Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge

The word refuge evokes two meanings for me – a place to escape and a place of safety. For all the right reasons, the places we call National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) serve both meanings. I had a chance recently to visit the Pinckney Island NWR and found it incredibly wonderful.

Sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens)
The Pinckney Island NWR was established in 1975 after serving as a game preserve for some years. The following description of the refuge comes from the US Fish and Wildlife Service

The 4,053 acre refuge includes Pinckney Island, Corn Island, Big and Little Harry Islands, Buzzard Island and numerous small hammocks. Pinckney is the largest of the islands and the only one open to public use. Nearly 67% of the refuge consists of salt marsh and tidal creeks. A wide variety of land types are found on Pinckney Island alone: salt marsh, forestland, brushland, fallow field and freshwater ponds. In combination, these habitats support a diversity of bird and plant life. Wildlife commonly observed on Pinckney Island include waterfowl, shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, neo-tropical migrants, white-tailed deer and American alligators, with large concentrations of white ibis, herons, and egrets.

Pinckney Island NWR is the northern most refuge in a group known as the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex. This chain of national wildlife refuges extends from Pinckney Island NWR near Hilton Head Island, SC, to Wolf Island NWR near Darien, Georgia. Between these lie Savannah, Wassaw, Tybee, Harris Neck, and Blackbeard Island refuges. Together they span a 100-mile coastline and total over 56,000 acres.

Isn’t it wonderful to have so much area protected together? The essential role of this refuge is evident to even the most novice observer. Birds are everywhere! The paths and signage at the refuge are wonderful, so the first group of birds came with a sign all about birds known as marsh feeders.  There was also a sign about salt marsh plants, including the beautiful sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens). There was a lot of groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), but it won’t be flowering until later in the year.

Salt marsh morning glory, note distinctive arrow-shaped leaf
Next came a sign about other critters in the salt pan that emerge when the tide is low. We found fiddler crabs, periwinkle snails, and old oyster and mussel shells. These are important food sources for shore birds as well as filters to keep the water clean. Twining along the ground there was the bright pink bloom of the salt marsh morning glory (Ipomoea sagittata). Click on any picture to see more detail.

Here a snail rests on cordgrass (Spartina ) with a piece of glasswort (Salicornia depressa) behind him.

Vistas of the marsh were beautiful - how restful the area feels. And it is an important resting place for the birds that live here.

Soon the path led us to a rookery known as Ibis Pond. What a fascinating (and noisy) place! A large pond was filled with water-loving trees; I could see a lot of willow (Salix spp.) and in those trees were dozens if not hundreds of nests. Ibis was the most notable species, but we also saw the tricolor heron, the great egret, the green heron and ducks. Quietly swimming around the edges of cattails was a young American alligator.

A rookery

On we pressed, past the demonstration butterfly garden, to an area known as Shell Point. As we walked we passed through communities known as maritime forests. The signs pointed out that maritime forests on barrier islands like this face the Atlantic Ocean. 
Maritime forest has an interesting mix of plants

They are an interesting mix of live oak (Quercus virginiana), Spanish moss, yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), juniper (Juniperus virginiana var silicicola), wax myrtle, vines and herbaceous perennials. It was similar to vegetation I’d seen on nearby Hilton Head Island.

Teucrium canadense

I found another new perennial (to me). This is Canada germander (Teucrium canadense), a perennial that appears to be incredibly widespread (per USDA).

American oystercatchers

At Shell Point we discovered more new shore birds in the marsh. They were very shy, but I managed to sneak a picture of them. I think they are American oystercatchers. Here are a few more of my pictures from the day:

Fiddler crab - one big claw to wave at you

Tri-colored heron

Ibis looking for food in the marsh

Great egret showing all that is beautiful about the coastal south

Be sure to visit if you're in the area - it's free! But you can leave a donation.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Plant Explorations – Anywhere and Everywhere

I can’t help it. Every time I go on vacation I have to look. What’s growing here? What’s native, what’s not? On walks, on bikes and in the car … my eyes are scanning the foliage that goes by.

