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

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Native Plants for Native Bees

Support for pollinators is increasing as the message about their importance circulates to even wider audiences. Pollinator Week was created twelve years ago and is now celebrated world-wide, taking the message even further. I have been frustrated every year with graphic images that get circulated showing “flowers to support bees” but which contain 80% non-native plants and largely reference benefits to honey bees (which are great but they are not native to the US).

I have told myself for years that someone needs to create one for native bees. This year, I finally did it (with the help of my very talented husband, of course). Since this blog is Georgia-focused, the graphic that we created focuses on southeastern native plants (I hope this inspires other regional lists). Unlike other graphics which focus on herbaceous plants, I have more realistically included some woody shrubs and trees as well since native bees use them too.  

The plant photos are my own and the two bee images are educational photos from Clay Bolt’s website. The big one on the left is our most common bumble bee, Bombus impatiens (I love how it is named for a native flower that it frequents, Impatiens sp.). He didn’t identify the bee on the right, but I think it is also a species of bumble bee (please post in the comments if you know it).

I have written many times about supporting our native bees and you can find a list of those posts by clicking this link. The list on this graphic is unfortunately short due to the nature of people wanting a quick and colorful graphic. I deliberately only listed the genus name of these plants; each one can have a variety of species which you can choose to use. You can find 10 pages of native plant recommendations by looking at my Spring, Summer, and Fall lists in my latest pollinator post here.

Bumble bee on partridge pea
Metallic green bee on milkweed

Southeastern blueberry bee
Leafcutter bee on orange coneflower

Native bees have unique relationships with native plants that they don’t have with non-native plants. While some can certainly benefit from the non-native plants recommended in the other graphics, some of them will go hungry. In addition, native plants also support other herbivore insects like moths and butterflies that use them for host plants. And honey bees can use our native plants too, of course.

Bumble bee on bushy St. John's wort

Bumble bee on wild bergamot

Unknown bee on aster

Unknown bee on redbud

Small carpenter bee on wild plum

Feel free to download this graphic (it is a jpg) and share it far and wide. Let’s get the message out louder for native bees and the native plants that support them.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

A Plague of Black Locust

I’ve recently returned from a trip to Italy where we learned about how the population of Rome plummeted during various plague events. In evidence this time of year was a whole different kind of plague - an infestation of black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), a plant that was brought to Europe in the 1600’s from explorations to North America.

Black locust in Rome near Villa Borghese

I first noticed black locust as we were driving away from the Rome airport. While occasionally I’d see trees that were deliberately planted (large, standalone trees in a park), the majority of trees were in vast thickets along roads. Their growth pattern looked suspiciously like weed infestations of non-native trees in Georgia (like tree of heaven, mimosa, and privet). These trees were in full bloom, and their dangling white clusters of flowers made them all the more noticeable.

When we took a train from Rome to Florence, passing through rural areas, I was dismayed to see how widespread the growth reached into what appeared to be natural areas (although I am not sure how much natural area exists in a small area that has been heavily human-dominated for many thousands of years). I'm sorry I wasn't able to take a good picture of the infestation from the train, and I can't seem to find any representative pictures on the web.

Upon reaching home, I did a little research and found that some people are happy with the tree and are enjoying positive economic impacts from it (“fast growth, valuable and resistant wood, suitability for amelioration, reclamation of disturbed sites and erosion control, honey-making and recently dendromass production”). People concerned about nature conservation have those points to battle in their arguments that it is invasive, “threatening especially dry and semi-dry grasslands, some of the most species-rich and endangered types of habitat in the region, causing extinction of many endangered light-demanding plants and invertebrates due to changes in light regime, microclimate and soil conditions.”

