Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Price of Ignorance

When I go for a walk around my neighborhood, I always expect to find both good things and not so good things in the natural world. Good things are thriving native plants, birds, and butterflies. Not so good things are increased populations of invasive plants and humans doing harmful things.

Sassafras tree killed by human
The humans doing harmful things aspect is frustrating because I know of a lot of it comes from ignorance. To most people, the plants they kill are just plants. Cutting down the bush on the left is no different than cutting down the one on the right. How were they to know that the one on the left was a native shrub that is a host to butterfly eggs while the one they left on the right is a non-native plant that doesn’t host anything? Or worst, it’s a non-native shrub that has berries with the potential to kill native birds!

When I talk to my neighbors while they’re working in their yard, I try to point out the native plants and say positive things about them. “Oh, look you have several sourwood trees. I love how they bloom in the summer and have such great fall color. Have you had sourwood honey?” I want them to realize that they have good things there - things that are worth their attention. I offer to help identify plants if they are planning any removals or are just curious.

With the Internet today, it’s not hard to find out what a plant might be. Many times I’ve heard someone say “We’re just going to pay someone to clean out the back.” That means chopping and spraying what they don’t recognize so it is “tidy.” The hubris of humans when it comes how that bit of wild woods behind the house needs to look is harmful to the other species we live with … cover the place in dyed mulch while you’re at it, ok?

My recent walk discovered a mature Sassafras tree that was hacked to death. It was the remaining of two original ones. The first was killed two years ago by utility contractors installing a new pole. I’m not sure why someone decided two years later that this one should go now. It was healthy all through last fall. Just twenty feet away, invasive plants are moving in. This picture shows monkey grass (Liriope), Nandina, Mahonia, and Elaeagnus.  Bird poop planted the last three. The Nandina has fruit so there will be more. Across the road, tree of heaven (Ailanthus) is trying to muscle out a thicket of privet (Ligustrum) and a few pieces of Nandina. In ten years, this deciduous woodland will be full of these non-native plants.

A group of invasive plants near the Sassafras that is no more

Let’s be a bit more curious about what’s around us. Figure out what that plant is and then decide if you should keep it or not. Insects and critters depend on our willingness to share this space with them. That includes supporting the plants that they need, and they need us to know better.

In the natural world, the price of ignorance is paid by the many species affected, not necessarily the one who was ignorant.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Bee Welcome

On your path to nature, what did you fall in love with first? It probably wasn’t bees, was it? We grow up from childhood with a healthy respect for creatures that can pack a powerful sting. The one I remember first was during 3rd grade recess – a honeybee in a patch of blooming clover. Today I look for bees in my garden because they are a sign of a working ecosystem, and they are always welcome here.

Southeastern blueberry bee
In my current appreciation for bees, I am naturally curious about what kinds are visiting and what I can do to make them feel even more welcome. I was excited to get a new book recently, “Bees: An Identification and Native Plant Forage Guide.” It is written by Heather Holm, author of “Pollinators of Native Plants.” Her first book was great and so my expectations were high for this new book.

How did she do? The book is amazingly detailed and so full of information that my expectations have been exceeded. Chapter 1 sets the stage for detail with 30 pages of background on bees: life cycle, anatomy, nesting, their relationship with flowers, and the latest issues that impact bees. All of it is beautifully illustrated with close-up photos. This section closes with a 4-page spread that illustrates key characteristics “at a glance.” I love the pictorial illustrations that highlight the sizes; they really help me envision one bee relative to others. 

Chapters 2 through 6 get up close and personal with bee families: Colletidae, Andrenidae, Halictidae, Megachilidae, and Apidae. Each family is divided into several genera. I didn’t know that the Apidae family included the European honeybee as well as the native bumblebees (plus several others). Profiles vary in size but each includes basic information: size, months of activity, presence in the Eastern US, how they collect pollen (if applicable), nest details, life cycle, and common forage plants. Each profile has numerous photos of the bee, often both male and female.

Example of a bee profile, we have these bees in Georgia

Monarda punctata stems
I feel fortunate that I read this book so early in the season. My understanding of “leaving stems in place” for bees to nest in was obviously wrong. First, bees that nest in stems need cut or broken stems so that they have a way to get into them. Second, it is in the springtime that they use them and they need them for a whole year. I used to think they needed them over the winter and I could cut them to the ground in the spring.

