Sunday, July 31, 2011

Orchids That Might be in Your Yard

People are always surprised to find out that there are native orchids in Georgia.  What may be even more surprising is how many there are and how common they can be in areas that they naturally grow.

Mention the word “orchid” and people envision colorful, showy flowers that come from other countries and which are largely considered house plants, especially in Georgia. Native orchids are much more diminutive and are generally pale colors – mostly white. If you could look at them through a magnifying glass (or hand lens – an inexpensive magnification tool used in the field), you would find them to be every bit as beautiful and intricately fashioned as their exotic family members.

Goodyera pubescens, foliage

One orchid that is found in my area is Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens).  What an unusual name for such a special plant.  Found primarily in the northern part of the state, this evergreen perennial has striking foliage.  Someone once likened it to “stained glass panes”.  It forms small colonies in wooded areas, and I have found that it transplants fairly well.  It sends up a single white bloom stalk in the summer.  Mine are flowering now.  I have it naturally in my yard and I have brought some in from rescues.

Goodyera pubescens, bloom
Tipularia discolor, bloom

An even more common orchid – you may have it in your own yard if you have a woodland area in Georgia – is the Cranefly Orchid (Tipularia discolor).  Found throughout the state except for the coastal areas, this modest plant has only a single leaf.  However it usually forms colonies so you are likely to find a group of them.  This leaf is evergreen through the winter but then withers and disappears in the warm months.  The bloom stalk appears mid-summer and quietly blooms without the leaf.  The first bloom stalks are appearing in my woods now.  The leaf will reappear in a few months: green on top, purple on the back and with a slight ribbed texture.

Aplectrum hyemale
USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 574.

A similar looking plant is Puttyroot (Aplectrum hyemale). The leaf is larger, more ribbed, and the blooms are larger.  This plant is also called “Adam and Eve” because the underground structure is composed of two pieces. Like Tipularia, it also blooms without the leaf being present.

Lady Slipper orchids are rather well known examples of native orchids plus they are generally colorful, large, and showy. Pink Lady Slippers (Cypripedium acaule) grow in woodland areas that are rich in pines that are old enough to create a thick layer of pine duff (decomposing fallen pine needles). These beautiful plants bloom in late spring, delighting all who come upon them in the forest. They are extremely difficult to transplant as their root systems are large and depend heavily on beneficial organisms in the soil. The yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) is also found in North Georgia and appears to have less rigid growing requirements.

Pink Lady Slippers (Cypripedium acaule)

The fringed orchids (Platanthera spp.) are a group of small but attractive orchids that are found throughout the state. The one I’ve seen the most is Platanthera ciliaris, the yellow fringed orchid (although I find it to be more “orange”).  It is a remarkably resilient plant, and I’ve seen it growing in a variety of conditions.

Lady’s tresses orchids (Spiranthes spp.) have a distinctive look to them – the flowers spiral up (or is that down?) the bloom stalk, ensuring that people notice them even when they are not very tall.  The color of the bloom is usually white or yellowish-white. Spiranthes cernua, known as “nodding lady's tresses”, is found throughout the state.

Some orchids grow in specialized environments. Corallorhiza, the coralroot orchids, is a genus whose species are mostly leafless; they rely on symbiotic fungi within their roots for nourishment. No need to try cultivating them – the environments are not likely to be reproduced.

On several rescues we have found green adder’s-mouth orchid (Malaxis unifolia); it is found generally throughout the state. It is a modest little plant with just one leaf. This website has great pictures.

These are just a few of the orchids that grow naturally in my area of north Georgia. Keep a look for these and others in your area, and, when you find them, feel free to tell your friends that you have orchids that grow nearby!

And for a really neat one that is not in my area: Greenfly Orchid, also known as Bartram's Tree Orchid, (Epidendrum magnoliae) is found in coastal and south Georgia. As the name implies, it grows on trees. You can see pictures of it at this Florida Native Orchids website.

The following is completely unrelated to this topic, but I saw this while out walking this morning. This butterfly was totally captivated by the blooms on this Mountain Mint (I do believe it is Hoary Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum incanum). I was able to take picture after picture.  For those that want to plant nectar rich flowers, Mountain mints are something to consider!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Native Annuals: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I have a few favorite native plants that are annuals in my area.  That means that they sprout from seed, grow, flower, set seed, and then die – all in one year.  I am also aware that there are a few plants that I don’t like that are annuals too.  So I decided to investigate a little further and see what other plants are annuals (in my area, that is – some of these plants may be considered perennial in warmer areas of Georgia).

