Sunday, November 25, 2012

Acorn Discoveries

During nut season it is only natural for some of us to keep our eyes on the ground to see what nuts are hitting the ground around us. We might pretend that it’s because we don’t want to slip and fall on some of those slick balls of squirrel bait.  But it’s really because we want to see what type of nuts they are. I’ve found a lot of different acorns this way, and this year was no exception ... but it is getting harder and harder to find new ones!

Overcup oak, Quercus lyrata

On a lunch out to a new pizza place in Alpharetta I discovered overcup oak, Quercus lyrata. The large acorns were all over the ground in the back of the parking lot. Kudos to the landscape designer that decided to use such an unusual tree in a parking lot design. The large cup nearly covers the acorn so the common name should come as no surprise. The large cup has a purpose, of course; it provides buoyancy, allowing the acorn to float safely to a new location in flood conditions. Another common name for this species is swamp post oak; it grows in areas like river floodplains and poorly drained bottomlands.

Live oak, Quercus virginiana
The second acorn that I collected this year grows down the road a bit from me. It is an evergreen oak that I noticed as soon as I moved into the area; I was always puzzled by what species it might be. I decided to stop this year and look for acorns. I also collected some leaves. It appears to be a live oak, Quercus virginiana, which is normally native to the coastal plain area of Georgia.

I expect that someone collected some acorns or a seedling elsewhere and brought it home as a souvenir. Now it has grown in to a huge tree, tall and straight and quite unlike the wind-swept trees that I have seen on the coast. I will try to germinate some of these acorns and see how it grows for me.

If you are interesting in my previous acorn blogs, here are the links:

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Fringe Benefits with Chionanthus virginicus

November is a great time to plant trees in Georgia. Our plentiful winter rains and cool temperatures help woody plants like trees and shrubs get off to a good start. In the last couple of weeks I have profiled two trees that have characteristics that I think people appreciate. The first one was about a fast growing tree that is also beautiful:  scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea). The second one was about a tree that is a winner for birds and is attractive for you:  serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.). This post is about a tree that is sure to be an outstanding specimen tree for you:  fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus).

Chionanthus virginicus

Our native fringetree has been admired and used by gardeners for many years. It is known to some as “grancy greybeard” because of the white flowers that look like an old man’s beard. A tree in full bloom is a spectacular sight and sure to attract a lot of attention in the landscape. An open, sunny spot is the perfect place for a specimen tree such as this.

Fringetree is a member of the Oleaceae family which includes Osmanthus (tea olive) and non-natives like Ligustrum (privet), lilac, forsythia, olives and many others. The dark blue drupes (fruit) of Chionanthus are only developed on female plants. Both male and female plants do flower and many people say that the male plants are showier in flower than the females.

Close up of the Chionanthus flowers
The loose clusters of white flowers open in April in north Georgia. The showy tree pictured above is located in a county park where the native plant society has it's annual sale in mid to late April. People are always impressed with it and ask if we have seedlings for sale. We have learned to stock up to meet the demand!

The mature size of fringetree is approximately 20 feet so it makes a perfect addition to a smaller garden. The lightly fragrant and showy flowers are meant to be enjoyed, so be sure to plant it where you can enjoy it such as near a window or walkway.

You can find excellent additional pictures at this website.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Serviceberry: A tree for you and the birds

When people first start gardening “for wildlife”, they are anxious to find plants that have berries for birds. They are usually so anxious that I think they would plant things regardless of looks if they knew it would feed the birds. Fortunately, serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.) is one tree that is both beautiful and beneficial. 

Amelanchier arborea
Serviceberry has a variety of common names based on when it blooms: Juneberry, serviceberry (or sarvisberry), and shadblow are just some of those names. Serviceberry was supposedly bestowed because it bloomed around the time of spring religious services after the ground had thawed enough to bury those that died over the winter. The name shadblow was due to the blooms coinciding with the running of the shad, an ocean fish that returns to freshwater rivers for spawning in the eastern part of the U.S.

