Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ready, Set ...

Bloom!  I went to Macon yesterday for a conference and was surprised at all the plants blooming along the roads.  I must live in a cold pocket - elsewhere obviously Spring is upon us!  Branches glowing with a deep red mist belong to our native red maple (Acer rubrum), one of the first native trees to flower.  Other trees sported greenish branches as they began to leaf out ahead of their flowers.

Acer rubrum flowers just emerging

In Georgia we are fortunate to be able to celebrate spring a little earlier than some parts of the country – Hepatica has been blooming at my house for several weeks, and I found my first trout lily bloom this week (and by the end of the week there were many more than that first one). 

But don’t let these early herbaceous blooms distract you from the lengthening of woody buds and the emergence of those first few tender leaves on our trees and shrubs. I find the process of growth so much more interesting on these plants – perhaps their branches offer a most visible window into the process of new growth.  Tightly packed buds swell and lengthen, causing the bud scales to fall away and allowing the new growth to emerge.  Tiny leaves, perfect miniatures of their mature forms, begin the process of capturing sunlight and making food for the plant.  In some cases, of course, flowers may emerge first, feeding those first insects whose life-cycle has evolved to be there just at this moment.

On Monday of this week I discovered these early leaves on the crabapples (Malus angustifolia).  Just a few days before, these were sparkling, ruby-colored dots against the brown-grey branches.  Now they are unfolding, first as translucent red leaves and then gradually turning green as they mature and grow.

Malus angustifolia

Cercis canadensis buds
Cercis candadensis blooms

Here is a redbud (Cercis canadensis) flower bud just beginning to open.  In about a month, this tree will be covered with the purplish pea-like flowers that delight us.

Aesculus pavia

Aesculus pavia in 2008

A red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) bud is also swelling with the promise of flowers.  The earliest hummingbirds will appreciate the bright red flowers.

It is time to keep the camera nearby, ready to capture those fleeting blossoms.  The flowers will be coming quickly now.  Photographing them is a great way to remember those beautiful blooms.  It also helps me notice details and keep track of bloom times from year to year.  And, as you can see above, it helps me show you what blooms WILL look like later (those flowering pictures of Redbud and Buckeye are from previous years).

I am still learning about some of the features on my digital camera.  I learned a couple of years ago that I would get better pictures if I’d let the camera do the focusing.  I also realized that using the tiny view finder prevented me from seeing whether the camera had properly focused.  Now I use the big screen on the back of the camera to watch the camera focus; once it is focused on what I want (sometimes it focuses on the wrong area!) then I press the button. 

Digital cameras are great for “do-overs” until you get the picture you want.  Be sure to learn how to review your pictures on site so that you can see if you got the picture you wanted.  You don’t want to figure out that you missed the shot when it is too late to try again.

So get out there and take some pictures.  I will be doing the same and hope to share some of my “good ones” with you in the months to come.

P.S. That bright white tree blooming on the side of the road is not necessarily something to admire.  I saw a lot of escaped ‘Bradford’ pears on I-75 yesterday.  These are thorny trees that grew from the fruit that some ornamental pears are developing lately.  They bloom earlier than any of our native white flowering trees and usually have a very upright shape.  You can read more about this escaped plant in the delightfully informative article “Who Let the Pears Out?”.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Occasional Time Indoors

It’s been a gorgeous week here – the perfect "run-up to Spring" kind of week.  My forays outside find Trout lily leaves emerging, Hepatica blooming and Toothwort foliage rising above the groundcover of fallen leaves.  But even in great weather, sometimes I stay inside to learn more by attending plant conferences.

Yesterday we held the Annual Symposium for the Georgia Native Plant Society – our 16th event.  Programs like these provide an array of different speakers, occasionally some workshops or field trips, and vendors of all kinds – especially plant ones! This year's topics included:

"Nuturing Gardens Inspired by Nature"

"Native Plants and Transportation Projects in Georgia: Constraints and Opportunities"

"Showy Native Woodies"

"Teaming with Microbes: The Subterranean Life of the Soil Food Web"

"Invasive Species: Making a Difference in Your Back Yard"

Throughout the year, from early Winter (the State Botanical Garden has theirs in January) to Fall, plant conferences pop up all over Georgia.  The Georgia Perennial Plant Association had theirs earlier this month. It is still not too late for me to tell you about four more events this year, including one this weekend:

The Spring Garden Symposium at Waddell Barnes Botanical Garden at Macon State College this Saturday, Feb 26th in Macon, GA.  Here is a link. 

The South Georgia Native Plant and Wildflower Symposium, Wednesday, March 23rd in Tifton, GA.  Here is a link.

