Sunday, August 18, 2019

Get Ready to Count!

The collection of data by large amounts of individual people can have a big impact on the subject being studied. The Christmas Bird Count is one of the oldest such data collection projects. I could not put it better myself as to how this effort matters: “The data collected by observers over the past century allow Audubon researchers, conservation biologists, wildlife agencies and other interested individuals to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent's bird populations have changed in time and space over the past hundred years.

Examples of the categories - Top row: Syrphid fly and small green bee;
Middle row: butterfly (skipper), beetles (category 'other'), honey bee;
Bottom row: carpenter bee (smooth butt) and bumble bee (fuzzy butt).
Missing: wasp is the last category.

This year is the beginning of a new count in Georgia: a count of pollinators, primarily insects, during a time of year when they are at their most abundant (the hot, sticky, month of August!). Georgia leads the way in this new effort and we can all help to make it meaningful.

Your charge, should you choose to accept it, is to spend 15 minutes observing one flowering plant and counting how many insects land on it. Record your counts using defined categories of insects: bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, small bees, butterflies/moths, wasps, flies, and ‘other.’  The days to count are Friday, August 23 (when we hope that lots of schools will be participating) and Saturday, August 24.

Just like the bird count, you are allowed to have more than one 15-minute report if you like. I plan to count several times during those two days, using a variety of flowering native plants. Upload all your counts to the official website: . Share photos of your activities, your flowers, or your insects on social media with the hashtag #GAPollinators.

If you’re unsure of your identification ability, you are welcome to join one of dozens of community scheduled counting events all over Georgia. I’ll be helping out at several that GNPS is sponsoring. You can find them on the count’s official website (scroll down to the census counting events section):

It only takes 15 minutes to make history – let’s submit as many count reports as we can. Get your family, get your friends, and get your neighbors to count. A 15-minute count is all it takes to help bring awareness to Georgia’s pollinators and insects. 

Ok, here's a wasp in case you need a refresher on what
they look like!
I hope to see lots of butterflies.
This is a Gulf Fritillary.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Pollination Takes Two (or More)

When it comes to pollination, plants consist of those that don’t require pollination (like ferns), plants that use the wind for pollination (like oaks, pines, and grasses), and plants that need insects to do the job. It is the case of insect pollination that I want to highlight here.

Over many years, plants and insects have evolved together for the mutually beneficial act of pollination. We all know what plants get out of it: they make more fertile seed with pollination and the cross-pollination between plants means that they are genetically more diverse (which is good for species survival). Insects benefit too: some of them go for the protein-rich pollen as a food source while others want the nectar. Some do both.

Flowers evolved to have bright petals to attract insects. In some cases, certain insects became specialists on certain flowers. For those that collect pollen, visits from flower to flower take a bit of pollen from one flower and, in the process of collecting more, transfer it to the next when the insect goes to the other flowers of the same type. For insects that collect nectar, the flower has evolved to ensure that the collection of nectar doesn’t shortchange the plant’s need for pollination, sometimes depositing pollen on the insect so that is has to carry it to the next one. I call these situations ‘accidental pollination.’

Bumble bee and Centrosema virginianum, stamens exposed
as the bee goes for the nectar

Bee exits with pollen on its back to exchange with next flower

Regardless of how it happens, cross-pollination is more effective when large numbers of flowers are present. I was reminded of this increased effectiveness this week as my spurred butterfly peas (Centrosema virginianum) started flowering. Although I had two plants growing together, few flowers appeared the first week (and perhaps only on one of the plants, it was hard to tell) and none of them produced seed pods.

The next week, flowers were everywhere – easily 10 of them at once! Bumble bees were visiting them constantly. I was excited to capture how they went after the nectar, pushing up the spur to get to the nectar and, in the process, exposing the stamens and stigma to an exchange of pollen on the back of the bee itself. As a result, many of the flowers have resulted in seed pods.

Seed pod forming on Centrosema virginianum

So for better pollination as well as improved genetic diversity, keep in mind that it might take two to get the best result. Plant accordingly.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Remove Invasive Plants Early for Best Results

I drove up to North Carolina last week, driving on US-23 N/US-441 N to get to the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference. After the turnoff from Franklin, the road rises high, with potentially scenic views but the roadside has been plagued with princess tree infestations in the past. Those trees were no longer visible because they’d been swallowed up by a humongous expanse of kudzu. What an awful sight it was to see the beautiful mountains in the distance while the entire roadside had been transformed into a shapeless blob of kudzu.

