Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not a Good Weekend to be Japanese Honeysuckle

I had the “opportunity” to spend this weekend pulling out Japanese Honeysuckle in Amicalola Falls State Park.  Having invasive plants in State Parks seems especially awful – land that the state has set aside as a park should be free of pests.  However, the forces that carry invasives (wind, water and wildlife) know no boundaries.  

It was a beautiful weekend, warm and sunny.  The park was full of visitors: young couples, Boy Scout hikers, families with young kids, older folks and lots of dogs!  I have never spent much time at our state parks, but I can see the appeal.  The price of admission is $5 per car, and there is a lot to see and do.  You can get an annual pass if you are a frequent visitor.  I encourage everyone to visit the website of Georgia State Parks and get familiar with our state parks - they need our support.  Here are some kids having a great time in one of the streams around lunchtime.

My weekend was coordinated by the Georgia Native Plant Society.  This is our third weekend devoted to pulling invasives in this park.  Invasives can rarely be cleared in a single session – you invariably miss some and new seeds are always germinating.  It is nice to return and see the natural beauty of the areas that we cleared last time.  Of course the waterfalls are one of the main attractions in this park.  We spent most of our time clearing honeysuckle in this area.

Amicalola Falls

Our villain this week was Japanese Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica.  This invasive was brought over as an ornamental and behaved itself for many years before it morphed into invasive thug.  It now invades gardens and natural areas alike, strangling young trees and shrubs and smothering out timid perennials.  The white and yellow flowers are very fragrant and invoke fond memories for many people.  But the dark blue berries allow this plant to spread far away from where people have planted it deliberately.  Winter is a great time to pull this plant – leaves are still visible and the soil is often moist enough to allow you to pull it out with few tools.  This vine often forms a knotty structure at soil level – a handy place to grab and pull.  The leaves can be green or bronze colored. 

Japanese honeysuckle knot
Japanese honeysuckle clump

In the woods, plants are not always so robustly obvious.  Much of the vine may be under leaves.  We spent most of our time scanning the area for the vine with the pale colored stem and oppositely arranged leaves.  Once you get that pattern burned in to your brain, you would be surprised at how well you can spot it.

Marcia pulling out honeysuckle
Opposite leaves, pale stem of Japanese honeysuckle

Our final total was 14 very large bags of honeysuckle.  It is still too early to spot any plants in bloom, but we uncovered a few treasures as we cleared out the honeysuckle.  This Chimaphila maculata will thrive now that the honeysuckle is gone, and the native Hydrangea arborescens will shine a little brighter without the competition wrapping itself around its branches.

Chimaphila maculata
Hydrangea arborescens

Despite the work, the time spent was very enjoyable.  We were able to use a cabin overnight and the five of us enjoyed a nice dinner together.  Sometimes people would stop and ask us what we were doing - so we had some opportunities to explain why we take time to remove invasive plants.  Of course we picked up trash as we found it and laughed at some of the sights like this old vehicle stuck in the woods – rumored to be the remains of a moonshiner’s truck.

Quercus montana, Chestnut oak

Even with the lack of blooms, signs of spring were everywhere.  Buds on the trees were just starting to swell and under the dead leaves were the new leaves of many perennials like asters and goldenrod.  Many different oak trees were in the area, but the new sprouts on these Chestnut Oak acorns (Quercus montana) were especially noticeable throughout the area in which we worked.  Spring is right around the corner!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Let's Make it Easier

As the snow has melted and green fescue grass has revealed itself again in yards around the neighborhood, our thoughts turn to spring and the anticipation of new growth.  For some people, that anticipation might turn to dread – all those garden chores to start up again!  Perhaps I could suggest some ideas to reduce some of those chores - let's be lazy and do less work.

Mowing grass and grass choices – Depending on how much grass you have, dealing with your lawn can be a big chore: you mow it, you fertilize it, you water it.  If you have fescue, you may also over-seed it.  Here are some thoughts on reducing your effort to save time, money and natural resources:

  • Don’t mow it as much.  I know many “industry” folk recommend mowing it regularly so that you don’t remove too much of the height at once.  I do not mow on a regular schedule, just when it looks like it needs it.  During dry times, I mow even less frequently so that the longer grass blades can provide shade on the soil to reduce evaporation.  Keep your blade sharp.
  • Don’t fertilize it as much.  I actually do not fertilize at all and the grass is beautiful anyway. I save money and time! Consider getting a soil test to see if your soil needs nutrients if the lawn is doing poorly – don’t just assume that fertilizer will help.
  • For new lawns, choose a low maintenance grass – for me that is Zoysia.  It is a creeper so it does not require over-seeding in the fall.  It goes dormant in the fall, so it does not need winter mowing like fescue might.  Do not pick Bermuda if you can help it – it is a very aggressive creeper and you will be digging it out of your beds for years to come. 
  • Don’t put lawn in shady areas – grass needs sun and it will not do well in shade.  Convert those areas to a shade tolerant groundcover or just mulch.  Moss is a great groundcover - look at these beautiful patches of moss that are taking over these shady spots:
Moss in shady fescue lawn
Moss in shady zoysia lawn

  • Watering – reduce or eliminate watering on established lawns (unless you are over-seeding fescue and the seeds are sprouting).  I do not water mine, not even during the drought of 2008-09, and it has done very well (it was planted in 2004).
  • Reduce your lawn – consider how you use it and adjust the size to your needs, not what everyone else is doing.  I guarantee some people will be looking at your smaller lawn with ENVY.  A couple of years ago I realized that my sunniest areas were taken up by grass; I’ve been reducing it over the last two years.  I planted a Hawthorn and Crabapple in one area and fall perennials in another.  Lawn areas are not very botanically diverse - I was happy to add some diversity in my yard by replacing some grass.

Leaves, Limbs and Litter – You do want to pick up any litter that finds it way into your yard, but reconsider what you do with the leaves and limbs.  Leaves and limbs are nature’s way of returning nutrients to the soil.  Think of them as extended-release fertilizer!  Leaves on the lawn can often be chopped up with the lawn mower and left in place.  Or you can gather them up if they are too thick and use them as mulch around some trees and shrubs. Limbs and twigs can handled at least two ways: if they are small then break them up with your hands into little pieces and leave them right there; if they are large, pick an out of the way spot in your yard and start a pile.  Loose piles of limbs are a source of protection and shelter for many small animals and birds.  Of course both leaves and small limbs can be added to a compost bin but that’s a bit more work!
A pile of sticks for the critters that naturally decomposes over time

Pruning – Plants are not pruned in nature (unless you consider the browsing of deer or the harsh result of ice storms to be forms of pruning).  The only reason you should prune is because you WANT to do so for shape or to encourage more dense growth.  Pruning because the plant outgrows it’s spot simply means the plant isn’t right for that spot.  No need to make work for yourself - when choosing woody plants, research characteristics like these:

  • The mature height of the plant.
  • The mature width of the plant.
  • The plant’s rate of growth. 
  •  The plants sun/shade needs.

Annual color – Perennial plants are a great concept - after all, who wants to replant every year?  However, the “flower power” of annuals is hard to beat.  Therefore, most of us buy a few petunias or impatiens each year to boost the color in our yard.  Here are a few tips to maximize the impact and minimize the work:
  • Make a few large groups instead of scattering the plants throughout the area.  Larger groups create a more eye-catching mass of blooms.
  • Use just one color in each group - again the concentrated color is more noticeable.
  • Grouping water thirsty annuals together allows you to spend less time (and money) watering by concentrating on fewer spots.

Group plants by water needs – Let me expand on that last tip.  The water needs of the plants you use should be considered when you are planning new installations. 

  • Some plants need more water (annuals like impatiens need more water than annuals like petunias).  If you scatter those “thirsty” plants all over then you find yourself watering everywhere.  Put them together so that you can water them appropriately and leave other plants for another day (or not at all).
  • Some plants tolerate more water. Take advantage of low places that naturally stay moist to plant water-loving things there – a "win-win" for you and the plants.  Many native shrubs are very tolerant of moist/wet conditions: Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens), and Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) to name a few. 
Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides - 
the berries turn from green to pink to blue
Wet tolerant trees include Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), Red maple (Acer rubrum), Silverbell (Halesia sp.), River birch (Betula nigra), Swamp white oak (Quercus michauxii), Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), Sweet bay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), and American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana).

Magnolia virginiana, Sweet bay magnolia -
a small but intensely fragrant flower

When you group plants by water needs, you can tell everyone that you’re xeriscaping!  Because that is what xeriscaping means: Landscaping techniques designed to use water efficiently.

Weeds – While the technical definition of a “weed” is a “plant that is where you don’t want it”, mostly it means those pesky plants that create a zillion seeds and then germinate right where they annoy you the most! Some of the worst ones are non-native weeds like Hairy Bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).  I took this picture yesterday - look for it in your yard this month before it flowers.

