Sunday, December 28, 2014

2014 in Pictures

It’s time to say farewell to another calendar year and it’s a good time to reflect on what nature has given us.

I enjoy appreciating the beautiful flora and fauna that surround us. Each day is an opportunity to spy something beautiful.

Like this fluffy feather I found in January, resting lightly on an old leaf. Taking more pictures over the last few years has given me a keener awareness of objects and natural objects are especially compelling.

Erythronium umbilicatum

Of course appreciating the early February flowers of trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) is always high on my list.

These small hardy flowers come from teardrop-shaped bulbs. They grow in rich woodlands and can sometimes provide a carpet of speckled leaves. I have brought a few into my woodland. It's fun to look for the early leaves as they unfurl above the old leaves and pine needles.

While taking pictures for a spring maple post, I heard a loud pounding and looked up to find a beautiful pileated woodpecker in the trees above.

I love these happenstance moments. It’s not my best picture (he moved fast), but it is a happy memory.

March found me in the Okefenkokee Swamp, enthralled with the unique environments found there. I was participating in the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage hosted by the Georgia Botanical Society.  

Okefenokee Swamp

Mining bee

This was a year of great bee interest for me and this little lady was the first one of the year. I spotted this bee going in and out of the ground and realized I had found a ground-nesting solitary bee, the first I had ever seen in my yard.

The folks on BugGuide kindly identified it as a type of mining bee (Andrena). I did some checking on my own first and had already decided I thought it might be that so I was really happy to have my id confirmed.

Wild quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)  with new camera

In May I decided to stretch myself by getting a new camera that would allow me to explore the option of manual focus while still have auto focus functionality too. After some family-assisted research, I bought a Nikon D3300.

Slender bluet damselfly

In the absence of most butterflies this year, other bugs got more attention. It seemed to be a bonus year for dragonflies and damselflies and I identified quite a few different species.

I was excited to find a spicebush caterpillar for the first time ever on my spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and I found a tortoise beetle on a morning glory vine.

Spicebush swallowtail

Golden tortoise beetle

Discovering new plants in the yard where I have lived for 11 years is always a surprise. Where did this milkvine come from? Ok, if you know me then you probably know that I rescue a lot of plants and bring in strange dirt as a result. A seed could have come along.

Milkvine (Matelea gonocarpos
Sometimes new plants are from friends. This Heuchera villosa was a gift from a friend; it bloomed in August this year for the first time. I thought it was very pretty on the porch, keeping company with the fern in the kitty cat planter.

Heuchera villosa
As you all know, this was an uncertain year for the monarch butterfly. I always felt that monarchs that came through Georgia on the way south only wanted nectar. This year I found out I was wrong.

Monarch nectaring on Mexican milkweed Oct 11th
I don’t often take a trip up to the North Georgia mountains to see the fall color, but this year I did. Several of us went to visit friends for lunch and the day was beautiful all around. 

Viburnum acerifolium with fruit
Oak leaves in North Georgia

As the end of the year approached, I was anxious to get another Georgia State Park visit under my belt. Too much time goes by without getting out to explore these marvelous places. I took one of my remaining vacation days and went down to Providence Canyon State Park with my daughter. The lead picture of this post (with our boots) is actually from that trip. I'll have to do a full post of that trip, but here's a preview of the amazing scenery there.

Providence Canyon State Park 

Best wishes to all for a Happy New Year.

Let's use more native plants in our projects in the year ahead and get out there and enjoy the nature we have.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

American Holly

American holly (Ilex opaca) is a beautiful tree that I have had a hard time locating. I have longed to find a good fruiting specimen for years. I have occasionally found plants in the wild but they are either too young, fruiting only sparsely or not fruiting at all. This past month I finally found one and it is so beautiful.

Berries just turning color
Fully ripe

Hollies are dioecious which means that plants usually have either male or female flowers but not both. Therefore, only trees with female flowers will bear fruit. I had to find not only a tree that was mature enough to flower but also one that was female and had a male nearby for pollination.

Even that didn’t seem too hard except that, in landscaped areas, the straight species American holly seems to be rarely planted. The way more popular (and probably available) choice is to plant one of the American holly-dahoon holly hybrids (Ilex opaca hybridized with Ilex cassine = Ilex x attenuata). These hybrids have fewer prickles on the leaves and fruit very heavily. You may have seen them sold as ‘Savannah,’ ‘Fosteri’ and ‘East Palatka.’

