Sunday, October 26, 2014

Trees that Heal the Land

Well, that seems like an ambitious title, doesn’t it? The development boom is going again and tracts of land are rapidly turning into subdivisions. Some tracts are wooded and some are pasture. No matter how they start out, the “homesites” often end up being cleared to the dirt from one end to the other because it is cheaper that way.

The developer pops the house up and carpets the area with sod and pine straw and a sprinkling of shrubs around the foundation of the house. The end result is so far from what might have been there naturally that it looks like plastic. Given that the sod and the landscaped shrubs are 95% non-native, this is literally an engineered wasteland … from the perspective of the native insects and birds around it.

Oak leaves in spring
This is where healing the land comes in.  What would bring life back to this place? Native plants would do the job. Recent talks by entomologist Doug Tallamy present an approach that encourages us to flip landscaping norms 180 degrees. 

Rather than putting lawn everywhere and then adding a few decorative plants, the approach advocated by Dr. Tallamy spins that idea around: put lawn only where you need to walk or play and fill the rest of the space with non-lawn plants like perennials, shrubs and trees. These are the plants that support insects and birds, and locally native perennials, shrubs and trees support them more than any other.

How can one transition to that approach?

Not everyone has room for a lot of plants or a budget to make large changes. Small changes can still be meaningful and that’s where the idea of TREES healing the land comes in. Tree selection can make a big impact. Research shows that indigenous trees can support a lot of wildlife.

The best approach is first to see what is native in your area. If you live in Georgia, chances are there are oaks and maples, perhaps a hickory, a willow and a hawthorn. These are all excellent candidates to be your tree (or two). “Let It Be An Oak” is one of Tallamy’s recent talks for a very good reason. His research shows that over 500 insects use the oak genus (Quercus) as a host plant in the mid-Atlantic region.

Baby oakworms on oak leaf
Can you imagine choosing one plant and instantly having that kind of impact? Now don't be alarmed - they are not all-devouring insects, let me assure you. Sometimes you hardly notice them.

Sure, sometimes they can get a little crazy – one little sapling had dozens of caterpillars this year. The trees always survive and they often send out new leaves. Nature knows how to take care of itself.

Not every caterpillar makes it to adulthood. Plenty of them are picked off by birds to feed their chicks or for their own meal. Migratory warblers are insect eaters and wouldn't you like to have them stop by for lunch? Other caterpillars are taken by predatory bugs. A healthy environment balances itself out even without our intervention.

This guy would love a baby oakworm

So if you’re in a position to restore some life to your landscape big or small, consider the healing power of trees to make a difference to wildlife.

To get you started here is a list of the top 12 trees when it comes to being a host plant. Of course these also offer other benefits like nuts, seeds and berries and some of them provide nectar and pollen for pollinators.

Common Name

Plant Genus

# Butterfly/moth species supported


Black cherry























Sunday, October 19, 2014

This Week in the Fall Garden

Mid-October always makes me feel like I’m straddling the seasons. Leaves are changing and falling, birds are on the move and yet the last of the summer flowers are giving it their all. Those flowers know it is their last chance to make a few more seeds to continue the species. Let’s take a walk around and see what’s happening.

Symphyotrichum racemosum
Fallen leaves get tangled in aster stems, a lovely contrast of old and new. Who needs store-bought mums when this white aster (Symphyotrichum racemosum) is so full and alive? Unlike the non-native mums, this one offers pollen and nectar to still-visiting insects.

Symphyotrichum georgianum

Symphyotrichum concolor

Purple asters are still going. This Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) that my friend Kim shared from her yard has been beautiful for weeks. The flowers seems especially large and prolific. Eastern silver aster (Symphyotrichum concolor) is just hitting its stride. 

Symphyotrichum patens with Symphyotrichum lateriflorum

Nearby two asters are tangled together: Symphyotrichum patens (late purple aster) and Symphyotrichum lateriflorum  (calico aster). Nature always knows how to make a beautiful arrangement. I found an aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) that the deer forgot to eat - one bloom.

Solidago erecta

Solidago caesia

In my garden and on the roadside the goldenrods are still blooming, especially those that were mowed or munched on by deer. Here a bee enjoys a late flowering Solidago erecta. In the shady area of the garden, shade-tolerant bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia) is still in its prime and the bees are busy there too.

Seeds are puffing out from the earliest flowers. Yesterday I harvested several types of seeds to share with friends. I will store them in dry envelopes or in the fridge, depending what is best for each type of seed.

Puffy seed heads from plants in the Asteraceae family (like goldenrods and asters) will be stored dry. Of course, the envelopes need to be labeled properly while I can still remember what I picked!

Cotinus obovatus

Some leaves are changing color already, sometimes just a branch at a time. Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) is one of the first to go. Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is starting too, but not all the trees go at once; we’ll have pinkish-purple leaves well into November on those.

American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) is also changing and the clear yellow is like captured sunshine.

Salvia coccinea

The annual scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) will keep blooming until frost. The cloudless sulphur butterflies take full advantage of that long bloom time and can be found fluttering around every afternoon.

