Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fiddling Around

Ferns are special plants.  Older than dirt, mysteriously reproducing without flowers while thriving in shade, seemingly bereft of the sunshine that most plants seek, they bring a quiet beauty to a woodland area.  Emerging fern fronds appear after winter as tightly coiled “fiddleheads”.  The intricately fashioned fiddleheads encourage us to stop and examine their beauty in this early moment of spring.

Polystichum acrostichoides

Many different ferns are found naturally in Georgia.  In the metro Atlanta area alone, I have found more than 20 different ferns in my small travels.  Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the most common and one of the few evergreen ones.  It would be gorgeous in my woods all winter if the deer wouldn’t take to sleeping on it.  The fuzzy golden knobs of new growth are formed at the end of the year, and they wait quietly at ground level, protected by the previous year’s fronds.

The other common evergreen fern is Ebony Spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron), a very petite and upright fern with a dark brown or black rachis (the rachis is the midrib of the fern blade).  When I first began to notice the different ferns, I thought that Ebony Spleenwort ferns were baby Christmas ferns because they were small and usually found near Christmas ferns.  Ebony Spleenwort can be remarkably tolerant of sun – we sometimes find them in the edges of old fields.  Both types of ferns are tolerant of drier conditions than most ferns.

Asplenium platyneuron

A couple of other fairly common ferns are Lady Fern (Athyrium filix-femina) and New York Fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis).  In the wild we often find them near each other on moist streamsides.  New York Fern is an especially good spreader, and the soft, dried fronds are sometimes used by birds to build nests.  A favorite identification trick to distinguish these two is to look at the bottom area of the frond: if the pinnae (the smaller “leaves” on the stem) taper off until they are small at the bottom, it is a New York Fern; we like to say that New Yorkers burn the candle at both ends.  Lady Fern pinnae are much wider at the bottom; it also comes in two forms: red stemmed and green stemmed.  Here is an emerging frond from a red stemmed one.

Athyrium filix-femina

By the way, if you are unfamiliar with the unique terminology associated with the parts of a fern, click here for a good picture with details.

The maidenhair ferns are a beautiful and unusual find in the woods.  Northern Maidenhair (Adiantum pedatum) is the one we usually see.  Transplanted ones thrive in my yard – I have not had as much luck with the Southern Maidenhair (Adiantum capillus-veneris) and I suspect my soil conditions are not right.  The twisty, curly fiddleheads are almost cartoonish in form but always unfurl beautifully:

Adiantum pedatum new fronds

Adiantum pedatum

Here is another fern with contorted new growth, Broad Beech Fern (Phegopteris hexagonoptera).  You would think I’d stood on my head to take this picture:
Phegopteris hexagonoptera

Many ferns have their spores on the back of the frond (or on the back of some of the fronds); these are the parts that are capable of developing into new ferns.   The ferns I have described so far have this arrangement.  This site linked here has great explanations and pictures about how ferns grow from spores.

Polystichum acrostichoides

Dryopteris marginalis

However, some ferns create separate “fertile fronds” that only contain the spores and look quite different from the non-fertile fronds.  Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata) is one of them and so are Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis), Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis) and Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), all of which thrive in wet conditions in my area.

Osmunda regalis

Woodwardia areolata

Botrychium virginianum
Some “grape ferns” also are quite at home in my yard.  In addition to having the separate fertile frond, these ferns are unusual in that they have only one frond per plant.  Each spring, Rattlesnake Fern (Botrychium virginianum) sends up one fresh new frond; if it’s mature enough, it will contain a fertile structure as well.  Each fall, Southern grapefern (Botrychium biternatum) sends up it’s new frond which persists all winter, often turning a bronze color by spring.  Here a Rattlesnake Fern unfurls, it’s fertile structure already looking like a bunch of grapes (or a rattlesnake’s tail!).