The USDA Plants Database is a pretty handy tool when it comes to researching this concept.  Using the Advanced Search function, one can specify a list of annual plants that occur in Georgia (or any state, of course). The search generated a list that was 3 pages long!  

I have somewhat arbitrarily grouped these into the Good (the ones I like or which are interesting in general), the Bad (plants which are exceptionally weedy or aggressive), and the Ugly (those largely considered to be weeds and which have no attractive flowers).  These are my groupings alone – you may consider that items in the “ugly” should be in the “bad” or vice versa.  You may not even agree with the ones in the “good”!   I will not bore you with pictures of the ugly ones, but you can use the names provided to look them up and find pictures.

Sabatia angularis

Good:  Sabatia angularis is a soft, pink flower that blooms starting in June.  The flowers last a long time, fading to white before they go.  I find it on the partially shaded roadsides near my neighborhood, mostly in areas that escape the mower (thankfully).   

Salvia coccinea

Salvia coccinea is known as Scarlet Sage.  It has bright red flowers and will grow to be about 3 feet tall by the end of the season, branching out like a shrub as it grows.  Hummingbirds love the flowers, and goldfinches love the seeds.  It is slow to get started here: seedlings don’t usually show up until May (they sprout based on soil temperature). 

I discovered Blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum) last year when examining the sunnier roadsides.  

Dwarf St. John’s Wort (Hypericum mutilium) popped up in my yard when we cut down a big holly shrub; the petite flowers are less than a quarter of an inch wide!  

Trichostema dichotomum
Hypericum mutilium

Annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus) is naturally a well branched plant with many flowers (not one single big one, although some have been bred to do that).  Then there is Helianthus porteri, known to many as Stone Mountain Daisy.

Helianthus porteri
Photo by K. McCaustland

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is a streamside annual that many folks know as Touch-Me-Touch – the seed capsules explode when you touch them.  A similar yellow form is Impatiens pallida.

Other interesting annuals include the common purple “weed” known as Venus’s looking-glass (Triodanis perfoliata).  You may have that in your yard.  Lobelia inflata is another one known as Indian tobacco.  Perhaps the most striking annual is known as Devil’s claw, Unicorn plant or Ram’s horn: Proboscidea louisianica.

Developing seedpods of Proboscidea louisianica
Photo by M. Creekmore

Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia)

Bad: The first bad one that comes to mind is Ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia).   This annual is the source of much pain to those sensitive to wind-blown pollen particles.  The greenish flowers are so nondescript that people don’t even realize it has bloomed and set seed.  Another one is Pennsylvania smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) which I didn’t even realize was an annual.  I would classify this one just as annoying, especially in moist areas, but the bloom can be cute.  A common weed on the roadsides near me is American black nightshade (Solanum americanum) – not attractive, considered poisonous and downright weedy!

Ugly: Again, this is a matter of perspective! These are native, annual plants that have been basically downgraded to “weeds” in the eyes of the average person.  If you look up some of these, you will no doubt recognize them.  Bidens alba has pretty flowers, but it gets to be a giant plant and then gives off hundreds of seeds.  As with any of these, keep it from going to seed and you’ll do yourself a favor.  Lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) starts out small and cute and then turns into a monster.  Members of the pigweed genus (Amaranthus spp.) truly live up to their name – what ugly plants; actually pigs are cuter. 

Three-seed mercury (Acalypha virginica)

Three-seed mercury (Acalypha virginica) appears reliably every year.  And luckily, like most of these plants, it pulls out very easily.  I think these pull out easily because annuals don’t have to develop a very strong root system.  Another common weed that gives a bad name to native Geraniums is Carolina Geranium, Geranium carolinianum.  It has a very tiny flower but a huge amount of seeds.  It’s hard to convince people to appreciate the better-behaved Geraniums when they already know about this one!

Another very recognizable one is American burnweed, Erechtites hieraciifolia.  Tender, attractive foliage easily hides among other plants until the plant is about 2 feet tall.  Let it keep growing and it won’t bloom until it is about 5 feet tall!  Canadian horseweed, Conyza canadensis, has a similar habit and a similarly nondescript bloom.

