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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Big Trees

This is the time of year when big canopy oaks really shine: their wide crowns tower above the trees around them, their fall color glowing deep browns and burgundies in the sunshine. I decided that I wanted to find some while the color was good. With the amount of development in our area, being able to find accessible big trees can be tough. I remembered one public place where I’ve seen a lot of big oaks: Big Trees Forest Preserve in Sandy Springs.

For several years now I’ve led a winter field trip to Big Trees in January for the Georgia Botanical Society. The point of the trip is woody plant identification; the place is loaded with different native shrub and tree species. It also has some invasive woody plants which we point out in the interest of education since these are common invasive plants found throughout the metro area. This was going to be a chance for me to see these plants with their leaves on (mostly).

Big Trees is a 30-acre sanctuary that was assembled beginning in 1990 to save some beautiful trees from nearby development. You can learn more about the history and John Ripley Forbes, the man who started it, here. Big Trees has a system of trails and, if you plan to go, I recommend that you download a copy of the trail map from here as local copies are not always available. Recent improvements include a bathroom at the entrance.

White oak (Quercus alba)
A group of large white oak (Quercus alba) trees can be found on the Big Trees Loop trail not far from the entrance. Shaggy bark is characteristic of this species, but one particular individual there has bark that is especially shaggy (and has been that way for years). White oak can also have beautiful fall leaf color and these trees were glowing in the bright fall sunshine.

From there I usually follow the Powers Branch trail to the Back 20 Connector and then follow the lower branch of the Backcountry trail. This takes you along a creek and through a gorgeous American beech forest (Fagus grandifolia) that was showing color from chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme) and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). About halfway along the path, I take the short Spring Hollow trail to get back to the Powers Branch trail. This follows the gurgling stream back towards the entrance, crossing several bridges and hopping over some sturdy rocks (fun for kids). I passed one family teaching their kids how to skip rocks.

Chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme)
Large white oaks continue to be a major part of the canopy, but some of the red oaks are there as well. Sourwood is also very common (which is awesome) and several species of hickory (Carya spp.) join the beeches in providing yellow color.

The shrub layer is still chiming in with a little color; I found mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus), highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), and the evergreen mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). 

American beech (Fagus grandifolia)
Several parts of the trail have non-native shrubs, most of which are evergreen: small-leaf privet (Ligustrum sinense), two species of Elaeagnus, small-leaf Japanese holly (Ilex crenata). Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maacki, perhaps) is gaining ground on the Big Trees Loop. Wisteria vine and the privet were cut back heavily at one point but they are returning.

Quercus alba
Sandy Springs has incredibly beautiful native oaks all along Roswell Road. I had to pull over several times to check out several especially colorful red oaks (I could not always determine if they were scarlet oaks or northern red oaks but the colors were intense!). I hope that more of them can remain in place over the years, but I doubt that they will be appreciated for what they are. Unfortunately, too many of our native trees are removed and then replaced with crape myrtles, Leland cypress, and other non-native trees. I saw one gorgeous white oak near baseball fields in Morgan Falls and they had planted non-native pistache (Pistacia chinensis) trees in front of it. As if they could compete!

Enjoy the fall color of the oaks while it lasts. Please spread the word that these big trees are specimens to be treasured. It takes a lifetime to grow one – it takes several lifetimes to appreciate them.

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!