because the trees don’t grow the knees in environments that aren’t so wet. Another wetland tree that has been added at Newman is Ogeechee lime (Nyssa ogeche), a relative of black gum.

Hibiscus seedpods and cattails (behind)
Cane (Arundinaria)

While these trees have been added as part of the wetland restoration in 1995, many plants that were already there are capable of this environment. We saw elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), maples (Acer spp.), cane (Arundinaria spp.), and tag alder (Alnus serrulata). Many others have ‘moved’ in. You might ask how plants know when to move in. One way is via birds that fly from one wetland to another, depositing seeds when they poop. Wind and waterways are other sources. The wetland now has cattail (Typha latifolia), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), Hibiscus, arum (Peltandra spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and many others. The center says that they burn the wetland occasionally; this practice might help some thrive more than others.

Invasive plant management is part of the job too. Plants like privet and Japanese honeysuckle are adaptable to wetland conditions too. The center is actively managing them. Aquatic weeds like parrot feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), shown in these pictures as bright green growth in the water, flourish in the winter but are somewhat crowded out in the summer by the growth of other plants.

I learned several new things, including that the oily sheen you sometimes see on wetland water can be part of natural bacterial processes. We also saw a beautiful large black cherry (Prunus serotina) exhibiting the mature bark sometimes referred to as burnt potato chips.

Winged elm (Ulmus alata) was scattered about, easy to find with its yellow-green leaves and winged twigs.

Prunus serotina bark
Winged elm (Ulmus alata)

It was fun to spend a sunny fall day exploring this natural habitat. Birds chirped and flitted around us constantly. It’s obviously an environment that is well used by nature. I’m glad that humans are learning about the natural water filtration benefits as well. Understanding the many roles that wetlands play helps us to conserve and restore them to everyone’s benefit.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

December Snow

Snow-dusted blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
An early December snow arrived on Friday and we got 7-8 inches. It started out light, and I was as excited as every other person on Facebook, snapping pics of snow-dusted leaves in between work phone calls. 

When the evergreen mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) got too much snow, my husband and I gamely fashioned a crook to shake them off from afar - to keep them from snapping under the weight of the snow.

Vaccinium corymbosum early in the snow event

Still, the snow kept coming. We went out 3 more times to shake them off, the last time with a flashlight. As we stood back to check our work, I noticed a pine tree sinking slowly towards the ground. We stood back, helpless to do anything about it except watch in horror.

Then it snapped, crushing the plants in the front bed as it fell. It was too dark and still too snowy to do anything about that so we went back inside.

The pictures below are not black & white; that's how little color there was in the gray morning light.

Pine in front bed; Viburnum prunifolium took a direct hit

A tangle of broken branches in the front bed

Snow was still sprinkling come morning, and we shook the bushes again. A flash of blue sky appeared; the snow stopped, and the whole sky turned blue. By 10:30, a robust melting made it look like it was snowing heavily. The birds nervously approached the bird feeder, startled whenever a clump of snow broke free from the branches.

A viburnum that won't bloom in spring; this branch
was broken in the crush; it was loaded with buds.
Juniperus virginiana

I spent the afternoon trimming up the fallen pines and freeing lanky shrubs trapped by snow. A large Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) had snapped and spilled into the neighbor’s driveway. Fresh trimmings for holiday decor! Nope, I piled them on the brush pile to keep the critters warm.

So ends this unusual snow event for us. The plants should be fine, the front bed will get reworked come spring, and folks all over the area have been reminded why they don’t like snow.

Pretty view but this droopy pine later snapped too.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is dedicated to inspiring the conservation of native plants. I have used the plant database on their website ( for years. It contains over 9000 native plants, providing information on distribution, descriptions, growing conditions, propagation, benefits to wildlife, and more.

I never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit the center in person, but in late October I did.

Looking towards the Savanna Meadow Trail
Virginia creeper

Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes, it was renamed in 1995 in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. It is located in Austin, TX in an area known as the Texas hill country. The grounds showcase plants that are native to Texas, of course. I was interested to see how the design of the center would present plants from throughout the state as well as exhibits that they have about using native plants. Some of the areas, such as the delightfully kid-friendly Luci and Ian Family Garden, are relatively new.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium
Monarch on
Salvia farinacea

The gardens in October are a nice mix of fall blooms, fall fruit, and leaf color. One of the first things we did was climb the observation tower to get a view of the grounds. The tower has a nice Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) scrambling up the stones, festooned both in gorgeous foliage and ripe fruits. From the top, colorful sweeps of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and purple aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) beckoned us back down to explore the gardens. Once down there, we found monarch butterflies visiting the flowers.

From there we struck out on the Savanna Meadow Trail. It was full of grasses and forbs in all stages, some blooming and some going to seed. We saw Texas shrubs like algerita (Mahonia trifoliata), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), cacti, fragrant sumac (Rhus trilobata), and trees like Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and the Texas live oak (Quercus fusiformis). There was so much to do that we didn’t take the time for the Arboretum Trail, choosing instead to explore the family garden.

A mature Texas live oak (Quercus fusiformis)
Quercus fusiformis

The family garden, opened in 2014, is a wonderful space. Kids can explore a flowing creek, a grotto, giant bird nest, a Fibonacci spiral, and all sorts of natural materials to climb on. From there we wandered into the adjacent woodland trail, enchanted by the sounds of huge wind chimes suspended in the large trees above us. The trail led us back to the central gardens where we found more butterflies in the pollinator garden, including queen butterflies.

The explorable flowing creek in the family garden

The grotto in the family garden
Throughout the gardens, we found excellent plant signage, beautiful use of natural materials for paths and seating, creative landscape design, and an abundance of insects and birds - even a squirrel dashed by in search of a tasty Texas oak acorn. It was awesome to be in a place that was truly demonstrating the beauty and landscape-worthiness of local native plants. I hope to go back and visit again one day.

Aqueduct leading to cistern
Queen butterflies