Sunday, December 27, 2015

2015 in Pictures

I take a lot of pictures throughout the year and not all of them make it into a blog post. At the end of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the beauty of nature and share some of the extra pictures.

I believe that each day is an opportunity to find and appreciate something beautiful in the native plants and creatures of Georgia.

Spiraea virginiana

In January, this Spiraea virginiana was still putting on a delightful color show on my back porch (where it thrived in the absence of deer). The plant by the front walk never makes it that far although I keep it sprayed enough to have flowers in May.

February brought a mixture of blue and gray days as usual. This red-shouldered hawk is a regular in my woods, and for once I was able to take a pretty close picture of it as we both enjoyed the blue sky.

A few weeks later, gray skies brought snowflakes and I tried to capture a few of them. Now I have a new macro lens so I hope we get a few flakes in 2016.

Red-shouldered hawk
One snowflake stood out from the jumble of others

Stellaria pubera

March is an intensely floral month in Georgia and there is no shortage of gorgeous native flowers to photograph. Here is one of the underappreciated flowers of the native woodland - star chickweed (Stellaria pubera).

The floral show continues in April, but the addition of butterflies makes the outdoor experience all the more exciting. A picture of a flower with a native pollinator is the highest achievement for me.

We had a surprise visitor this month – a sharp-shinned hawk drove a mourning dove into a window and then rested for a bit before carrying it off to eat it.

Tiger swallowtail on native azalea
Sharp shinned hawk

Cordyceps fungus on insect

The weather is always fine in May so I headed to Blairsville for a 3-day botanical romp with the Georgia Botanical Society.

One of the interesting things to find was a fungus that had taken over an insect host. All those gray strands are the fungus coming out.

Prunus angustifolia

My native plum tree (Prunus angustifolia) produced fruit this year, the small green fruits turning various shades of pink and red throughout the month of June.

I also discovered that this plum is suckering like mad (which is typical for this species). I plan to dig up some of those suckers over the winter.

A pair of wrens raised some chicks in our front yard in July. It was amazing to think of how many bugs they must have caught and fed to those babies before they were big enough to leave the nest. It was only a couple of weeks and then they were gone.

Chamaecrista fasciculata

I was excited to find a wild population of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) in August. It is the host plant for the cloudless sulphur butterfly so I’d been looking to find some. The flowers are very popular with bees too. I was able to gather some seeds to scatter in my yard so let’s hope it comes up next year.

Common buckeye butterfly

There were more butterflies this year than last year. This common buckeye butterfly was the first one of that species that I’d ever seen in my garden.  I was so excited that I used photo software to make it look like there were two ....

Cloudless sulphur emerges

Last year I was able to raise a monarch and this year I did too (in the spacious arrangement of a new caterpillar cage that my husband built for me). I also raised many other butterflies including Gulf fritillaries and cloudless sulphurs.

Pileated woodpecker

I have long heard and seen pileated woodpeckers in the woods around my house. This year one was in perfect photo range on a dead pine tree next to the driveway (that dead pine tree has been very good to the birds in my yard the last two years!).

Throughout the year I look to find plants that I can photograph for my collection of native plant pictures. Normally mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) is out of my range as the plants are high up in the trees. This year I found some in smaller trees and was able to snap some photos.

Phoradendron leucarpum
All in all, 2015 was a good year for photos, for plants and for wildlife. I look forward to more in 2016!

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Year of the Frog

Have you noticed that sometimes there appears to be a population explosion of some flower, bug or critter in your garden? Last year was a great year for skippers while the butterfly population seemed lower than usual. The year before that, there were so many dragonflies.

This year was the year of the frog.

One of the most amazing things we discovered about this house when we moved in 12 years ago was the presence of tree frogs. The house came with a swimming pool; we went swimming the first night (it was July) and dozens of tree frogs jumped in to join us!

Tree frogs (Hyla species) are smaller than the frogs I normally associate with wet areas (like my neighbor's pond). Ours are light gray in color with wonderful mottling. They have hands and feet with noticeably sticky pads for clinging.