Georgia Botanical Society’s Spring Pilgrimage offers speakers in the evenings and field trips in the daytime, April 15-17 in Carrollton, GA.  Here is a link. 

In May, the Florida Native Plant Society will have their conference May 19-22 near Orlando. You can find more details here.

And the mother of all native conferences will be having it’s 28th conference this year: The Native Plants in the Landscape Conference in Cullowhee, NC.  This year the dates are July 27-30.  Here is a link.

Even though I’ve been interested in native plants for about 10 years now, I have only this past year made it to the Cullowhee conference.  2010 was the 27th annual conference, demonstrating again the enduring passion and enthusiasm that folks in the southeast have for native plants.  This is a multi-day conference, starting with optional day-long field trips and workshops on Wednesday and closing with a final speaker on Saturday morning.  I know it was the length of the conference that kept me from attending in the past, especially when my children were young.  Now that I’ve been, however, I understand the passion for the conference and certainly plan to attend again. 

In case you were wondering about this conference (like I did for years), let me tell you about the conference organization, schedule and approximate fees (using 2010 figures).  The conference cost was $110 to attend if you stayed on campus and $130 if you stayed elsewhere.  Lodging and meals were available on campus for extra fees.  The Wednesday field trips were an extra $75 and they were optional.  The conference is always held at Western Carolina University, and lodging is available at some of their newer dorms – you can choose single person lodging (you have your own room) or double person lodging (the price is a little less and you can specify a roommate or take a random assignment).  Lodging included breakfast at the WCU cafeteria (eggs, bacon, grits, oatmeal, pastries and fruit – but get there before the kids do or you’ll stand in line!).  Lodging also included simple catered lunches and dinner.  I chose the 3- night lodging (Wednesday night through Saturday breakfast) with a roommate for $186. Four-night lodging is available for a little extra if you’re planning to do the Wednesday field trip, and two-night lodging is available if you are arriving on Thursday.  Some folks choose to use local nearby hotels instead and bring their own food or go out to local restaurants.

Here is some information about cost from last year.

As I said, a variety of activities are available on Wednesday for an extra cost (transportation and a bag lunch is provided).  Some field trips are all day, some are just half day trips.  Some field trips are easy on the legs, some are strenuous – all are rated so that you choose what is best for you.  Workshops are also provided and some have follow up activities on Thursday afternoon, providing a full day and a half of learning.  In the evening, there is a special dinner for field trip participants.

Here is the schedule from last year so you can see how it is organized.

The conference officially kicked off on Thursday morning with the keynote speaker followed by a second speaker.  After lunch, activities were offered: 3 walks, follow-up learning for Wednesday workshop participants, or an indoor activity.  It is very nice how the levels of activities vary to suit all types of attendees.  After dinner, the conference resumed again in the evening - another speaker and some time mingling with vendors and attendees.  The conference was held in a large air-conditioned arena with plenty of seating and lots of room for vendors.  I was pleased to see two of Georgia’s nurseries there as vendors: Nearly Native Nursery from Fayetteville, GA and Baker Environmental Nursery from Hoschton, GA.

Nearly Native Nursery booth
Baker Environmental Nursery

Friday was a full day of indoor presentations.  The morning had two sets of concurrent sessions, offering a total of seven different choices from which to pick two.  After lunch, we gathered in the arena for two full conference speakers followed by one more round of concurrent sessions (3 choices).  Having so many choices really makes the conference more personal and also allows you to interact with more people as you move from session to session.

Friday night was a picnic for those staying on campus.  There was also a talent show for those who choose to participate and then a live band.  The cooler mountain air made for a pleasant evening.

The conference wrapped up on Saturday morning with an inspiring presentation by Patrick McMillan about advocacy.  His presentation featured, in part, a specialized plant habitat on the coast that grew on large piles of discarded oyster shells – shells that were deposited by humans thousands of years ago for some unknown reason but which was a decision that shaped the plant community that lives there today.  His message (and I will paraphrase):  Thousands of years from now people will probably not know your name, but the choices we make live on.  Find your passion and be an activist for it.

I hope you will occasionally take time to come in from the yard, change into some clean clothes and participate in one of these conferences – including the annual GNPS one!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Don't Blow it all on Spring

Spring is surely coming, but the repeated applications of cold days and flaky precipitation have me wondering how much longer it will be before it arrives.  When it comes, spring will dazzle us as always, bringing wave after wave of fresh blooms like a fantastic fireworks display: “Oooooh … ahhhh!”  But even spring must come to an end at some point, and if you have decorated your garden with plants that bloom in the spring – even native ones – you’ll be looking at a lot of green come summer.

For a longer lasting parade of blooms, include some summer blooming shrubs and trees in your landscape.  I just happen to have some ideas here, if you need some.

