Sunday, January 20, 2019

Hemlock Falls – In Praise of Winter Waterfalls

Winter in Georgia is usually one of plentiful rainfall and of course that can make for good waterfalls. Since there are few plants to look at (and they’re not blooming), winter is a great time to hike to see waterfalls. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit Hemlock Falls in Clarkesville and the streams and falls were bursting at the seams!

Start of the trail 

There are several waterfalls named Hemlock Falls. This is not the one at Cloudland Canyon State Park. This one is across the road from Moccasin Creek State Park and the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery. It is not part of a state park so there is no parking fee and it’s a relatively short hike from the parking area – just 1.2 miles to the falls.

Moccasin Creek with Rhododendron and Leucothoe

The parking area is small and might be crowded in the spring but only a few people were there on this foggy Sunday morning. Hemlocks frame the parking area and you could hear the gurgling of Moccasin Creek the moment you stepped out of the car. The early path is easy walking with several areas to get close to the creek if you want.  After a while, the vegetation thickens with evergreen shrubs: highland doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) along the creek side, great laurel (Rhododendron maximum), and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). This path will be pretty in May and June when those bloom.

This gusher was right on the path
Small waterfalls burst out along the edge of the trail, sometimes soaking it. In the summer, these may be mere trickles. Sturdy shoes are a good idea both for the mud and the occasional root and rocks. The trail includes a couple of benches and a really nice bridge over the creek before you get to the falls. I particularly liked how someone worked a fallen log into the path. Once you get to the bridge, the path is noticeably trickier so carry a stick or use a friend's helping hand to safely navigate some of it.

The area at the falls is wide and suitable for a good rest and snack. The trail continues beyond in a much smaller fashion to another falls called Moccasin Creek Falls. We continued about .2 of a mile further but then decided to turn around. There is a nice wet cliff with saxifrage in that area, just about even with the top of Hemlock Falls.

Hemlock Falls, bursting with water in winter

There are many waterfalls to visit in Georgia. I think I'm going to have to make a better effort to visit more each winter. Here are a few links to explore, including ones that I have been to. Enjoy!

DeSoto Falls in Lumpkin County
Raven Cliff Falls in White County
Lula Lake and Falls in Walker County
High Falls in Monroe County

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Look Closer

Bolbocerosoma beetle
Nature is incredibly complex. Did you know that 'A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes.'? Source. Even not accounting for dirt, we share this planet with millions and millions of different species – from plants, to insects, to animals, reptiles, birds, fish, fungi, and more. We know that we haven’t identified all of it because we discover more each year. We don’t really have to go far to discover new things – our own yard is home to so much if we look closely.

I’ve lived in the same place for 15 years now and you can be sure that I have looked all over it, especially in the first few years. I still find new plants. I found a fern I’d never noticed after 13 years and have since found 3 instances of it around the property.

I found golden tortoise beetles on leaves after 11 years, emerald green tiger beetles on the sidewalk after 13 years, and dung scarab beetles (Bolbocerosoma) drowning in the swimming pool after 14 years. 

Every year I have found new birds - even if only because they ran into my windows (I’ve let my big windows get really dirty and collisions are down every year!). This is a black and white warbler that hit the window in 2017; it recovered and flew away.

I identify new butterflies almost every year and I’ll probably never stop finding new moths and caterpillars because there are vastly more of them. Frankly, it’s a matter of the more I look, the more I find.

Intensely watching a defined area was the subject of a year-long project by a Nebraska employee of The Nature Conservancy. I’ve always enjoyed Chris Helzer’s blog about his work (and life) on Nebraska prairies. He announced in January 2018 that he’d be observing one square meter of prairie for a year. This quote from Chris captures how I feel about my place: “I honestly don’t think I ever visited my plot without seeing something I hadn’t seen there before.”

Perhaps he was inspired by David Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature. That book documents a similar effort except it was in a forest. [That’s a great book, you should read it, by the way.] Chris's final species total (and it doesn't include insects that flew away before he could take their picture): “As of December 27, 2018, I have photographed 113 different species of plants and animals within my little square meter plot.  That includes 15 plant species, 21 different flies, 18 beetles, and 14 bees.” You can see some of his pictures in his blog.

