Sunday, June 30, 2013

Black's Bluff Preserve

Isn’t it great that areas are set aside for conservation and preservation? Parks set aside large tracts of land (smaller on the city/county level, bigger on the state/national level). We have land that stays as intact habitat with soaring canopy trees, gurgling streams and birds that sing out to visitors. [Of course some land is set aside for recreation: ball fields, biking trails and mini golf.]

Golden tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) and a tiny hoverfly
Private organizations help set aside parcels too, often areas of special interest that protect rare plant communities. I wrote earlier about my field trip to Heggie’s Rock, a granite outcrop property preserved by The Nature Conservancy (TNC). Recently I visited another TNC property for a very different reason.

You see, even when lands are set aside for conservation, conservation efforts don’t stop for that property. In particular, management of invasive plants on the site is usually required. The agents of invasive plant dispersal – wind, water and wildlife – just about guarantee that seeds of non-native plants will find their way into the conserved environment. Groups like TNC hold regular workdays for volunteers to come in and remove invasive plants. That was the purpose of our visit.

We met on a beautiful Saturday morning in mid-June on a roadside near the site. On one side was the Coosa River but you could hardly see the river for the vegetation, including dense thickets of Chinese privet (Ligustrum sinense) and large mimosa trees (Albizia julibrissin). It was immediately clear as to the source of the invasive plants that we were there to remove. 

Cheerfully blooming beside the invaders were a few colorful native plants. Trumpet creeper (Campsis radicans) is never one to be held back and here aggression won the day. Bright red blooms called out to hummingbirds from high up in the trees. Along the roadside, thick patches of colorful tickseed (Coreopsis tinctoria) and black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) were entertaining some hoverflies as well those of us with cameras.
The Bluff's - notice the mimosa tree in place
On the other side of the road were the Bluffs themselves. Towering cliffs of sandstone over 500 million year old limestone were clearly visible. Apparently the area was quarried for a while and what we were looking at were the edges of two quarries. What makes this place special? TNC describes it as "an area of immense rock outcrops and lime-rich soil located on the cool, moist north face of Walker Mountain where uncommon plants thrive." Well, they thrive if they are not being choked out by privet, mimosa and multiflora rose!

Our job was to cut and spray any of those things. We set off in teams, armed with loppers, hand saws and spray bottles of herbicide to treat the cut stumps. We worked for several hours and tackled privet trees that had trunks as thick as our legs. We found several giant multiflora rose bushes. One was so big that you could not see the men working inside it while they cut the trunks. No kidding, it was the size of a minivan. We also took down a 10 foot "bradford" pear which was already sporting fruits.

Hydrangea quercifolia
In between working we still got to see some beautiful native plants. Two kinds of hydrangea were there - smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) lit up the shady areas with creamy white blooms. Nearby was a single oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia); I had never seen this plant in the wild! We found faded spring ephemeral plants and unusual trees like wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) (and we found regular ash (Fraxinus) too).

Bell-shaped Clematis (species not known)

We pulled Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota) and Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). And as the area began to clear, we found new treasures tucked away, waiting to be discovered.

A small bell-shaped purple flower was recognized as one of the native Clematis. After some examination it was determined to probably be an undocumented species at this location. Later we also found the more typical Clematis virginiana.

After a break for lunch, we headed into the cool woods to pull privet seedlings. Our leader said that they had taken down large privet trees several years ago in this area but these were from the long lasting seed bank. There was plenty of stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) in this area too, but we focused on the privet. It was discouraging to see how much there was of each.

Matelea gonocarpos
When you work so close to the ground, you do find a lot of neat things. We found old box springs, a giant wolf spider and plenty of good plants like this milkvine (Matelea gonocarpos) which is a member of the milkweed family.

Actually the woods were full of good things - which was the reason we were here: to clear out the plants that, if left alone, would turn the area into a monoculture of aggressive plants and reduce the plant diversity.

