Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Last of the Leaves

Much of Georgia has had the first frost and most of the leaves have fallen from the trees that drop them. Still a few hang on and it’s actually no surprise to identify which ones they are. In the world of deciduous plants some drop their leaves earlier than others, and if you want a longer leaf show then choose carefully what you plant.

Oak leaves with yellow Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum)

Red maples (Acer rubrum) are some of our showiest fall trees in Georgia, especially when considering some of the cultivars and hybrids available now. They are some of the first trees to show color, evoking sighs of admiration as they display brilliant orange-red hues. Then they’re gone, their leaves fluttering down in the first strong wind. Unlike his cousins, Southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) colors and drops leaves much later in the season.

Hickories (Carya spp.) catch our attention next with their buttery yellow leaves. Peeking out from the edge of the woods, Sassafras (S. albidum) waves bright orange leaves, anxious to be noticed. Both hickory and sassafras are underused native trees that deserve more appreciation and thankfully they usually get it come fall. Now if only people would remember to buy them!

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is another fantastic fall favorite with a wide range of pink, orange and purple leaf colors. Each tree seems to be unique – it’s a hard one to describe.

A medley of oaks showing a range of colors and doesn't that pine tree set them off nicely?

After all those showy trees are done, it’s time at last for the oaks to show us what we’ve been waiting for! Reddish browns, yellow browns, deep reds and bright reds are all represented in the genus Quercus. These majestic trees offer fabulous last season color and every year I am grateful to live in an area that has such a variety of them. At a construction site near me I counted seven different species in just a short stroll around the wooded areas.

Especially showy oaks are red oak (Quercus rubra) and scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea), but many others have their moments of greatness. Some species, like water oak (Quercus nigra), don’t display any red coloring at all but can be very attractive nonetheless. And if you like to squeeze all you can out of your leaves, you’ll appreciate their tardy leaf drop.

Water oak (Quercus nigra) sporting a mixture of colors

Other trees of note for keeping leaves as long as possible: sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia). I know that a lot of people dislike the sweetgum balls but the tree really can have amazing fall color and the leaves hang on for a long time. Beech trees not only have late fall color, the young ones hold onto many of their leaves during the winter, and the show continues as the leaves fade from yellow to brown to the color of old lace over the months.

Sweetgum, late November color

So if you'd like to extend your fall color show, look around you and see what native trees are displaying late fall color. Then add those to your shopping list. By the way, late fall and early winter is a great time to plant trees in much of Georgia. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Front Yard Habitat

Wildlife gardening is getting more attention these days thanks to the focus and support of organizations that encourage people to create and certify wildlife habitats. Initially programs for certification focused on “backyard” wildlife habitat. It’s a shame to shuttle wildlife off to the backyard so I’d like to suggest that we create “front yard” habitat too!

Annual salvia (Salvia coccinea)

In my case the sunniest part of the yard is in the front so limiting myself to the backyard would severely limit my plant choices: “Sorry Mrs. Hummingbird, no fresh flowers for you!” Instead I do use my sunny areas to grow popular hummingbird favorites like annual salvia (Salvia coccinea) and cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis). Butterflies and birds are loving my viburnums which thrive in the sun and produce copious amounts of flowers and berries for them.  Providing a source of food is one of the cornerstones of providing habitat.

Even more food is provided when you use native plants in the front yard that are host plants for native insects. The same cardinal flower that the hummingbird loves happens to be the host plant for looper moths. The eggs of the moth turn into plump green caterpillars which are eaten by small birds like wrens and warblers.

Wax myrtle provides shelter and tasty berries
The evergreen wax myrtles (Morella cerifera) grow more densely in the sunny areas. Twiggy plants like hawthorns and viburnums also provide a more dense cover, providing niches for bird nests deep within the plant. The sunny edges of my property are perfect for these plants. They provide natural shelter and places to raise young birds, two more cornerstones of habitat.

Water is the final cornerstone. I have a small birdbath right outside my office window (which happens to be in the front). From here I can monitor the level of the water as well as enjoy the birds that come to visit it. Water is also available in the backyard but why limit yourself (and them) to just one place?

An inexpensive birdbath entertains the birds and me!

All this is not to say that we don’t also provide some elements of habitat in the backyard. Piles of sticks, flat rocks, a few tree snags and loads of shade tolerant plants can be found there. Those items support habitats of different sorts. Small mammals, snakes, lizards and small birds frolic and live in those sticks, rocks and tree snags. Beetles and bugs of all kinds find homes (and food) in and under the rocks, bark and leaves.

But the backyard alone can’t satisfy the whole habitat job. Fortunately many habitat programs have now removed the “backyard” focus from the descriptions on their website and instead simply promote the essentials of providing habitat no matter where you do it.

So if the front yard is the best place for you to create your wildlife habitat, go ahead and do it! Maybe we'll even come up with an official sign one day.


Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Great Reveal

As leaves fall from deciduous plants and lush perennial growth withers and fades, look at what is revealed for our examination: hidden things like birds’ nests, identification clues for plants unknown, and surprises of all kinds.

I noticed this week that enough leaves had fallen from my intensely twiggy Viburnum prunifolium that I could see something lodged inside the branches. I was pleased to discover that it was a bird’s nest! Nothing says “Nature loves your garden” like a bird’s nest, right?

