Sunday, November 19, 2017

Small Trees with Good Fall Color

Wow, was that the fastest fall ever? Actually no, it’s not over yet, but not everyone appreciates the deep fall tones of the native oaks. And not everyone can have an oak in their yard – oaks are called canopy trees for a reason. Yards seem to be getting smaller so it stands to reason that folks might like some small tree recommendations and that is what this post is about. In some cases, large shrubs can work as well.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) is a small to medium tree depending on what species you select. It is also one of the more available native trees, especially thanks to a few cultivars that have been developed. It is one of the first native trees to bloom. I have written about it before as a good plant to support fruit-loving birds. The fall color is outstanding, especially on trees in full sun.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is a Southern classic but not everyone realizes how good the fall color is until the plants turn glorious shades of red and burgundy. This one is good for part shade conditions, especially afternoon shade. It is also a good plant for fruit-loving birds. I have written about flowering dogwood’s cousins before. Those species are large shrubs and small trees also, but the fall color is not very showy in my experience.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida)

Chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme) is one of the smaller native maples. Mostly found in the northern half of Georgia, it has a small range in the upper Coastal Plain according to USDA.  Its leaves resemble small versions of sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and the fall color is similar but more intense. I love watching the roadside near me for the annual coloring of a small grove of chalkbark maple trees. It was gorgeous as ever this year. A similar tree is Florida maple, and I have written about that one in my backyard before.

Chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme)
Leaves of Acer leucoderme





















Viburnums in general have great fall color but they are considered shrubs. Two of the larger species have upright forms that allow them to double as small trees: blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and the rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum). Blackhaw viburnum has a more vibrant color compared to the often more muted tones of the rusty blackhaw.

Viburnum rufidulum
Viburnum prunifolium



















Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) is another small to medium tree, slowly growing to about 30 feet. It naturally grows in woodlands where along the edges it sometimes looks more like a shrub and turns beautiful shades of red and orange. In more shade, it seems to be a bright yellow. I love its assortment of common names which include American hornbeam, ironwood, and blue beech.

Carpinus caroliniana
Carpinus caroliniana


















I hope this helps you find some ideas for smaller spaces. If you’re looking for good fall color in Georgia but are not limited by size, take a look at my earlier post on Dependable Fall Color.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

A Unique Fall Flower

We have to wait all year to see one of the most unusual and beautiful flowers around: the blue gentian. The one native to my area, and I even have one naturally in my woods, is called harvestbells or soapwort gentian (Gentiana saponaria). One of five gentians native to Georgia, this one is the most widely distributed species.

Gentiana saponaria
According to Gentians of the Eastern United States, this species is found in moist woodlands and along mature streams and trails. In my experiences on plant rescues in the metro Atlanta area, we most often do find it along or near streams. We can’t always rescue it because streams are usually protected during development.

The times we have been able to do so, the plants usually do quite well. I have one that I’ve relocated to a moist area that is protected from deer, and it has several blooming stems each year. The one in my woods doesn’t get as much sun so it only has one stem with 2-3 flowers. It is just barely hanging onto the edge of the bank these days after several gully washers over the years. I should move it.

Gentiana saponaria
Recently a friend mentioned that one of the plants that she planted into a demonstration garden (after rescuing it) was having a great year. I went to take some pictures of it and was able to capture a bumble bee pollinating the flowers. Click on this link to see the video that I took; a second video on the one at my house is here and you can hear the buzzing sound she makes. The smaller bumble bees are able to squeeze into the flower to get pollen and nectar. I also noticed a large carpenter bee going after the outside base of the flower since it was too big to get inside (this is called nectar robbing since the bee performs no pollination services for the nectar).

Look for these beautiful flowers in the late summer and fall. Gentians grow in a variety of habitats so you might be surprised where you find them. Most of them are a beautiful blue, but there is a white-flowering species as well.

You can read about another gentian species that I wrote about on a hiking trip in NC. And you can read about Sabatia - another flower that is related to gentian - but I doubt many of us would have realized that because it looks so different.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Fall Today, Gone Tomorrow?

I enjoy fall colors as much as the next person, but I like to have a little time to enjoy them. This year seems to be moving along at a rapid pace. Everything I read says that the show is late to start this year but is expected to be shorter than usual.

So today’s post is a quick and short reminder to get out there if you’re going! These pictures are from yesterday (November 4th) in Roswell.  Rain forecast for mid-week will likely take down a lot of leaves in North Georgia.

One of the lakes in Mountain Park near Roswell, GA

The lake in Leita Thompson Memorial Park in Roswell, GA

If you’re looking to create more fall color in your landscape for next year, check out my 2012 post on Dependable Fall Color.