We finished our day with a short hike to a cave on the site. A cave that is the result of eroded limestone over thousands of years. As we approached the entrance, the air was noticeably cooler. It was as if someone had left the door to the refrigerator open. What an amazing place. I am so glad it has been preserved. Visit The Nature Conservancy's page to learn more about Black's Bluff Preserve.

And if you get a chance to volunteer to help remove invasive plants from special places like these and in areas near you - please do so. With so many budget cutbacks, volunteer efforts are sometimes all that is left to protect and preserve our native habitats. All it takes is a pair of willing hands.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Roadside White Shrubs

Blooming on the side of the road right now is a trio of shrubs with flat, cream colored flowers. For each of these shrubs, the “flower” is officially known as an inflorescence that is composed of many small flowers.  Zooming along at 35-55 miles an hour, it is hard to distinguish them, but I’ve got some pictures that might help.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)
On sunny roadsides, even highways, you are most likely to see elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis) which can be a large sprawling shrub. While elderberry is happiest in damp areas (ditches are a good spot), they can be found in drier areas as well. In my experience, the bloom size can vary quite a bit – I’ve seen them as large as dinner plates! I’m sure that soil moisture can affect the size.

Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)

Each bloom is composed of dozens of tiny flowers. Each flower offers a bit of nectar and pollen to the insect that visits, so imagine what a feast each cluster represents. Pollination allows each flower to turn into a small juicy berry that will be popular with birds (and humans like them too). Compound leaves are arranged opposite one another along a pale brown stem dotted with round lenticels.

Silky dogwood, Cornus amomum
Another shrub that you might see on moist, sunny roadsides (often smaller roads, not highways) is dogwood. Not the large-flowered dogwood (Cornus florida) you might be used to, it is one of the shrubby dogwoods that have tiny, star-shaped flowers arranged into a cluster. Shrubby dogwoods tend to grow in large round mounds and have leaves that are opposite one another on the stem. I think the one found most often around me is silky dogwood, Cornus amomum

Cornus amomum
The flowers turn into blue berries, quite different from flowering dogwood’s red berries that so many of us recognize. The flower clusters are consistently about 2-3 inches in size.   

A few sterile flowers on Hydrangea arborescens

On roadsides that are partially shaded and composed of rich, moist soils you can find the third of these shrubs: smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). The stems of this shrub reach out from roadside embankments, creating a graceful tumble of foliage and flowers that brighten the area. Again leaves are oppositely arranged, but look carefully and you can see distinctive flaky bark on the older growth.

Hydrangea arborescens

The dense clusters of flowers attract a variety of insects. Recently I saw a bee cavorting happily through the tiny flowers, almost drunk it seemed. Other times I have watched beetles carefully stepping from flower to flower.

Hydrangeas have both sterile and fertile flowers. The sterile flowers are likely a way to attract insects from afar, but of course humans fall for that too. Cultivars like ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Incrediball’ have most (if not all) sterile flowers and would not benefit pollinators; they attract gardeners instead.

Note: a similar flower blooming at this time is the non-native Queen Anne's lace (Daucus carota). You can distinguish it by noticing it is a flower with very thin foliage on mostly single stalks. There is no woody growth as it is a biennial plant.

Non-native Daucus carota

Sunday, June 16, 2013

We Got Your Pollinators Here

Tomorrow kicks off Pollinator Week 2013 so I thought it would be appropriate to talk about some of the plants blooming now which support pollinators. Pollinators do come in all shapes, sizes and species – butterflies, beetles, bees, wasps, flies, even birds and bats. I think lots of people think of butterflies and bees when the subject of insect pollinators comes up, but those other guys are out there doing their share of the heavy lifting when it comes to pollinating our native plants, so think kindly of the wasps, flies and beetles too.