Kudzu in Cherokee, NC (Credit: Tammy Mercure)

I didn’t stop to take a picture (the roadside looked a bit dangerous for stopping on), but this picture by Tammy Mercure in Cherokee, NC gives a pretty good representation of what I saw. I hadn't been up there for a couple of years and this certainly didn’t happen overnight, but it clearly could have been controlled by property management when the invasion first started. Unfortunately, infestations that appear (distribution thanks to wind, wildlife, or water spread of seed) on large and unmanaged properties contribute significantly to the increasing acreage of invasive plants.

A friend recently moved to a new property and the backyard included a rather wild and weedy area. Of course, we both realized the potential in the area for growing sun-loving native pollinator plants and immediately spotted a few worthy plants already growing there. I ventured into the space to check out something with yellow flowers and found a watermelon-sized clump of kudzu sitting in the middle! Using her shovel, I carefully removed it. If I hadn’t, it would have grown and grown over the next few years until it dominated the space, spreading into the trees in the natural area behind her property. That’s how it gets started: one plant, ignored or unnoticed and allowed to spread.

All of us should be careful to spot and deal with plants that can spread; the sooner we remove them, the less work it is. Other highly invasive plants to watch for include:

  • Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum), often found in part-shade areas; it is an annual that drops thousands of seeds and goes quickly from early appearance to infestation.
  • Mulberry weed (Fatoua villosa), often found in mostly sunny garden beds; it is also an annual with lots of seeds.
  • Privet (Ligustrum spp.), mahonia (Mahonia bealei), and Ugly Agnes (Elaeagnus spp.) are shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; they grow quickly. All of these are evergreen.
  • Heaven bamboo (Nandina domestica), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii, and others) are also shrubs that pop up initially as single seedlings spread by birds; these shrubs are showing up more than they used to and thriving with the change in temperatures.
  • Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), English ivy (Helix hedera), and vinca (Vinca spp.) are evergreen vines and ground covers. Non-native wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) is another vine.
  • Bamboo (I am not even sure which ones are taking over some roadsides) is very hard to control once it gets going.
  • Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana), mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), princess tree (Paulownia tomentosa), and chinaberry (Melia azedarach) are invasive trees.
  • Emerging invasive plants in Georgia also include Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica) (I've seen this growing in Cherokee County and points north); garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) (in the North Georgia mountains); and Japanese chaff flower (Achyranthes japonica) (this is already present in Atlanta); Japanese spirea (Spiraea japonica) (in the North Georgia mountains); and porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata) (in the metro Atlanta area).
  • See the whole list here.

A small appearance of Microstegium vimineum

An infestation of Microstegium vimineum just across the street;
the mow and blow crew just mows around it!

When you see these plants, even if it is just a few of them, get rid of them quickly to reduce work for yourself as well as reduce the future spread. It only takes a season or two of neglect to have a real problem on your hands.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Moth Field Guide for the Southeast

We’re finishing up National Moth Week today but don’t let my tardiness in reminding you stop you from admiring these abundant insects. I say abundant because there are almost 11,000 native moths in the US, far more than native butterflies (about 800).

Last year, a new field guide for southeastern North America was published: Peterson Field Guide to Moths. It’s very thick and covers plume moths, twirler moths, pugs, daggers, sallows, darts and easily two dozen more very interestingly-named groups! Surely we all know the sphinx and the silk moths? Those are some of our biggest ones.

At first I was puzzled about how to use this guide. I could not simply flip through 600 pages and reasonably expect to spot my mystery moth! The guide talks about first verifying it is a moth (vs. a butterfly) by looking at the antenna: moths have threadlike or feathery antenna while butterflies have antenna that terminate in a club shape. You should also take note of the overall size, of course, because some moths with the same shape are different species based on the size. I found the best way (for me) to use this book is to flip to the very end of the book where there is a two page spread of silhouettes. Match the shape of your mystery moth to the silhouette and then go to the section that has pictures.

So, if you’re interested in the bugs around you, add this book to your library. Use it with your caterpillar identification guide and your butterfly guide. Previous blogs of mine that talk about moths include:

This Southern Pink Moth is one of my favorite tiny moths and I spotted it again this week, hanging around the salvia (one of its host plants). I love the pink-on-pink effect of this photo.