Here’s an example of what they need: in spring of 2017, cut the old stems of 2016 to 15 inches. Bees will lay eggs in them during the spring. Leave those stems in place all during 2017; the new foliage will grow up around them. In spring 2018, new bees will emerge from them and then the stems will start to naturally break down. You don’t need to remove them. Repeat this every year. You could also cut some stems and stick them in other areas or in pots so that they are available to bees elsewhere. I did that with some super long stems from tall meadow rue (Thalictrum pubescens).

Chapters 7-10 cover native plants that are good for bee forage:  Large Trees, Small Trees & Large Shrubs, Small Shrubs, and Annuals/Biennials/Perennials. Heather’s love of native plants really shines in these chapters.  Plant profiles include flowering time, distribution, habitat, what bees use them as well as helpful symbols to indicate if they support other insects, birds, or are larval host plants. Just like the bee profiles, each one is packed with information.

Example of a plant profile, Geranium maculatum is native to Georgia

A Colletes bee from 2014
I plan to use this book all through the spring and summer to watch certain plants for bee activity as well as to identify bees. Even though the book indicates its plant profiles are for the Northeast and Midwest regions, many of the plants featured are also native to the Southeast.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Revenge of the Seeds

'Bradford' pear flowers with old fruit
Pears that have seeded into the wild from cultivated stock are blooming now. These are the trees that were sold as ‘Bradford’ pears (Pyrus calleryana) and a few other names. You can spot these offspring in vacant lots and sunny roadsides – they are generally upright and have flowers in clusters of white/cream. If you were to examine them up close, they might have a musky smell and sport occasional thorns (a trait that was bred out of ‘Bradford’ but remained in its genes).

As many people know, these pears were originally promoted as sterile plants. They would not cross pollinate with each other and therefore would not produce any fruits (or seeds). However, their weak branch structure led to excessive limb damage and nurserymen worked to produce stronger, better versions, later sold as ‘Aristocrat,’ ‘Chanticleer’ and others. Unfortunately, the introduction of these other cultivars meant that cross-pollination with the older ‘Bradford’ pears would result in small but viable fruits.

'Bradford' pear fruit
This ability to bear fruit was painfully obvious in my neighborhood when a neighbor with two pears decided to plant 3 more and he selected a different cultivar. The two older trees had only occasionally set small amounts of fruit (another neighbor, further away, has some wild ones and the occasional bee was able to fly far enough to pollinate a few flowers). When the 3 new trees were planted in close proximity to his existing ones, the fruit production exploded. He now had 5 trees producing heavy amounts of fruit.

It wasn’t long before seedlings started popping up in the yard across the street from his trees – dozens of them and no doubt many more elsewhere that were not as visible.

When he first planted the trees, I mentioned that they were not a good choice. After a couple years, I mentioned that they were setting a lot of fruit and spreading into the neighborhood. It wasn’t until they affected his ability to grow lush grass (they cast shade) that he decided that maybe they should go. This winter, after they set fruit, he had that set of 3 cut down (original 2 still in place).

Pyrus calleryana seedlings
The cut branches sat in piles on the edge of his property for about a week until he got them cleaned up. Last week, as I walked past, I noticed lush growth there. Always eager to identify things, I bent down to see the source of the growth. It was thousands and thousands of baby pears!

I saw him working in the yard this week and talked to him about the seedlings. He said that he’s planning to tear up the area and lay sod. He also mentioned that he’d like to get rid of the remaining two and asked for suggestions. I told him to check out redbud (Cercis canadensis), and he said he would look it up.  It would be pretty sweet to see those last two go as well! Now to work on the other neighbor.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Peeking in the Pocket

The Pocket at Pigeon Mountain (and the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail located there) is a beautiful spring wildflower hotspot. A popular time to go is mid-March when flowers are very lush and colorful. I have been several times during that timeframe (you can read about my 2012 visit here), and I’m planning to go again this year with friends. Last weekend, in a spur of the moment decision, I decided to visit a month earlier than usual to get a peek at some of the super early wildflowers that won’t be blooming a month from now.

Erigenia bulbosa
Erigenia bulbosa next to Phacelia

The main attraction for this visit was to see harbinger of spring (Erigenia bulbosa), a tiny member of the Apiaceae (parsley) family. As you can tell by its common name, this is a very early wildflower. It was blooming nicely all along the trail and we were able to photograph it up close once the boardwalk transitioned to the dirt path that leads to the waterfall.

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta, purple flowers
The star of the day was sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta or Anemone acutiloba). This perennial was scattered throughout the trail, growing in all conditions. Some of the clumps were huge, with numerous stems of flowers and old, leathery leaves (new leaves will emerge soon).