Ilex x attenuata hybrid

These cultivars can have the pyramidal shape of the American holly, but the leaves are distinctly different. American holly has small spines that evenly cover the leaf margins. The cultivars typically have a spine at the tip and a few others, none of which are very big. You can see where this would be more pleasing to the consumer.

Residential example

Very old Ilex opaca in cemetery

Now that I have found what I have been searching for, you know what happened, right? Within just a month, I found a lot more! This past week I went to Providence Canyon State Park and found Ilex opaca all along the 3 mile loop trail. It was beautiful and there were many individuals with fruit. I also found this beautiful example of bark.

Although most of us appreciate it for foliage and fruit, American holly is appreciated as well for some woodwork. It is a slow growing species with a close-grain wood that is the whitest of any native tree. It has been used for inlay and decorative work, including parts for musical instruments.

If American holly is native to your area, I hope that you will consider planting this unique native tree. Tolerant of many different soils and amounts of light, Ilex opaca is a versatile plant for the landscape.

You’ll also be getting a great plant for wildlife – I've read that as many as 18 different species of birds eat the fruit and of course it is a great plant for shelter. What a winner!

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Silhouette stands alone
Leaves have left
To create a blanket below.

Sunlight still shines
Upon your bare twigs
Only to fall through to the ground.

Roots are strong
Gathering strength for
Spring’s reawakening.

Until spring’s time has come
Silhouette stands alone
Beautiful bones revealed.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Untangling The Mystery of Hawthorns

I encounter hawthorns (Crataegus spp.) on a regular basis while exploring wild landscapes in Georgia. Often I am in the company of other folks and we examine the tree together in order to determine what we have found. Usually the pronouncement of identity is simply “It’s a hawthorn, I don’t know which one.” Satisfied that we have done all we could, we proceed on our way.

Crataegus uniflora, native to my yard and the first to pique my interest

According to the USDA database, there are just over 50 species of hawthorn found in Georgia, all of them with white flowers in the spring and thorny twigs year round. While some of them - like the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) - have rather unique leaves, most of them look pretty similar to the average person. The southeastern region has been sorely been in need of some assistance in understanding this large and confusing group of thorny plants.

Finally there is a resource to the rescue. North Carolina native Ron Lance has studied southeastern hawthorns for over 20 years. He published a booklet in 1997 and an article on Georgia hawthorns in the Georgia Botanical Society’s 2006 Tipularia publication, but those treatments were far too shallow for this genus and his intent to publish a book was understood by those who know him. His long awaited comprehensive book is now available: Haws: A Guide to Hawthorns of the Southeastern United States.

With my bookshelves now overflowing, I decided to try this book in the eBook format to explore the concept of using identification resources in that format. This review is as much about that experience as it is the book itself. I expect to enjoy the ability to use the find function on the computer (I’m using the Kindle Reader app for the PC which I will refer to as "eReader.").

The book starts out with a series of helpful chapters on distribution, anatomy, taxonomy and natural history of hawthorns. While most of these are informative and easy to read, I will say that you’ll want to break for a fresh cup of coffee before you dive into the chapter on taxonomy.

The information is wonderfully thorough and after each chapter you feel like you got to spend a fascinating couple of hours with someone that really knows the subject. The author has a comfortable style for communicating the details.

The author provides the following guidance for using this book:

“For those starting totally “green” it is recommended that Section 1 , the keys to series, be a starting point. From there, one can hopefully find the associated species described and illustrated in Section 3 .  For those slightly familiar with the hawthorns and series, going directly to Section 3 may be sufficient.  For the technical-minded hawthorn student who is accustomed to dichotomous keys, Section 2 may be the best option, leading directly to a species identification.”

I’m more familiar with using dichotomous keys than grouping species into a series so I focused on Section 2. And here is where I encounter my first eReader disappointment. The key is not cleanly displayed on the reader and is a bit hard to follow. This is a factor of the reader; I know this is not a problem in the printed version. Also, the eReader software offers no ability to print; that would have been a plus. There is a search function.