Southern pink moth is very tiny; this is a Salvia coccinea flower

And we'll just finish this out with an adorable picture of the yellow-striped oakworm moth (Anisota peigleri) which emerged in my yard in late June. Look at those antenna!

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Butterflies Don’t Need Flowers (to lay eggs)

Did that get your attention? Let me explain. When it comes to butterflies (and moths) finding the plants on which to reproduce, they don’t need the flowers of that plant to lead them there. They can find the plant, lay eggs on it, and go on their way. Therefore, it is of value to have the plants even if they don’t bloom.

Spicebush butterfly on milkweed, in between laying eggs on Lindera

Monarch butterflies are a well-known example of host-plant relationships. Monarch butterflies lay eggs on milkweed (Asclepias spp.), and lots of people are now planting milkweed for them. I hear/read a lot of comments like "My milkweed isn't blooming, how will the Monarchs find it?" or even "My milkweed is blooming so it's ready for the Monarchs to come." That milkweed is ready for the Monarchs once it is two inches out of the ground! Bees are actually the pollinators you want to find those milkweed flowers so that you get seed pods for future plants.

Two of the most popular species to buy in Georgia are orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and pink milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). I have had particular trouble – and other people have too – getting the pink milkweed to bloom. Even plants that are blooming when I buy them have failed to bloom the next year when planted in my yard. They get plenty of sun!

My leafy and bloom-less Asclepias incarnata

Failure to bloom is certainly frustrating. Blooming plants of all kinds support bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Monarch butterflies actually love milkweed flowers, but they don’t need them. They can nectar on other plants, including non-native zinnias (gasp!). Gulf fritillary butterflies lay their eggs on passionvine (Passiflora spp.) while never using the flowers themselves.  The same is true of the host plant flowers for Pipevine swallowtails (Aristolochia spp.), Zebra swallowtails (Asimina spp.), Spicebush swallowtails (Lindera spp. and Sassafras) and many other popular butterflies that we love to support.

So incorporate host plants into your landscape and rejoice if they bloom. Should your milkweed (or other host plant) fail to bloom, check the usual reasons: does it get enough sun, enough moisture, the right soil acidity and nutrients? Meanwhile, keep up your supply of other blooming plants and garden on! If you need some ideas for spring/summer/fall blooming plants, check out my lists in this previous post.

Monarch butterfly on blue mist flower in the fall (Conoclinium)

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Bring Back the Weeds

Rosepink (Sabatia angularis) is a summer roadside
annual whose presence is being sprayed away
The hand of man is heavy upon the land, and the need to exert control seems to be increasing. We’ve heard of the agricultural fields that have been sprayed into obedience thanks to using modified crops, but this control extends to residential and business landscapes as well.  

People want sweeps of shorn grasses and tidy edges where the grass meets a hard surface. The surfaces themselves must be blown clean of debris. The lawn and flower/shrub beds must be sprayed to control any intruding vegetation.

All of this behavior has taken a toll on insect life and the trophic levels in the food chain above them, including birds.

In plain English: We’re killing the things around us so that we can shape nature the way we want it.

The solution: Reduce our usage of herbicides, pesticides, and power equipment and make room for a little more native life in our landscapes.

  • If we stopping using non-native plants in our landscape, particularly ones just valued for being an evergreen blob, we could support more native insects.
  • If we stopping spraying pesticides and applying chemicals to our non-native outdoor carpets, also known as lawns, we’d have more native insects and underground critters/organisms to nourish the soil.
  • If we stopped using leaf blowers as a casual device and a lazy substitute for brooms, we might have more insects and we’d definitely enjoy the outdoors more!
  • And finally, if we stopping using herbicides and weed whackers to beat down the tiny wildflowers that were here way before we were … we would definitely have more insects. It’s time to bring back the weeds

Common violet (Viola sororia) in lawn

I should qualify that, of course, not all weeds are native and even some native plants could use a little control. The definition of ‘weed’ that I’m using here is "any plant that pops up and that humans feel must immediately be controlled."  From the tiny Geranium carolinianum in the lawn to the black cherry (Prunus serotina) seedlings next to the driveway, these things must go! I wish that humans were half that diligent about controlling Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimineum) and other non-native plants that just pop up.