Most of the flowers were white, but in some areas we found purple ones - so that became the treat, to find them.

Hepatica nobilis var. acuta with small bee
I was also pleased to find a small carpenter bee (Ceratina sp.) exploring one of the hepatica flowers. The only other pollinator I found on that trip was a spring azure butterfly along the path to the parking lot.

The path to the waterfall had the most flowers. In addition to the two mentioned, we saw decumbent trilliums (Trillium decumbens) with buds, Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) with pink buds (and one individual that was actually blooming but he was way ahead of his time), and a few blooming clumps of star chickweed (Stellaria pubera). We saw the early leaves of many of the March superstars too.

As we were returning along the boardwalk, we got another surprise. We met up with a couple visiting from Alabama that I know only from Facebook. What a happy coincidence that we picked the same day to visit and meet in person for the first time.

We also hiked the upper trail that leads to the top of the waterfall. There were not many flowers, but we found some of the purple-flowering hepatica and a single clump of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) on an exposed area (where perhaps it was getting extra warmth). We also saw the earliest flowering shrub – spicebush (Lindera benzoin) – just opening.

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) attracting a few bugs too
Spring azure

I’m still looking forward to my March trip with some of my native wildflower-loving friends. I know the floral show will be spectacular and the company will be too.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Plan for Butterflies

Tiger swallowtail on native azalea (April)
Even with our mild winters in Georgia, seeing that first butterfly is always a thrill. I usually always run back inside for my camera to record the event. It’s like a flower woke up and took flight!

You might think that butterflies just happen. The truth is, you have to plant for butterflies. Therefore, you need to plan for butterflies. The monarch butterfly’s troubles give us a good case for discussion because a large number of people are familiar with its reproductive needs.

Monarch on goldenrod (great nectar plant)
Butterflies (and their more numerous relatives the moths) live out their cycle first as eggs and caterpillars and then become amazing flying machines. Caterpillars eat leaves and the adult females will only lay their eggs on just the right kind of plant. In the case of the monarch butterfly, that plant is milkweed (Asclepias sp.). If all the milkweed were to disappear, the monarch butterfly would become extinct. In fact, there are fewer monarches today in part because there is less milkweed in the wild than before.

Therefore, if you want butterflies, you need to provide the adults with plants on which they can lay their eggs. Lots of people plant butterfly gardens full of beautiful non-native flowers for them to feast on, but without sufficient host plants for the eggs, it’s like a nice cocktail bar … only there for adults. (For those of you adding parsley and fennel to your garden, that only supports 1-2 common butterfly species.)

How do you plan for butterflies? I take two approaches. First, I see what butterflies are already in my area by observing them in my yard or on my walks around the neighborhood and surrounding wild areas. For those butterflies, I want to make sure that I know what host plants they need and try to keep providing those plants in my yard.

American lady on pussytoes
Cloudless sulphur on partridge pea

Butterflies (and host plant examples) already around me include: Eastern tiger swallowtail (tuliptree, black cherry), red-spotted purple (black cherry, hawthorn), spicebush swallowtail (spicebush, sassafras), American lady (pussytoes, rabbit tobacco), buckeye (Ruellia, Agalinis), Gulf fritillary (passionvine), monarch (milkweed), and the many butterflies that host on plants in the pea family: cloudless sulphur and sleepy orange (partridge pea), long tailed-skipper (hogpeanut, Desmodium, silver-spotted skipper (false indigo), and Eastern tailed blue (Lespedeza).

Second, I research other common butterflies (or ones that other people near me mention) and work on adding to my yard the plants that they need for their caterpillars; the plants they need are native to my area but were probably culled out by humans before me. For example, the red admiral, comma, and question mark butterflies need false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrica) as a host plant, so I ordered some seeds for it. I recently added pipevine in the hopes of attracting a pipevine swallowtail. I have juniper but I’ve yet to see a Juniper hairstreak.

Red-banded hairstreak on Eupatorium
Sometimes new butterflies surprise me. In 2016, 4 new ones showed up: red-banded hairstreak, viceroy, gemmed satyr, and great spangled fritillary. Of those new ones, I don’t have host plants for the viceroy but I believe someone down the street has a willow (Salix). Willows are actually pretty common in wild wet areas but people don’t usually notice them. In my caterpillar searching, I found the caterpillar of the luna moth on sweetgum in the backyard, but I’ve not seen the adult.

