Sunday, August 13, 2017

The Perfect Roadside

Roadsides are a bit of an obsession with me. I love to explore them in search of native plants that might be surviving there, and I’ve been doing that for about 8-10 years now. However, they are on the decline from what I can tell; county roadsides have been sprayed and mowed almost into oblivion. Only non-native grasses, Queen Anne’s lace, non-native lespedeza, and buttercups dare to return. Recently I had the opportunity to travel the perfect roadside, and I’d like to share it with you.

As part of my trip to North Carolina for the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference, I spent some time on the Blue Ridge Parkway. About 8 miles past the Cullowhee/Sylva exits on US23/74, there is the Balsam Gap entrance to the Parkway, a 469-mile scenic drive. Here you enter the parkway around milepost 443. You can go left towards Asheville/Virginia (where the mile numbers go down) or right towards the Smoky Mountains (where they go up to 469 where the parkway ends).

I spent most of my time on the left side (towards Asheville) - one afternoon with friends and again on the last day before going home. This is an excellent time of year to see Turk’s cap lilies (Lilium superbum), perhaps best called superb lilies so one can remember how to pronounce the Latin name. These lilies get very tall in ideal conditions and can have numerous blooms; the ones we found did not disappoint! One of our favorite places is Rabb Knob Overlook at mile marker 441.9 (a half mile from Standing Rock Overlook). The floral show here is great and the butterflies are fantastic.  The only thing lacking is a dramatic mountain view but there are other stops for that.

Pipevine swallowtails on Turk's cap lilies
Pipevine on Monarda fistulosa

Why is the Blue Ridge Parkway the perfect roadside? First of all, it has fantastic native vegetation. I have found that the conference’s July schedule is peak time to see the orange Turk’s cap lilies, blue American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum, below left), pink phlox (Phlox), scarlet red monarda (Monarda didyma, below center), screaming yellow cut-leaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata, below right) and many others. The riot of color is spectacular. This year I was also able to catch a late bloom season for great laurel (Rhododendron maximum). 

Second, the management of the roadside is ideal. The area next to the road is mown short for about 3-8 feet, allowing for clearance in case of emergencies but not so wide as to cut too far into the native vegetation. There is no evidence of herbicide spraying, leaving me to believe that it is managed manually with mowers and hand-trimming. It is so beautifully done that you actually don’t realize that someone is keeping it trimmed.

Sundew at the seep (Drosera rotundifolia)
Platanthera clavellata at seep

Third, it has regular pullouts for the great views and adjacent awesome plants (see point #1). I love to get out and see things up close. Thanks to a tip from a friend, I found a marvelous seep area with sundews, orchids, and many unique plants. Several pullouts have small trails that lead to more views (and more plants). Stop, explore, take selfies (or pictures of other people) and enjoy.  On one pullout, I met some very knowledgeable plant folks and we had a great time talking.

The view seems to go on forever at some stops

Hedge-nettle (Stachys clingmanii)
and bush honeysuckle (Diervilla sessifolia)
at an overlook

As I headed home after my last trip on the parkway, I felt relaxed and happy with all the good things I’d seen. I was surprised to realize that I'd spent over 3 hours perusing the roadsides and it was long past lunch time!

It was a long ride home so I had some time to think. Finally, I realized why it made me so happy, - because the roadsides are not full of mimosa, privet, kudzu, Queen Anne ’s lace and other opportunistic invaders. What a perfect place.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Giant Moth That Grew Up Here

I have a large and less than tidy yard and garden. Most of it is “yard,” by which I mean that I haven’t altered it (which is what I do in my garden). There is a lot that goes on here that I don’t know about until I stumble upon it. Last September, I wrote about all the caterpillars that I discovered once I actually looked for them.

A side view
In mid-May of this year, I noticed a cluster of 3 dead oak leaves in an oak tree near the driveway. Thinking it was a dead twig, I reached up to pull it away. It was a moth cocoon, stuck to 3 leaves which were then stuck to some living leaves. I pulled it down and noticed that the cocoon was huge and appeared to be mud-colored. I decided to keep the cluster in my butterfly rearing cage to see what might come out of it and I paper-clipped it to a sturdy twig to keep it hanging properly.

Two months later, during National Moth Week in late-July, a huge moth emerged during the night. It was a Polyphemus moth (Antheraea polyphemus), a type of silk moth. I researched and found that it doesn’t feed as an adult. It mates during the evening so I decided to keep it in the cage during the day. It sat there quietly all day, showing no interest in leaving (unlike the spicebush swallowtail that emerged that day and couldn’t wait to find some flowers).

Fresh cocoon
Cocoon after moth emerged

I left the cage door open that night for her (by this time I had examined the antenna more closely and determined that it was a female). In the morning, she was still there so obviously no suitor had come by. I closed the cage again and she stayed quietly again all day.

The polyphemus moth

That evening, I pulled the twig she was on (which was stuck in a pot) just outside the cage a little. My husband checked on her around 3 am and she was still there, but when I got up at 6:45 am, she was gone. I hope she laid more eggs in my oak trees (one of their host plants). I’d sure like to have more of those surprises. I'm sure they're out there.

A rough indication of size