There was an article circulating around recently about ‘plant blindness.’ While intended for a discussion about blindness to plants in general, it is definitely a problem about native plants. Most people don’t figure out what a plant is, if it is native, if it has a value in being here (over and above what it can do for their yard, that is). Today we have more resources than ever for figuring how what something is, so why don't we figure out what it is before blasting it to smithereens?

Geranium carolinianum

We should consider that we had some of our healthiest pollinator populations when we left a few ‘weeds’ around (many of which were native plants quietly trying to grow and bloom to feed the insects).

So put down the spray bottle and the ‘weed & feed’ treatments and start learning about these plants that were around long before we were. [And get rid of that opportunistic non-native plant that snuck in while you’re at it!]

Sunday, July 7, 2019

Where are the Butterflies?

At my house in Cherokee County, GA, the presence of butterflies has been noticeably minuscule. They emerged in spring as normal, and I photographed the first one on March 28. When the crabapples bloomed the next week, I photographed them enjoying it on April 3. After those early ones, I saw very few but I was busy and then out of town and thought perhaps I just missed seeing them.

Red admiral on May 11 in my yard

In 2014, I blogged about a similar decline in my area, but that year there were butterflies elsewhere as I noted. It seemed that my area was an isolated instance (and there were plenty of skippers which I’m not seeing this year). This year, it’s not just me. Numerous people throughout the state have acknowledged declines in their areas on the NABA – Georgia Facebook page. We’ve been able to acknowledge that “It isn’t just me!” as the reports reached from south Georgia to central, west, east, and north.

Two plants which are normally covered up with tiger swallowtails are blooming now – my Phlox paniculata ‘Jeana’ and my bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora). One hard-working hummingbird is trying to keep up with gathering nectar from the phlox! A clearwing moth pops by now and then as well. In previous years, I’ve photographed 2-3 butterflies sharing the same plant.

What could be the blame for such a statewide decline? Someone suggested it had to do with a wetter than usual spring.  I found an article from 2017 (in Rhode Island) commenting on how a wet spring might affect butterflies: “The wet weather can suppress the population when you have a lot of butterflies wintering as pupa and a lot of small caterpillars.”

Another article – this one from 2009 (another yet of decline) - offered this explanation how wet springs affect them: "In the rainy weather, (butterflies) are sitting ducks, cannot fly and we had so much rain this spring that even if they did emerge, they couldn't find a mate and lay eggs for the next generation," [Pat] Sutton said.

Summer azure in June 2019
People in Georgia are gradually starting to see a few more butterflies in the last few days, but the lack of Eastern tiger swallowtails, our large and abundant state butterfly, is particularly noticeable. Here’s hoping that the population recovers enough to birth the generation that will overwinter for next spring.

In the meantime, keep planting native plants and educating people on the need to avoid pesticides, particularly the increasingly available use of mosquito spraying.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast (the book)

This is a brand new book released just this week, and I got my pre-ordered copy immediately. The range for this field guide includes Georgia as the southern end while the northern end reaches New Jersey. West Virginia is included but Tennessee is not. The trio of authors paired up their excellent plant knowledge with some of the best plant photographers to include details for over 1200 wildflower species (including a few non-native ones that you might find).

It has an excellent overview section that discusses the ‘ecological factors that determine where plants grow’ from sun/shade to moisture, elevation, soil makeup, and more. These are very important considerations, and I like that it was included. This book also includes a thoroughly useful description of plant families (grouped by Magnoliids, Monocots, and True Dicots), and the genera that they include. This section as well as the over 60 pages that precede the plant profiles is wonderfully educational. I felt like I was in a class, but it was a class that I wanted to be in!

At first you might think this is another flower-color-oriented seek-and-find field guide. It has that capability, pictures are arranged by color, but this field guide has smarts too – a simple key that walks you through characteristics to a specific section of that color. After identifying the flower color, the key directs you to choose the flower shape (bilateral, radial, composite, or undistinguishable – the inside cover of the book has good pictures of these); if it’s radial (a round-shaped flower), then determine the number of petals (anywhere from 2 to 7+).  The next step is to determine leaf shape (simple vs. divided), leaf arrangement (alternate, opposite, whorled, basal), and leaf margins (entire, toothed, lobed).

Penstemon digitalis,
showing bilateral symmetry
Let’s take an example, using a common white flower called beardtongue (Penstemon). It is white and the flower shape is bilateral (e.g., you could cut it in half and the two sides would match, see picture with red line through the center of the flower). The leaves are simple and opposite and the leaf margins are toothed. Using the key on page 48, that directs us to page 77 which is the start of the section of white flowers that match that criteria (and which continues through page 81). The plant we’re looking to identify is the third one on page 79: Penstemon digitalis.