I know that black locust is also considered invasive in North America; USDA shows it present in all the lower 48 states, some of which is surely due to man’s hand in moving it around. The flowers are beautiful and fragrant, a trait that surely convinced many a settler to take a piece to his new land just as he took other favorites. We know that many North American native plants were transported back to Europe by early explorers, but I’m shocked to see how much it has spread (but why should I be given the spread of some invasive plants here?). I guess 300+ years and the hand of man can accomplish a lot.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Trillium discolor

Georgia is home to at least 22 species of Trillium; more are still being identified so the count is likely to increase. I provided a brief overview of them in an earlier post, but this blog features a very special trillium that I was fortunate to see in the wild recently. On the third day of the Georgia Botanical Society’s Spring Pilgrimage, a vicious line of storms threatened all our regular plans. Georgia’s premier authority on trilliums was our trip leader so he changed our plans on the fly and we went to Toccoa to see Trillium discolor (a plan which was entirely doable in the brief amount of time before the storms hit).

Trillium discolor, often called pale yellow trillium, is a species that is only found in the upper drainage basin of the Savannah River, an area which includes portions of Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. It is a species of special concern, threatened by habitat loss, deer browsing, and invasive plants like Japanese honeysuckle (a plant which was on site).

The species epithet ‘discolor’ has always puzzled me; you might remember another plant with that designation: cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor). According to information on the Internet, the term means having various or different colors. While the petal color is pale, apparently sometimes they are maroon or green at the base, hence the multiple colors.

Trillium discolor

This one should not be confused with yellow trillium (Trillium luteum) which has a much larger range, a more intense yellow color, and a very nice fragrance. Tom Patrick told us that this species might have a spicy, clove-like fragrance and we all obligingly got down on our knees to give it a sniff. While clearly there was not the nice fragrance of T. luteum, we really could not identify anything specific (several of us wondering if the definition of ‘clove-like’ was different than our own!). The shape of the petals is also different, with T. discolor petals being described as spatulate, which means broader at the tip than the base.

Trillium discolor population

It was beautiful to see this special trillium in its natural habitat. Several patches were so abundant, it appeared as if hundreds of low candles were lit. The special locations of this plant serve as a reminder that some species can be wiped out just by not understanding their link to local conditions. Luckily many of these populations are in Chattahoochee National Forest land and might be able to be protected.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Exploring the Plants at Coweeta Hydrologic Lab

Anemone quinquefolia
This is the second of my field trips on the Georgia Botanical Society’s 50th Spring Pilgrimage. I shared highlights from the first one last week. This trip was just across the state line to the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory in Otto, NC. Of course, plants recognize no state line so we saw many wonderful plants that are found in Georgia as well.

A brief background on the lab from their website: Occupying nearly 5,400 acres and in existence since 1934, the Coweeta Hydrologic Laboratory is world-renowned for its research in forest hydrology. In 1918, the Forest Service bought the tract and designated it part of the Nantahala National Forest in 1923. The site was set aside as the Coweeta Experimental Forest in 1934. Measurements of rainfall, streamflow, climate, and forest growth began almost immediately.

We encountered several of their informational signs on their experiments (measure water flow with existing hardwoods, cut all the trees in an area down, measure water flow, plant pines back, measure water flow ….). The real treat was exploring their thousands of untouched acres along streams, in rich coves, and even at the top of the mountain on an outcrop.

Cladonia sp. and others
Diphasiastrum sp.

Our first stop was streamside where we found spring wildflowers like wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), trout lily (Erythronium sp.), violets a plenty, plus thick mosses, running groundcedar (Lycopodium digitatum, perhaps; synonym: Diphasiastrum digitatum), lichens, and ferns.

Trillium erectum duo
Prosartes lanuginosa

Our next stop was in a rich cove, which was populated with even more special wildflowers like red trillium (Trillium erectum), yellow mandarin (Prosartes lanuginosa), and showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis). Our trip leader had mentioned that we’d see Carolina vetch (Vicia caroliniana) and perhaps its beautiful butterfly, the Silvery Blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus) – and we were thrilled to find just that! We continued to see it alongside the road on several stops; in addition, some folks saw a mating pair of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails.