Grape ferns are very petite ferns, and there are plenty of other small ones in Georgia.  Brittle Fern (Cystopteris protrusa) is a tiny, delicate looking fern.  Other small ferns include Rock Cap Fern (Polypodium virginianum) and the very similar looking Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides), show here in it’s “dry” form in between rains.  Resurrection Fern often grows on trees, especially big, wide oak branches.

Cystopteris protrusa
Polypodium virginianum
Pleopeltis polypodioides

Thelypteris kunthii

Ferns can be found in sunnier conditions – one of my favorites in the garden is Southern Shield Fern, look for it by the scientific name as this one has many common names (Thelypteris kunthii).  This big, lush fern grows to about 36 inches tall and is happy to grow in full sun until about 1 pm (longer if there is adequate moisture).  In my old yard, spores would fall down into a mossy area and I had dozens of babies to share with other people; you can also divide the creeping rhizomes as you might do for other ferns.

Other sun-tolerant and even xeric ferns are being given more attention these days.  Be sure to visit the Botanical Gardens at Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur to see the unusual native ferns that they grow.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Welcome Spring!

I'm making an extra post today just to welcome Spring!  Flowers are popping out all over the place, but I wanted to especially recognize our early spring woodies. On my lunchtime walk today I spotted four beautiful trees that are just beginning to bloom in my area north of Atlanta.

Redbud (Cercis canadensis) - how this tree got the name "Redbud" is a mystery to many folks because to most of us the flowers appear to be purple!  But you know they say that colors and smells are subjective so we will just have to accept that someone thought they were red.

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) - this is one of my favorite trees and a real success story for my attempts to grow new plants.  Hummingbirds love the flowers, and I'm sure they an important source of nectar for these birds as they return from their winter homes.  The big fat nuts are easy to gather and germinate readily if you can keep them away from squirrels.  I have grown many of these from seed and donated them to the annual plant sales for the Georgia Native Plant Society.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) - the modest white flowers of Serviceberry are just beginning to appear on wooded roadsides near my house.  Small, tasty berries will form from the blooms, turning first pink and then red/dark purple.  However, the birds love them so much that they usually are eaten before you get to see the final color!  Early settlers used the berries as well.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) - this tree is a real symbol of the southeastern U.S. states - from Virginia to Georgia, it is a popular landscape tree and a familiar sight in wild areas like state parks.  What people don't usually realize is that there are many other members of the Cornus genus with vastly different looking flowers and berries.  Still, this one blooms first and is more showy than any of its cousins.

And as a bonus, here are the colorful samaras (seeds) of Red maple (Acer rubrum); the blooms are long gone, but I'll bet that many folks see these from a distance and think they are flowers.  They are pretty and colorful enough that I could agree with that!

I hope you are enjoying some of Georgia's beautiful native flowers this week in celebration of the arrival of Spring at last.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Native Pollinators

Most people don't relish the thought of inviting more bees into their garden, but pollinators play an important role in our ecosystems. I've just finished reading a new book called "Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America's Bees and Butterflies".

Silphium connatum
Photo courtesy of Mary Tucker

Many folks know that pollinators are more than just bees and butterflies.  Pollinators include wasps, flies, beetles, even birds and bats.  Bees, however, are the best pollinators thanks to unique physical characteristics and nutritional needs.  Recent news stories about Colony Collapse Disorder have made even more people aware of how honey bees are used around the country to pollinate food crops through the transportation of hives in large trucks (timed to arrive as crops enter their flowering phase).  Honey bees, however, are not native bees.  There are hundreds of species of native bees that do a far better job of pollinating flowers than honey bees.  We need to support them.

Non-native honey bee approaches Quince flower

This book's goal is to educate folks on how to both attract and support native bees.  The concepts provided, however, apply also to attracting and supporting non-native bees and other insect pollinators.  The book includes an overview of each type of insect pollinator, including how effective they are in pollination (and why) and what living arrangements support them.  Understanding these details is important to any efforts we make to support them.