If you can’t get a match, consider checking other color areas (perhaps it is really a light purple or a purple flower is more reddish …). I’ll admit that I was surprised to find butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana) in the blue section while spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) is in the red section. Clearly what is red-blue to some is blue-purple to others.

Because leaves are part of the key, don’t expect to find all the blue species of the same genus – such as violets – in the same section. If you think it is a violet, you can still go to the index, find all the violets (Viola) and then look up each of them. Of course, the book itself had to exclude some species, limiting the choices to those ‘most likely’ to be found ... so not every violet is in the guide.

Plant details include a photo, a range map (purple shading on the map means indigenous to that area, orange is outside of its range – which is true for my area for this Penstemon species where it is grown as a garden plant), as well as flowering timeframe, size, and a very detailed description of the plant and its natural habitat.

I believe in having an assortment of references so I’ll just make a mention as to how this field guide might differ from others you might use in Georgia. The most recently published was Linda Chafin’s 2016 book, “Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States.” This book is organized by dicots and monocots and then by families within those groups; a color thumbnail section is included in the back for searching by flower color. I reviewed this one in 2016 and still use it a lot; you can read my review here.

An older book is “Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians,” first published in 2005 and updated most recently in 2018. It is arranged by family but includes a color thumbnail section in the beginning. Some of the families include a family key. It is popular with some of my Georgia friends.

An even older book (and one of the ones that I started with even though Georgia is not part of its range) is the 1977 “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.” I mention this one because it has a similar approach to having the reader figure out basic characteristics and then going to the section that matches the answers. It doesn’t have photographs and is not organized by color, but it does have great line drawings. It also includes shrubs and vines.

So, if you’re in the mood for new field guide with all the current names, fabulous pictures, and a heaping helping of good knowledge, check out Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast by Laura Cotterman, Damon Waitt, and Alan Weakley. Click the linked name of the book above to see pictures from inside the book.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Supporting Pollinators is Really Simple

This is the end of Pollinator Week 2019 but of course it is never really the end of our support for them. I’m grateful to have this week designated to ensure that we all take the time to think about making choices that help them not just survive but thrive. Few things in nature make me as happy as seeing a native insect interacting with a native plant (such as this metallic green sweat bee on orange milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, found in my yard this week).

This week’s messaging by The Xerces Society, a fabulous organization, included reminders about their Bring Back the Pollinators campaign. This campaign has such a simple message that I decided to highlight it here. The campaign has four principles:

  • Provide pollinators with flowers from which to drink nectar and gather pollen.
  • Provide them with places to lay their eggs or build a nest.
  • Provide an environment that is free from pesticides.
  • Spread the word about helping pollinators.

Here's a shareable graphic!

There are decisions to be made in each one of those principles. For example, in principle 1, flowers need to be available in spring, summer, and fall so plant selections should be varied. I covered plant selection in the second of my recent posts on planting for pollinators. You can also find plant lists in that post.

Southward bound monarchs need fall flowers

Plant selection is also a critical factor in principle 2 for the pollinators that need to lay their eggs on specific plants – these are known as ‘insect herbivores’ and are primarily the butterflies and moths. Think about the monarch butterfly laying her eggs on milkweed. For bees, principle 2 is addressed in some of the maintenance points (e.g., leaving stems and bare ground) that I outline in the third of my posts on pollinators.

A buckeye caterpillar turns into ...
A buckeye butterfly!

Not using pesticides should be well understood if you actually want to have insects, but sometimes companies try to convince us that their product is ‘safe.’ However, studies are finding that products meant to control one type of insect actually do harm non-target species, and that even ‘natural’ products cause some harm. The rise in usage of mosquito misting companies is particularly alarming, and harm to pollinators in the area is increasingly documented.

Who doesn’t remember the old education efforts to combat mosquitoes by making sure that you didn’t have standing water in the area (e.g., old tires, empty cans, and unused buckets)? We should still be doing that. Honestly, they can't make babies without standing water! Dense, thick-leaved vegetation like English ivy has also been shown to support mosquito larvae. We also know that encouraging the right enemies helps us: dragonflies and damselflies as well as many species of birds are all superb mosquito hunters.