Silvery blue on Vicia caroliniana

After lunch, we went to another streamside spot to find a real treasure: a blooming instance of Fraser’s sedge (Carex fraseriana). We had to traverse through poison ivy and a Rhododendron thicket to get to this single specimen, but it was worth it! Near the road was another fine population of the vetch and accompanying Silvery Blues. Someone spotted a mountain bellwort (Uvularia puberula) and, as is our way, the rest of us hustled over to admire this new (to us) species of wildflower.

Carex fraseriana

Mountain bellwort (Uvularia puberula)

From here, we got back in the cars and followed a long and winding road up to a very high point to see another special plant: the rock harlequin (Capnoides sempervirens). Its relationship to the Fumariaceae family is evident; it was once considered to be in the Corydalis genus. One of the native bush honeysuckles (Diervilla sp.) was also there and there was huckleberry (Gaylussacia sp.) all around us and a just-emerging clump of lady slippers (perhaps the pink one: Cypripedium acaule). High up there, a serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) was still in full bloom.

Rock harlequin (Capnoides sempervirens)

Fragaria virginiana
Galearis spectabilis

Our leader wasn’t done with us yet! From this peak, we made our way back down, passing loads of the pretty Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus) and good views along the way (I was careful not to look as the road was narrow and the edge was steep). Our last stop was a wet rock face that was covered up in cliff saxifrage (Micranthes petiolaris). Nearby there was one of the summer-blooming Heuchera that loves wet spots (perhaps Heuchera villosa). We also found some blooming native strawberry (Fragaria virginiana). All in all, it was a great place to see some great native plants.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Hemlock Falls Trail

If it’s spring then we must have had another Spring Pilgrimage weekend with the Georgia Botanical Society. This weekend was the Society’s 50th such event, and despite an awful weather forecast, the event went on as planned in the area around Clayton, GA. This blog is about my Friday field trip, one that I actually led yet still enjoyed and saw some great things.

As the leader for this trip, I felt obligated to preview the path ahead of time and I did that in January. I did a blog on that trip because the waterfalls were so amazingly big with the winter rains. Although I knew what the evergreens plants were, all the others were going to be a surprise for me as well as the participants. We found some really cool things (and didn’t get rained on at all!).

Viola rotundifolia

The first 1/3 of the trail is rather plain, with mostly evergreen shrubs and violets. The sweet white violets (Viola blanda) were abundant throughout the trail, their small round leaves and tiny white blooms meeting us at every turn. After a while we saw another round-leaved violet but no blooms on it until much further. With the help of another participant, we figured out it was different than the sweet white and the yellow blooms we finally found confirmed it: Viola rotundifolia. I love how people on BotSoc trips work together to share knowledge.

A very fine Tiarella cordifolia
Xanthorhiza simplicissima

As the path climbed higher, everything was wetter and we began to see some of the spring goodies: foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), and some of the prettiest yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) that any of us had seen before. As we continued to make our way towards the falls, crinkleroot, or toothwort, (Cardamine diphylla) and trilliums joined the floral parade.

Erigeron pulchellus - bees love it!
Star chickweed (Stellaria pubera)

We passed through a drier area after a small bridge and found blooming Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), and pussytoes (Antennaria sp.). Finally, the path opened up to the falls and a restful area of large rocks for sitting (not that many of us sat, there was too much to see!). We found more crinkleroot, wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), and one special plant in abundant bloom: mountain bluets (Houstonia serpyllifolia).

Houstonia serpyllifolia

A wandering stolon on foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Also very interesting in this area was a foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) with a long stolon that had rooted itself further away. Apparently this is a well-known trait. We saw another instance of this on our Saturday field trip to another location.

Mountain or highland doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana)

From there we turned around and made our way back to the parking area. I grabbed a few shots of the blooming mountain doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) along the way, and spotted one broken mountain magnolia (Magnolia fraseri) that was leafing out but not blooming. If it hadn’t been knocked down, I wouldn’t have known it was there.

There are still many blooms to come on that trail as it is loaded with Rhododendron and mountain laurel. It should be a beautiful sight in May.