Sunday, December 25, 2011

A Gift Back to Nature

During this season of giving I can’t help but think of those that need the best gift we can give them – our support.  I’m talking about the things that we co-habit the Earth with: the plants, the insects, the birds, the mammals.  We can do things - even small things - to give them a bit of support:

Food – remember the food chain and start with the building blocks: PLANTS.  Native plants feed native insects which then feed other native insects and birds.  Plants also feed mammals – deer browse on foliage while seeds and nuts feed chipmunks, squirrels and birds.  Smaller mammals and birds become food for larger predators.  Non-native plants feed very few native insects and therefore do very little to support the populations of all that rely on them.  Leaf litter feeds the insects that birds like the brown thrasher hunt.

Water – create a fresh water source in your yard.  It can be as small as a single birdbath or a shallow container on the ground.  Change it out every few days to keep it fresh and healthy.

Brown thrasher enjoying a bath

Shelter – providing shelter is so much more than having birdhouses.  Birds need year-round protection and evergreen shrubs and trees can provide that.  Loose brush piles provide shelter for small mammals as well as daytime cover for birds as they hunt for food.  Tall trees provide places for squirrels to nest and dead trees (known as “snags”) provide both food and shelter for certain birds like woodpeckers.

Woodpecker on dead tree

A place to raise their young – birds like robins, mockingbirds and cardinals and many others nest in shrubs that have dense growth in the summer time.  Again with the brush piles ....  Flat rocks provide the habitat that creatures like salamanders need.  Dense leaf litter is the home to many insects and their young.

Habitat – now think BIGGER than your backyard.  Every small piece of space that we can preserve for them in a natural state is a gift that keeps on giving.  Here are ideas that get bigger and bigger:
-          Convince your friends and neighbors to leave natural places; if each one of us left part of our backyard as natural (still removing any invasives!), imagine the corridor that we could link between us.  Birds and mammals need contiguous spaces not isolated pockets.  Spread the word.
-          Support efforts in your local communities to create city parks and county parks.  Volunteer at these parks to teach other people about using native plants and about the importance of removing invasive plants.  Your gifts of time and effort are worth more than you know.
-          Support your state parks by visiting them, volunteering through their “Friends of” organization, and supporting legislative efforts to fund them and create new ones.  Helping to remove invasives is so helpful - cutbacks in funding have left this job mostly undone, allowing invasive plants to disturb even more natural habitat.
-          Support groups like The Nature Conservancy, The Georgia Conservancy, and others that come together to purchase sensitive areas for conservation.

Thank you for all you do on behalf of our natural environments! Best wishes to you and yours for safe and peaceful holidays and a Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Underused Native Trees

I’d like to spotlight some trees that don’t get used enough in the Georgia Piedmont area.  I was helping someone recently put together a list of native trees that developers could use when choosing trees for a project that would require new trees - either for restoration or for landscaping a new area.  I wanted to include trees that were generally available because it does no good to recommend something that is hard to obtain, yet I know that in practice many of the same plants get used over and over again.  How about some trees that are still sold in nurseries but are not used over and over again?

Lily of the Valley tree or Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Large trees are an important component of the landscape – they provide shade and structure in the landscape as well as support for a large amount of wildlife.  Here are five large trees that I think could be used more in residential plantings:

  • Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is a fast growing tree with great fall color; it supports wildlife as a host for many species of Lepidoptera as well as by providing acorns for turkeys, deer and small mammals.  Height is up to 80 feet.
  • American beech (Fagus grandifolia) grows throughout Georgia except the southeastern area.   While not a very fast growing tree, if you’d like to leave a legacy, grow a beech - they can live up to 300 years.  Mature height is up to 80 feet tall.  The leaves transition through the year from a deep green to yellow to brown to light tan that can persist all winter long.
  • Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is an adaptable tree that grows well in average soil or in wet conditions; it has good fall color (especially some of the cultivars) and produces berries that birds enjoy.  Height is up to 60 feet.
  • Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) is a semi-evergreen to evergreen (especially M. virginiana var. australis) tree that is native to the Coastal Plain and southern areas of the Piedmont.  Flowers are especially fragrant and the leaves are very attractive, showing silvery backsides when the wind is blowing.  It naturally grows in moist areas. Height is up to 60 feet in the more southern areas of its range.
  • Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) is also widely distributed throughout Georgia.  The vibrant fall color is familiar to many people as is the distinctive “mitten” shape of some of the leaves.  It is a dioecious plant so only the flowers on the female trees produce blue drupes that the birds enjoy. In optimal conditions, it grows up to 60 feet but is usually smaller.
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Don't want something so big?  Well, here are five medium trees that should be considered more often:

  • American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is not nearly as well-known as its European cousin which comes in shades of purple.  Although the natural range in Georgia is limited, this tree does well in gardens as a specimen plant; the feathery flowers are the reason for the common name.  The foliage is handsome and fall color is good.  It grows up to 25 feet. 
    • Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a summer blooming tree with excellent fall color and is adaptable to sun or shade.  The flower sprays resemble lily of the valley blooms.  It is naturally found in the Piedmont and upper Coastal Plain.  Although it can grow up to 50 feet, it is normally up to 30.
    • Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) has a leaf that resembles Northern sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and also Chalk maple (see below).  Fall color is clear yellow with usually little hint of orange. A smaller tree than Northern sugar maple, it grows to about 25 feet or more. Unlike the more common red maple (Acer rubrum), the fruits mature in the fall.  
      • Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) is a smaller tree than A. barbatum (above) with more fall color variation in my experience – you’ll see some red/orange hues.  Chalk maple may be multi-stemmed in form and usually is less than 25 feet.  The common name is derived from the pale color of the bark. Fruits mature in the fall.  
        • Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana) is also called Ironwood because the wood is so hard, but most people recognize it by its sinewy trunk.  Hornbeam is another common name.  The flowers are not showy, but the tree has an attractive shape and the fall color can be nice.  Height can be up to 35 feet.
        Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme)

        When you’re looking for a small tree, often you can find what you need in a large shrub.  Therefore, the last five “trees” might also be considered shrubs.  But does it matter what you call them?  They fit the bill when you need something small and tree-like:

        • Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia) is a beautiful small tree with outstanding form.  The leaves are good-looking, the flowers are nice, and the blue fruit is popular with birds.  For those of you used to seeing Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), this is a lot different, but the birds will love you for it. Height is up to 25 feet.
        • Blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is more upright than most viburnums, allowing it to have a tree-like form.  Rusty blackhaw viburnum (V. rudfidulum) is very similar. The fall color is superb and the birds relish the fruit. Height is up to 15-20 feet.
        • Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) is getting more use these days, but be careful you don’t accidentally buy the Chinese species.  The spring bloom on this small tree warrants usage as a specimen tree where people can appreciate the unique flower show.  This dioecious plant only produces fruit if female, but supposedly the male has showier flowers. Another common name is Grancy greybeard.  Height is up to 20 feet. 
        • Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is a great plant for hummingbirds in the spring and squirrels in the fall.  This shrubby buckeye is a surprise to those familiar with the Ohio and yellow buckeyes that grow so large.  Painted buckeye (A. sylvatica) is similar to red buckeye and the two can hybridize in the wild. Growing in part-shade, these shrubby buckeyes can grow to 20 feet. 
        • Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) is one of the prettiest hawthorns, especially the foliage.  Hawthorns in general are good host plants for many Lepidoptera, and their fruit is popular with birds and small mammals.  Height is up to 20 feet and this species is tolerant of occasional wet conditions.
        Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus)
        Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)

        So if you have occasion to need a new tree, think about these.  You'll have something out of the ordinary, you’ll increase market demand in the nursery trade, and you just might inspire one of your neighbors to think differently as well.

        Where can you find these plants?  First ASK your local nursery.  Nurseries need to hear from their customers about plants that they want.  Even if they don’t have them, your question will alert them to consider ordering them in the future.  Or they may be able to order them for you right then.

        Mail order sources may be an alternative for you if you don't live near any sources.  Always search using the scientific name to make sure you are searching for the right plant.  For mail order companies, do check ratings and customer reviews on Garden Watchdog. If the company is not listed on Garden Watchdog - beware!  At least one disreputable company in Georgia sued to have Garden Watchdog remove their poor rating and bad customer reviews.