So as the new year rolls on, pledge to pay more attention to what's going on at your place. You'll probably get a few surprises.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Write Your Own Prescription

Moss on rock with lichen
I am just getting over my first ever bout with the flu (that I can remember) and am seriously behind on my outdoor time. A recent reminder of how doctors are acknowledging the health benefits of being outside didn’t help me feel any better mentally – now I feel even more behind.

After I finished my flu prescription, I needed a nature one! I have watched people on Facebook display their outdoor adventures for weeks. The warm, wet days of this Georgia winter has been a perfect combo for exploring the natural world of fungi, and the mushroom group has been full of glistening caps and full baskets.

I finally got outside this week, but most of my yard’s fungi had already collapsed or been nibbled on. Still, I was refreshed by the sound of the birds and the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet. Even the nibbles in the mushrooms were a happy reminder that life was moving on in the great outdoors while I wasn’t looking.

A nibbled mushroom
Mushrooms on a log

I was rejuvenated too by the wet, green growth of mosses in plump, round mounds and along tree trunks. Green-gray lichens were swollen with moisture, permeating the air with freshness. I could feel my lungs take it in as if they were hooked up to an oxygen tank. Of course, they were!

Parmotrema perforatum
Stereum complicatum

Remember to take some time and write yourself that nature prescription. It’s just as good for you as that vitamin pill. If you need some ideas on what to do outside, reference my 2017 blog entry about Vitamin N and the ideas available in that book. Vitamin N not only refreshes you, but it also grounds you with the world around us. And that’s good for us and Mother Nature.

Note: I found this fabulous resource for common lichens in the Georgia Piedmont region. It helped me identify the one shown above as perforated ruffle lichen (Parmotrema perforatum).

Sunday, December 30, 2018

2018 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.

In January of 2018 we had some super cold morning temperatures and a local photographer shared how to make frozen bubbles - which works best in very cold temperatures - so I decided to try it. You need a solution of water, dish soap, corn syrup, and a straw. Here is a link for a recipe.

Erythronium umbilicatum
As cold as January was, February seemed to bring on early flowers like trout lilies (Erythronium umbilicatum) even earlier than usual. I always enjoy them in my yard, like these, but this year there was also talk of a super bloom in south Georgia so we drove down there for the show (and it was amazing, check out my blog here if you missed it).

Depending on how they are managed, areas like cemeteries can be refuges for plants. Near my house, one cemetery is full of ground-hugging phlox planted years ago by caretakers. I look for it every March to carpet the spaces between the graves with bright pink blooms. It might be moss phlox (Phlox subulata) or it might be trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis) or it might be both with hybrids created by nature. The shades of pink vary from white to deep pink.

Phlox subulata or Phlox nivalis in cemetery

Arabia Mountain outcrop
In April, I had a chance to visit Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area. It is one of several areas in Georgia with the special plant environments because of granite outcrops. I have written about them before but had not visited this particular one.

Arabia is a county-managed park and very accessible. I explored just a small part of it by following the path from the Nature Preserve. The mix of plants and colors really does create a tapestry of beauty across the stark face of the rock outcrops.

I like to imagine my yard is a haven for wildlife and occasionally I stumble upon proof - like one day last May when I spied a giant swallowtail butterfly laying eggs on my wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata). Also known as hoptree, I have this native planted in a large pot on the front porch and it is native to my county (which is why the butterfly is in this area). After realizing that predators destroyed most of the eggs, I gathered the few remaining ones and raised them in a cage.

Giant swallowtail on Ptelea trifoliata
Spiraea virginiana and bumblebee

The flowers on my Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana) were the best this June that they have ever been. These tiny flowers are adored by a variety of beetles and small bees. I just have to keep the deer away.

