Sunday, October 31, 2010

Nuts About Nuts

It’s not just fall leaves that intrigue me this time of year.  I’m crazy about nuts too – specifically acorns - but I’ll pick up other nuts like hickory and pecan as well.  Wherever I am, I look for nuts this time of year for a variety of reasons.  First, I like to see how different they are.  Second, I like to try and figure out what kind they are.  And third, I like to take a few home to see if I can grow them!

Mostly I collect acorns in my neighborhood and the rural area that surrounds it.  It’s become a habit during my walks to look out for them in the fall.  This area has a rich collection of oaks – Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata), White Oak (Quercus alba), Post Oak (Quercus stellata), Water Oak (Quercus nigra), Red Oak (Quercus rubra) and Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea) can all be found.  This year was such a “fruitful” year that I decided to photograph some of the ones I found.

Here are White Oak (Q. alba) acorns – always plump and glossy with a tendency to sprout quickly on the ground.  Note that the one with the holes is not viable.

These are Post Oak (Q. stellata) acorns – plucked right off a low hanging branch on the tree!

And these are Southern Red Oak (Q. falcata) acorns, more petite, not glossy, with a cap that has overlapping scales.

These are Scarlet Oak acorns with the overlapping scales similar to Quercus falcata above, but bigger overall in size and with distinctive rings around the endpoint (which helps to distinguish it from Quercus rubra).

Other places that I have found different acorns recently were Black Oak (Quercus velutina) and Scarlet Oak at the Georgia Botanical Society’s meeting at Pickett’s Mill Battlefield (State Park) in Dallas, GA, and also I found Chestnut Oak (Quercus montana or Q. prinus) at a rescue site in Canton, GA, and Swamp Chestnut Oak (Quercus michauxii) at a rescue site in Covington, GA.

Pictured here are Black oak (Q. velutina) acorns - note the slightly fringed look to the cap:


And what I believe to be Red oak (Q. rubra) acorns found on a rescue site in Canton:


The Swamp Chestnut Oak (Q. michauxii) acorns were HUGE – I could not believe how big they are.  Here is a picture of the biggest one (but the other ones were not much smaller) next to a quarter for perspective.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

In Season

While there are some native plants that have multi-season interest (Hydrangea quercifolia is one in my area), most plants have one good season of interest. 

Now is the time to appreciate the “in season” plants of Fall.  These plants get hardly more than a passing glance all year until their showy fruits or leaves appear.  Consider the modest “Hearts a Bustin’” shrub (Euonymus americanus) that has flowers so insignificant that some people swear they don’t bloom!  Come fall, however, the fruits from those tiny flowers look like something from outer space: textured raspberry-colored pods open up to reveal bright red M&M looking fruits that dangle by threads.  

Let me start with grasses and work my way up – I recently saw the amazingly showy flowers of Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) at Sweetwater Creek State Park and of course many people are now familiar with Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) which I think is one of the “poster children” for native plants – people are crazy about it.  Switchgrass cultivars are more available at nurseries now – look for Panicum virgatum in a variety of sizes and even colors.  Little bluestem cultivar Schizachyrium scoparium 'Prairie Blues' is also winning some fans.

Most people already know about Goldenrod (Solidago) which has a variety of species, including some very well behaved ones.  Solidago rugosa 'Fireworks' makes a fantastic display, and I like to mix it with blue ageratum (Conoclinium coelestinum) and Salvia greggii to make all the colors pop.  Of course the many species of Asters catch attention now too – often covered with small daisy-like flowers in white and purple.

Native vines with eye catching fall color include the much despised poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).  If it wasn’t so irritating, I know people would be cultivating it – it can be gorgeous.  You can get similar colors, however, from Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) which has beautiful blue berries when grown in sun.  Keep your eyes peeled for stunning examples of both these vines growing up trees on roadsides.

Stunning native shrubs include the Sumacs such as the Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) in my yard and the very showy Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina).  Native viburnums in general have great color, and I find the glossy leaves of Viburnum nudum almost without equal when they turn burgundy.  Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) – shown above - and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) are two rather well known natives that are promoted in nurseries for their fall color.

I once attended a lecture by a self-professed “dendrologist” (there’s a new word - it means one who studies woody plants) who exhorted the audience to look not just at the pretty forbs in the forest floor but to also “look up” to see the great woody plants that create the canopy and the mid-layers of the community.  And during the spring and summer, I do that for I appreciate trees and shrubs very much.  But come fall, my eyes are back on the ground – marveling in the variety of leaves that start to carpet the ground, a dazzling combination of shapes and colors.  Given that now is a great time to plant trees, here are some of the native trees available in most nurseries that can have spectacular fall color:

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) – shown here, Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Red Maple (try Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ for predictably good color), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), even Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) can have outstanding burgundy leaves.  Look a little harder and find Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), a summer blooming tree with fall colors in a range of red/orange/pink hues.  Be sure to mix in some evergreen trees to provide a foil for those deciduous trees: native eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Wax myrtle (Myrica or Morella cerifera), American holly (Ilex opaca) or Foster/Savannah hollies (Ilex x attenuata) to name a few.