Moving on to the species details in Section 3, the treatment of each species varies from brief to comprehensive depending on the author’s personal experience. The vast majority of species have extensive descriptions, distribution maps, and numerous photos of foliage, flowers, fruit as well as bark, thorns and habit. There are also occasional drawings which render the botanical details very precisely.

In some cases there are details that include specific locations (such as parks) of individual plants. It looks like I can check out Little Mulberry Park in nearby Gwinnett County to find examples of several different species of hawthorn. This is truly a book that has been compiled after years of work and careful note keeping.

In addition to the early chapters on anatomy, taxonomy, history, etc., this book is rich in resources such as tables, a glossary and references. From the casual to the studious user, everyone should find a level of usage to his (or her) satisfaction.

Note: Another downside to the eReader version is the inability to upsize the tables. You can adjust the “words per line” setting, but that can cause the table to break across pages and sometimes lose the headings. And it only enlarges tables so much and no more (plain text enlargement works great).

So my final analysis is that the resource is excellent but the eReader is not up to the challenge. I will be returning the eReader version and ordering the print copy after all.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Knowledge, Passion, Advocacy

With another year of blogging behind me, I remind myself of why I started this effort. I wanted to create a resource for fellow Georgians about native plants. The resource would be not just a dry listing of plants, it would be an encouragement to spark the reader in 3 ways: knowledge, passion and advocacy.


The first aspect of knowledge is that native plants exist as a separate category of plants. Plants are not just plants. That is to say, there is a concept of place and belonging. The plant communities that evolved naturally are an integral part of a place just as the land formations (rocks, hills, plains) are.

This tiny plant is one of the first native plants that north
Georgia homeowners discover. It has several common names, one
of them is striped wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata)

Even in our suburban residential areas, remnants of these plant communities can remain, waiting to be noticed by the newcomers (us).

The second aspect of knowledge is that learning to distinguish plants (an oak from a maple, for example) is not that hard once you understand the basic principles.

With knowledge like this in hand, my hope is that people could be more interested in learning about locally native plants.


The concept of passion is to showcase how beautiful and versatile native plants are. Choosing to incorporate native plants in your garden doesn’t mean that you give up beauty. In some ways you actually add more beauty by attracting more creatures like birds and butterflies to your garden with the use of native plants.

Hummingbirds flock to the native cardinal flower in the summer (Lobelia cardinalis)

The native Passiflora incarnata is not only beautiful
and a provider of pollen to insects ...
It is also the plant that this beautiful
butterfly lays its eggs on

In addition, regionally native plants have evolved to thrive in your area and in difficult conditions such as clay soil in the Piedmont area or well-draining soil in the Coastal Plain. Soggy areas, dry areas, sunny or shady – there are native plants for all these conditions.

Gorgeous and great for gardening - two very good reasons to be passionate about using these plants.


Once a person has learned to love something, the desire and ability to advocate for its protection is possible. This is my third goal: to inspire more people to advocate for native plants and their habitats. I hope to encourage more usage of native plants in designed landscapes - in their own choices and in the choices they make for projects and to friends.

Many of us get involved in school and church projects for designed landscapes and the ever-popular butterfly gardens. What passionate gardener hasn’t had a friend ask them for recommendations? These are opportunities to get native plants into more spaces.

Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) has been
considered for endangered status
Beyond our own area, we also can influence support for plants, their habitat and habitat conservation with our letters, calls, votes and money. Our elected officials often need a nudge from their constituents to make the “right” choices on bills that affect the environment. Speak up.

Support organizations that support conservation: The Nature Conservancy, Georgia Conservancy, Georgia Piedmont Land Trust and many others listed here. Research them carefully to understand how your money would be used and how effective they are in what they do.

Volunteer to help them manage invasive plants on conserved properties. Offer other skills to help them stretch their dollars: paperwork, accounting, volunteering at event tables.

So as I head into another year of blogging, I'll keep telling my tales of native plants and the things that depend on them. I hope you'll be inspired to take the ball and run with it a bit as well. The more of us that do it, the better chance we have of being heard.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

We're Done Here, Right?

Our first cold snap has crisped the remaining leaves earlier than usual, turning green to brown overnight. For some plants the event cut autumn short, stopping some plants right in their tracks.  Is it time to pack it up, clean it up and hibernate inside for the next few months?