        Sunday, December 11, 2011

        Marvelous Moss

        Fall is winding down and winter is creeping closer by the day.  The last few leaves dangle from deciduous trees' branches and a few perennials squeeze out one more bloom.  When all is done, what color will there be to greet us during grey days?  Green will be there - lush and vibrant green in the form of moss.

        Moss is often unappreciated - especially by those trying to cultivate a lawn. I think moss should be appreciated as a beautiful, useful, and beneficial group of plants.  Mosses are quite different from most of the plants that we are familiar with.  Mosses are non-vascular plants; unlike vascular plants, they don't have tissues that transport water and nutrients throughout the plant. Trees, shrubs, perennials, and even ferns are vascular plants.  As a result of not having this "nutrient transportation" system, non-vascular plants don't get very big. Mosses are also different because they use spores to reproduce - they don't have flowers. In this way, they are like ferns.

        Capsules on sporophyte - spores are inside
        This might be Atrichum angustatum
        Likely a species of Bryum

        As I thought about this topic, I looked around for examples of moss in my own yard and other places that I went.  I was amazed at the many different ones that I found. At right is one that I find commonly growing in the cracks of asphalt on the shady side of the streets.

        I took pictures of them and tried to identify them from the pictures; that was a tough job and I was not always successful just using pictures.  One thing I learned is that they can look quite different if they are not "hydrated".  They do hydrate very quickly, so just pour some water on them if you want them hydrated.  Those two pictures were taken about 5 minutes apart.

        This might be Bryoandersonia illecebra

        Just as with any plant, there are a number of common names associated with moss and the names seem to pair up nicely with the appearance of the moss: Broom moss reflects it's windswept look, Fern moss looks like tiny ferns, British soldiers looks like red-capped fellows, Pin cushion looks, well, like a pin cushion!  Here are some of the ones I found (and the names if I was able to identify them).  Thanks to my friend Faye for helping me with some of the identifications.

        Fern moss, Thuidium delicatulum

        Tree apron moss, Anomodon attenuatus (I think!)

        Broom moss, Dicranum scoparium

        British soldiers, Cladonia cristatella

        Pincushion moss with snow
        in 2010, Leucobryum glaucum

        Polytrichum commune,  hair cap moss

        When color and form is all you have to offer, combinations of different shades of green and textures becomes almost a work of art. I found that frequently a patch of moss can be a group of different ones:

        One reason I like to have moss around is that it creates a superb environment for seeds to germinate.  In some areas it can be an early colonizer, establishing a rich environment for a new group of plants to take hold.

        The area in front of my house is a mini nursery for Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) seedlings.  I have about 5 new seedlings each year in the moss.  I carefully dig them out when they are big enough and pot them up.

        A new Sourwood seedling

        Sedum ternatum in moss

        So I encourage you to appreciate moss for it's many qualities - color in winter, texture among other plants, and an ability to nourish seedlings.  Think about encouraging any moss that you find growing in your garden and introducing moss if you don't have any already.  Look for it in shady areas in your yard - even in the grass.  When I find moss in my grass, I make plans to phase out the grass, not the moss!

        For another post about the marvelous attributes of moss, including a great picture of a moss "lawn", click on over to The Grumpy Gardener.

        Sunday, December 4, 2011

        Refresher Course

        It is far easier to leave things alone than to change them and the garden is no exception.  In 2004 I planted out the front of the house after ripping out the non-native foundation shrubs that the previous owner had installed.  The design of the arrangement that I implemented looked very nice upon completion, but the plants were still small.  The last seven years have produced a lot of growth, and the area to the left of the doorway has grown into an area where shrubs have embraced each other with abandon.

        A beautiful clump of Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii) as
        originally planted; it is now obscured by one of the shrubs.

        Nature often produces tangled thickets of growth in the wild, but let’s be honest – this is a garden.  I appreciate being able to recognize individual plants for what they are and would like to be able to do so here.  So I decided it is time to exert a bit of control over this area.  In particular, the shrubs in the back – a white flowered form of Illicium (I’m not sure that they were properly labeled as to species or cultivar in the nursery!) – have become a bit of a pruning challenge to keep them from overtaking the area.

