Sunday, May 25, 2014

Flowers In The Lawn

Lawns are a sure sign of the suburbs. On large expansive lots, they are de rigueur. Try to get by without one and the neighbors are sure to set you straight. It’s as if owning lots of land means that you have to devote large portions of it to a carpet of pure, flat greenness. (When I venture into the urban neighborhoods of Atlanta, the rules seem more flexible and I see a lot less lawn.)

Triodanis biflora, Venus's looking glass
From a native plant point of view, carpets of European fescue or Asian zoysia or African Bermuda grasses don’t offer our insects much benefit.  In addition, grass roots are tasty nursery foods for Japanese beetle grubs. Yuck, how can we support less of this approach?

Krigia virginica

You can reduce the amount of lawn you have. I’ve been shrinking my lawn over time and creating large planting beds for native shrubs and perennials. As the shrubs have gotten bigger, I’ve removed even more lawn to let them spread out. 

You can also allow flowering plants to share some of your lawn space, creating a bit of a pollinator lawn. With this idea on my mind, I examined my own lawn and that of my neighbors to see what flowering plants have already moved in and can tolerate the occasional mow.

Non-native clover, Trifolium repens
I was surprised to find a mixture of native and non-native plants. I already knew the low white clover (Trifolium repens) and dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) were not native and both are quite widespread. Other non-natives included black medick (Medicago lupulina), another member of the pea family that resembles Trifolium (clover). Bees do love these.

Yellow woodsorrel, Oxalis stricta
While we do have a native clover, it is not nearly as common as the alien.  

Oxalis is often called by the common name clover, but it is in a different family (Oxalidaceae). Common yellow woodsorrel is native to Georgia and you can find Oxalis stricta in many a lawn. I hope you like it - it's a perennial.

I also found a smaller dandelion-like flower that is native: Krigia virginica. It is more orange in color than dandelion and quite petite. It is an annual while the non-native is perennial. It also makes a tiny puffy seed head.

Another yellow flower in the lawn is dwarf cinquefoil (Potentilla canadensis); it resembles the non-native mock strawberry (Duchesnea indica). This native dwarf cinquefoil is distinguished by having 5 leaves (compared to 3 for mock strawberry) and by not setting any strawberry-like fruit. It is aggressive, however, and perennial. I pull it out as needed and there is always plenty more.

Potentilla canadensis

Carolina bristle mallow (Modiola caroliniana)
Several doors down I found a new plant in abundance: Carolina bristle mallow (Modiola caroliniana). At the rate it was taking over that guy's lawn, I expect it to show up at my place in the next two years. It was a pretty red flower with the unique seed pods you'd expect on a mallow.

Clasping Venus's looking glass, Triodanis perfoliata

Close examination also found that the neighborhood has not one but two species of Venus's looking glass. Both are native and have gorgeous purple flowers. They are annuals.

Another small purple flower ended up being the non-native Mazus reptans. It is a perennial and a prolific seeder.

Non-native Mazus reptans

Buttercups were found  here and there. While we do have native members of the Ranunculus genus, I believe this common lawn flower is a non-native perennial one.

Of course the early spring lawn flowers are all gone now. We usually have native bluets (Houstonia), native violets (several kinds), non-native hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta), non-native chickweed (which unfortunately gives our lovely native chickweed, Stellaria pubera, a bad name) and a few others.

Common dandelion with native bee

Whew! Who knew we had so many flowers in the lawn? In the name of diversity and pollinators, I'm all for keeping a few around. I like this approach - "give your lawn a taste of the wild" is an article that I found elsewhere

It gives me a great reason not to put herbicide on my lawn. I pull by hand the non-native plants or the especially aggressive native ones (yes, cinquefoil gets a bit excited). Others get to stay until nature (or the mower) takes them away.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Flower You Didn’t See

Most flowers are showy and they capture our attention during their designated bloom time. Their flowers turn to fruit of some kind (even if they are dry seeds like the big sunflower) and we make the connection that flowers make fruit. Sometimes the fruit is so subtle that we don’t even realize the plant made fruit. Other times the flower doesn’t get pollinated and fruit does not form.

Tiny flowers on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

In some plants it is the flower that is so subtle that when fruit does form, we are mystified. I have heard this statement on identification forums many times: “This plant doesn’t flower but it has this fruit.” Well, unless the plant is a fern, it has a flower even if you didn’t see it.

Flowers on sedge

Grasses, sedges and rushes (which one might think are all “grasses”) are a significant group of plants that some people consider to be non–flowering plants. Rather than having showy flowers to attract insects, grasses have flowers without petals. This lack of petals facilitates the transfer of pollen through wind-pollination. Pollen is more easily discharged and received from flower to flower when petals are absent.

There is also a group of woody plants that are wind-pollinated. Like the grasses, they have flowers without petals. And like the grasses, these are usually the plants that cause allergies because their pollen is windborne: oaks, pines, mulberries, elms, hickories (including pecan) and sweetgums are the major contributors.  They produce a lot of pollen to ensure that some gets to where it needs to be.

Hickory (Carya spp.) flowers

Sometimes you only see the flowers of these trees when they fall to the ground (although some people still don’t realize what they are seeing).

Sweetgum (Liquidambar) flowers surrounded by male pine (Pinus) flowers

There are also some non-woody, non-grass-like plants that have flowers without petals. Ragweed is probably the most familiar one. It is also wind-pollinated.

Nyssa sylvatica fruit comes from tiny flowers (see 1st picture)
Most plants have insect-pollinated flowers, usually flowers with petals which are meant to attract insects. 

However, the flowers or petals are so tiny that humans overlook them. Rest assured though, if you see fruit then you know that the flower was able to catch the attention of an insect, even if it was a tiny one.

Black gum (Nyssa) is one such plant with tiny flowers. Another is poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans). Black willow (Salix nigra) doesn't have petals but it has nectar and that attracts insects like bees.

Female Salix nigra flowers in fruiting stage
Callicarpa americana flowers in July

The flowers of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are rather small as well but are probably showy enough that people notice them.

So next time you think to say that a certain plant doesn't have flowers ... think again.

Bees love Ilex verticillata flowers