Sunday, April 2, 2017

Before Us

It’s not uncommon to hear someone say that something in their yard, usually in a natural area, must be native because it was there when they got there. Often they are speaking of privet bushes, wild honeysuckle vines, or some other plant that came in via bird poop (face it, that’s how a lot of stuff gets there).

In my area, I believe it is likely that 99% of what we see is second growth (even for some of the large trees we see), and that the land was highly disturbed by humans over the last 500 years, largely for agricultural reasons. Georgia’s oak-hickory forests in the Piedmont were cleared to grow food for families and crops to sell. There weren’t nearly as many loblolly pine trees as we have today, by the way.

When we got to this house 13 years ago, I was excited to discover what might be here. One of the first plants I noticed was an elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) in the backyard; it was probably brought in by birds. There was a small amount of privet (Ligustrum sinense) and a fair amount of Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). These non-native plants were brought here by birds too (you get the good and the bad when it comes to birds).

Trillium cuneatum in the middle of the woods at my house

I also saw a sweet Betsy trillium (Trillium cuneatum) on that first walk around the property. The next year I think that I saw two. Over the years, I learned that if I didn’t protect them, the deer would eat them. While a deer meal is not fatal to a trillium, the plant will take in less energy and grow smaller over time; of course, reproduction by seed is less likely too. I’ve been careful to spray or cage them and “new” ones are popping up now. They might have been there all along, dormant, saving their energy.

A trillium seedling on the wooded edge overlooking the stream

I do think that trilliums are a good indication of plants that were probably here before us. Their seeds are dispersed by ants so they don’t move very fast from one place to another (unless soil is relocated). From seed to blooming plant takes a long time; they are visible as a single leaf after 2 years of growth and may take 5 years to get 3 leaves. Each time that I see a small 3-leaved plant, I think “Wow, look how far you’ve come to get all 3 leaves!” It takes at least 7 years before it is mature enough to bloom. 

If you have plants that were there before you, consider carefully how they may have gotten there. Plants may or may not be native.  You might have to play detective to figure it out.

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