Of course it is important to understand why pollination is important, not just for food crops but all plants.  While some plants are capable of self-fertilization, many more need help with pollination or they can have a greater rate of fertilization and produce more vigorous offspring when cross-pollination occurs.  Plants that are endangered or which have reduced populations are especially sensitive to pollination problems: reduced pollination rates means fewer viable seeds and that ultimately affects the size of the population.  Even for plants that can self-pollinate, reductions in cross-pollination means less genetic diversity in the population as a whole.  While wind can help distribute some lighter weight pollens, it is insects that provide most of the "outcross" pollen that plants receive.

Bees: there are three things to understand about native bees - they can be solitary or social, they can nest in the ground or in a cavity, and that they are usually generalists when it comes to the plants from which they gather nectar and pollen.  Most people think of honey bee hives when they think of bee "living arrangements", but more than 90% of the 4,000 species of bees in North America lead solitary lives; this means that each female builds and stocks her own nest without any help.  Bumble bees are the best known native bees that live in a social arrangement.  In this arrangement, each bee has a specific job to do.  Of all the insect pollinators, bees are the most important group for two reasons: bees visit flowers specifically to gather nectar and pollen as food for their young and in doing so transfer large amounts of pollen to other flowers; bees are physically capable of transporting more pollen because of their individual body hairs and other pollen transportation features (we've all seen those big pollen globs on their legs, right?).

Wasps: it was fascinating to learn more about wasps.  Wasps, unlike bees, are carnivores during the larval stage, feeding on insect prey provided by their mothers.  Adult wasps visit flowers only to sip nectar for themselves, and most do not collect pollen on purpose; any pollen collected is by accident.  Pollination is largely incidental as a result their search for nectar (they also sup on soda and other sugary sources, remember?) and far less effective than pollination by bees.

Flies: as the largest group of insects (nearly 120,000 species worldwide), flies represent a significant portion of the insects that visit flowers.  However, like wasps, flies are only visiting flowers to grab some quick energy (nectar), and pollination is usually a by-product.  There are some flies that mimic the look of bees and wasps to elude those that would eat them.  Once way to distinguish a fly from a bee is to look at the number of wings: flies have two wings and bees have four. Flies are good pollinators for some food crops like strawberries and carrots; muscid flies have been commercially raised for carrot pollination purposes.

Butterflies and Moths: I think this statement from the book perfectly describes our relationship with these pollinators: "Although butterflies are not the most important pollinators of plants, they are among the most conspicuous."  Like wasps and flies, butterflies go to flowers only to sip nectar and therefore any pollination is only accomplished if they happen to pick up some pollen on their wings and spread it to the next flower.  I found an interesting tidbit on distinguishing butterflies from moths in this book: butterflies have a small bulbous tip at the end of their antennae.  Moths do not have this bulb.

Beetles: it is estimated that beetles predate bees by 50 million years (according to fossil records); therefore, beetles have been pollinating the earliest flowers (think Magnolia-like flowers) for a long time.  And if you thought there were a lot of flies, consider that there are 340,000 species of beetles worldwide!  Not all beetles visit flowers, and like the other insects except for bees, the purpose of their visit is only to nourish the adult.  In the case of beetles, it is to eat pollen, not sip nectar.

So now that we know we have all these pollinators, how can we help them?  In some cases, the answer is to be a bit more laissez-faire - leave the leaves on the ground to nourish ground dwelling critters like adult beetles and those that consume those creatures like wasps.  Leave dead tree snags and branches for wood burrowing insects like beetles and solitary bees. Brush piles and rocks help as well.  Leave some bare ground for ground-dwelling bees and wasps, and create special mason houses for bees that prefer those.

Plum (Prunus sp.)

Stokesia laevis with Asclepias tuberosa
Photo courtesy of Mike Strickland

You can have fun too; here is the fun part:  plant appropriate plants.  Here is a report on a project partially funded by the Georgia Native Plant Society; the project was a two-year study using Stokesia laevis to attract native pollinators.  When choosing plants: in general, you want to choose regionally appropriate and native plants that are long blooming, have overlapping bloom times, and have nectar-rich flowers.  Also plant butterly-host plants (including woody trees and shrubs) to sustain the larvae of butterflies and moths.  There are plenty of resources on the web about butterfly host plants for your area.  If you want to see the top 20 list of host plants for the mid-Atlantic area (both woody and herbaceous), check out this list provided by Doug Tallamy.