Hairy Bittercress, non-native weed

Here are my tips for managing weeds:

  • Remove them when they are small (and I prefer to remove them by hand if possible because it affords me some exercise and it does not require chemicals).
  • Remove them when the soil is moist (after a rain) because they pull out easier that way (and a good weed fork helps with those that have tap roots).
  • Remove them before they go to seed – or at least dead head them (and throw away the head, don’t just drop it on the ground).  This is the laziest thing you can do! One of my favorite sayings is: “One year’s seeding equals seven years of weeding.”  Seeds can lie dormant on the ground for several years before germinating. Keep them from going to seed and you'll have fewer next year.
  • Use mulch around your plants to inhibit germination as many seeds require exposure to light in order to germinate.

I hope you find these ideas useful.  I practice most of them myself and strive to do better on others.  Not only are many of these ideas easier on you, they are often also easier on the environment too.  Who knew being lazier could be so good?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Learning by Doing

Next month marks eleven years that I’ve been involved with the native plant society in Georgia.  My first activity was a plant rescue in Cobb County.  I knew nothing of native plants then except they were in need of saving.  I was fortunate to attend my first rescue under the instruction of Jeane Reeves.  Jeane was the founder of the rescue program, and her enthusiasm knew no bounds.  She was happy to teach new people about native plants and how to save them.

I still have my notes from that first rescue: I rescued Magnolia macrophylla (Big Leaf magnolia), Hexastylis arifolia (Heartleaf ginger), Tipularia discolor (Cranefly orchid), Polystichum acrostichoides (Christmas fern) and several other things.  I remember coming back home and parking my car in the driveway so that I could use the warmer space in the garage to pot things up, carefully making labels for these plants so that I could remember their names.

Here is a picture of a Hepatica nobilis var. obtuse (Roundlobe hepatica) that I rescued that first year; if it wasn't for the snow, I could probably find one of these in bloom already.  

Of course I don’t need labels for these plants now – I can recognize them all easily at 20 paces and rattle off the botanical name as fast as I can say the common names. Now it’s my turn to lead folks on rescues and help them learn more about native plants and how to save them. Jeane is gone now, but she left behind a veritable army of rescue leaders (“facilitators”) in an organized program that saves thousands of plants each year in Georgia.

Eleven years of doing this and yet I still learn new things all the time.  Everyone has their own learning style – learning by doing is the best way for me.  If that’s a style that works for you, I’d like to share some of the things that have helped me go from zero to here in the last few years.

Repeat exposure: I have gone on dozens of plant rescues since February 2000, many of them within 50 miles of each other. Therefore, I have been seeing and rescuing some of the same plants over and over. Doing so has allowed me to see the plants in all different stages of growth, from early spring emergence to the withered foliage and bare twigs of dormancy.  Here is a picture of my 157th rescued Christmas fern (just kidding, I don’t keep count).

Polystichum acrostichoides

Using my own plants to learn: Identifying a plant in the winter forces you to look at different characteristics like the bark, the twigs, and the leaf buds.  I use the plants that I already know in my own yard for study in the winter so that I can recognize them elsewhere.  Here is a picture of a Viburnum acerifolium that I photographed in my yard after someone asked how they could distinguish a bloom bud from a leaf bud. 

Viburnum bloom bud
Viburnum leaf bud

This is a picture of an azalea (Rhododendron sp.) bud that I wanted to capture the look of so that I could associate it with the bloom appearance – in hopes of recognizing a particular species by the appearance of the winter buds.

Azalea bud
Same azalea, in flower

Looking up things I don’t know: When I’m introduced to a new plant, I often take that as an opportunity to learn more about it.  I have a bookshelf of plant reference books that I use, and I also use the internet (use the scientific name if possible when searching).  I might also ask more knowledgeable folks if I cannot find enough information.  If I don’t know the name of the plant, then I try to use plant keys to identify it. 

Workshops, field trips: Two organizations in my area offer workshops and field trips – the Georgia Botanical Society and the Georgia Native Plant Society.  Often these trips are available for very little cost if any at all.  I have taken both the Aster and the Oak workshops offered by GBS as well as Twig Identification and Propagation workshops with GNPS.  Field trips offer trips to interesting places and are guided by experienced botanists, naturalists and trip leaders.  Here is a picture from a GNPS field trip in June 2010.
June 2010 Southern Highlands Reserve field trip

Taking pictures of plants: I find that I notice more details when I am taking pictures of plants.  Until I took pictures of it, I did not notice the way the leaves of Aster patens (Symphyotrichum patens) were sessile, clasping, and auriculate.  I’ll have an easier time distinguishing it from other asters now in the field.

