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.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fall Preview

Fall is getting started here in the northern half of Georgia and a visit to an area north of me this week brought a lovely preview. Lunch contributions in hand, several of us traveled up to see longtime friends Jim and Margaret in Dawsonville. Their home is on a ridge of land that affords residents on both sides of the road with spectacular views of the mountain foothills. Native trees were half-dressed in their fall colors and the mix of green and fall colors was gorgeous.

The patchwork view of color is gorgeous; Marcia spotted the lone red tree.

Sourwood tree with seed capsules
The morning drive up was at first rainy but as we reached the highest point a thick fog enveloped the country road. The deep red of sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) foliage peaked out from the wooded edges while maples offered leaves of yellow dripping with red tips. 

Occasional overlooks promised spectacular views of multi-hued landscapes. It was hard not to stop at every view and capture the moment, but we were anxious to arrive.

As we approached our destination, small vacation bungalows were mixed with larger year-round residences. Expanses of wild woodlands were interspersed with knockout roses and crape myrtles, but it was clear that everyone appreciates the views. Large decks and strategically placed chairs were common. Lighthearted whimsical touches imparted a sense of relaxation and artistry.

Hydrangea quercifolia

After lunch we walked along the small road, enjoying a closer view of the changing leaves. In between the houses there was wild sumac (Rhus spp.) and shrubs like mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) in outstanding colors. Several homes had native shrubs like oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), native azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), evergreen rhododendron, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and devil’s walking stick (Aralia spinosa). I know Jim probably was influential in some of those native choices.

At the lane’s end we reached a home with a generous deck and a spectacular view. Maples, sourwoods, sassafras, black gum and scarlet oaks were well on their way to their fall colors. Under foot were acorns aplenty and a few squishy persimmons.  

The leaves weren’t the only show in town. Several evergreen rhododendrons had somehow allowed themselves to be persuaded into blooming. Equally surprising was a Cumberland azalea (Rhododendron cumberlandense) that had dropped its leaves but was blooming like mad. Not so surprising was the witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) in full bloom. This is the normal bloom time for it. Tightly pressed against the twigs were the seed pods of last year, just starting to crack open.

Hamamelis virginiana

Hamamelis virginiana

Nyssa sylvatica

Back at our friends’ house we admired the plump fruit still on the black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). They told us the story of the young black bear that climbed one of their other Nyssa trees to eat the fruit one year. Beautyberry (Callicarpa) fruit was still heavy on the bush and a hawthorn (Crataegus) was covered in red fruit. Nearby a red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) had littered the ground with nuts – where were the squirrels? With permission we stuffed our pockets with the fat nuts.

As we headed home in the afternoon, the fall colors that we left behind were but a short glimpse into the future. Very soon our own native landscapes would be just as colorful.

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) that Jim grew from seed