Other discoveries I have found over the years include praying mantis egg cases and oak galls stuck to branches, small saplings growing up in the middle of other plants, golf balls half buried in the mulch, and all sorts of things lost and newly found.

One important thing that is revealed when leaves fade is the wonderful collection of identification clues that woody plants have to offer. Things like:

-          The color of the fall leaves themselves. To me, the soft pale yellow of persimmon leaves is quite distinctive and it allows me to easily distinguish a persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) from a black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). During the summer the two trees might be confused as they both have alternately arranged medium green leaves of similar shape.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

-          Leaf buds for next year are now visible. Some of them are SO clear! The long pointy buds of American beech (Fagus grandifolia), the round plump buds of red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and the oh-look-it’s-an-azalea flower buds. How I adore the rusty buds of the viburnum known as rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum)! In some cases it is so much easier to identify a woody plant without leaves.

The flower bud of an azalea (Rhododendron canescens)

-          Was it a branch or was it a leaf? Compound leaves often deceive people in that they mistake leaflets for leaves. Picture the long leaf of the sumac shrub which is composed of 10-30 leaflets. If those were really leaves then come fall they would drop and the stick holding them would remain as a branch. Instead what happens is that while a few leaflets might drop initially, eventually the hold thing falls off, revealing that it was simply a leaf after all. The place where it was attached is called a “leaf scar” and it is also useful during winter identification.
Sumac (Rhus glabra) sheds its leaves

So get out there and discover new and exciting things now that those leaves have fallen off! There is so much to be learned, even during the dormant season.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Fall Fruit

Plants create fruit to further the survival of their species but in doing so they create some very tasty treats for the rest of us. Not all “fruit” is fleshy - some are seed capsules, some are nuts and some are small seeds attached to wispy bits of fluff designed to carry them away. Here I want to talk about fleshy fruits and in particular the attractive fleshy fruits that appear in fall.

Red chokeberry (Photinia pyrifolia)
The fruits of fall are very pleasing to the eye and very much appreciated by the wildlife that feeds on them. Some are eaten right away while others are “squirrelled” away for later. Sometimes they are not retrieved from their hiding places, allowing the seeds in the fruit to sprout and become new plants. I’m pretty sure that was part of the plant’s plan all along. 

Of course even those that are eaten come out the other end where the seeds are now even better prepared to sprout and grow!
If you like to have plants with fruit, whether for show or for the birds and critters, let’s talk about the possibilities, starting with a few shrubs.

Juicy fall berries of Viburnum acerifolium
Viburnums – native viburnums offer a bounty of fall fruit that is almost unparalleled in beauty and in juicy flesh. By late summer and early fall the fruits have aged from green to yellow or pink and then to blue. At my house the first to disappear are the bright blue berries of Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin.’ The pinkish berries of Viburnum nudum var. cassinoides almost don’t make it to the blue phase. The final berries to ripen are Viburnum acerifolium; they hang in heavy clusters into November. Once a squirrel camped out in the branches and ate great quantities of them. Birds get their fair share.

Callicarpa americana

Beautyberry is a delight for humans as much as it is for mockingbirds. The electric-purple berries of Callicarpa americana get a lot of attention when they ripen in September. This full sun shrub is a carefree native that is also deer resistant and drought tolerant. In a partial shade area, use the white berried form instead.

Hearts a bustin’ is one of the common names for Euonymus americanus. The outrageous fruits of this shrub make it one of the most asked about plants on identification forums in the fall. Lumpy raspberry-colored pods burst open to reveal round red berries dangling on thin strings. An unremarkable plant is suddenly transformed into a thing of beauty.

Euonymus americanus

The following trees provide fruit that both humans and wildlife enjoy.

Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are delicious when ripe but ghastly when they are not. Somehow animals get a pass on the taste because opossums and raccoons routinely eat them before they are ripe by human standards. Still, finding a scat pile full of the big glossy seeds is one way to get seeds already prepped for sowing. Just be sure to wash your hands afterwards.

Crataegus viridis

One way you know you’ve found a hawthorn (Crataegus) is when you see the thorns. The other way is to recognize the fruit with its distinctive apple-like bottom that is formed from the remains of the flower’s calyx. 

Like apples, hawthorns are members of the rose family. Hawthorns with the most attractive fruit display are those with small fruits like Washington hawthorn (Crataegus phaenopyrum) and green hawthorn (Crataegus viridis). If you want fruit for eating, choose one of the ones with larger fruit. Mayhaw jelly is made from the fruits of Crataegus aestivalus and the fruit is celebrated at an annual festival in Colquitt, GA.

Crabapple (Malus angustifolia)
Not all thorns lead to hawthorns, however. I have seen many a thorny crabapple (Malus angustifolia) in wild fields (the more you mow them down, the thornier they seem to be!). The rose family resemblance is evident in the sweet smell of the flowers and the same dimpled bottom of the fruit. 

Unlike ornamental crabapples, the fruit usually does not turn red, just a greenish-gold. Collect enough of the small fruits and you could make jelly.

Sumac fruit lasts a long time
Some fruits are not eaten right away – they become tastier with age or with a cold treatment. Nature has planned this delay very well, ensuring that some fruits are still around in the winter months for those that need them. Chokeberry (pictured earlier) is one such plant. Another one is sumac (Rhus spp.).

I love the way that nature has a way to provide food for the critters while packaging it up in a beautiful wrapper for us to admire.