It’s important to do your research and keep your eyes open. That’s one thing I learned during my caterpillar search last year; even if you don’t notice them, they’re out there. The more diverse selection of native plants that you have, the more butterflies you’ll have. Plan for it.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

As Lovely As a Tree

Liriodendron tulipifera
The third Friday in February is Georgia Arbor Day. It is a good day to plant a tree in Georgia because we generally have mild conditions and can usually dig a hole even in winter.

It is also a good day to remind ourselves why trees should be planted. This is a tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera). It provides food for several kinds of birds and small mammals. It is one of the host plants for the Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly (state butterfly of Georgia). For humans, it provides shade, beauty, erosion control, and oxygen.

The title for this post references a poem by Joyce Kilmer entitled “Trees,” written in 1914. It's a wonderful poem for feeling good about trees. The well-known first couplet is:

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree

The Arbor Day movement itself, of course, seeks to encourage people to plant more trees. The first Arbor Day in the United States was celebrated in 1872 by Sterling Morton in Nebraska. It was picked up nationally in 1907 thanks to a proclamation by Theodore Roosevelt with a focus on educating school children about conservation. Helping school children learn more about the importance of trees is a very fun and rewarding experience, but it’s never too late to learn about why having trees is so important.

American plum (Prunus americana) - host to over 450 different
butterflies and moths

Trees have nourished and inspired men for generations, every year enrapturing new people with their beauty, utility, or life-giving resources. I am proud to be a “tree-hugger” and seek to inspire others to love trees as well. I hope you will take this opportunity to consider the importance of trees to our ecosystem, especially native trees.

Here are some of my Arbor Day posts from previous years:

Arbor Day in Georgia

Plant a Tree for the Future

A Native Tree is Not Just a Tree

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Bird’s Eye View

American goldfinch
Sometimes we look at our yard from a neighbor’s perspective – is it neat and attractive? When you’re a nature lover, you might consider a different view point. How about from an insect’s perspective or a bird’s?

What are insects and birds looking for when they come by? We’ll have to imagine that we are such a creature, but it won’t take much imagination actually. We know that birds and insects need the essentials: food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young. The important thing to understand that across the thousands of different types that pass through our yard, their needs vary quite a bit.

Food and Water

A low estimate of the number of bird species that pass through my yard would be 50. Some of them are frugivores, some are granivores, hummingbirds are nectivores, and then many of them are insectivores (or need insects for their chicks). They all don’t eat the same thing.

Ambush bug eats skipper
The number of insect species is even higher. Some of them are herbivores (eating plants: leaves, pollen, or nectar) while others are carnivores (eating other insects).

Within those two broad categories, insects are often specialists on certain plants (think monarch butterfly caterpillars eating milkweed, Asclepias sp.) or certain prey. For example, a small insect can eat a mosquito but it takes a larger one to eat a fly.

Tiger swallowtail nectars on Joe pye weed

In addition to birds and insects, of course, we also have lizards, turtles, and other critters and they have needs too. When you’re looking at your yard, do you have enough diversity to provide for the creatures that are thinking about living/eating there?


Shelter needs are every bit as varied as food needs. There are the obvious bird considerations: nest boxes, dense shrubs, tall trees. Birds that are winter residents need thick vegetation during cold nights.

Critters need a place to go too when they are resting. They will hide out on all types of plants: leafy perennials, shrubs, and trees.

Insects will also take shelter in dead leaves, under loose bark, and in the soil. If a mowed lawn is our predominant vegetation, how helpful is that to insects?

Place to raise their young

Some critters actively manage their young (like birds) while others lay eggs and leave. Some (like bees) lay eggs with provisions and leave.

A spider has created an egg mass that will hatch after she dies
(the anole safely exited the web later)

Birds build nests in varied places: some nest on the ground, in brush, and in the cavities of dead and living trees. Eastern phoebes will make nests on manmade ledges (like my security lights). During active bird nesting season you can help by watching out for predators. We lost a whole nest of baby bluebirds because a snake got into the nest box and ate them. We now have a snake guard on that box.

A robin's nest in the open

So if you’re interested in attracting wildlife, look at your yard from a critter’s point of view. Maybe that tidy sweep of grass won’t look so good after all!

Some of my previous posts on supporting birds and insects:

Natural Bird Food
Native Shrubs for Birds
Black Cherry - A Perfect Plant for Birds
Native Birds Like Native Plants
Supporting Insect Herbivores
Everyday Nature