        Initial planting, spring 2005 view

        Here is what it looked like in early 2005, less than a year after being planted. This represents one half of the front left side.  The two Illicium shrubs are in the back - they were chosen to be larger so that they could screen some part of the window (mostly because we wanted to obscure the view from inside the window).  Between the shrubs is a group of non-native variegated Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum) - a group that is no longer visible, by the way. 

        In front of those is a grouping of Leucothoe axillaris plants that have grown leggy because of the crowding of the other shrubs. In front of those are three native azaleas.  At some point I added a fourth azalea and one of the Leucothoe died..  I have since moved the 4th azaleas in recognition of the overcrowding so at this point I am still dealing with 3.  At the very left of the front you can see a healthy clump of Northern maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) and that small bit of green in front of the rock next to it is the Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii).

        Now that I have explained what plants are there, here is a picture of what it looks like now.  It's a bit of a jungle! I've added a few perennials in front, so that is a contributing factor, but it clear that the area was over-planted to begin with and the shrubs in the back are too big for the space.  Where are the windows?

        Fall 2011, seven years after planting

        Gardening is change – things grow, things die, people make mistakes!  I don’t think that is a surprise to any of you.  What I’m faced with here are two of those factors: things grew a LOT and I made some mistakes.  Here are some of the steps I plan to take during the next few months to restore some sanity to this area.  These are things that anyone can consider when it comes time to refresh an area:

        1.       Recognize that changes are needed.  I’ve done that.  Reasons for my change include: plants have grown too big, excessive pruning is now required, other plants are being crowded which is affecting their appearance.  You could have other issues like poor plant performance or drainage problems that need to be dealt with.

        2.       Evaluate what the space needs.  This is the time to do a site analysis: How much space do you have, what is the sun exposure, what is the moisture level, do you have any restrictions for size and height of plants?  I have measured the area and it is 15 feet long by 11.5 feet deep.  The sun exposure is full morning sun until about 12 pm, so it should be able to handle sun/part shade plants.  The moisture level is a bit on the dry side especially the area that is closest to the house.  I have two windows so the plant height needs to be considered for them.

        3.   Research what to put there (use the details from your evaluation!), including what to keep of the existing vegetation. To satisfy the aesthetics of the general population (including future buyers of the house), I will get something evergreen for the area closest to the house.  I already know that I want to keep the Leucothoe and at least two of the azaleas, but I will not keep the non-native Solomon’s seal.  I want to incorporate a native perennial in that area instead and it needs to be something tall.  This step is actually the most fun, I think.  It should also be time well spent so that my choices are good for at least another seven years!

        4.   Consider your implementation details  – what is the best time to plant and where can you get the plants?  Luckily I can plant almost year round in this area.  My only concerns are obtaining the plants and waiting to prune the Leucothoe close enough to spring to protect the open plant stems from freezing weather. I think I can work on the layer closest to the house first since all of that will be removed and replanted.

        5.   Take pictures to remember what it looked like when you finished so you can compare later.  Who knows, I may have a whole new set of issues to deal with next time.  But I hope that if I did my planning correctly, I’ll have very few.

        I would encourage you to finish up with mulch to protect the area and to consider labeling your plants.  If nothing else, when the label gets swallowed up by the plant, it will be a sign that your plants are growing!

        All this will take some time for me to complete (need to do some research!) so I can't show you the finished project now.  So far I have removed one of the large shrubs in the back and the non-native perennial in the back.  Here is the progress so far - and look, the window is rediscovered!

        Fall 2011 - on the way to a new look

        Sunday, November 27, 2011

        Parking Lot Oaks

        Plants that can live (and thrive) in adverse conditions like parking lots and roadway medians are special indeed.  Those that do so are prized by landscape designers and their use often is repeated.    These same trees might show up on lists of urban (also known as “street”) trees.  While maples are often used in these conditions, here are four oak trees that I have seen recently that fit this bill; three are native and one is exotic.

        Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii)

        Pin oak (Quercus palustris)

        Pin oak (Quercus palustris) has been a parking lot staple for many years around North Atlanta.  The trees planted some 30 years ago are now trees of considerable size – in places where they were allowed to remain.  Unfortunately in some urban areas, trees are considered expendable when it comes time to expand further.  Don’t let the common name fool you – the pin oak does not have slender “pin” shaped leaves.  The leaves are broad and usually have 5-7 lobes.  Q. palustris tends to retain its dried leaves over the winter, allowing for some measure of privacy when planted in a residential area.  That characteristic plus slightly drooping lower limbs are key identifiers for me.  The acorns are rather small and striped.  Like many urban tolerant trees, this species is naturally at home in poorly drained soils with high clay content.  I have never noticed this species having any remarkable fall color. 

