Sunday, September 27, 2015


The blue, purple and pink asters get all the attention in the fall. Tucked among the riot of yellow that is goldenrod (Solidago sp.), a group of yellow-flowered aster relatives wait to be discovered. They are the “goldenasters.”

In my area, there are 3 genera that share this common name: Chrysopsis, Pityopsis, and Heterotheca. Each genus has several species native to the state of Georgia, and these are the species of each that are found in my area (which is generally where the Piedmont ecoregion meets the Blue Ridge).

Maryland goldenaster (Chrysopsis mariana)
Maryland aster is a more common name for the first goldenaster known as Chrysopsis mariana. It is a stout perennial that thrives in dry conditions such as roadsides and meadows. The shortest of the 3 profiled here, it has a tidy, clumping form and dark green foliage with attractive 1-inch flowers.

Silk-grass goldenaster (Pityopsis graminifolia)
A slightly taller goldenaster is silk-grass (Pityopsis graminifolia) which is neither silk nor grass. Attractive silvery foliage is rather grass-like (graminifolia means leaves like grass) and looks good even without the flowers. In the fall, tall slender spikes topped with yellow flowers reach up to 2-3 feet tall. This plant also thrives in dry conditions and is reportedly aggressive in garden conditions with better soil and moisture.

Camphorweed goldenaster (Heterotheca camporum var.
Camphorweed (Heterotheca camporum var. glandulissimum) is the tallest of these goldenasters, reaching 3-4 feet with a statuesque, erect form.  I had not noticed this plant in my area before, but suddenly a large area of the roadside was covered with tall plants. The foliage of this species is a bit aromatic but not too unpleasant.

If you come across one of these lovely fall bloomers, now you know what they are. Goldenaster is a beautiful name for them as they light up their little corner of the world.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Be Curious

Learning requires curiosity. Discovery requires curiosity. Imagine the discoveries that would not have been made without someone being curious: “Hmm, this is different ….” Or better yet, imagine how much more we could discover if we were all curious?

Solidago porteri with modest flowers (in pot)
Recently I had a chance to participate in a discovery. About 6 years ago, a friend asked me about a goldenrod (Solidago sp.) that she’d had in her yard for about 12 years. It was just in a single location, near a couple of oak trees that the builder had left in place. Despite being an avid plant rescuer and having relocated lots of plants to her garden, she knew that this plant was original to the location.

The plant’s characteristics were not like any other goldenrods we’d found locally. We decided that we didn't have enough resources to figure it out then.

Four years later, she decided to move the plant to a sunnier spot and she potted up a division for me when she did it. I tried then to get some help identifying it, but I had no luck and existing plant keys still were not complete for the Solidago genus.

Then this spring, I bought a new book simply because it had a complete key for Solidago. The book is the Guide to the Vascular Plants of TennesseeWe’re only a couple hours south of Tennessee so I figured it might be useful. 

Solidago porteri foliage, mid-stem
When the plant bloomed again this fall, I pulled that book out and tried out the key. The plant keyed out to Solidago porteri, a species that has no county details in USDA although it was shown as native to Georgia (and Georgia only). I decided to get extra help and emailed photos of flowers and leaves to one of Georgia’s botanists in the Department of Natural Resources.

After some additional emails and a trip to my friend’s house to examine the plant with the botanist, the three of us were thrilled to realize that this appears to be a new population discovery in Cherokee County. Two previous populations documented in Georgia were in Jasper (1846) and Morgan (1979) counties; the plant has also been found in small populations in Alabama and Tennessee.

Solidago porteri flowers, more robust (original plant)
So, feel free to be curious about the things you find, in the wild and in your own property. You’ll learn more and you might just discover something that will help the rest of us learn more too.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Twining Peas

I had a confusing summer of twining, prostrate pea-family relatives that was partially of my own doing. I had planted some seeds, and I had not done a good job of labeling them. Then Mother Nature decided it was time to set me straight on some similar plants.

You see, when it comes to pea-family plants (Fabaceae is the family), I tend to be a “lumper.” In the past, if a plant had 3 leaflets, and especially if it also had pink flowers, then I’d say “it’s probably a Desmodium.” The tick trefoil genus Desmodium has lots of species, is rather commonly distributed, and frankly most people aren’t interested in going any further with identification than that. So it was always a handy answer, but I should have tried harder.