Poorly drained and wet areas have their own special weeds and Canadian clearweed, Pilea pumila, is one of them.  Small, insignificant flowers (they have no petals) occur in the leaf axils and are usually mistaken for seeds – leading some people to believe it doesn’t even bloom.

So there's a quick tour of some annuals.  I hope it will give you some appreciation for the "good" ones and some perspective on the others. The thing about annuals: if you don’t like them, they only live one year.  If you like them, unfortunately they only live one year!  Either way, you can depend on them to set a LOT of seed, so act accordingly.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Save Some Room for Summer Blooms

I like to point out to people that summer-blooming shrubs are attractive additions to the garden.  They provide fragrant and colorful blooms that we can use to add interest and beauty once the flush of spring blooms are gone.  These shrubs usually start blooming in May.  With careful planning you can have blooming shrubs into early August in North Georgia.

Hypericum frondosum 'Sunburst'

By the official date of summer, temperatures are often in the 80’s and this year we were in the 90’s in early June.  Therefore, I like to consider “summer shrubs” to be those that start in May.  At that point, the explosion of spring is complete, and we are seeing the second group of shrubs begin to flower.

Itea virginica

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) is what I consider to be the first summer blooming shrub.  According to my records, flower buds were noticeably elongated and swollen by May 1st this year.  From a distance, that stage is pretty enough to given the appearance of blooms.  By May 21st, the blooms were fully open.  I saw one planting by the Alpharetta library that was so covered in blooms that at first I did not realize what it was!  This shrub is tolerant of wet areas but also does well in average garden conditions.  It loves morning sun but appreciates afternoon shade.  The fall color can be spectacular.

Hydrangea quercifolia

Native hydrangeas are a favorite of mine (and a favorite with the local deer); there are several species to consider for your garden. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has beautiful oak leaf-shaped foliage and showy flower panicles. The flowers open around mid-May and are usually a mixture of demure fertile flowers and showy sterile ones.  But this species has a special trait: by late June the showy white petals have aged to rose pink.  These dried blooms remain on the plant for many months; the effect is such that it looks like it is still blooming!  Dwarf forms like ‘Pee Wee’ and double forms like ‘Snowflake’ afford the gardener some flexibility in using this beautiful southeastern native.

Hydrangea arborescens

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) is best known in the gardening world for her cultivars: ‘Annabelle’ has delighted gardeners for years with showy white clusters while ‘Invincibelle Spirit’ and ‘Bella Anna’ are captivating folks anew with their pink flowers.  Of course I find the modest blooms of the species to be every bit as charming.  I have also recently purchased silverleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea radiata) which was previously considered a subspecies of H. arborescens.  Buds form on these hydrangeas in May, starting as bright green clusters; by early June the flowers start to open and continue to open for several weeks.  I spray my hydrangeas occasionally with Liquid Fence to deter the deer.

Bottlebrush buckeye is a plant that I try to convince more folks to consider.  Aesculus parviflora blooms much later than it’s cousin Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) plus it likes full sun, will get big if you give it room, and is popular with a whole different set of pollinators!  The first flowers open by early June and the flower spike fills out as blooms open from bottom to top.  Flowering continues into July as different spikes continue to bloom at their own pace.  Again, for those of you with large sunny spaces, this is a great plant to have.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) is a modest little shrub that most folks would mistake for a perennial.  Small clusters of tiny white flowers open in late May.  In the wild it often grows on woodland edges.  Give it more sun in the garden and it will grow into a handsome clump. It is the host plant for the Spring Azure and Summer Azure butterflies.

Elderberry (Sambucus) is a rowdy, rambunctious plant that loves wet roadsides.  I love to drive along country roads and see the dinner-plate sized flower clusters.  Each cluster is composed of dozens of creamy white flowers and the insects adore them.  If I pass that way again in a few months, those flowers have become plump purple berries – a feast for the birds.  My local Elderberry is now classified as Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis.  Further north of us is Red Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa.  If you’ve got room for this shrub, local wildlife will love you for it.

Rhododendron x 'Millenium'

Some species of native azaleas bloom into early and mid-summer in my garden.  With careful selection, you can have blooming azaleas even in August in North Georgia. Rhododendron viscosum (Swamp azalea) was in full bloom on 5/30 along with R. arborescens.  The ‘Millenium’ hybrid, which has mixed parentage but certainly has some R. viscosum (for fragrance) and R. prunifolium (for color), started blooming several weeks later, and the species R. prunifolium is blooming right now in mid-July.  Each blooms for about 3 weeks.