Helianthus sp.
Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides

This book is very helpful in understanding the importance of pollinators and how they live in the world around us.  I learned a lot and certainly plan to implement some changes in my garden to help these guys.  This book is published by The Xerces Society and is available on Amazon.  It includes 34 pages of identification pictures for native bees.  The reference section on pollinator plants is a bit skimpy - one would need to do more research to come up with more regional choices.  In general, look for pollen and nectar-rich flowers like the Helianthus and Viburnum pictured above.

These are unopened flower buds on my blueberry bushes (Vaccinium sp.).  The bees were circling them in the bright sunshine yesterday.  There was no doubt they knew that the buds would be open soon and were anxious to be there when it happened.  How wonderful that we help each other at the same time - they get what they need and I get more blueberries!

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ephemerals – here today, gone by summer

This is the season of the Spring Ephemerals – beautiful, colorful wildflowers that delight our flower-starved senses.  As their seemingly delicate petals pierce through the dead, dried leaves of winter, the juxtaposition of their fresh, new growth against the drab forest floor makes their beauty all the more amazing.

Sanguinaria canadensis, Bloodroot
Photo by Sheri George

Spring ephemerals primarily grow in deciduous forests.  Their growth pattern – new growth early in the spring – allows them to take advantage of the plentiful early spring sunshine before the trees leaf out.  From February to April, these plants send up above ground leaves, flower and set fruit while the sun shines through the bare twigs above.  As the canopy trees leaf out, the available sun diminishes and the plants finish this phase of their life.  If moisture levels are good, the foliage can persist for several more months.  But if the ground is dry or the air temperature is too high, the foliage withers for the year.  The underground structure, often a corm or a rhizome, remains alive, allowing the plant to stay dormant until the next spring.

Georgia’s forests have many spring ephemerals.  I will describe some of the ones near me, but there are many more throughout the state.  In additional, some areas like the Great Smoky Mountains have wildflower hiking trails that allow visitors to see these beautiful flowers both up close and in breathtaking views that contain thousands of them.

Trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) is the first ephemeral to flower in my area.  Hepatica blooms first, but since it is evergreen, it is not considered to be an ephemeral. Trout lily foliage and blooms emerge as pointed spears.  The spears easily pierce through the leaves on the ground. The dried leaves provide support for the delicate stems while the foliage appears to perch just above the forest floor.

Erythronium umbilicatum

As the trout lily petals fall away, revealing their dimpled seed pod, Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) emerges from the moist layer of fallen leaves. Bright white petals stand out against the brown leaves around them.  Some flowers appear to be alone, others are wrapped in a single leaf which unfurls over the course of several days.  The textured, blue-green leaf is every bit as striking as the flowers.  I enjoy the appearance of the foliage long after the flowers have gone, and a large patch of it produces a groundcover effect.



Trilliums (Trillium) are certainly one of the most well known families of spring wildflowers.  I think the name of the plant itself is so easy to understand that it sticks with people: Trilliums have plant parts in 3’s: three leaves, 3 petals, 3 sepals – it is a concept that even a small child can grasp.  Georgia naturally has more species of Trillium than any other state – 22 species have been identified so far.  The ones most commonly found near me are Catesby’s trillium, Sweet Betsy trillium, and Southern nodding trillium.  However, I can’t find any good pictures of those, so here is a picture of Trillium flexipes from a trip to North Georgia.

Trillium flexipes
Podophyllum peltatum

Other beautiful spring flowers that don’t stick around much past June: Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), Toothwort (Cardamine spp. whose foliage is among the first to emerge), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), and Woodland Phlox (Phlox divaricata)

Claytonia virginica

Mertensia virginica

Cardamine spp., Toothwort

But fleeting as they are, these flowers provide an important role: they provide early flowers for early pollinator insects. And for flower-hungry, winter-weary humans, they provide a cheerful announcement of Spring’s arrival.