Two species of Hydrangea are native to the Southeastern U.S. and both bloom in early summer.  Smooth hydrangea, Hydrangea arborescens, is a very quiet woodland shrub that is found in moist areas near streams.  However, a number of cultivars have been identified, including the well known ‘Annabelle’.  It is easy to propagate and often shared among gardeners; I got my start from a friend.  Oakleaf hydrangea, Hydrangea quercifolia, is a handsome shrub with nice flowers, attractive foliage, good fall color and interesting bark – truly a four season shrub.  A number of cultivars have been created – including dwarf forms, forms with double flowers, and even a form with golden leaves (‘Little Honey’).

Hydrangea quercifolia
Hydrangea arborescens

Rhododendron prunifolium

Azaleas are not just for spring; there are a number of native azaleas that bloom later in the year.  In my yard, the swamp azalea, Rhododendron viscosum, has fragrant white flowers in early June.  In late June, my plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) starts flowering and continues through much of July.  The red flowers are a favorite of hummingbirds.  Azaleas do best in morning sun and afternoon shade, and they need adequate applications of mulch to keep their roots cool.

Aesculus parviflora

In a large sunny spot, Bottlebrush Buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) will create a summer-blooming spectacle guaranteed to have the neighbors talking.  My picture does not do it justice – imagine a shrub the size of your car with dozens of bottlebrush shaped white flowers reaching upward.  The blooms attract pollinators and butterflies.

Several late blooming trees should be mentioned.  The genus Magnolia includes both evergreen and deciduous species that are native to this area.  The evergreen Magnolia virginiana (Sweetbay magnolia) has beautiful silver-backed leaves and fragrant petite flowers.  I have learned to appreciate the native deciduous magnolias.  The oversized leaves on Bigleaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) never fail to impress visitors to my house – they offer a very tropical look much like a banana tree.  The flower is just as oversized but lasts only a few days.

Magnolia macrophylla
Magnolia virginiana

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), or Lily of the Valley tree, also blooms in the summer.  My tree is so tall that sometimes I don’t realize it is blooming until I find the tiny white bells already falling to the ground.  Bees love these blooms too – Sourwood honey is much prized by those that know of it.

Late into the summer come two more outstanding shrubs: Clethra and HibiscusClethra is known as Summersweet for it’s fragrant summer flowers.  Naturally found in moist areas, it does well in garden soil too.  Several cultivars of Clethra alnifolia are available: ‘Hummingbird’ is a low growing shrub with white flowers while ‘Sixteen Candles’ is a taller form.  If you like pink flowers, look for the species form or ‘Ruby Spice’.  Clethra has a suckering tendency in very moist conditions.  As you can imagine, bees and other pollinators love this plant.
Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice'
Photo by S. George

Photo by M. Creekmore

There are several Hibiscus species native to the Southeast, but I think the showiest is Hibiscus coccineus, scarlet rosemallow.  This shrub has cutleaf foliage, rather reminiscent of a certain illegal plant.  But once it blooms, there is no mistaking this plant for a Hibiscus.  Naturally at home in swamps and marshes, this plant performs well in average moisture as well.  In a sunny spot, this shrub will bloom from late summer until frost.

Other ideas include our native roses: swamp rose (Rosa palustris), climbing rose (Rosa setigera), and the more common Carolina rose (Rosa carolina).  I recently purchased a Rosa setigera and look forward to seeing how it does in my garden this year.

This was my first year growing one of the bell-like Clematis (I already have Clematis virginiana naturally).  My new Clematis did not bloom until late (after being thoroughly munched by a caterpillar) but then it continued to bloom until frost.  I am not sure of the species name for this one, but the purple bells are enchanting!  Another summer vine that bloomed for me this year (for the first time ever) was Decumaria barbara, sometimes called “Climbing hydrangea”.  This vine grows naturally in my yard, but I had trained it over a sunny fence in the hopes of seeing some blooms.  It was gorgeous.

My Clematis

Decumaria barbara

I hope that you find some ideas here.  When choosing plants, consider all seasons so that you have pleasant surprises throughout the year.  You'll be glad you planned ahead come summer.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

That's Native?

Native plants can be strikingly beautiful.  The pink and yellow lady’s slipper orchids that are native to Georgia’s woodlands never fail to amaze those that see them for the first time.  These delicately fashioned flowers with the fanciful common name seem “too pretty” to be native – I know that’s what people are thinking!  Yes, we have native orchids; these are just one of many genera of orchids in the Southeastern United States.

