Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bumbles Nest

The blog is a way for me to share Georgia’s beautiful native plants, the insects, and the critters that depend on them, as well as my weekly discoveries and adventures in the natural world. Of all the things I write about, the stories that originate in my own garden are the most special. This week’s blog is about bumble bees in the garden.

Female bees pack pollen on their hind legs (on Monarda fistulosa)

Males bees are just looking for nectar for themselves (on Monarda fistulosa)
Bumble bees have always been a part of my garden. I see them visit many, many flowers. Right now they are squeezing into the beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) flowers and slurping up the last bit of nectar from the nearly spent wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). Surely they must live nearby? 

Bumble bees are one of the few native bees that form a social nest, which is a collection of wax balls with eggs and a nectar pot. 

A bumble bee approaches Penstemon digitalis

Bees are excellent pollinators of milkweed (on Asclepias exaltata)
According to Heather Holm’s book, bumble bees nest in a variety of places: rodent holes, under plant debris, in old bird nests, and other insulated places. This spring I actually found one. In mid-April, I noticed that wrens were building a nest in the garage. Last year they had built one in an old straw hat on a shelf outside the garage. I decided to clear out that nest to encourage them to use it again. As I dumped the old nest onto the ground, an angry buzz came from it!

Puzzled – and more than a little alarmed – I poked it again and watched for any activity. Another angry buzz sounded but nothing came out. I left it for a day and pondered what to do. I reached out to Heather and she said that it could be bumble bees. She suggested trying to carefully put it back into the hat and return it to the general area. Armed with gloves and cardboard for sliding, I reassembled it that evening (also her suggestion). 

Bumble bee entering the nest
At that point, I could only wait to see if the nest would remain viable. This week, I was finally able to be around and see bumble bees entering the nest. It was still good! I’m sure there are other bumble bee nests somewhere in the garden, but I’m glad to have a confirmed discovery of one. (Maybe I can dissect it when they’re done with it.) Bumble bees are not aggressive around their nest like yellow jackets so I don't mind having it on the shelf.

Next week when I clean out the bluebird box, I’ll be sure to stash that old nest somewhere the bees might find it next spring.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Snag Down

The snag in 2016
Snags are dead trees that are still standing. I had a dead pine tree next to the driveway for 6 years. Over the years it provided food for several birds in the form of bugs that lived under the bark. I have photographed brown-headed nuthatches and pileated woodpeckers using this tree.  When it fell down this winter, I was sad to think its usefulness was done.

Brown-headed nuthatch in 2014

I have been pleasantly surprised to learn that it has one more service to render. It broke about 2 feet above the ground. The stump had several carved areas courtesy of the pileated woodpeckers. I heard the soft calls of the brown-headed nuthatch and watched as one checked out the stump. It returned day after day, and I decided that it was actively working the area, perhaps searching for bugs.

One day there were two of them and it finally occurred to me that they were enlarging the hole to make a nest! Now the pair of birds was working in earnest. It was adorable to watch them spit out mouthfuls of wood chips as they worked. As each day progressed, they went further into the hole until there was no sign of them; I could only hear the tapping inside. Sometimes the mouthfuls were big and the chips went in all directions. See my video here.

In between hollowing out their nest hole, I could see them foraging for bugs in the needles of living pine trees nearby. I also put out a few dried mealworms for them to snack on. It’s always amazing to see how hard working birds are when it comes to the business of making a family.

Nuthatch works on the second tree
Later they abandoned that nest and moved several feet over to a taller (and skinnier) snag. Once again the sounds of their gentle tapping and their squeaky conversations filled the air.

We look forward to hosting a new family of baby nuthatches. Research shows that brown-headed nuthatches have one clutch per year and that the number of eggs could be 4-7. Brown-headed nuthatches are not rare but they are not common either. They rely on southeastern pine forests so loss of habitat affects their population. 

Male pileated woodpecker excavating for grubs

Leave those trees when you can, but even if you have to drop them for safety reasons, on the ground they continue to feed other things. A tree that has been on the ground for several years was "grub city" for a pileated woodpecker pair this spring.

I don't often cheer for dead trees, but you can see that there's reason to celebrate them too.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Coreopsis in the Garden

I often describe purple coneflower as the native plant perennial poster child because it is well-liked and fairly available. When talking to people about native perennials that they might use in their garden, you can mention purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.) and heads start nodding. After purple coneflower, a close second is black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.); people are usually familiar with that dependable garden staple. I think that Coreopsis should be the next big garden thing.