Enjoy them while they last, and be sure to mark their location so that you don’t dig into them come summer and fall!
Phlox divaricata

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Plants to Share

Glorious green!  Plants are popping up, leafing out and generally making a delightful spectacle of themselves around here.  Each tiny new leaf, fragrant blossom and delicate seedling is a testament to the endurance and versatility of Mother Nature.  I get so excited that I just want to share it with everyone! And I like to share plants too.  Native plants can be easy to share, and there are several ways to do just that.

I wrote several months ago about plants that you didn’t want – plants that you might have seen elsewhere and admired or plants offered to you by friends that wanted to share.  But those were invasive plants, easily cultivated and shared because of those very properties that make them invasive.  I propose here today some ways to share GOOD plants, and how to recognize when to share them.

The plants that I share are recognized as "shareable" in three ways: they are plants that can be divided, plants that throw off seeds, and plants that get in my way (usually by creeping).  Let me explain with some examples.

Plants that can be divided: These are plants that have mild to aggressive means of vegetative propagation.  Herbaceous plants create additional growth underground via rhizomes and corms.  Woody plants spread by suckers.  Both types of growth require no flowers or fruit so this is called vegetative propagation.  You can separate the new growth from the parent plant and pot it up to share. 

Iris fulva
Coreopsis auriculata

Herbaceous plants are often separated in the spring when you can see the new growth.  Some of the plants that I have in this category are Copper Iris (Iris fulva), Crested Iris (Iris cristata), Mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata), and creeping ferns like Netted Chain Fern (Woodwardia areolata) and Sensitive Fern (Onoclea sensibilis).
Iris cristata

Woody plants can be separated in the spring also.  Many folks recommend making a “root pruning” cut in the fall (use your shovel to separate the sucker from the parent but don’t dig it up), allowing the sucker to spend the cool months making additional new roots. Some of the plants in this category are Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), Possumhaw viburnum (Viburnum nudum), and Smooth hydrangea like ‘Annabelle’ (Hydrangea arborescens).  I find that plants that sucker are especially adaptable to transplanting – it’s like they have a supersized growth spurt just waiting for an excuse to make roots.

Hydrangea arborescens 'Annabelle'

Plants that throw off seeds: Of course many plants throw off seeds, but these are ones that sprout readily in the surrounding area, allowing me to recognize them for the goodies that they are.  Once these seedlings emerge, I pot them up.  While often these are seeds of herbaceous plants, sometimes I find woody seedlings like Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) and several species of Viburnum.

The herbaceous seedlings that I most often find are Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea), Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), and two kinds of Penstemon (Penstemon smallii and P. digitalis). Seeds usually germinate based on soil temperature and light exposure.  The rate of germination can vary enough that I have new plants for 3-4 months in a row (the Salvia seedlings usually don’t show up until May).  It keeps me busy.

Salvia coccinea

Aquilegia canadensis

Penstemon smallii
Lobelia cardinalis

Plants that get in my way: I know this is a terrible way to phrase this - of course I mean this in the nicest way possible!  Some plants just don’t stay put.  They might be creepers – like Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens).  Occasionally I have to remove part of the population to keep a path clear.  One year, I moved a bunch of pussytoes over to the other side of the path.  They were just as happy on the other side.

Mitchella repens

Antennaria plantaginifolia

Other plants just pop up out of nowhere.  Cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) is like that.  My path will be perfectly clear and suddenly it is full of baby orchids.  Perhaps the ants dropped the seeds or the wind blew them over there.  Luckily they are easy to move – not fussy at all.

Tipularia discolor

So you see that your ability to share plants is full of possibilities.  Look around and see what you can find.  And if you have LOTS to share, think about donating some things to the Georgia Native Plant Society’s plant sale.  Now is a great time to pot things up for the April sale.