If you’d like to better guess what you’re seeing, see my earlier blog posts by leaf color:


Mockernut hickory (Carya alba)
Red maple (Acer rubrum)


Sassafras albidum
Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Chattahoochee Bend State Park

One of the newest Georgia State Parks is nestled around a bend of the Chattahoochee River near Newnan in Coweta County. At 2910 acres, it is also one of the biggest, stretching for 7 miles along the river. 

I didn’t know much about the park plant-wise, but I figured that it was worth a trip to check it out and went on the spur of the moment last week; my daughter gamely tagged along.


Once we exited I-20, it was still a long drive along quiet country roads to get to the park. We entered the park from Flat Rock Rd, but it didn’t occur to me what that meant. There is actually an outcrop in the park and you can explore it from Trailhead 1 which you reach before you even get to the Visitor Center. The area was crowded with participants in the Georgia Orienteering Club, so we kept going, but I noticed yellow flowers along the road there and vowed to stop by on the way out. 

After a brief stop at the Visitor Center, we headed for the Day Use Area down by the river to find the trail that went along the river.

We lingered briefly by the boat ramp to examine a climbing vine that I later found out is climbing buckwheat (Fallopia scandens). Small white asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) were still blooming and bluemist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) was here and there until the shade of the Riverwalk Trail took over.  The woods were filled with trees that were familiar to me: American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), box elder (Acer negundo), and later big patches of paw paw (Asimina triloba), large river birch (Betula nigra), hackberry (Celtis sp.), maples and oaks. We even saw an American hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Climbing buckwheat (Fallopia scandens)
Hazelnut (Corylus americana)















The trail is very close to the river and abundant stretches of river cane (Arundinaria sp.) were there. Sprinkled throughout were the fading blooms of white snakeroot (Ageratina sp). Also long past bloom was wingstem (Verbesina sp.) with just enough faded petals to recognize it was one of the yellow flowered ones. The bridges constructed along the walk were very well done. One tall bridge was flanked by two large deciduous hollies (Ilex decidua) so it was easy to get a good picture of the fruit. We walked as far as the observation tower which unfortunately does not have a good view of the river but would be fun for kids.

River cane (Arundinaria)
Observation tower

Ilex decidua
Wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)





































We turned back to try to find the beaver ponds via the Wild Turkey Trail but only walked along a dry trail with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and Christmas ferns that led back to the road. With not enough time to go further on the Riverside Trail (and no apparent way to drive to another portion), we decided to head back and stop where the yellow flowers were.

Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius)
The brightest yellow flower turned out to be a patch of coreopsis, but then I realized that there was another yellow flower nearby that was different. It was a Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri). That’s when I realized that the “flat rock” was an outcrop, an environment that is home to many special plants.

As I looked around, I found other special plants such as the fleshy leaves of quill fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius) and prickly cactus (Opuntia sp.). After I got home, I found references that elf orpine (Diamorpha smallii) blooms there in the spring, another outcrop special plant. 










It looks like a spring trip back to the park might be in order so that not only can I finish the Riverwalk Trail, but also spend time on the Flat Rock Trail as well. How wonderful that this area was protected!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

All the Painted Ladies

Despite the warm weather, nature knows that fall is coming. Leaves are quietly dropping, and each stray leaf still tricks my mind into thinking that a butterfly is fluttering by. A few are still flying, mostly Gulf Fritillaries and Cloudless Sulphurs. A couple of weeks ago, right after I wrote my wrap-up of 2017 butterflies, a new one came through – a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui).

The ladies that I usually see are the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), a very similar butterfly that hosts on pussytoes and related plants. The Painted Lady is considered a visitor to Georgia while the American Lady is a resident. Although the butterflies look very similar, the Painted Lady uses different host plants, including mallow relatives. It’s amazing they can look so similar and yet use different plants.

American Lady
Painted Lady
















I never expected to see one, but this year’s Painted Lady population seems to have exploded. Reports of huge populations in the west (Nebraska, Colorado) are in the news. This species is another one of the butterflies that migrate for the winter, usually going to the southwest part of the United States.

I first saw this butterfly at the Riverwalk in Roswell on September 30th; several of them were nectaring on pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the wetlands (see picture on left). A friend mentioned that they’d had one of them visit and that got me thinking that maybe one had visited me too, just the week before.

Their behavior is slightly different from the American Lady: they have a rapid, erratic flight and are generally a bit skittish. Luckily, one came to visit just two days after my Roswell sighting, allowing me to add this species to my list.

Painted Lady





It's been a relatively good butterfly year, at least in terms of diversity. Many of my friends have also reported seeing zebra longwing butterflies just like I did.

And yesterday I saw two monarch butterflies on pansies at Lowes and another one at Home Depot. I had no idea that monarch butterflies would use pansies for nectar. I immediately picked up some that were neonic-free.



Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aster Love

Symphyotrichum cordifolium
Move over mums, when it comes to providing late-season support for bees and pollinators, it’s asters that master the season! Stores are pushing out containers of pinched mums that have flowers covering the surface of the plant. They’re gorgeous but notice that you don’t see any insects, especially on the double-flowered forms which are so prevalent. If only more native asters were propagated for fall gardens that could use them as true perennials.

I wrote about asters five years ago (has it been that long?), and I still have the ones that I wrote about then, plus I’ve added a few more. The asters native to my area are mostly leggy perennials so no one’s gonna pinch them into a compact ball. They do look fabulous mixed in with other fall perennials like clumping goldenrods and warm-season native grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Symphyotrichum puniceum
Native asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) also have another advantage over non-native Chrysanthemum. Native asters are host plants for 112 different species of butterflies and moths, making them the 2nd most used herbaceous host plant (number one is goldenrod (Solidago)). If you like to support butterflies and moths (or you like to feed the birds with caterpillars and seeds), add lots of asters.

Here are the asters blooming this week in my garden. The purple/blue asters include:  the large Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum), the smaller purple aster (S. patens), swamp aster (S. puniceum), heartleaf aster (S. cordifolium), Short’s aster (S. shortii), smooth blue aster (S. laeve), wavyleaf aster (S. undulatum), plus a hybrid of two natives, Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ my only one with a bushy habit.

When it comes to identifying asters, you have to employ all parts of the plant for clues - petal color alone won't do it. You also need to take note of the habit: different species can be found in wet places, dry sunny places, and part shade areas. I've also noticed that, among the species, there are those with bright yellow center (disk) flowers as well as many with tan disk flowers. The tan disk flowers usually turn a soft purple after a while. This coloring-changing disk flower characteristic is especially noticeable in the calico aster (S. lateriflorum) whose small flowers are clustered so close together.

Symphyotrichum cordifolium, tan centers
Symphyotrichum laeve, yellow centers




















Symphyotrichum undulatum
Symphyotrichum shortii




















The small white asters are heaven for the tiniest of bees and small skippers. They include: the delightfully bicolored calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), the rice button aster (S. dumosum), smooth oldfield aster (S. racemosum), hairy oldfield aster (S. pilosum), and the now-more-distantly related white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

Symphyotrichum pilosum, note the hairy stems,
has fewer blooms in part shade 

S. pilosum blooms heavily in sun on roadsides in October
If you don’t have any native asters in your garden, check out a fall native plant sale near you and pick up a species or two. Already have some - get some more! You can even branch out to the goldenasters if you’ve got enough blue and white ones.  When it comes to aster love, you just can’t have enough.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Vitamin N (the book)

Many of us could use more vitamins, especially Vitamin Nature. I recently heard about Richard Louv’s 2016 book entitled “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.” The title was intriguing and I wondered what practical advice he’d offer for people to get more nature into their life. You may recognize his name from the press about his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

From the beginning, I particularly like his statement of benefits to getting more nature: “The evidence indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits. Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

Now I think we can agree that sounds like a bunch of good benefits! If only we had some help figuring out creative ways to get that dose of Vitamin N. The author describes this book as a handbook offering ‘over five hundred practical actions’ that can help do just that. The actions included are for children, for adults, for people with different abilities, in both urban nature and wilderness environments, and composed of both organized activities and independent play.

An anole in my garden
The book is divided into chapters but I’ll admit that I have a hard time describing the logic of what goes into each chapter. However, it doesn’t really matter as you can just dive right in. Each section contains ideas and most of them are great; they resonate with me because they are things I’ve done or considered myself. I am especially fond of chapter 3: the nature-rich home and garden. I have always espoused the idea that you can have lots of nature at home if you plan for it.

Inside each chapter, there are subsections (like “Explore Nearby Nature”) and a related group of suggestions. You can really open the book to any section and find ideas. The ideas can be as simple as going on a backyard bug hunt or plant safari which includes learning about which plants are native and which are not (that one is in chapter 3). I really appreciate his emphasis on learning and using native plants throughout the book.


The unexpected combinations of nature are an everyday delight in the garden;
false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea) and small aster yesterday

As the book continues, the ideas get bigger. They’re about involving the community, teachers, libraries, even considering nature-smart careers. It’s a handbook that you can grow with as well as one that helps grow you and yours into people that see nature, appreciate it, and learn to cherish it. A nine-page bibliography gives you plenty of other books to explore.

This is a great, practical book for everyone who wants to be more active in nature and encourage it with their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or any child that you have the opportunity to coach. I’m definitely saving this one. We all could use more Vitamin N.