        Pin oak (Quercus palustris)

        Willow oak (Quercus phellos) is another parking lot staple and continues to be used even in new developments.  Perhaps the narrow, linear leaves are more friendly to clean up crews in the fall than other oaks.  This is the tree that people think of when you mention “pin oak”.    The rapid growth rate and pleasing shape of the mature tree are probably two of the reasons it is still used in design.  Again the acorns are rather small (perhaps a plus for high traffic areas) and faintly striped.  Again this tree is naturally found in poorly drained areas, making it ideal for use in urban areas.  The fall color is yellow and rather unremarkable.  I found this example in a church parking lot along with the pin oak above.

        Willow oak (Quercus phellos)

        Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii) is a moderately fast growing tree with handsome lobed leaves.  It became popular as an alternative for the overused pin oak some years ago.  The leaves of the two species are very similar in appearance but Shumard oak has better fall color and the dead leaves do not persist.  The acorns are much larger and resemble those of Northern red oak (Quercus rubra).   I found this example in a supermarket parking lot where the acorns on the ground were numerous.   

        Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii)
        With so many native oaks to choose from, you would think designers have no reason to pick any non-native oak.  Occasionally though you will find someone using Sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima).   This oak is notable for its fringed acorn caps.  Some folks think it is our native bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) when they find the acorns and search the Internet based on the acorn cap’s appearance.  The leaves are quite different between the two, however, and bur oak is not naturally found in Georgia.  The leaves of Sawtooth oak are long and narrow, not lobed, with bristly teeth on the margins.  It has no remarkable fall color except perhaps a very brief transition from green to yellow before turning brown on the tree.  Although once promoted as a “good wildlife” tree, there are plenty of native oaks that can fill this role. I found this one in a gas station parking lot.

        Sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima)

        So if you’re looking for a good street tree, the native choices listed above are ones to consider.

        If you are interested in what the acorns of other native oaks look like, you can look at my other posts: New Acorns for Me and Nuts about Nuts.

        Sunday, November 20, 2011

        Witchhazel - the original fringeflower

        Despite the wide-spread distribution of American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in Georgia, I have not had an opportunity to see it in flower until this past week when we found it on a GNPS rescue site.  What a beautiful and delicate flower it is!  The four-petal yellow flowers appear after the leaves have already fallen, creating an almost sculptural arrangement on the bare branches. The flowers are considered lightly fragrant.

        American witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana)

        Witchhazel is a large shrub or small tree that is found throughout the eastern United States as an understory plant in upland mixed hardwood forests.  It is usually found with oaks (Quercus spp.) and our site was no exception – the oaks found on this site included Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), Northern red oak (Quercus rubra), Chestnut oak (Quercus prinus), Black oak (Quercus velutina), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), and White oak (Quercus alba).

        Witchhazel leaves are alternate, simple, lobed, and deciduous.

        Leaves of Hamamelis virginiana
        I think the winter twig is rather distinctive with it's naked terminal bud (that is, it has no special bud scales - those are the actual leaves that will unfold in spring).

        Winter twig of Hamamelis virginiana

        As I mentioned earlier, the distribution in Georgia is quite remarkable – it is found from the Blue Ridge down through the Piedmont to the Coastal Plain.  If it were not such a modest looking plant most of the year, I’m sure more people would be familiar with it.  It is a member of the Hamamelidaceae family.  It’s physical resemblance to Fothergilla (commonly called witchalder), another member of the same family, is to be expected, but I was surprised to find that it is also in the same family as Sweetgum (Liquidambar).

        Distribution of (H. virginiana), courtesy of USDA Plants Database

        In addition to the unusual late-fall flowering time (November in North Georgia), the development of the seeds is also quite unusual.  Although pollination occurs in the autumn, fertilization does not occur until later, so the fruits develop during the summer of the next year, becoming ripe almost at the same time the new blooms appear. When the fruits are ripe, they burst open, forcibly ejecting two shiny black seeds some distance away.   Supposedly the sound of the event is loud enough to be heard if you are nearby.