On principle 4, I love some of the simple ideas for spreading the word: telling your neighbors, posting wildlife certification signs, and posting pictures on social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I love to share pictures of the insects that I find. We have so many ways to share now, spread the news!

Variegated fritillary butterfly

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Meet the Beetles (in my flowers)

My native Spiraea plants bloom each June, each inflorescence of tiny white flowers becoming a showy beacon of pollen and nectar for the insects whose life cycle apparently coincides with that time. By and large, the insects which are most attracted to it are beetles. It’s as if these beetles know that this is the right time to emerge! With Pollinator Week starting tomorrow, I thought now is a good time to celebrate these little-known pollinators.

I have two species of meadowsweet, which is what our native Spiraea is often called: white meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) and Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana). The Virginia one is blooming vigorously right now and its location by my front steps means that I see it multiple times a day. The flowers are tiny but numerous. The long-horned beetles show up almost immediately, first singly and then pairing up in joyous feast of food and sex.

What always surprises me is just how many species of long-horned beetles show up. Even ones that look very similar, once you really look at them, turn out to be not just a different species but even a different genus! Here are some of the ones that I’ve seen on these flowers.

Red-shoulder pine borer
(Stictoleptura canadensis) 
Flower long-horned beetle
(Strangalia luteicornis)

Margined leatherwing
(Chauliognathus marginatus)
Zebra long-horned beetle
(Typocerus zebra)

A less-showy visitor is a very small species of scarab beetles in the genus Trichiotinus. What they don’t have in looks, they make up for in numbers - these tiny guys are all over the flowers. Among all these beetles can be found the occasional small bees (sweat bees), large and noisy brown-belted bumble bees, and I even found a mosquito taking a rest on the flowers. 

Scarab beetle (Trichiotinus)

By the way, another similar shrub which also attracts these beetles is smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). I have seen these same insects on those clusters of tiny flowers.

Back to the beetles – where do they come from? All the native beetles that I’ve mentioned are wood beetles: their mommas deposit eggs in soft wood and the larvae spend their youth chewing up and breaking down decaying and dead wood. In other words, they are cleaning up.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

AlterNATIVE: Native Trees Instead of Mimosa

Every year I remind people that the mimosa trees (Albizia julibrissin) that bloom in May and June are not native. I do this via a Facebook page for native plants. Every year, I brace myself for the inevitable comments that follow:

  • ‘I grew up with it and it reminds me of childhood.’
  • ‘It’s so pretty and graceful.’
  • ‘Hummingbirds love it.’
  • ‘It’s not invasive in my yard!’
  • ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ (they never say that about kudzu)

That annual post is a sad reminder that we still have more work to do on helping people to understand why invasive plants – the ones that can spread themselves from place to place – contribute to the decline in insect and bird populations. How do invasive plants contribute to a decline in birds and insects? They do it by decreasing the diversity of plants that can feed native insects and birds.

In the wild, on unmanaged roadsides, mimosa trees create huge canopies on the sunny edges, reducing space for native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that would grow there otherwise. Grasses, goldenrods, and other native flowering plants would be feeding insects and birds throughout the year. One person always comments that it is simply a ‘pioneer plant’ and not invasive, but it out-competes native pioneer plants regardless of how you describe it.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
This year, one person asked for recommendations of native trees that might have a similar look for those who admire it. That question is what has inspired me to write this blog. My recommendations would fall into two aspects: 1) The person wants a medium-sized tree with a spreading growth habit, or 2) The person wants a tree that blooms in the summer.

We don’t have many native trees that bloom in the summer but I do have a recommendation: sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Now that happens to be an awesome tree for a variety of reasons, over and above the presence of summer blooms. First, it’s perfectly at home in a large part of Georgia, going as far south as the Florida border on the western side of the state. It may be under-reported on the eastern side of Georgia because it is quite widespread in our neighboring Coastal Plain states of Alabama and South Carolina. The blooms are much loved by bees, both native and honey bees, so it has good wildlife value. Finally, the fall color is just plain awesome while the fall color on mimosa is non-existent.

One other June-blooming plant is a large shrub that is tree-like: buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), shown with accidental butterfly in front of it (wink). It likes a moister environment, growing even in wet areas like pond/lake edges, but it would definitely give you gorgeous flowers in the same timeframe. My neighbor has one next to a pond and it is quite large now and always covered in bumble bees and butterflies when blooming.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Alternative trees with spreading branches, but which bloom in spring instead, include two of our native dogwoods: flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Two other recommendations of trees with spreading branches are Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and any of the species of serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.). I have also found that my bigleaf snowbell (Styrax grandifolius) has a nice shape as well.