There are several different species native to Georgia. We usually find Amelanchier arborea in the wild; it is known as downy serviceberry. Downy serviceberry grows up to 30 feet tall in ideal conditions of full sun and good moisture.  In the nursery you can usually find Amelanchier canadensis, which is an attractive clumping form and rather shrub-like. You can also find hybrids of several species such as Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ or ‘Princess Diana’.  Amelanchier x grandiflora has its own common name of “apple serviceberry” and is a cross between A. arborea and A. laevis.

Serviceberry blooms in late March or early April. The white flowers are arranged in long racemes. While each flower doesn’t last very long, I have found that the tree is in bloom over several weeks as one branch finishes and another starts.  It is one of the earliest trees to flower in my area; the bright white blossoms light up the sunny edges of native woodlands.

Amelanchier alnifolia
Mary Ellen (Mel) Harte,

The “berries” of this plant develop shortly after flowering, but they are not berries at all. As a member of the Rosaceae family, Amelanchier fruit is actually a “pome” just like an apple is. The fruit changes from green to pink to blue as it ripens. If you are wanting some for yourself, keep a close eye on the crop. I’ve had birds strip a tree of all fruit while it is still in the pink stage.

Amelanchier arborea
Serviceberry can have excellent fall color, ranging from golden-orange to bright red. I would definitely consider it to be a tree that offers 3 seasons of interest. 

It makes a nice specimen tree in an open sunny area. The relatively open habit of the tree allows for perennials to be grow around the base; it would also pair nicely with a birdbath.

November is a great time to plant trees and shrubs in North Georgia. Call around to your local nurseries and see if they have serviceberry in stock or can order one for you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Scarlet Oak: Good growth, gorgeous giant

People often look for fast growing trees. I don’t blame them – we all want to see results as quickly as possible in our landscape. Oaks are not generally considered to be fast growing trees, perhaps because people have heard that hardwoods need slow growth to produce “hard” wood. There are some fast growing oaks, however, especially in good garden conditions such as residential landscapes. Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is one such oak.

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

Scarlet oak is native to the eastern US from Maine down to north Georgia. It does well in poor soils and grows fast in full sun conditions. Growth rates can exceed two feet per year, allowing this tree to reach maturity in 20 years, one of the earliest oaks to do so. Top size is 100 feet but most trees are 60 to 80 feet tall - a good sized tree to provide shade for you and acorns for wildlife.

Scarlet oak is part of the “red oak group”. Oaks are divided into two groups, the red oak group and the white oak group. Oaks in the red group have bristle tips on their leaves and acorns that take two years to mature. The acorns you see on the ground today were formed from flowers the previous year. Tannin content in these acorns is higher than that in the white oak group, so animals generally prefer eating acorns from oaks in the white oak group first, leaving the red oak group acorns for later in the year.  

A sample of scarlet oak leaves early in the season
Scarlet oak looks rather similar to red oak (Quercus rubra), but careful examination of the leaves and in particular the acorns will show the difference. Note: trying to identify an oak from a single leaf or a single acorn (especially one without the cap) is not recommended.

Leaves on any individual tree may have deeper sinuses than other trees (the sinus is the indented area between the lobes on the leaves), and leaves on even the same tree may vary. The leaves shown on the left came from several different trees. Also, the leaves are not as red as they might been had they stayed on the tree longer.

Scarlet oak acorns

A good identification feature of the acorn is a set of grooved concentric rings around the tip of the acorn. You may need a hand lens to see it. The cap of the acorn usually has overlapping shingle scales that are tightly pressed down - almost as if they were glued down; sometimes they appear a bit shellacked in comparison to Q. rubra acorns.

Now is a good time to look for and collect acorns if you find a particularly beautiful tree. Collect at least 20-30 as some of them will likely have oak weevils inside. Put them in a bowl of water and discard any floaters - they have weevils. If you want to see the critter - put them in a box and the worm will crawl out after a few days (a fun activity for kids), leaving a small exit hole. Put it outside when you discover it so that it can continue on it's way.

Quercus coccinea

You can also buy scarlet oak at nurseries. As an outstanding and popular tree, it is often available in sizes up to 2 inch caliper. Ask your local nursery about it. Nuttall's oak (Quercus texana) is a good substitute if they don't have scarlet oak. The color won't be as intense, but it is also a fast grower and a good color in the fall.