Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rain gardens, wet spots and the native plants that love ‘em

Unique environments need plants that are adapted to deal with those environments. Consistently wet and periodically flooded areas challenge gardeners all over the world. Luckily nature created plants that work very well in such environments. Georgia has native plants – perennials, shrubs and trees – that are just waiting to live in your wet spots.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Do you have a wet spot in your yard? I wish I did. There are so many great plants that thrive with “wet feet”. The one moderately moist spot that I have is crammed full of plants. Whenever I get something that likes it “moist”, I stick it in that spot. The cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is there. The Carolina spiderlily (Hymenocallis caroliniana) blooms every year there. Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima) thrives nearby and I dig up some for the plant sale every year from there. Steeplebush (Spiraea tomentosa) manages to squeeze in there too. There is so much more that I want to plant there. I guess I should move out some of the plants that can handle drier conditions to make room.

Lobelia cardinalis
Carolina spiderlily (Hymenocallis caroliniana)

“Rain garden” is a popular term these days. “Official” rain gardens are often engineered with specific soil components to ensure that the water drains through. Search the web for rain garden definitions and you will find many guidelines on “how” to construct them. Here I want to talk about what native plants thrive in wet spots, whether you’ve engineered them or they are just naturally occurring.

First, you should understand that plants don't "soak up" the excess water, they tolerate it. Yes, they do use some the water themselves, but having wet tolerant plants won't make the water "go away".

Second, wet spots can be in sun or shade, so choosing the appropriate plants for the light level will result in a more beautiful effect. There is no sense in choosing full sun plants if they won't get enough light to bloom.

Here are some of the plants you can choose:

Perennials (sun):
Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) - also works in part shade
Swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
Carolina spiderlily (Hymenocallis caroliniana)
Joe pye weed (Eupatorium/Eupatoriadelphus spp.)
Ironweed (Vernonia spp.)
Swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus)
Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum
Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) - also works in part shade

Asclepias incarnata

Hexastylis shuttleworthii

Perennials (shade):
Turtlehead (Chelone glabra)
Cinnamon fern (Osmunda cinnamomea)
Royal fern (Osmunda regalis)
New York fern (Thelypteris noveboracensis)
Lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina)
Shuttleworth ginger (Hexastylis shuttleworthii)
Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides

Possumhaw (Viburnum nudum and V. nudum var. cassinoides)
Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)
Winterberry  (Ilex verticillata)
Inkberry (Ilex glabra)
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)
Florida anise (Illicium floridanum)
Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)
Doghobble (Leucothoe spp.)
Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia)

Magnolia virginiana

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)
Blackgum/Tupelo (Nyssa spp.)
Red maple (Acer rubrum)
River birch (Betula nigra)
Swamp dogwood (Cornus amomum or C. foemina)
Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica)
Cornus amomum

For those of you that live in a maritime area, there are plants more suited to the special conditions and types of water there. The Georgia Native Plant Society partnered with Coastal WildScapes to create a brochure of plants more suited to those wet conditions.

Note: this is my 100th blog, so a little "woo-hoo!" is in order. Thanks to all who have encouraged me to keep going since October 2010. I hope those that stop by will find what they are searching for as well as learn a little more about Georgia's native plants and how they can be used in our gardens and our landscapes.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A New Favorite - Bushy St. John's Wort

I'm pleased to announce that I've been bowled over by the performance this year of bushy St. John's wort, Hypericum densiflorum. I know that others have fallen in love with this species in the past, but now it's my turn.

Hypericum densiflorum

I got this plant via a hitchhiker in some plants donated to the Georgia Native Plant Society by a great plantsman. Warning! There is your first clue that this is a prolific seeder. This plant was growing in his nursery area in the thin and boggy layers of soil that had formed on black landscape cloth.

Look at all those flowers!