Plump brown seeds await hungry birds

No and no! First of all, the winter garden is just now opening for business. Seed heads are ripe for the winter feast, offering a tasty array of seeds as well as a few berries to sustain birds and small mammals over the cold months.

Callicarpa americana fruit (white form) glistens in the sun

Leave those plants standing or at least throw them only lightly onto your compost pile or brush pile so that birds have access to the seed heads.

Bee excavates a nest in a plant stem.
Photo courtesy of Heather Holm
In addition, dead perennial plant stems can be nurseries for native bees.

Fallen leaves harbor bug eggs and the pupae of butterflies and moths. Don’t burn them or bundle them up to be hauled away.

If you need to move them, rake or sweep them (yep, sometimes I use a broom on my lawn when the leaves are fresh!), moving them into the side areas so that nature can continue her work.

It’s good exercise to work off that extra slice of pie and avoids the noxious emissions caused by leaf blowers (which is way worse than car pollution!).

So don’t pack it up and don’t clean it up. Let nature take care of the leftovers.

What about hibernating inside for the winter? I’ll admit that the first few cold days sap my enthusiasm for being outdoors. But the garden is still growing and there are new aspects of it to explore!

Lobelia cardinalis leaves need to stay uncovered

Here in Georgia some plants stay green. First of all, get out and enjoy them. Second, be sensitive to their needs. Rosettes of the perennial cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) need to stay uncovered so don’t rake your leaves on top of them. A leaf or two is fine, but mostly they should be exposed to the sun and air.

Explore the winter characteristics of plants and open up a whole new season to your identification skills. Woody plants can be identified by examining their twigs (the branch tips). Learn how to identify and recognize the ones you already know first and then branch out to identifying new ones.

With enough practice you could learn to identify these twigs: Paw paw (L), Sweetgum (C), and Viburnum (R)

Finally, for those of us that have plants in pots, this first snap is a good reminder to properly arrange any pots now so that they are best protected for super cold spells like we had last winter.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Native Shrubs for Difficult Spots

Fall is a good time for garden reflection as well as for planting in Georgia (so it's a good time to reflect and then plant!). How has your landscape performed - are there spots to be filled, things to remove, problem areas to tackle? Luckily there are some native shrubs that you might consider, especially for those difficult spots.

Shady Characters

If you've got big and wonderful trees then you probably also have some shady areas. If it's a small area, shade loving perennials are probably your best bet, but a larger space can take a shrub. Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) in both species form and a cultivar like the variegated 'Shady Lady' is a good choice in both average and moist soils. For drier soils, consider mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium). For average moisture, check out mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) which is now available in a range of growth sizes thanks to cultivars. Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in species form is more shade tolerant than cultivars.

Smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens)

Bogged Down

Soggy areas can be troublesome until you see them as an opportunity to use some of wonderful moisture-loving shrubs. How lucky you are! For wet and shady areas, consider Florida anise again. For sunny areas, check out these ideas: summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), spicebush (Lindera benzoin), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), possumhaw (Viburnum nudum), and hobblebush (Leucothoe axillaris). For a really large area, consider buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) which reaches tree-like stature on sunny, wet banks of ponds and streams. As a plus, all of these plants offer great pollen and nectar rewards to pollinators.

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)

Dry Relief

A dry slope has lots of potential as long as it is protected from the harsh afternoon sun. Native shrubs that naturally grow in these conditions include sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) and hearts a bustin' (Euonymus americanus). Consider also highbush blueberry (Vaccinium spp.) and beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta). Remember that even though these are tolerant of dry conditions once they are established plants, they still need help in the first year after planting. Be sure to water them adequately and mulch to retain moisture.

Beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta)

Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)

Privacy, Please!

It's not uncommon to need a little screening in suburban yards these days. Whether its a neighbor or an awkward corner, plants can soften an unwanted view. For shady areas, look again to Florida anise or Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana). For part sun, consider mountain laurel or evergreen Rhododendron catawbiense. Sunny areas can use some of the native juniper shrub cultivars like Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl.' 