This blooming stem seemed to highlight the color changes in the huckleberry (Gaylussacia) foliage behind it, reinforcing my feeling of having one foot in each season.

I think I’ll go sweep the driveway. The effort satisfies a need for order while giving me time to really look at what’s happening around me – before I lose that last bit of summer.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Skipping The Butterflies

It’s been a strange year for butterflies. I noticed it in the spring – there were hardly any butterflies around. It was a cold winter and I thought perhaps they were just slow to get started. With all the talk about the monarch butterfly’s decline, I was anxious to see some winged wonders.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies are usually common, but I went days without seeing one this year. Talk amongst friends and acquaintances didn’t provide any reassurance that my experience was the exception – a lot of people were missing the butterflies.

Long-tailed skipper
Spring turned to summer and the situation wasn’t much better. However, I noticed that there were a lot of skippers around. Were there more skippers than usual, or did they seem more numerous because of the shortage of butterflies? Without a multi-year scientific study, I suppose I’ll never know. 

One visitor was the silver-spotted skipper and summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) was popular with it.

Skippers are generally fairly small and have a quick flight pattern that very much reminds one of skipping. As a result of paying attention to the skippers, I found at least one that I had never noticed before – the long-tailed skipper (Urbanus proteus). What a beautiful species it is. The fiery skipper (Hylephila phyleus) was a frequent guest.

Fiery skipper

Of the few butterflies that I saw, two species were the most prevalent: the gulf fritillary butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) and the cloudless sulphur (Phoebis sennae). 

Cloudless sulphur

The cloudless sulphur is always a late season species for me. They come out just in time to partake of several flowers: cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and my pink turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus). Both flowers require a long proboscis to get to the nectar (both are also a favorite of hummingbirds).

Occasionally I saw an American lady butterfly (Vanessa virginiensis) and a red spotted purple (Limenitis arthemis). I found a spicebush swallowtail caterpillar on my spicebush (Lindera benzoin) so there had to be one of those.  A pearl crescent (Phyciodes tharos) flew through.  

I did identify a couple of new ones: sleepy orange (Abaeis nicippe) and summer azure (Celastrina neglecta).

Sleepy orange

Summer azure

By mid-summer a few more Eastern tiger swallowtails came through, but only one at a time – nothing like the group of seven that I saw last year on the lantana at the front entrance (only fritillaries were there this year). Not seeing a monarch was not unusual, but I was pleased to find evidence of two within walking distance of my neighborhood, the second one only yesterday.

A fellow north Georgia blogger made an interesting observation: “I've noticed over the past few years that each year one species of butterfly seems to have a banner year in my garden.” For her, this is the year of the fritillaries.

I have been enjoying pictures of Georgia butterflies from afar with the Facebook page for Butterflies & Blooms in the Briar Patch in Eatonton. With an emphasis on abundant nectar and native host plants, they have had a lot of success this year. Inspired by them, I plan to amp up my nectar collection next year.

Well this year is almost in the books. We’ll see what happens next year. I’ll be paying close attention, you can be sure of that.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Buckeyes: Beginning to End

This past weekend was red buckeye harvest time at my yard. My red buckeye shrubs (Aesculus pavia) had ripening nuts to collect and I wanted to get most of them ahead of the squirrels. I know the squirrels do get some – I have found stray seedlings throughout the yard thanks to their efforts in previous years.

April flowers of Aesculus pavia

Red buckeye is a beautiful native shrub. It has several characteristics which endear it to gardeners: the fat leaf buds swell and unfurl in February when the human soul needs a sign of spring; bright red blooms open in early April; it is popular with returning hummingbirds; and it thrives in partial shade conditions. In addition, its tree-like habit allows it to substitute for a small tree in tight spaces. Of course the squirrels love those nuts, but who’s planting for them?

Seedling leaves in January
A bee works on pollination

My oldest plant - over 12 years old

This year the plant is being celebrated as Plant of the Year by the Georgia Native Plant Society. What a great time for my plants to have their best year ever! After a cold winter, the flowers were numerous and the hummingbirds were happy. I was taking pictures of the flowers one afternoon and a hummingbird zipped right by me, stopping to sip at several flowers.

Nuts forming

Both hummingbirds and bees help to pollinate these flowers, and they certainly did a great job. I probably have collected 150-200 nuts this year from 5 plants, although most of them came from the largest and earliest blooming one. Nuts form in pods in quantities from 1 to 4. Pods of one have the largest nuts while pods of 4 have the smallest. The nuts are separated in the pods by thin walls.

I plant most of my nuts in pots and raise them as seedlings for the plant sales hosted by the Georgia Native Plant Society. It is always a popular item at the sales. Since this year it was the Society’s plant of the year, it was especially in demand.

A small portion of the harvest

Two of the plants that bore nuts this year were plants that I had grown from seeds of the oldest shrub that I have. They are easy to grow from seeds.

When grown in ideal conditions (plentiful morning sun and good moisture), I’ve had seedlings bloom in the third year. It’s been fun to come full circle with those plants. Red buckeye is one of my favorite plants - I hope you’ll give it a try too.