Hypericum densiflorum

Shrubs in the genus Hypericum are commonly known as St. John’s Wort.  There are several species that grow well in my area.  They are outstanding shrubs for sun, can handle drier conditions and some of them can even handle wet areas. In general, the blue-green foliage of Hypericum is very attractive.

In my yard is a small species that is almost a ground cover.  I think it is St. Andrew’s Cross, Hypericum hypericoides.  The quiet little bloom is in sharp contrast to the showier St. John’s wort cultivars like Hypericum frondosum ‘Creel’s Gold’ and 'Sunburst'. A friend gave me a young Hypericum densiflorum plant.  The pleated, dark green foliage is a nice foil to the flowers.  I also have a young plant that is currently growing in standing water (in a wheelbarrow full of tadpoles!).  I didn’t mean for it to do that but I got busy and it rained a lot in the spring ….

Clethra alnifolia

Clethra is probably the latest shrub to bloom in my yard. The white dwarf cultivar Clethra alnifolia 'Hummingbird' starts to bloom in very late June, while the species (the pink Clethra alnifolia) may not start until mid-July.  Once the blooms open, insects are doing the happy dance on those flower clusters from morning until dark!

So if you're looking to add some plants to your garden, give summer shrubs a look and you'll have more flowers throughout the year.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Coastal Plains Plants - Perfectly Placed

No doubt it seems intuitive that plants evolve to thrive in the places in which they are indigenous, but when it comes to every day gardening, not everyone seems to realize that.  Today's blog entry takes a look at plants and their communities in the area known as the Coastal Plain. Plants that grow there have adapted to this unique environment and make the case for choosing plants that are well suited for their growing conditions.

Live Oak, Quercus virginiana
Plants like this Live Oak, Quercus virginiana, draped in Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides):

I just finished a week of vacation in the area known as the Coastal Plain.  The Coastal Plain physiographic province makes up a large portion of Georgia south of the metro Atlanta area.  You can find more information here.  I was in the Lower Coastal Plain - just outside of Georgia, on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.  Here is a picture showing the distribution of the Coastal Plain in the eastern U.S.  You can see that a large part of Georgia is included. 

I normally live in the area known as the Piedmont and am familiar with the plants that grow here.  But the sandy soils, rainfall patterns, air temperatures as well as the high percentage of wetlands (including tidal marshes and swamps) in the Coastal Plain require unique plant traits.  Some areas are well-drained while others are poorly-drained.  So the plants that grow here are perfectly suited to their environment - why not consider them when choosing plants for your garden?

It only took a couple of days on the island for me to be bored with the non-native ornamental landscaping that consumed the residential and commercial landscapes.  Everyone used the same plants - trees, shrubs and flowers - over and over.  I saw a sign for "Audubon Newhall Preserve" (link) and went to check it out to see if I could find out what plants really grow there.  I was not disappointed.

What follows is a summary of what I found. Much credit goes to the folks that created a superb trail guide with lots of plant and plant community details.  And of course all the credit for the Preserve itself goes to Caroline "Beany" Newhall, a determined woman who persuaded the Sea Pines Company to donate 50 acres for a nature preserve in 1965.  Since 1976 this has been managed by the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society.  The preserve includes a man-made pond created in 1965 and restored in 1993.

The predominant understory consists of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) and wax myrtle (Morella cerifera).  I never get tired of pulling my hand across a wax myrtle branch and inhaling the spicy smell left behind.  In addition there was lots of Horse sugar (Symplocos tinctoria), inkberry (Ilex glabra), two different species of Lyonia (L. lucida and L. ferruginea), plus several different species of Vaccinium.  Less common, but marked for the education of visitors, were the following: Gordonia lasianthus, Persea borbonia, Ilex opaca, Ilex cassine, Ilex vomitoria, Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Cornus asperifolia, Viburnum obovatum, Osmanthus americanus, Chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia), Clethra alnifolia, and Prunus angustifolia.  