Coreopsis gladiata on a south Georgia field trip
This genus of flowering plants has both annual and perennial members, 18 of which are found in Georgia. They range in habitat from sunny and dry to sunny and swampy, and can be found throughout Georgia.

One species is considered more shade tolerant (Coreopsis latifolia) but they really like sun. Most of them are yellow, but several species have pink flowers. Several are noted as host plants for the moths Tornos scolopacinarius (Dimorphic Gray) and Enychlora acida (Wavy-Lined Emerald).

I have had experience with a few of them in my garden. I couldn’t live without the dependable blooms of mouse-eared coreopsis (C. auriculata) in the spring. Its spreading ways ensure that it winds its way through the garden, pairing with all sorts of spring perennials. It and lanceleaf coreopsis (C. lanceolata), which I’m also growing, are usually available at most spring sales. Whorled coreopsis (C. major) is a long-blooming summer standout for the dry area of the garden. Like others, it is usually covered in small bees.

Coreopsis auriculata can make a nice groundcover
More and more I appreciate some of our native annuals, and I am thrilled that Chattahoochee Nature Center continues to grow the Plains coreopsis (C. tinctoria) for their spring sales. I first fell in love with this yellow and red flower at a workday on a TNC property in Floyd County. I’ve also seen it growing on the side of the road a couple miles from my house. It’s sometimes included in wildflower seed packets.

Coreopsis tinctoria, an annual
Coreopsis tinctoria

And I recently got some of the thread-leaf coreopsis (C. verticillata) from a friend. It’s a nice texture to add to the garden and I hope it does well here; so far all I know is that it survived the winter.

This species, as well as several others, have cultivars developed by the nursery industry. While there is some concern over using only cultivars (it reduces genetic diversity to only use one), it generally means that you have a better chance of finding it for sale when showier forms are being propagated.

Whorled coreopsis (C. major) with pollinator
Coreopsis rosea

As always, do your own research and weigh the pros and cons. Here’s a list of the 18 species in Georgia:

Coreopsis auriculata – Piedmont/upper Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow, spreading, spring bloomer

Coreopsis basalis – Coastal Plain, annual, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis delphiniifolia – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis falcata  - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis gladiata - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora – middle Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis integrifolia - Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis lanceolata – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, spring bloomer

Coreopsis latifolia – one northern county, perennial, yellow, shade tolerant, summer bloomer

Coreopsis linifolia – Coastal Plain, perennial, yellow with dark center, late summer bloomer

Coreopsis major – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis nudata – Coastal Plain, perennial, pink, spring bloomer

Coreopsis palustris – one southern county, perennial, yellow with dark center, fall bloomer

Coreopsis pubescens – throughout Georgia, perennial, yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis rosea – northern Georgia, perennial, pink, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tinctoria – scattered distribution in Georgia, annual, yellow with red, summer bloomer

Coreopsis tripteris – scattered distribution in Georgia, perennial, yellow with dark center, summer bloomer

Coreopsis verticillata – no specific county records but likely, perennial , yellow, summer bloomer

Coreopsis grandiflora
I like to check out small nurseries from time to time and about a month ago I picked up some 1 gallon-sized Coreopsis lanceolata at Plant Life Nursery in Rome.

The plants were healthy and large; I think they were 3 for $11. Visit that nursery for natives if you’re in the area; it’s a nice, local business.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hidden Pond Trail

This trip was another field trip in the Georgia Botanical Society weekend for their annual spring pilgrimage. For the Sunday trip, I decided to sign up for the Hidden Pond Trail at Carter’s Lake in Murray County, GA after reading about it in the Nourses’ Favorite Wildflower Walks in Georgia. Also, Richard Ware was the trip leader for #23 and I can’t pass up the opportunity to learn from Richard and Teresa Ware!

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Our entry into the trail was a short walk from the parking lot and then across a small bridge on the right. I immediately saw one of the reddest red buckeyes (Aesculus pavia) that I’d ever seen, surrounded by a grove of blooming bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia). Around us were yellow trillium (Trillium luteum, smell it to be sure ….), dissected toothwort (Cardamine dissecta), and red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Woody plants included winged elm (Ulmus alata) as well as both blackhaw viburnums: southern blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum).  

Frasera caroliniensis
Dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne)

Next we came to an area full of American columbo (Frasera caroliniensis), a tall member of the Gentianaceae family. Only a few of them were putting up bloom stalks this year. I might have to come back in a couple months to see the blooms. We also saw black cohosh (Actaea racemosa), fire pink (Silene virginica), dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne), and bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana).  