Live oak (Quercus virginiana) found in a nearby residential area

Is that a flower? Out comes the camera. I’ve learned to love the note app on my smart phone – what a great way to remember what I saw and what I thought about it. Looking, looking, I'm always looking. Please, tell me you do it too ....

Now, let me tell you what I found! This year’s trip was to Hilton Head Island, SC which is a Coastal Plain maritime location that I’ve visited many times. Yet each year is different because I bring new knowledge with me. For example, I was more aware of the differences in palm trees this year because of an article that a friend wrote for our newsletter.

Sabal palmetto with flowers

Speaking of palms, I was convinced that I was seeing two different species of Sabal because of the trunk appearance, but a little research found that both are normal. Sometimes the trunks are free of the old leaf bases (known as "boots"), sometimes they are not.

Sabal palmetto is the tallest of the palm trees native to the area and is the state tree of South Carolina. Known as the cabbage palm, this species was flowering heavily while we were there, and trees sometimes had multiple bloom spikes of tiny white flowers. Mature height is 50-70 feet.
Sabal palmetto with "boots" intact

Working my way around the non-native palms, I found other natives. Sabal minor was there, looking for all the world like Sabal palmetto trees that would never grow up!  Serenoa repens, the saw palmetto, was often growing in dense thickets of green fans.

Ipomoea imperati
One of the areas that caught my attention this year was the beach itself. My first walk down there brought a beautiful discovery - beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati). The creamy white blooms were mixed in with the sea oats in the dunes and the populations were healthy and eye-catching. I noticed right away how different the leaves were compared to morning glories that I see near my house.

Uniola paniculata
The population of sea oats (Uniola paniculata) was also very healthy and the swaying seed heads begged to be captured in long lasting photographs. I know that much effort has gone into restoring and maintaining these populations to preserve the health of the dunes.

Oenothera humifusa

An evening walk to the beach produced a new discovery - seabeach evening primrose (Oenothera humifusa) whose flower refused to open until after 8 pm! It was worth waiting for and I risked a few ant bites standing still long enough to get some pictures of these delicate yellow flowers.

Pontederia cordata

Tooling around the island, especially on a bike, allowed me to see more of the special wet places that exist. These are great places to look for alligators (and we did find a baby one!) but also to find some unique plants. Happily blooming at this time was pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata). This handsome plant thrives in standing water.

Cephalanthus occidentalis

Other plants found near the water were sedges (Carex spp.), most waving their spiky fruit structures now. On the banks were soggy-soil tolerant shrubs like buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).

Phyla nodiflora

Along the moist ditches I discovered (to my delight) a plant that I had only recently heard about: turkey tangle frogfruit (Phyla nodiflora). The native plant society recently had a speaker about supporting pollinators and this plant was listed as one of the good ones (the speaker was from Florida). I'm not expecting to be able to grow this in the Piedmont.

Other common native plants that I found throughout my wanderings – Virginia creeper, peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea), grape vine (several species), trumpet creeper, smilax, wax myrtle, pines, southern magnolia, live oaks and other oaks, beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), bracken fern, sweet gum, and yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria).

Crinum americanum

I enjoyed biking through the residential areas near the beach. In doing so I found one very special plant growing - American crinum (Crinum americanum). I jumped off the bike to get a closer look - it was in full bloom and a magnificent plant. It is native to the area although was certainly planted by humans in that yard. What a marvelous discovery and a wonderful reward for looking, looking, looking!
Crinum americanum

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Naturalized is not Native

Many of you know that I love wild roadsides. Sometimes that is the best way to see some of our tough native wildflowers. But roadsides don’t get to decide what moves in, especially when humans mow them, an activity that allows non-native plant seeds to come in and get started. So while you’re admiring those roadsides, let me point out some of the flowers you might see which are naturalized, not native.

Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota)
The definition of naturalized is that a plant is able to reproduce and spread itself beyond where man has planted it. You are certainly familiar with some of the invasive plants that have naturalized – kudzu, privet, the white/yellow honeysuckle, mimosa trees, tree of heaven, stilt grass and others. Invasive plants go beyond the naturalized label because they outcompete native vegetation by hogging resources like light and water.

Naturalized plants are competitors for light and water, but their growth is usually not dense enough to prevent native plants from growing alongside them. Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) is a good example.  While plentiful along many roadsides, the open growth habit usually allows for native plants to grow right there with it. A relative of the carrot that we eat, Queen Anne’s lace is native to Europe and parts of Asia. It spreads by seed.

Ditch lily (Hemerocallis fulva)

Another well-known naturalized plant is the ditch lily (Hemerocallis fulva). Also called tiger daylily and a bunch of other names, this plant is native to Asia. It is often found in ditches and has been eagerly transplanted to many a new home. As with many naturalized plants, it is much appreciated for its hardiness. It spreads primarily by roots.

Leucanthemum spp.

Daisies (Leucanthemum spp.) have been around so long that many folks perceive them to be native. Often called oxeye daisies, they are native to Europe and parts of Asia. They spread by roots and seed, often thriving in pastures where livestock won’t eat them or on roadsides.

Chicory - photo courtesy of
Joseph M. DiTomaso, University of California - Davis
Chicory (Cichorium intybus) and batchelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus) are two blue flowers that get used in wildflower mixtures so you see them used in highway projects and as escaped plants from gardens.

Centaurea - photo courtesy of
Rebekah D. Wallace, University of Georgia

Lathyrus latifolius

Perennial pea (Lathyrus latifolius) shows up occasionally. There’s a small patch near my neighborhood that returns each year.

Both vervains shown here

Brazilian vervain (Verbena brasiliensis) is becoming increasingly present. I used to only see it as I drove through middle Georgia along the highway, but now it is growing on the roadside near my house. Neighbors down the street planted the darker colored purpletop vervain (Verbena bonariensis) recently – I would be wary of that one's ability to seed around.

Rosa multiflora

Seven sisters rose, multiflora rose, Cherokee rose – we do have native roses but these are not them! The first two are probably both forms of Rosa multiflora. The first one is a double form that grows in various shades of pink while the second one (known just as “multiflora rose”) is a single form and is usually white or pale pink. The vines can get huge. Cherokee rose is Rosa laevigata, and it has a large, single bloom that is known for fragrance. These roses are native to Asia.

And you probably would not plant these, but the following plants are naturalized as well and so may be of interest when you’re trying to identify what should be removed:

Thistle is very common along roadsides and who hasn’t seen those fierce prickly leaves? You are likely seeing musk thistle (Carduus nutans). We do have some native thistles such as Cirsium altissimum which grows on the road near me; its prickles are hardly noticeable and the large leaves blow in the wind to reveal white undersides. 

Clover (Trifolium) - we do have some native clovers but this is not one of them. This is likely Trifolium pratense which is native to Europe, Asia and Africa.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – who can believe it wasn’t always here? Nope, it is native to Europe, likely brought here by colonists for their use. It is said that a single puffball (seed head) can have up to 172 seeds and those seeds can stay dormant in the soil for up to 9 years. No wonder it keeps coming back.

Photo courtesy of
Dan Tenaglia,

Chinese lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata, see picture at right) may not be a name you’d recognize, but if I showed you a big patch on the side of the road you’d say “Oh, THAT stuff!” Used for many years by federal and state agencies for bank stabilization, soil improvement, wildlife forage and cover, it is now rampant on roadsides. Learn to recognize it and remove it if you have it. If a lespedeza is what you want, there are native species and the pink-flowered Lespedeza virginica is one of them.

As pretty as these naturalized flowers may be, there is no need to bring any of them home with you. We have plenty of native plants that are much more beneficial to our local environment.