Hoverfly on Stokesia laevis

This hoverfly (also known as a syrphid fly) nectars on flowers, helping to pollinate as it goes. Did you know that it's larvae eat plant-sucking pests like aphids and thrips? This is definitely an insect that you'll want to attract to your garden!

What are some good plants to attract insect pollinators like the hoverfly?

There are many colorful flowers blooming right now that support insect pollinators. In fact, bright colors and showy petals are a plant's deliberate attempt to attract insects because their heavy pollen is not carried by the wind; it must be transported from flower to flower. Different plants attract different types of pollinators:

Stoke’s aster (Stokesia laevis) - butterflies, flies, bees, wasps - see picture above and research report here.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) - butterflies

Great Spangled Fritillary, Speyeria cybele

St. John’s wort (Hypericum spp.) - bees and flies

Hypericum densiflorum

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) - butterflies and beetles

Silvery Checkerspot, Chlosyne nycteis on coneflower

Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.) – wasps and butterflies

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) butterfly on mountain mint

Hyssop (Agastache spp.) - bees

Agastache foeniculum with a fast moving bee!

Cup plant (Silphium spp.) - bees, butterflies, flies

Silphium perfoliatum

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) - beetles and bees

Banded longhorn, Typocerus velutinus
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, R. triloba, R. fulgida) - bees, butterflies, flies

Here a small spider watches a sweat bee on Rudbeckia hirta

Another benefit to remember for these plants - most of them create tasty seeds for songbirds once they have been pollinated. I like plants that can do double duty when it comes to wildlife! But first, those plants need to be pollinated, so welcome these insects to your yard to complete the ecosystem.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Native Plants in Containers

Native plants really belong in vast tracts of preserved habitat. There they grow and thrive, spreading their roots as far as they need to and scattering seed on hospitable ground. Those of us that love native plants do appreciate having some of these wonderful and unique plants a little closer to us. We plant them in our yards just as we might incorporate any other garden plant. We even plant them in containers!
I am lucky to have 3 friends that are very talented in creating and maintaining plants in containers. All three of them happen to share my love of native plants as well and frequently use native plants in their containers. This year I am trying my hand at some containers in the hopes that some of their magic will rub off on me.

For my first attempts, I have tried some containers with only native plants and some that have native plants mixed with high quality annuals (that is, annuals that offer plentiful nectar such as Zinnia and Verbena). One container has a coastal native pineland hibiscus (Hibiscus aculeatus) and a non-native annual larkspur (Consolida ajacis). This is a full sun container and it sits on the front porch where otherwise no plants would be - take advantage of every bit of sun!

This year I decided to visit these friends and photograph some of their containers so others can see just how beautiful and versatile native plants can be. They each graciously offered some tips about creating containers.

At Debbie's house, I found containers for both sun and shade. Debbie's containers are scattered throughout the garden and she says that they are often in areas that get watered by the sprinklers (but she still has to water them if it is too hot or doesn't rain enough).

Here is a well established shade loving container with coral bells (Heuchera americana), heartleaf ginger (Hexastylis arifolia), pussytoes (Antennaria), partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and an ebony spleenwort fern (Asplenium platyneuron).

Tip #1: Group plants together based on growing conditions - shade loving plants with others that like shade or all sun tolerant plants.

Another idea is to go for maximum impact by using a single type of plant in a container. Debbie's planter full of Iris cristata, a dwarf iris, is dramatic and beautiful even when it doesn't have flowers. All 3 of my friends use this approach to good effect.

Take that concept one step further and use similar looking plants. Until you get close up, you might not realize that this wreath that Sheri made uses small coral bell plants (Heuchera macrorhiza) and Sedum ternatum. Clusters of leaves on the Sedum look a lot like a single Heuchera leaf. It has the effect of maintaining different size perspectives even as the bigger plant matures. Click on the picture for a closer look.