The understory with lots of Saw Palmetto, Serenoa repens

Ilex glabra, Inkberry
Clethra alnifolia, Summersweet

The canopy layer had pines (4 different species according to the literature, including longleaf pine, Pinus palustris), Prunus serotina, Nyssa sylvatica, cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), various oaks, persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), and Magnolia grandiflora.

Just as interesting as the plants was the ability to observe the different natural environments that made up the area: wooded areas, a pocosin (a bog-like wetland) , a man-made pond, and an area known as "pine flatwoods". These different environments made for a very diverse mix of plants and critters.  Including chiggers! (I know I'm not supposed to take anything away from the Preserve, but I do believe a few chiggers hitched a ride home with me.)

Campsis radicans, Trumpet creeper

There was a wide assortment of vines in the Preserve: Carolina jessamine, Virginia creeper, poison ivy, Smilax, trumpet creeper, grapes, and peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea).

Parthenocissus quinquefolia

The herbaceous layer was an assortment of interesting plants.  Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) was predominant but we also saw other ferns like cinnamon fern, Virginia chain fern (Woodwardia virginica), and royal fern. Some of the other plants included Saccharum giganteum (giant beard grass), Muhlenbergia filipes (sweetgrass), vanillaleaf (Carphephorus odoratissimus), coral bean (Erythrina herbacea), and Yucca filamentosa (bear-grass).

The ripening beans of Erythrina herbacea

Ludwigia alternifolia
Rhexia alifanus

The pond area had several blooming plants: a form of Hypericum that was too far away to identify, a white Penstemon, meadowbeauty (Rhexia alifanus), and seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia).

Sapium sebifera

Unfortunately, the invasive tallow tree (Sapium sebifera) had also landed in the area; nature preserves are very vulnerable to non-native infestations when the area can not be actively monitored. Hopefully it will be weeded out soon, but I saw it elsewhere on the Island so it will always be a threat.

In other areas on the island I saw more cool plants - devil's walking stick (Aralia spinosa) was just starting to bloom, and sea oats (Uniola paniculata) has made a nice recovery on the beach.

If you are looking for lists of native coastal plants that you might consider for your garden, be sure to check out the lists on the Coastal WildScapes webpage.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The One That Started It All

Butterfly weed – with a name like that, it is hard to decide if it is good or bad. One year, before I was interested in native plants, I saw this plant on the side of the road while driving. At 45+ miles per hour, it was mighty hard to see the details on the flower. All I knew was that it was bright orange and it seemed to have some “texture” to the flower. That texture turned out to be many small flowers. Asclepias tuberosa is the scientific name.

Asclepias tuberosa
Finally, I found one growing wild near my office on a path that went through a natural area. I could then see the flower up close and understand how it was put together. I examined it more and found that if I pulled a leaf off that it would ooze white sap. As beautiful as the flower was, I found the stem and leaves to be rather coarse up close. This didn’t seem to be a flower that one would want in a garden. Later I tried to dig one up and found that it had a big, knotty taproot; my efforts were not successful (and, luckily, I’m sure that the root that stayed behind in the ground got a chance to grow again!).

Here you can see the individual flower buds.

Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar

I am not sure how I finally figured out the plant’s name.  After I did, I researched it more and found that it is a host plant for the Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus).  In growing it in my garden, I was surprised to find a couple of other bugs that depend on it: Milkweed bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) and Milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (Euchaetes egle). 

There may even be others, but these three are ones that I have seen and identified on my milkweed plants.

This plant is a little hard to find in nurseries.  I have found others – the tropical milkweed, which is native to Mexico, used to be available as an annual at Pike’s (Asclepias curassavica); this one is very colorful and very popular with butterflies when it comes to laying their eggs!  Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) is also found more regularly in nurseries.  The purchased swamp milkweeds have not done well for me – perhaps I sited them incorrectly.  My sister gave me a start a couple of years ago and that one is still alive but not exactly thriving.  I hope one year to see the pretty pink blooms.

I think that ornamental and beneficial milkweeds are getting more attention lately however.  There is a recent cultivar available now: Asclepias tuberosa ‘Hello Yellow’.  I hope the success of that plant will help to encourage growers to propagate it which in turn will allow more gardeners to use it.  Milkweed is a good example to use when explaining the concept of “host plants” to educate people about planting more than just nectar plants for butterflies.

Plus it’s pretty and very drought tolerant once established – just look to the roadsides to see what I mean!