In July, my neighbor alerted me to a new arrival in the area: a piebald deer had been born and was living in the woods behind their home. The deer continues to thrive, we saw it grazing with its family just this past week.

Piebald deer and mother
Harris's 3-spot moth caterpillar

August continues to be a prime month for caterpillar hunting and this year was another great year finding new ones in the area (see my blog from then). One of the coolest ones that I found was after that blog post and I found it on that very meadowsweet spirea that bloomed so well in June. This is the caterpillar of the Harris's 3-spot moth and those bits next to the head are the remnants of shedding from one instar to the next.

Another great moment in wildlife reproduction happened in September when I spied this pair of box turtles making babies in my neighbor's yard. Maybe next spring will bring the pitter patter of tiny box turtle feet.

Box turtles making more
Hibiscus aculeatus

Fall is a good time for native plant sales and I was finally able to pick up a replacement for a plant that wasn't true. Apparently, quite a few people in Georgia had been mistakenly growing a non-native Hibiscus relative (Abelmoschus manihot) instead of the native comfortroot (Hibiscus aculeatus). The plants look very similar, but the center of the flower is noticeably different. One of my blog readers pointed out the mistake and we're trying to get the word out to anyone propagating this in Georgia to check which one they have. Thanks to the Chattahoochee Nature Center for growing the correct species and I was thrilled when my purchase bloomed in October.

Hamamelis virginiana blooms in November
Several years ago I rescued a witch hazel shrub (Hamamelis virginiana) and it was nice to see it blooming this November (right on time). The cool crisp days kept it going for several weeks. This our latest blooming native woody plant.

I went to Virginia again this December and took a day trip up to Chincoteague Island via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It's a very seasonal area and most of the businesses were closed but the state park was open and we went in search of the famous wild horses. A tip from the ranger got us to exactly the right spot to find them grazing in the marsh.

Horses resting in the wooded edges of the marsh

One lone horse in the open, perhaps it is the male

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 23, 2018

Beautiful Native Plants for Georgia in Winter

Are you already missing the leaves of deciduous plants? Winter is just getting started so we’ll be looking at bare branches for a while. Fortunately, there are still plenty of native plants to brighten up your landscapes with evergreen leaves and dangling fruits. Here is a list of native plants to see you through the season. If you don’t have enough of them, make a note to look for them at reputable native nurseries (remember, most Georgia residents can plant even during winter because the ground does not freeze) either now or come spring.

Ilex vomitoria
We have five different species of holly to consider: American holly (Ilex opaca), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), and inkberry (Ilex glabra) are all evergreen. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and possumhaw (Ilex decidua) are not evergreen but have attractive fruits until the birds find them. Remember that hollies need both male and female plants (that flower) to get fruits.

There are six additional evergreen shrubs beyond the hollies: coastal doghobble (Leucothoe axillaris), hobblebush (Agarista populifolia), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), evergreen rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense and a few other species), devilwood (Osmanthus americanus), and Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia).

Aronia arbutifolia
Here are four more shrubs, they are deciduous but have some winter interest: hazel alder (Alnus serrulata) has tiny dried cones; oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has exfoliating bark and leftover flowers); chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia) has persistent fruits as do the sumacs (Rhus glabra is particularly showy).

Trees that you might consider include some evergreen ones: Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana), pines (Pinus spp.), hemlock (Tsuga ssp.), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), evergreen magnolias (Magnolia virginiana and M. grandiflora), and wax myrtle (Morella cerifera)

You might also consider some of the deciduous trees that offer some winter interest: American beech (Fagus grandifolia) has persistent leaves that fade to cream; white oak (Quercus alba) has beautiful shaggy bark; and one hawthorn in particular has fruit that remains for months: ‘Winter King’ (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’).

Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) with evergreen crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

Three evergreen ferns contribute interest at ground level: Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), and marginal fern (Dryopteris marginalis). Perennials also contribute bits of green among the fallen leaves: gingers (Hexastylis spp.); green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum); partridgeberry is evergreen and also has red fruits (Mitchella repens); yucca (Yucca); pipsissewa (Chimaphila maculata); mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata); and teaberry/wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens).