These are recommendations that Georgians throughout the state can consider as better alter-NATIVES for trees like mimosa. So while you’re looking at mimosas on the roadside now, start dreaming about planting a nice native tree this fall. And in case you are not sure what mimosa is, here's a picture of it from near my house.

Non-native Albizia julibrissin

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Native Clematis

For people familiar with the vast array of non-native clematis grown in gardens – big showy, open flowers – most of the native ones will surprise you. In Georgia we have bell-shaped, spring-blooming native clematis as well as a very common late summer one.  All of them are garden-worthy, with a little understanding, and deserve wider use.

Generally considered to be a perennial, herbaceous vine, clematis are usually scramblers with a small amount of modified leaf stalks, or petioles, which can twine around something slender. Most species do not have persistent woody growth, but the summer one (Clematis virginiana) might. In my garden I let it scramble, and it can be hard to see if the vines persisted.

Clematis viorna
All the spring and summer blooming native clematis have bell-shaped blooms, earning them the sometimes name of American bells. They have a bunch of other common names, so don’t get too attached to that one! There are about 6 different species of these, with more species expected to be named in the next few years as taxonomists complete some research underway.

When it comes to the flowers of these species, the colorful petals are actually sepals that surround a cluster of stamens.  The flowers are pollinated primarily by bumble bees, and some species are noted for fragrance. Most grow as scrambling vines, but a few of the species grow straight upright like a perennial.

Clematis sp. (Carter Lake)
Clematis sp.

Northern leatherflower (Clematis viorna), also called vasevine, is perhaps the most commonly identified but it is also the species that is perhaps most likely to have new species broken out from it (from what I’ve heard). I have one plant, shown as the first picture in this blog, rescued from land in Sandy Springs, GA. It has gorgeous deep pink, shiny sepals with cream-colored insides. It grows 7-9 feet in a growing season.

Labeled as Clematis viorna but maybe new species
Another plant that I have, which I bought, was labeled C. viorna but it really does not resemble the other. The sepals are noticeably ridged, are not shiny, and have purple insides. You can see it above with the silver-spotted skipper butterfly and here to the right.

I have another plant that was raised from seed collected in Floyd County that looks similar to it; I’ve been given to understand that some of these will probably be considered a new species eventually.

I find both of my ridged, purple ones similar in looks to Southern leatherflower (Clematis crispa) because of the crispy-looking edges. C. crispa is a species which I have only seen in pictures, which show the sepals to be more dramatically splayed than these. C. crispa grows 6-9 feet each year and is noted as being fragrant. Both C. viorna and C. crispa should be in our gardens and can be found at plant sales on via online nurseries.

Less available in cultivation are whiteleaf leatherflower (Clematis glaucophylla) and netleaf leatherflower (Clematis reticulata). Both of these are uncommon in Georgia but can be found on hikes in well-preserved habitat (which is how I was able to see the netleaf leatherflower).

Clematis reticulata

Three more species are erect-growing plants, not very vine-like and they are all uncommon. Fremont’s leatherflower (Clematis fremontii ) is state endangered and only found in one location; curlyheads (Clematis ochroleuca) is state listed as special concern; and Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis) is state endangered and only found in one location. I have been fortunate to photograph two of these special species. These are not plants that will be in our gardens but hopefully we can keep them safe in the wild.

Clematis socialis
Clematis socialis

Clematis fremontii being grown for conservation use

The last species is the most rambunctious and also is often confused with a non-native relative. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) is a white, open flower that grows in moist areas and often blooms in abundance, making a large mass. It is quite similar to sweet-autumn clematis (C. terniflora); I can only tell them apart by looking at the foliage (the non-native species has smooth leaf margins). Both are vigorous growers, growing as much as 20 feet in a season. They bloom from July to September and have no fragrance. The native species can retain some of its woody growth from a previous year.

Clematis virginiana

Depending on where you are, I would certainly recommend that you add either C. viorna or C. crispa to your garden. They are unique and elegant flowers on relatively well-behaved vines that will add both charm and diversity to your native plant insect buffet.

Closer look of Clematis virginiana
Many Clematis species have beautiful seedheads too