Come next fall, you’ll be enjoying the decisions you made THIS fall!  If you need help finding a nursery that carries a good selection of native trees, check out the resource page on the Georgia Native Plant Society’s website: Sources for Native Plants

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Fields of Abandon

Native plants pop up in many places these days – I was delighted to see a large group of Fothergilla in front of a Burger King one day in Alpharetta, GA.  It was gorgeous and happy in that full sun area, and I was encouraged to see that a landscaper had thought to spec it into the design.  Seeing native plants in commercially landscaped areas is actually a bit uncommon (if you don’t consider Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) trees).  I imagine the unique bottlebrush blooms of the Fothergilla turned a few heads in the springtime.

However, let an area go untended and native plants will cautiously poke up out of the soil, returning from dormant seeds or those newly sown by wind and birds – first a few grasses, some brambles (Rubus) and a bit of Goldenrod (Solidago).  Let the area stay untouched and more will appear – a few tree seedlings and some white asters. Before you know it, the area is lush with growth and host to a variety of insects and birds.

Here is a picture of such a place in my neighborhood.  The homeowner doesn’t mow this area because it has a wet spring in it – mowing would be difficult.  Some people probably see this as messy – especially given the clipped lawn all around it.  I see it as a 24x7 diner for pollinators, spiders, birds, and so many other creatures.  The blue lobelia (Lobelia) spikes provide vibrant color against the white of the calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). Burgundy colored tree leaves will soon be falling nearby, adding even more color as they get tangled in the tan grasses.  Breezes give the whole area movement as yellow butterflies move from flower to flower.  The tall dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) towers over the shorter plants, already turning whitish with seed, providing a feast for small birds.

Another place in my neighborhood that hosts a different environment is a dry bank that is too steep to mow.  A variety of grasses – noticeably different kinds by their seed heads now – are there, plus at least two different species of Goldenrod, several asters such as calico aster and bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum), the annual blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum), one lone butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and a couple young white oaks (Quercus alba) and pines are all there now.  

If you have a chance to leave a spot untended, nature just might surprise you.  I know people have had trilliums (Trillium sp.) and jacks in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) spring up once vegetation like English ivy was removed.  Restoration of areas is sometimes best left to nature initially to allow natives to regenerate from dormant seed banks.

Consider also abandoning any attempt to remove your fallen leaves.  Well, rearrange them if you must, but they don’t need to leave your property.  Fallen leaves are an important source of nutrition, returning nutrients to the soil as they decompose.  They also shelter and feed insects, giving them both a place to reproduce and be eaten by others.  I heard that snails are an important source of calcium for birds when laying eggs.  Of course that could be a clever story spread by the snails themselves; I have stopped squishing them ever since I heard that.

Of course leaving areas alone can also invite invasive seeds to sprout.  Be on the lookout for invasive plants common in your area.  In my case that would be the annual Microstegium grass, Japanese honeysuckle, privet (Ligustrum sp.), non-native grasses like fescue, and the non-native lespedeza (usually the white flowered Lespedeza cuneata).

I do like these abandoned areas – vibrant with life, to me they are fields of abandon.  Here I use the word “abandon” in both ways: where man has left it alone and nature has a chance to return to lush and lusty wildness.  Keep a look out for these areas yourself and see if you can recognize the community that is evolving right before your eyes.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Mapleleaf Viburnum - Viburnum acerifolium

People look to native plants to be adaptable, drought tolerant and tough as nails.  While that’s not always true – some plants grow only in very specialized environments – I am happy to say that one of my favorite plants meets that criteria!

Viburnum acerifolium is known as the mapleleaf viburnum based on the shape of the leaf. Many a rescuer has had a hard time discerning the difference between a small shrubby red maple (Acer rubrum) and a mapleleaf viburnum when confronted with both on a GNPS rescue site.  With enough exposure to both plants, I think people can tell the difference, but we don’t find the viburnum often enough to give people that familiarity.  The remedy then is to grow it in your own garden so you can observe and enjoy it on a regular basis!

V. acerifolium can be found across the eastern U.S. from Maine to Texas. A stoloniferous shrub, this viburnum is not only shade tolerant, but also is quite adaptable to drier conditions. We find it on development sites in fairly upland conditions, often on a gently sloping area which ensures good drainage.  The stoloniferous tendency allows it to create a bit of colony in the wild.  At home, I have used this characteristic to good advantage: limbs that have rooted to the ground can be cut away from the main plant and relocated to a new spot.  I usually dab a bit of root hormone on the cut ends and bury them in the ground as well, tacking the whole thing down with some cut wire such as from a coat hanger.  Doing this in the spring - when the plant’s natural desire to grow is coupled with plentiful spring rains - has been very successful for me.

Given sufficient sun (4 or more hours, I think), a mature plant should flower and set berries.  If you don’t get berries after the flowers, try to get a plant from another source (a friend, a different site or even one of it’s “cousins” like Viburnum dentatum) to help with cross-pollination.  A nearby ‘Blue Muffin’ cultivar has been helpful in that regard for me.

The fall foliage can be quite electric with vibrant pink colorations. When coupled with the dark blue berries, the combination is striking.  Unfortunately the berries don’t always last that long – sometimes the birds come and eat them all in a single day!  But a few berries hit the ground, and I’ve been able to pot up a few seedlings this year.  They’ve already grown over 12 inches and will make fine donations to the April plant sale ….

Plan appropriately for the size of this plant - this shrub is generally up to six feet tall.  It is tolerant of pruning to control for size, but prune just after flowering to ensure that you don’t cut off the flower buds that form in the summer.