Heuchera macrorhiza and Sedum ternatum

Of course combination planters allow you to create containers more like what people expect to see - something with a "thriller, a spiller, and a filler". Sheri's over the gate box planter has two fly poison plants (Amianthium muscitoxicum) for the thriller, with a combo of ferns and Heuchera for the fillers and spillers.

Tip #2: Use materials like sheet moss for a casual look or use colorful ribbons and garden art to make the containers more eye-catching.

Another very successful type of planter allows people to get up close to some of our very special natives - bog plants. Both Debbie and Marcia have very creative containers for pitcher plants and their boggy friends. This group of Marcia's containers sports blooms on both the pitcher plants and the sundews. Click the picture for a closer view.

Use containers without drainage to retain the water and use appropriate materials like peat inside. Marcia says plan to re-do those containers every few years as the peat breaks down and needs to be replenished.

Tip #3: when choosing containers consider weight (concrete versus resin), durability (plastic pots crack in the sun over time), and water retention (plastic holds water longer than clay and smaller holes take longer to drain).

Tip #4: Adding a tray/dish underneath can be attractive, protect your surfaces and keep pots watered longer.

The amount of plants you use in the pot should vary according to your taste. At right is a fully crammed planter that Sheri did for the flower show. If you plan on using the planter for several years, you might want to use fewer plants to allow for growth.

Tip #5: Improve moisture retention by topping the planter with mulch, finely ground bark or even clumps of moss.

Big pots are fun to use. Debbie has a number of pots with shrubs or small trees. She's had these longleaf pine trees (Pinus palustris) in deep pots for several years now. It's a very unexpected choice and very much her style!

Tip #6: Fill up the bottom of the pot with a variety of materials – old leaves or wood chips for smaller pots will add organic material; Styrofoam peanuts, plastic pots turned upside down or even empty plastic water bottles will fill up big spaces but add little weight. Lay a small sheet of landscape fabric over the filler to keep soil from spilling into the area.

The pot creates an artificial environment for the plant and we need to help it do well - particularly in terms of allowing excess water to move through it quickly enough yet still stay moist. Choose your planting soil components wisely.

Tip #7: Sheri recommends soil-less potting medium (if using a purchased potting soil, amend with fine ground bark mulch and sometimes perlite) because garden soil is too heavy and causes most plants to rot. Debbie uses a mix of potting soil, top soil and soil conditioner with a little extra perlite. Marcia prefers an equal combination of potting soil, soil conditioner (or very lightweight garden soil) and perlite. These recommendations do not apply to bog gardens.

Marcia chose a clay strawberry pot for this
arrangement of Heuchera and Lobelia.

Once you've created your container, it's time to take care of it. Watering is an important consideration both in terms of too much and too little!

Tip #8: Water the container appropriately based on the type of pot (clay pots dry out faster), the amount of plants in the pot (full pots dry out faster), how much sun the pot gets (pots in sun dry out faster), and the type of plants in the pot (some plants, like cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), appreciate more water). Group pots together when possible as pots in odd places might get forgotten when it comes time to water them. Put a bright flag or ribbon on them to catch your eye.

Plants in the wild don't need fertilizer because their roots go far and the environment contributes decaying organic material or bug/animal poop to nourish them. Isolated away from those natural processes, you might want to help provide some nutrients.

Tip #9: Organic fertilizer like compost or slow release pellets would be a good choice as generally native plants are not heavy feeders.

After putting so much work into making pots, it's nice to have them stay around for a while if possible. Put them in a good spot for winter, especially clay pots which are sensitive to freezing temperatures, and revisit their contents come spring.

Tip #10: Continue the pots from year to year by removing overgrown plants if necessary and top-dressing with fresh mulch, compost or fertilizer.

If you'd like to try Sheri's wreath idea, I asked her for instructions: buy a wired wreath and line it with green sheet moss. Add the plants (she has used Tiarella in the past as well as just Sedum ternatum) and then pack more moss around the plants to keep them from falling out. The moss also helps to keep plants from drying out too quickly.