Cypripedium acaule

This week I want to showcase some of the most beautiful and unusual native plants that you can find in Georgia.  These are plants that I have experience with – there are many more beautiful plants than these, of course – and you are welcome to post in the comments if you’d like to mention your favorite beautiful native plant.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) is a favorite early spring wildflower.  I expect to see the first few leaves poking out of the ground in the next week or two. Their speckled, waxy leaves do indeed look like little fish on the ground.  Appearing shortly thereafter will be Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) whose pure white flowers contrast nicely with its blue-green textured leaves.  Nick the root and you will understand the reason behind the common name.

Erythronium umbilicatum
Sanguinaria canadensis

Trillium grandiflorum

Twenty two species of Trillium are found in Georgia.  The name describes how are plant parts are arranged in threes: 3 leaves, 3 sepals, and 3 petals.  Despite their relatively short season, these and many of the spring ephemeral wildflowers are much sought-after.  Spring wildflower hikes in the mountains showcase these delicate beauties against the brown shades of last year’s dried leaves.

When I moved to Georgia, I would drive country roads from my house to work.  The first spring, I noticed a low-growing plant that was covered in bright pink blooms in many yards, often stretching for many feet across the sunny area of the yard.  Sometimes you would see various shades of purple or white, but it was mostly pink.  I eventually learned that this is Phlox subulata, or creeping phlox, a native plant in Georgia.  Many folks call it “thrift”, and it is readily available in nurseries in the spring in gallon sized pots.  When it is not blooming, it is an evergreen groundcover.

Phlox subulata


Spider lily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) blooms in the summer and grows naturally in moist areas.  The stout bulb produces strap-like leaves and a flower stalk that has 5 or 6 flowers. My plant was rescued from a development site in Canton, GA and has produced several babies from seeds.  Other species can be found in the Southeastern US, and almost identical forms grow in the Caribbean as well.

Hymenocallis caroliniana

Lilium michauxii

The native lilies (Lilium spp.) are also quite showy.  This rescued Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii) looks like something I got in a florist shop, doesn't it?  That can't be native ....

Passiflora is a genus of vines that is found throughout the world.  Purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and its meek cousin yellow passionflower (P. lutea) are both found in the metro Atlanta area.  The common name “maypop” references the fruit.  Both vines can be a bit aggressive, but they are the host plant of the Gulf Fritillary butterfly and so are a favorite for butterfly gardening.

Passiflora incarnata
Photo courtesy of

Gulf Fritillary caterpillar
Photo courtesy of

Striking plants are not just limited to herbaceous plants; there are a number of very attractive native shrubs and trees.  Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) is a rather ordinary looking plant until it flowers.  The flowers are quite unusual in shape and form.  They are also used by bees to make honey.  Use this plant in moist, sunny areas, especially on the edges of ponds.

Cephalanthus occidentalis
Photo courtesy of Howard T. Odum Center for Wetlands

Two plants that gain a lot of attention in the fall are Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and “Hearts a Bustin’” (Euonymus americanus). The bright fall berries of these plants provide a welcome burst of color as summer flowers are fading. Beautyberry prefers full sun with average moisture while Hearts a Bustin’ is tolerant of dry shade.

Callicarpa americana

Euonymus americanus

While trees are some of my favorite plants, I have to admit that they are often limited to a single showy aspect: flowers, attractive foliage, or good fall color.  A popular ornamental tree that some folks don’t realize is native is Southern Magnolia, Magnolia grandiflora.  One of two native evergreen magnolias, it’s a southern garden favorite right along side the non-native Camellia.  The creamy, fragrant large blooms provide long lasting beauty and the glossy green leaves have been a favorite for floral decorations.  Cultivars like ‘Little Gem’ are more appropriate for small gardens.  Normally a coastal plant, M. grandiflora can spread into wooded areas in the Piedmont area; this undesirable habit can be controlled by removing the seed pods.

Magnolia grandiflora 'Little Gem'

Grancy greybeard, or Chionanthus virginicus, is another old fashioned favorite that is regaining favor among new gardeners.  Also called Fringetree, this large shrub/small tree provides an attractive mid-spring focal point in a sunny garden.  At last year’s plant sale, a mature specimen in the park where the sale was held prompted requests for it all day.  We plan to stock more of it this year.

Chionanthus virginicus

A summer blooming tree is always appreciated, and Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is one of them.  Another common name is Lily of the Valley tree, an obvious comparison to the drooping flower panicles.  As for the other common name, apparently the leaves are sour if you chew them.  I have no personal experience to validate that!  The fall foliage of this tree is reason enough to plant it – the vibrant hues of pink, orange and red provide electric highlights to woodland edges wherever it is found.  Tolerant of dry shade, this tree is a good addition to almost any garden.

Ok, now what did I miss?  What native plant surprises your friends (or you) into saying "That's native?" ....