Symphyotrichum patens
Clematis sp.

And I never appreciated the crispy edges and dark purple inside of this native Clematis until I spent time photographing it.

Growing them:  In spring I find seedlings in my yard, and I let them grow until I can identify them. When I watch plants grow up, I learn to recognize them when they are young. In the summer, I see the variations in the leaves and the blooms.  In the fall, I learn how to harvest seed and what kind of fall color I might expect. In the winter, I learn what the leaf buds look like.  Each season brings new surprises and variations.  Look at the beautiful striping on these azalea flower buds!

Rhododendron sp.

That's how I've spent the last eleven years.  I look forward to learning more each year, making new friends and meeting new plants along the way.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Leaves of Three?

Many folks remember the Poison Ivy/Oak warning as “Leaves of three, let them be.”  However, the real saying is “Leaflets three, let it be” because a poison ivy/oak leaf is a compound leaf that is divided into 3 leaflets.  I suppose it doesn’t really matter if you get into a patch of it, but you might like to learn the difference between simple leaves and compound leaves to help better identify other plants in the future.
Trillium decumbens
By the way, the picture above is Trillium decumbens, one of the “nice” plants with three true leaves.

Leaf identification can seem to be such a daunting task when you are standing in a forest, surrounded by many different trees and shrubs. You can see the differences – big, little, shiny, hairy, smooth edges, jagged edges – but it’s too much to take in all at once.  I find it easier to consider the differences on paper and then find examples to illustrate them - like a basic leaf identification primer.

First, separate the leaves into two types: Broadleaf Leaves and Needled Leaves.  This has nothing to do with leaves being evergreen, just the type of leaf.  You are probably quite familiar with Pine trees having “needles”; needles are a type of leaf.  Other leaves are considered to be “broadleaf” – leaves from plants like oaks, hickories, magnolias, and maples.  This post is only going to deal with broadleaf identification such as the Florida anise shown here.
Illicium floridanum, Florida anise
The next separation is to determine if the leaf is simple or compound.  This brings us back to Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans, eastern poison ivy).  When you see the familiar look of 3 “leaves”, you are actually looking at one compound leaf that is divided into 3 leaflets.  This becomes more evident in the fall when the plant sheds it’s leaves; at that time the leaf sheds itself from the twig at the end of the petiole (the stalk that holds the leaf) which is below the 3 leaflets. As an example, here is a picture of a buckeye (Aesculus sp.) with 5 leaflets.
Buckeye, Aesculus sp.
If it were 5 leaves, each one would fall off, leaving the stalk in place.  The picture shows the leaflets separating, but more importantly you can also see the separation of the petiole from the twig itself and that is the key.  The whole structure falls away, revealing that it was a leaf holding those 5 leaflets.

You could also look more closely at the leaflets and see that there is no bud for next year’s growth next to them; that is because you are not looking at a true twig.  A twig has leaf buds: the bud can be found at the base of the petiole as shown in this picture of an oak (Quercus sp.). Notice that where the petiole meets the twig you can see the bud for next year’s leaf.
Oak, Quercus sp.
So, a compound leaf has many leaflets.  Some of the common plants with compound leaves are: Hickory (Carya sp), Walnut (Juglans sp), Pecan (Carya illinoinensis), Sumac (Rhus sp), Ash (Fraxinus sp), Elderberry (Sambucus sp), Buckeye (Aesculus sp), Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron sp.), Locust (Robinia sp), and Kentucky Coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus). 

Plants with simple leaves have a single leaf, but there is still a lot of variation.  Once you’ve determined that you have a plant with a single leaf, you will want to determine if the leaf is lobed and if it is toothed, two important distinguishing characteristics.

What is a “lobed” leaf?   The dictionary defines it as “a leaf having deeply indented margins”.  Another source compares it to “having fingers”.  Examples are often the best way to understand.  Examples include Sugar Maple, Red Oak, some of the Sassafras leaves (you may already know that Sassafras has both lobed and unlobed leaves), and this delightful Parsley Hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) which I photographed this fall:
Crataegus marshallii

The spaces between the lobes are called “sinuses” and they can be very shallow or very deep - even on the same plant.  I find this especially true of Oaks.  One fall I picked up a variety of White Oak leaves (Quercus alba).  I was fascinated by the variation.  Here is a picture of the ones I collected showing the variation in shape and depth of sinus.
Quercus alba leaves

Even without lobing, a leaf can be identified by looking at the margins, that is, the edges.  Are the edges perfectly smooth?  Then they are considered to be “entire”.  Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) has such a leaf (see the earlier picture above).