While I was babysitting these plants for the Society, one of them flowered and set seed. A seed ended up sprouting in the sunny bed near the driveway. I think it sprouted last year, so this chance seedling is only two years old. This waist-high plant has flowered heavily for over a month now. Here are some of it's wonderful qualities:

  • It has not needed any supplemental watering.
  • It is growing in full sun in thin, clay soil.
  • The deer have not touched it (and they have eaten things right next to it).
  • It has foliage that is bright, shiny, and evergreen.
  • It is blooming in some of the hottest days of summer.
  • The pollinators are thrilled with it.
  • Songbirds will eat the seeds when they ripen.
  • Beautiful exfoliating bark: as the plant gets older, the bark will be a deep and shiny brown that curls and peels away.

Bees love it!

Is it the perfect plant? Well, no. It does seed around - but those are easily pulled up or potted up for friends or to donate to your local plant sale. If you don't want a tall plant (eventually), you might seek out the compact cultivar 'Creel's Gold'.

Look at that gorgeous foliage (click on the picture to make it larger)

How about this cinnamon-colored peeling bark?

Next time you need a full sun plant in a tough spot, think about bushy St. John's wort. I think you'll like it.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The Hummingbird Games

In the spirit of the Olympics, I present to you "The Hummingbird Games" - now taking place at my house, every day from sun up to sun down. I'm not sure who's getting the gold, frankly they all look alike to me (and they all seem to be female). This is my first year with a liquid feeder; I relied on plants alone in the previous years. Watching has been a lot fun, both from inside the window and outside.

With cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
Who knew they were so fierce? Probably lots of people, people with feeders already, but not me! These little things use up a lot of energy chasing each other away from feeders and flowers that they have “claimed”. No wonder they come back so often, gasping for another sip.

I don’t know how many of them are working together, but there are at least four individuals involved – I’ve seen 3 apparently chasing one, or was that two chasing two? One of them ran into the window the other day and fell to the deck, stunned. I ran out and scooped her up so that she could breathe properly (birds seem to recover better when held upright, in my experience). After about five minutes, she put her tongue back in her mouth and zoomed off, no doubt anxious to rejoin the fight.

They are getting so used to me that close ups are possible!

The air is filled with the sound of their calls (chitit, chitit, chit) or their loud scolding. I hear them whenever I am outside. Sometimes they are so into the chase that the presence of humans doesn’t matter. Their mid-air acrobatics bring them oh-so-close for a split second and then they are gone. I have tried in vain to take pictures of two of them together.
I have a lot of flowers around – most of them are in the front but separated by a good distance. I thought the distance would be sufficient to allow them to share. That doesn't seem to be true. But the distance is sufficient to let various ones sneak a quick visit before being chased off. The late blooming plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) has bloomed much longer than usual this year, offering up bright red trumpet blossoms long before the cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) opened.

A sip of the Malvaviscus (yellow blotch on head is part of the flower)
At various times, one of them will position herself on a small branch to watch over an area. It might be on the azalea near the feeder, on the serviceberry near the front bed, or even high up in the maple where she has the best view of all (but is furthest away from the strike zone). I saw one female perch above the turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus drummondii) to watch; after a few minutes, she couldn’t resist a quick nip to tide her over. Then it was right back to her station. She was sporting pollen bling on her forehead later, you should click on that picture to see it close up.

The native honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) resides on the side yard along with a few red salvia plants (Salvia coccinea). The honeysuckle has been blooming for over a month – I wonder if the hummingbird visits actually encourage it to keep going! This is the cultivar 'Major Wheeler' which is advertised as a bloom factory.

With Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'

Back in the front, I was surprised to see one hummingbird repeatedly visit the skullcap (Scutellaria incana) that is blooming so profusely. It has cardinal flower right next to it and she will hop from one to the other, back and forth. It has the flower shape they love, but I am surprised that she would recognize the blue flower as, well, a flower! They seem to prefer red/pink flowers.