        The top of a 10 foot plant, held down for a picture

        There are a few cultivars of the native eastern witchhazel available.  Look for H. virginiana 'Harvest Moon' and ‘Little Suzie’.  H. vernalis is the late winter/early spring blooming Ozark witchhazel, native to the southwest; you may find forms of that also.  The blooms are yellow with reddish/purplish accent and are known for good fragrance.   

        Beware of accidentally getting the Chinese species, H. mollis – cultivars and hybrids of it are quite common, including H. x intermedia 'Arnold Promise'.

        Sunday, November 13, 2011

        Score! New Acorns for Me

        Last year I wrote about how I am crazy about native tree nuts, acorns in particular.  Well, fall is the perfect time to go crazy.  In my previous blog entry I showed pictures of some of the acorns I had gathered in my area.  This year I was able to add to my “collection” in a significant way.  By the way, I don’t keep my collection in seed form – I plant them around the property so that I can “grow” my collection in every sense of the word!

        Quercus prinus, Chestnut oak

        The first addition to my collection is Quercus prinus (synonym Quercus montana) which is known as Chestnut oak.  One of the areas where we rescue plants has many Chestnut oaks.  I happened to be there when the crop hit the forest floor this year so I gathered a bunch.  As a member of the white oak group, these acorns sprout quickly and many of them had already sprouted when I collected them.  The plump, shiny acorns are 2-3 times bigger than the more common Quercus alba (White oak).

        The second addition qualifies as one of my “significant” findings because I have wanted it for so long.  There is a Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) across the street from me, and I have checked the area around it every year for fallen acorns.  This year it finally produced some!  Based on the leaf shape and bright color, I have always considered it to be a Scarlet oak rather than a Northern red oak (Quercus rubra).  The acorns I gathered this year confirmed that my identification was correct – there are distinctive concentric rings around the base.

        Scarlet oak across the street

        Quercus coccinea acorns

        The third addition is also a Scarlet oak.  This one is outside of my neighborhood but along my usual walking route.  The tree itself is too tall to see the leaves on the tree, but I have seen the leaves on the ground and the shape of them is quite atypical (in my opinion) for a Scarlet oak.  In fact the first time that I saw them, I thought it was Mapleleaf oak (Quercus acerifolia), but that species is not naturally found around here.  I know that oaks can hybridize in the wild and suspect this individual has both red and scarlet oak ancestors.  This year I finally found the acorns on the ground, and they are Scarlet oak acorns.

        Fancy Scarlet oak leaves!

        I also got some Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana) acorns; I didn't collect them myself - someone brought them to a meeting.  I have a few small Georgia oaks in my yard (leftovers from an Arbor Day project at the school), but it will be nice to grow a few more from seed.  The acorns are small and remind me of Southern red oak - they have an orange-ish top and faint stripes as well but a bit more gloss.  The picture below includes a leaf from one of my oaks.

        Georgia oak, Quercus georgiana

        I have water oak in my yard (Quercus nigra) but have never seen any acorns associated with my population.  I did find some acorns while working on a restoration site in Smyrna for GNPS.  The acorns are remarkably similar to both Georgia oak and Southern red oak in size, shape, and even right down to the faint stripes.  I don't know if this is typical, but I also noticed a band of orange/tan around the top of the acorn.

        Water oak, Quercus nigra

        So those are my acquisitions this year.  I’d also like to publish an update to my notes in the previous blog entry for two species.  The first is Southern red oak, Quercus falcata.  As the acorns in my yard pile up on the ground, many of them half-eaten by the local squirrels, I am reminded of the distinctive color of the nut meat - a bright orange.  Sometimes the color even affects the top of the acorn (visible after it separates from the cap).  Also, the outside of the acorn is often distinctively striped.  Here are some new pictures from acorns gathered this year.

        Southern red oak, Quercus falcata

        Here are some pictures of Northern red oak, Quercus rubra. These acorns are considerably larger than the ones I photographed last year and I think represent the species a little better than my previous picture. In addition, I like to include some leaves with my pictures going forward.

        Northern red oak, Quercus rubra.