If the edges are not perfectly smooth and they are not lobed, then consider if the leaf margin is toothed.

Terminology exists to describe toothed margins, some of the most common are: dentate, crenate, serrate, biserrate.  Suffice it to say that just knowing that a leaf is toothed may not get you very far without some other details.  American beech (Fagus grandifolia) is a very common tree in my area that has a toothed leaf.

American beech, Fagus grandifolia

Note that you can have a leaf that is both lobed and toothed – see the Mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium picture below).  For identification purposes, consider the pattern of the lobes first when researching it. 

Viburnum acerifolium

Of course the basic shape of the leaf is also very important. Again terminology exists to help define the shapes: lanceolate, oblong, obovate, ovate, oval, cordate are some of the most familiar ones, and you might have to consider more than one term - one tree that I was researching had the leaves described as "oblanceloate or oblong or obovate or oval".   But even with the shape determined, leaves can be similar, so you might also want to look at the base of the leaf (where it joins the petiole, or what many people consider the stem).  In certain areas where species overlap, two types of native deciduous magnolia can be quickly distinguished by that spot alone: Magnolia tripetala has an attenuate base while Magnolia macrophylla has an auriculate base.  Here are pictures of each from my own yard:
Magnolia tripetala

Magnolia macrophylla

I consider leaf shape and leaf arrangement (alternate vs. opposite) to be the basics of identification for most people.  From there you can take it further by examining the leaf for hairs, stipules and other characteristics.  Such details may be necessary to distinguish one species from another, but hopefully you can use the information here to at least get you to the right genus!

A good reference book for plant terminology is "Plant Identification Terminology - An Illustrated Glossary" by James G. Harris and Melinda Woolf Harris.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Frozen Water

The recent snow in Atlanta was delightful.  It was enough to be beautiful and not too much to be bothersome.  As the cold weather lingered on, snow remained on much of the ground, especially in the shadier areas like my side of the street. When the snow melted, it slowly soaked the ground much like a light rain would do.  Liquid or frozen, it’s all good when it comes to water that feeds the environment.

Georgia depends on winter and spring rains to recharge soil moisture, groundwater, rivers and streams.   Groundwater – an interesting concept, learn more about it here
– is the water beneath the soil’s surface, water which resides in soil pore spaces and the fractures of rock formations.  For those of us that live in areas with clay soil, the soil pore spaces are smaller and the water drains through them more slowly (allowing the plants to benefit from it longer!) Sandy soil, by contrast, has larger pore spaces, allowing the water to drain through much faster.  Given the choice of the two, I'd have to pick clay soil over sandy - I love the way my soil holds water.  Here a patch of moss plumps up in response to the snow melt.

The drought of recent years (2008-09) is not far enough away for me to forget it.  As a gardener and a supporter of native plants and natural environments, it was a very painful time.  Throw in what it did to businesses that grow plants (and food) and it was even more painful.  Some nurseries went out of business as people bought fewer plants during the water restrictions.  Memberships in plant societies dropped – I would guess that about 25% of my own native plant society’s membership did not renew during that time.  However, we gained a few new members that were interested in how native plants might fare BETTER than non-natives in a drought environment.

Plants like this Hazel Alder (Alnus serrulata) that I spotted on my snowy walk. The dangling structures are the staminate flower catkins, the “cones” are from last year’s fruit.  Despite the cold and the snow, this plant is on track to flower in late winter.
Alnus serrulata

No one likes severe weather events - but we get them occasionally.  The 13 inches of snow in March 1993 were no fun, and the 20+ inches of rain in September 2009 caused a lot of property damage.  But cloudy days (which slow up transpiration, the evaporation of water from plants) and drizzly days make me happy.  Throw in a decent shower and I am over the moon …  But as those used to more snowfall know, two inches of slowly melting snow provide good direct moisture for plants versus the same amount of rain that might be partially lost to runoff (although to be fair, a good portion could make it into groundwater regardless).  Here a pine seedling benefits from the melting snow.

So if a little precipitation comes your way, enjoy it as best you can. Yes, it might be inconvenient and it might mess up your hair ... but it is the essence of life for the plants that sustain us.  Oh, and sometimes it makes really cool ice caterpillars!