Checking out the Scutellaria incana
I'm sure the games will last for many weeks yet - long after the human Olympic games are over. It looks like it's time to refill the feeder - ladies, take five!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Everyday Nature

Getting outside and exploring natural areas is a wonderful activity. I am thankful for all the city, county, state and national parks that taxpayers have funded so that we can support “nature”. I also enjoy everyday encounters with nature in my own yard, and I’d encourage you to explore how you can do so too.

Agastache foeniculum
I went out to get the mail recently and startled a group of goldfinches eating seeds from the blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) that I had planted next to the driveway in a hot, sunny spot. Several weeks ago, that same plant was host to dozens of bees hungry for the nectar and pollen that its flowers provide. I like these plants that do "double duty" when it comes to supporting critters around us.

Goldfinch checking out the Salvia coccinea
If you like to support songbirds that eat seeds, other plants that produce tasty seeds in my garden include annual red sage (Salvia coccinea) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). The red sage does double duty by providing nectar for hummingbirds.

Be mindful of the plants that you choose to use and how they might support nature through nectar, pollen, fruit/seeds, and even the foliage itself. Choosing carefully – especially in a small yard – requires a bit of research to find the plants that will benefit your wildlife, but research can be fun.

I mentioned above that foliage can support nature – there are two ways to do this. The most well-known way is to choose some evergreen plants that provide cover for birds as they flee from predators or when they build nests. At my house I have evergreen shrubs like Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) in the shady areas and trees like wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) and pines (Pinus spp.) in the sunny areas.

American lady caterpillar
But foliage is also key as a source of food for insects. Why do you want to provide food for insects? Who wants bite marks in their leaves? If you love birds, YOU do. 96% of birds include insects in their diets and 100% of them feed insects to their babies. Probably the most well known example of foliage for insects is Monarch butterfly caterpillars and the milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) they eat exclusively. Just like Monarchs, some insects only eat certain plants. When we use non-native plants instead, the food available to insects is reduced and so is the bird population.

Box turtle
Box turtles frequently walk through the property. I saw one on the driveway last week and gave him a piece of leftover tomato (which he loved). Years ago I saw one eating a tomato in my garden and that's how I knew he'd like it. Birds like the eastern towhee and brown thrasher forage for insects in the leaf litter under the shrubs. 

We also have toads, frogs, lizards, chipmunks, rabbits, snakes, turkeys, bats, and those darn deer. I found a fawn sleeping in the Monarda patch a month ago when I was watering. He jumped up (surprising ME) and scampered off to escape the hose and me. He appeared to be only 1-2 days old.

Why do these critters like my yard? Is it because I don’t use any pesticides – that would certainly help the toads, frogs, lizards, turkeys and other birds find insects. Did you know that toads love to eat snails and that birds eat snails to grow stronger eggshells? Is it because I leave all my leaf litter and add mulch? That might help snakes and birds find small tasty things in the leaf litter. Chipmunks and squirrels would like the acorns that fall from my oak trees. Certainly the rabbits and deer find plenty to munch on – I see evidence of that (groan).


I also put out several concrete bird baths and keep them filled with water. I made sure that one of them is near the house under some shady bushes so I can watch the birds frolic there. Make sure that you get a chance to enjoy nature when making choices of where to place things like feeders, baths or ponds.

Of course I can't take full credit for having turkeys and some of the more unusual critters. My neighbors have connecting natural areas that the developer left in place and trees which they have not cut down. I make it a point to share my knowledge of native plants with neighbors so they can appreciate what they have and learn why having those plants is important. We can't support nature alone so it is key to connect with others in more ways than one.

All these are things that can be implemented one at a time, but their impact adds up:

  • Pick the right plants (do your research)
  • Don’t use chemicals
  • Leave the leaf litter
  • Provide water and cover
  • If you're looking for a house, consider those where the developer left wooded areas in the back of the lot and preserved large natural areas as part of the development (that is, reward developers that have this behavior!)
  • Convince your neighbors to leave natural areas, plant native plants, etc.
  • Keep your eyes open so that you notice when nature takes up residence in your place.

Here are some Georgia resources on supporting insects:

Baby tree frog