Florida anise (Illicium floridanum)

Oh Deer

I can only speak to what has worked for me. Every deer clan has its own tastes, so take these as suggestions, not guarantees. For sunny areas, an absolutely bullet proof shrub has been Florida doghobble (Agarista populifolia). For large areas, get the species, for smaller spots try the cultivar 'Leprechaun.' Other sunny ideas are beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia). I have had little issue with spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and Fothergilla 'Mt Airy' but they love the blue cultivars of Fothergilla for some reason. For shady areas, we're back to Florida anise again.

Agarista populifolia 'Leprechaun' grouping

Illicium floridanum 'Shady Lady'

So if you've got a problem area in search of a suitable shrub, give these ideas a try.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Fall Profile: Maples

Possibly the most beautiful maple ever - Acer leucoderme
Deciduous trees can offer a wide range of fall color and maple trees (Acer spp.) are an essential part of a good mix. Unlike some other trees, the color you get depends upon the species you choose and sometimes even the plant itself (unlike Hickory, for example, which is always yellow).

I've been comparing the fall color on maples around me lately and thought I could present some ideas on what to choose if you’re looking for specific colors. From yellow to orange to red, they’re all here.

All maples have opposite leaf arrangement and lobed, simple leaves. In general they are important to wildlife for a variety of reasons. The flowers, especially the early flowers of red maple, are sources of pollen for insects as early as February in south Georgia. The seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals.  The foliage is a host plant for 285 different species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), making it #8 on the top 20 list of woody plants that provide host services.

And, as we all know, the winged samaras that contain the seeds are a source of much amusement for children as they twirl to the ground. Some species of maples drop their seeds in the spring (red and silver, for example) while others drop their seeds in the fall (sugar and chalk).

Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a common wild maple throughout Georgia. The ones that I find the most have 3 primary lobes with serrated margins. Sometimes there will be 5 lobes but the two lobes closest to the base will be smaller compared to the others.

Not only is leaf shape variable, but this species can have fall color that is yellow, yellow with red highlights, orange or red.

Red maple - reddish leaves
Red maple - yellowish leaves
Nurserymen have created cultivars from red maple to produce reliable red fall color. Two excellent choices are ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset.’ Both are selections of the species itself, not hybrids. You can find them in professionally designed landscapes – they are especially noticeable when they all turn red at once in the same parking lot.

Acer rubrum 'October Glory'
Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'
Red maple has also been hybridized (crossed) with silver maple (Acer saccharinum) to create a group of maples known as the Freeman maples (Acer x freemanii). One of the cultivars I have seen is ‘Autumn Blaze.’ This cultivar has the good red color of the red maple parent plus the attractive leaf shape and tolerance for adverse conditions of the silver maple. I see them often in business parks. 

Another species that can offer dazzling red color is chalk maple (Acer leucoderme). This species resembles a small sugar maple with 5-lobed leaves that have wavy edges. The common name is based on the pale colored bark. The underside of the leaf is softly hairy, distinguishing it from sugar maple which is largely hairless.

Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) leaves from Lisa's tree

Fall color range is yellow to orange to red, sometimes all at once on the same tree. A roadside tree (see first picture in this post) near me turns a brilliant red each fall while its neighbors are more orange-red. They make a spectacular group.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is not native to Georgia but it is widely planted here for its reliable yellow-orange fall colors. Sugar maple seed matures in late summer and early fall, a trait that it shares with chalk maple, although sometimes there are years with no seeds. The 5-lobed leaves are familiar as the symbol of Canada where it is also native. Unlike the chalk maple, the back of the leaf is smooth and only the veins have hairs, if any.

Maple syrup comes from the sap of this tree. The tree is sometimes visited by sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker that drills for the sap; they do feed on other maples and other trees as well. The bark can blacken over time as a result of this activity.

Acer saccharum var. floridanum
Southern sugar maple is considered to be a subspecies of sugar maple (Acer saccharum var. floridanum). It is sometimes classified as Acer floridanum or, more rarely by a much older name, Acer barbatum

The leaf is very similar to chalk maple and sugar maple with a few hairs on the back side (but fewer than chalk maple). A local population in my neighborhood (including my yard) has clear yellow foliage with only occasional hints of orange.

Maples are a worthy part of local ecosystems where they are native. Research your conditions and see if one of these can find a place in your landscape.

Note: click on any picture to see it full size.