Prunus americana
Shooting stars

After passing across the observation deck (where I spotted a blooming American plum (Prunus americana) and hacked my way over to it to confirm it and see a tiger swallowtail butterfly on it), we came to shady area with loads of shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) in bloom under a grove of buckeye hybrids (Aesculus spp.). From there we looped back towards the parking lot, passing some of the largest clumps of yellow trillium on the whole trail.

After the hike, I took a short trip up the road (less than a mile) to see a dry slope with a marvelous population of bird’s foot violet (Viola pedata). I had seen it two days earlier on my trip to Coosawattee Bluffs and knew that I wanted to get a picture of it. Of course, the picture pales in comparison to the real thing.

Bird's foot violets (Viola pedata)

Hidden Pond Trail is available to anyone, any time that the recreation area is open. The entrance to the Carter’s Lake Reregulation Dam Recreation Area is on Old 411. The sign for the trail is visible from the parking area.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Coosawattee Bluffs

I recently participated in the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage held by the Georgia Botanical Society. This was the 48th annual such event for the Society, and the event moves around the state. For the first time ever, the event was held just outside of Georgia, in Chattanooga. Many of the field trips were still held in Georgia, in the Ridge and Valley region.

Yellow trillium (Trillium luteum)
The event has lots of choices and for my Friday field trip, I chose one called “Coosawattee Bluffs” that was on private property near Carter’s Lake in Murray County. The property includes some bluffs that overlook the Coosawattee River, hence the name.

The property owners give the Botanical Society permission about once a year to conduct a field trip on this botanically rich property, so I knew that this field trip would be the only chance this year to visit. This is calcareous habitat with limestone present so the plants we expect to find would be those that enjoy those conditions.

Tradescantia subaspera
We walked into the property on an old road and began to see “cool stuff” right away: yellow trillium (Trillium luteum), purple spiderwort (Tradescantia subaspera, perhaps), and the annual yellow fumewort (Corydalis flavula). The yellow trillium was duly sniffed for fragrance because it is wonderful. On the way back, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) was spotted in the area too (because really, you have to look on the way in and on the way out).  

Our next stop was at a rock outcrop that was decorated with shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) and gloriously purple spiderwort. People stood in line to take a picture of the shooting stars! As we tiptoed our way through the finely textured forkleaf toothwort (Cardamine dissecta), we found blooming Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans) and trailing trillium (Trillium decumbens). Tearing our eyes (and cameras) away from the rich ground layer, we realized we were among blooming bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia) and yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava).

Cardamine dissecta
Polemonium reptans

Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia)
Yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava)

From here we proceeded into a moist cove area that was carpeted with mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), Dutchman’s britches (Dicentra cucullaria), Southern nodding trillium (Trillium rugelii), deciduous ginger (Asarum reflexum), green dragon (Arisaema dracontium), great Indian plantain (Arnoglossum reniforme, perhaps), largeleaf waterleaf (Hydrophyllum macrophyllum) and more.

Dodecatheon meadia
Mertensia virginica

We completed our trek with a visit to the bluffs and watched some very large fish moving through it. As we looked down, we spied several clumps of blooming fernleaf phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida). The area around the bluffs is under invasive plant management by the owner and large amounts of privet had been recently removed. Native perennials were recovering nicely.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Tiny Spring Anemones

Small white wildflowers abound in spring. It can take careful examination of the plant’s parts sometimes to differentiate them: number of petals, leaves, seed pods – these are all helpful things. For me, it’s worth doing. I’d rather know what I’m actually seeing than just call it a white flower. This year I realized that I had 3 similar species in my yard – all of them with the word ‘anemone’ as part of the common name and all in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae).

Rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)
The most common of the three is called rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides). It has a single tier of leaves that are faintly bluish, sometimes tinged with pale burgundy with softly rounded edges.

The parts that we might consider the petals are actually sepals and there can be 5-10 of them; they surround a cluster of stamens and pistils. The sepals are most often white but can be pale pink. The plant is sparse in shaded woodlands but gets more robust in good light, up to 8 inches tall. There may be 1-5 flowers in a terminal cluster.

Rue anemone is native mostly to north Georgia, but there are some reported populations in the upper Coastal Plain. It is easily transplanted and happy to grow in part-shade gardens with good soil. It blooms for 3-6 weeks in the spring.

Pinkish coloration on rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides)

The second anemone is called false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum). It has no reported presence in Georgia but is considered likely to be found. The population that I have was given to me by a friend. The slightly rounded foliage of this plant is similar to rue anemone, with rounded edges but more deeply divided lobes. According to this reference, false rue anemone will only ever have 5 sepals. In addition, it can be a taller plant than rue anemone. Both of the following pictures are from the same plant in my yard, several weeks apart.