Gaultheria procumbens

While you’re enjoying the winter good looks of these plants, you can feel extra good because they also provide either shelter or food for wildlife: something for you and something for them!

Please research these carefully for suitability to your location as well as local conditions (wet, dry, sunny, shady). Some of these are Coastal Plain native plants that have been used in the Piedmont by gardeners for years while some are Piedmont natives that are not suitable further south.

Note: I've hot-linked plants that I've previously written about it. Click those links to get more pictures and details.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Puddle Garden (the book)

If we want our children to appreciate nature, we should start them young. We can take them outside, of course, and show them what it’s all about. We can also foster a love of nature through books, but the choice of books has been slim. Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax offers a dark yet inspiring message (“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.”), so I got a copy of that for my new grandson.

Someone recently recommended The Puddle Garden, written in 2015 by some ordinary folks in New Jersey who also have a native plant nursery. Jared Rosenbaum wrote the book and his sister Laura Rosenbaum illustrated it. I’m so excited to see passionate folks create resources to inspire others.

The book is a beautiful story about encouraging wildlife to visit your garden by planting native plants to attract and sustain them. The story features 6 plants and 6 critters as a way of introducing children to the special relationships that exist in nature (and how our choices affect them). 

I have now added this book to my collection. If you’re looking for an engaging book for kids, check it out at its dedicated website

Also, Jared has a wonderful blog, self-described as “Stories and articles exploring connections between people and wild plants in the Northeast. Native plants, ecological restoration, field botany, foraging, herbal medicine, and more.” Visit him at

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Get a Broom!

The noise over leaf-blowers is literally getting louder. The usage of leaf-blowers in total is increasing as more busy homeowners outsource their yardwork to a company who wants to bill as many visits as possible, mowing and blowing even when hardly needed. In between visits, one of my neighbors brings out a leaf-blower every couple of days to clean off the driveway (apparently it is beyond the capability of cars to drive over those leaves). If I’m outside at the same time, it’s pretty hard not to yell over to him: “Get a broom!”

As someone who works from home, the frequency of visits to homes in my neighborhood is quite numerous, sometimes for landscapes that don’t even need these services. I’ve watched contractors mow grass that hasn’t grown and scour away every single leaf during a time when leaves are falling constantly. For a brief moment in time, a moment when the homeowner is usually not even home, the yard is a sea of green, unblemished by the unsightly appearance of a single red or golden fall leaf.

Usage of leaf-blowers, on residential yards in particular, has the following impacts over more traditional methods of dispersal like brooms and rakes: 
  • The pollution impact of small engines themselves. 
  • The dispersal into the air of dust and particulate matter on human respiratory systems (including things such as animal droppings, fungi spores, pesticides, fertilizers, road debris, and heavy metals). 
  • The impact of the noise on humans and small animals and birds, including the enjoyment of the outdoors by humans on a pretty fall day. 
  • The impact of wind on the insects that curl up for the winter in dead leaves (as high as 200 mph).
Cities, counties, and states are looking at leaf-blower bans; some have implemented them. The goal is primarily to reduce noise and pollution. The Pollinator Friendly Yards Facebook page owner has started her own petition to ban gas-powered leaf-blowers. You can find it here.

Tiny snake on the rake
Now for the good news - using brooms and rakes can be a healthy form of exercise! Getting outside also puts you in touch with nature. I love to take the time to look at the various leaves that I'm sweeping or raking: oaks, maples, dogwood, cherry, sourwood - how many different ones can I find?

I find bugs and other cool critters too: toads, snails, beetles, and even a tiny snake this year. Sometimes my neighbors walk by and we spend a few minutes talking. I look at the garden and think about changes while my arms do the raking and sweeping.

So, pick up that broom again and take a trip back to the time when things were manual, and we had to work for that piece of pie! Brooms also make great gifts, and you know the holidays are coming up soon.

[Thanks for indulging this rant. For another good rant, see my blog post on red mulch.]