What I hope my Apios americana looks like one day
This year started out with seedlings and pots of transplants for which I had specific hopes. I had gathered seeds of groundnut (Apios americana), Atlantic pigeon-wings (Clitoria mariana), as well as a transplant of butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum). I was excited to introduce all of these plants to my yard.

Groundnut, in a properly labeled pot, sprouted with leaves with 3 leaflets and grew in that fashion until late August. By then I was sure that my pot had been mislabeled after all since groundnut has more than 3 leaflets per leaf. Finally, the plant produced a leaf with 5 leaflets. Hooray!

In spring, I transplanted what I hoped was a pot of pigeon-wings into a planter with other native perennials. It happily twined all summer and even hosted a couple of caterpillars. Yay! Bloom buds finally formed this week and it is not the pigeon-wings. It is hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), easily recognized thanks to a recent Facebook post by the Georgia Botanical Society. I have no idea where that came from! So I am 1-1 on plants that I tried to cultivate and the butterfly pea is nowhere in sight (or is it?).

Hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata)

Meanwhile, pink flowers were showing up elsewhere in the garden, and I decided to identify a particularly robust, twining vine that was developing smooth, plump pea pods in the front bed. Turning to my plant identification key for Desmodium, I ran into a snag immediately. Nowhere did it say that the fruit should be a single pod. Tick trefoil fruit needed to be a segmented pod-like structure (where each segment can break off and stick to you).

Desmodium seeds are segmented
I put the puzzle aside, thinking vaguely it could be a Lespedeza (bush clover) instead. A week later, the Internet came to my rescue. Someone else posted a picture of the plant on Facebook, and it was identified as milkpea (Galactia). Using that information, I confirmed that my plant was indeed Eastern milkpea (Galactia regularis) – a plant I’d never even heard of.

Milkpea (Galactia regularis)

Lespedeza repens
When I came across the next sprawling pink flower, the Lespedeza possibility was still on my mind, so I decided to examine it a bit more closely. It turned out to be creeping bush clover after all (Lespedeza repens) with tiny but single seeds. So now I am 2-and-2 for the pea family, but I feel I am all the better for the experiences.

This summer has also made me take a closer look at what I know to be Desmodium plants and I believe I have a better idea about those too. First, of course, they need to have segmented fruit, and second, they really don’t twine very often.

So from now on when I find one of these mystery plants, I have a better answer: It’s in the Fabaceae family.

Sunday, September 6, 2015


Quality wild roadsides are shrinking. They fall victim to a variety of forces: development, overzealous utility crews, and man’s desire to control nature for tidiness or conformity. In the absence of these forces, roadsides can be incredibly diverse collections of native plants that support pollinators of all kinds (not to mention the birds that eat them).

Desmodium paniculatum
Not far from my house is a wonderful roadside with a wet edge and a long run. I have enjoyed exploring the plants there for years. Unfortunately, it is under some power lines. 

Two years ago, contractors for the utility company came through the area, hacking and spraying in a grotesque spectacle of plant ignorance and disregard for life of any kind. 

Mangled branch ends and a seemingly endless line of dead vegetation replaced what would have been a late summer feast for the insects.

Last year, the non-native plants in the area grew back quickly. Japanese honeysuckle and non-native grasses seemed hardly affected by the poisonous punishment. I was afraid that their rapid growth would out-compete the efforts of the native plants to come back; by fall of last year, my fear had grown as few flowers showed up.

Apios americana
I am happy to report that the natives are back this year and looking fine! Some surely came from roots while many others likely sprouted from the seed bank. While I am sure that many passersby see this as a riotous tangle, anyone that knows plants can see the immense diversity here, and there were insects galore. 

Here is what is blooming there this week:

Vines: devil's darning needles (Clematis virginiana), ground-nut (Apios americana), hempvine (Mikania scandens)

Perennials: anise-scented goldenrod (Solidago odora), wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), thoroughwort (Eupatorium serotinum), ironweed (Vernonia gigantea), Indian plantain (Arnoglossum atriplicifolium), panicled tick trefoil (Desmodium paniculatum), woodland sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus), pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)

Annuals/Biennials: jewelweed (Impatiens capensis), evening primrose (Oenothera biennis)

Clematis virginiana

Impatiens capensis

Mikania scandens

Verbesina alternifolia

Vernonia gigantea

As I turned to go, a flutter caught my eye and I stayed to watch a monarch butterfly cruise over the buffet of flowers. For the moment, all is right with this little piece of the world again.