Enemion biternatum
Enemion biternatum, notice the
leaves behind the flowers

Enemion biternatum seed capsule

If you can see the plant after flowering, the appearance of the fruit is markedly different. False rue anemone has beaked “follicles” that contain 2 or more seeds while rue anemone has beaked achenes (which is a single seed).

One source says that false rue anemone can get up to one foot tall, but that is not true in my garden. This is the earliest of the 3 to bloom for me. The first flower was on March 1 and it is still flowering 6 weeks later.

The third white anemone is called wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia). Distribution in Georgia is all in the Piedmont and mountain regions, not in the Coastal Plain. The leaf is a compound leaf with 5 leaflets or 3 leaflets where the two side leaflets are deeply cut so as to resemble 5. The leaflets are coarsely serrated with lobes that taper to relatively noticeable points, a characteristic which is different from the other two plants.

Anemone quinquefolia
Anemone quinquefolia

Wood anemone’s flowers have 5 or more of the petal-like sepals. There are no leaves behind the sepals, the flower rises up on a leafless petiole; there might be hairs on the stems and the fruits. Often the population of wood anemone might have more plants with leaves than flowers. That is definitely true in my yard. Somehow I now have 4-5 separate populations of them and only one flower total.

I hope you get a chance to notice one of these tiny anemones in the spring. Take good pictures and you should be able to figure it out when you get home.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cloudland Canyon State Park

Cloudland Canyon State Park is a 3,485-acre park on the western edge of Lookout Mountain in Dade County. It has deep canyons, sandstone cliffs, caves, waterfalls, beautiful creeks and abundant spring wildflowers. I have heard about it for many years as a wildflower hotspot, but this was my first visit to the park. It certainly lived up to its reputation.

Hemlock Falls, as view through a group of hemlocks
Cloudland Canyon became a state park in 1939 and has expanded several times from its original size of 1,924 acres. Its remote location in the furthest northwest county in Georgia was once only accessible from other states! The construction of Highway 136 finally made it possible to reach it from Georgia. The canyon was formed by the waters of Daniel and Bear Creeks which later converge to form Sitton Gulch Creek. Walks along these boulder-strewn, cascading creeks are quite scenic.

Cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata)
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Southern red trillium (Trillium sulcatum)

Yellowroot at waters edge (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)
We took the West Rim Loop Trail for a short distance until it intersected with the Waterfall Trail and then descended the 600 steps and joined up with Sitton’s Gulch Trail. The Waterfall Trail was indeed beautiful but strenuous. We passed huge rock cliffs and outcrops, including one that was dripping with water. Shrubs that we saw included southern bush-honeysuckle (Diervilla rivularis), mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), and yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima). Spring ephemerals included sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica nobilis var. acuta), rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), saxifrage (Saxifraga virginiensis), solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum), yellow mandarin (Prosartes maculata), several species of violets, early meadow-rue (Thalictrum dioicum), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), cutleaf toothwort (Cardamine concatenata), Southern red trillium (Trillium sulcatum), star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), and more.

Spring beauty (Claytonia)
Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)

Wild oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)
As we joined Sitton’s Gulch Trail, a spring beauty with wide leaves was spotted and discussed. While it appeared to be Claytonia caroliniana, more research seems to be required. It was very happy there. Huge slopes to our left were so crowded with boulders that plants were not even growing among them in places. The creek on our right was loudly rushing through its own collection of boulders. Eventually we came to areas rich with Christmas fern punctuated with trilliums (T. cuneatum and T. sulcatum), jacks (Arisaema triphyllum), foamflower, northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum), yellow mandarin, and slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata). We found shrubs like gooseberry (Ribes cynosbati), fragrant sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and I was very excited to see oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) in the wild!

Forkleaf toothwort (Cardamine dissecta)
Larkspur (Delphinium tricorne)

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum)
Woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum)

Sitton’s Gulch Trail passes through some rather flat areas towards the end. We found dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), fernleaf phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida), woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum), trailing trillium (T. decumbens), woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum), two kinds of bellwort (Uvularia), and huge patches of Canadian white violet (Viola canadensis). A couple of special plants that we found included a few left over blooms on American trout lily (Erythronium americanum) and a few early blooms of dwarf larkspur (Delphinium tricorne). We found our third toothwort, “forkleaf” toothwort (Cardamine dissecta) in small patches.

It's a great place to see some of our best spring wildflowers and I look forward to going back again one day.