        Sunday, November 6, 2011

        Don't Cut Back

        Leaves are falling down all around us, late season perennials are producing seeds, and acorns have turned areas of ground under oak trees into what appears to be a game of marbles.  It is a time for plants in the temperate areas of the United States (like Georgia) to shed the leaves that they no longer need and for seeds to disperse. Even pine trees drop some of their needles.

        Rudbeckia hirta seedhead - waiting for a bird

        This is also the time of year that gardeners feel compelled to “tidy up” the garden and “put it to bed”.  What a ridiculous idea!  Does Mother Nature do that? No!  She has many good reasons for not doing so, and I’d like you to consider some of them as you ponder the list of “garden chores” that you have created for yourself.

        Leaves enrich the soil as they break down and as critters like worms and beetles eat them and poop out free fertilizer.  Omnivorous birds like Brown thrashers sort through leaf litter to find and eat these creatures - so you are feeding the birds as well when you have a good layer of organic material.

        Leaves feed earthworms and beetles - and feed your plants
        Rake the leaves off the lawn (or chop them up with your mower) but don't let them leave your property! Giving away leaves is like giving away money.

        As perennials die back, their dried stalks hold the remains of their flowers and their ripening seeds. Fluffy seed heads attract the attention of small birds like Gold finches to come feast on them.

        Seedheads of Eurybia spectabilis

        Plants continue to support insects even in this phase.  Larger insects and birds happily keep these insect populations in check – Mother Nature expertly uses the food chain to keep the local ecosystem balanced. Healthy populations of birds rely on these small insects being there for them.

        Bugs on Eupatorium will feed others

        So resist the urge to "tidy up" and let Mother Nature finish what she started.  The rest of the critters we share this place with will certainly thank you.

        Sunday, October 30, 2011

        The Magic of Mushrooms

        Mushrooms are mysterious organisms.  From the moment we see our first one – usually as a child – we are captivated by them - they are fairy umbrellas, toadstools, agents of enchantment.  They come in all shapes and sizes and a range of colors as well.  At some point we learn that what we see is actually a fruiting body – similar to a flower that turns into fruit or a seed.  But if you’re really lucky, you get a chance to learn that there is far more going on underground than you ever thought.

        Mushroom growing out the mulch pile

        The underground organism that creates the mushroom you see is call “mycelium”.  If you were able to see it, it would look similar to an underground spider web extending for miles perhaps.  The largest known organism, of the species Armillaria ostoyae, lives in Oregon and is 3.5 miles across; it is estimated to be at least 2,400 years old.  These organisms live in two ways: by decomposing dead organic matter, and by forming a symbiotic relationship with living plants and trees.

        You can see some of the underground structure here

        While the first way is what many of us have learned about (i.e., mushrooms appear because there is decomposing wood underneath them), it is the second way that is of most concern to those of us that love plants.  Some mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with living plants and trees.  This relationship is called “mycorrhizal” which literally means “fungus roots”.  In most cases, the relationship is with the outside of the roots, known as “ectomycorrhizal”.  This complex and often far-reaching relationship allows for better absorption of nutrients and moisture because the mycelial web can extend far beyond the trees’ physical roots.  The fungi gain sugar and nutrients produced by the trees during photosynthesis.  It is a symbiotic relationship – each organism benefits.

        The gills contain the spores that create new mushrooms
        So the next time that you see a mushroom, think of all the work going on underground.  It makes me want to cheer when I see a mushroom in my yard - because I know that means I have good organisms at work below.
        Here are some Internet references for identifying mushrooms - I am not advocating that anyone eat mushrooms.  In fact, I think they are better left alone to reproduce!  We need more of these things. 

        North American Mycological Association - be sure to check out their photo contest!

        And here are some of the mushrooms that I've seen in my yard and in places that I've been:

        Growing at the base of dead trunk
        Growing on a log

        Bird's nest fungus, Cyathus striatus

        Perhaps an Amanita
        Cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis radicata
        (in my yard every year!)

        Might be Russula silvicola

        And after several days - gooey!

        Evolution of a mushroom - before

        Photo by Lillian Huffman

        Perhaps Hygrophorus miniatus
        (Photo by Lillian Huffman)
        I think this is Calbovista subsculpta

        Common morel, Morchella esculenta