Sometimes I find other frogs, large, dark-green ones mostly hanging out in the pool, and those I try to relocate to my neighbor's pond so that the pool chemicals don't do them in. Others hang around in between my plant pots, startling me when they jump out as I'm watering or rearranging.

I'm always glad to have them (and the toads). It makes me feel like I'm doing something right if they are finding what they need here. (Click on any of the pictures to make them larger.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Forest Less Diverse

I love to explore new parks. One can find parks at the city, county, state and national level. Each one is a chance to explore the unique plants and communities found in those preserved spaces. There I often find other people enjoying the spaces: walkers, runners, dog owners, and families exploring with their kids.

Sometimes it is all I can do to keep from stopping every visitor and saying “This is not the way the land is supposed to look. This place is overrun with invasive plants from foreign lands and doesn’t reflect the beauty of Georgia.”  I’m sure that most of them would look at me strangely and sidle around me as quickly as possible. Most people are content to have clear paths and green plants in their outdoor experiences.

All that's green here is non-native
A visit to a park near Athens had me with my hand over my mouth recently. The paths through the park were at times carved out of thickets of invasive shrubs: privet (Ligustrum sinense), elaeagnus (Elaeagnus), and bush honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii).

Canopy trees like oaks (Quercus) and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) soared high into the sky, immune to the invasion below.

One might wonder why green is not good enough. What is the difference between one shrub and another? The issue centers around plant diversity and the role that plants play in the greater community. An area that is choked out with one or two species of plants is not more diverse even though those plants came from another continent. The area becomes less diverse due to excessive competition.

Bush honeysuckle (Lonicera)
In this particular park, the canopy trees that existed prior to invasion are unaffected. Their progeny, however, may find it difficult to germinate when they land on ground that doesn’t get sufficient light or moisture below the thicket of privet. Herbaceous plants – flowering spring and summer plants plus ferns – have lost ground too. The faster-growing invasive plants have gotten the jump on them.

Insects that relied on those native plants have found less and less pollen, nectar and foliage to sustain them. Many insects are specialists, so a downturn in native plant populations equals a corresponding downturn in their populations as well. Birds that eat insects will not thrive here either.

Over time, the shift in the plant population tilts more in favor of the newcomers. Canopy trees may fall with age or due to storms, with few youngsters available to take their place due to reduced germination of their seeds. In order to restore diversity, often humans have to step in.

I was heartened at the end of the day to find signs about invasive eradication efforts getting started. These signs were there to educate the public about what they were doing, how they were doing it, and why it was important. They've got a long way to go, but volunteers will be there to help, especially when they start to see the benefits: plants often return on their own when given a helping hand.

If you've got a chance to help out at a local park with invasive removal, please do so. The benefits to the local ecosystem are immense, and you get a chance to make Georgia more "Georgia" again!

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Red Top Mountain State Park

The morning light was gorgeous through the beeches
I love to spend time outdoors so this year’s suggestion to “opt outside” on the day after Thanksgiving was one that I was willing to take.

I decided to use the day as an opportunity to get another Georgia State Park visit in the bank and picked Red Top Mountain State Park in Bartow County as my destination. I convinced my daughter to go with me, and we set out early that Friday morning.

I picked Red Top Mountain for several reasons. First, it is relatively close to me so it makes for a good day trip. Second, according to the park map on the website, it has a selection of good trails with scenic views of Lake Allatoona.

Third, the park has been recovering from deer overpopulation, and I wanted to see how the understory vegetation was doing.

The park is a great example of the good work that State Park employees do. Detailed trail maps are available to use, there is great signage on the trails, and trails are clearly marked with colored blazes on the trees. From the Visitor’s Center, we took the Homestead Trail (marked in yellow on the map and with yellow blazes on the trees). This is a 5.5 mile loop trail and you have the option to start the loop in either direction so we met people coming and going as we hiked.

Beech and sourwood trees

Fall colored foliage and views of the lake were a beautiful part of this path, but we couldn’t let them distract us from the many switchbacks needed to wind around the coves.

Elevation changes kept our heart rates up while providing many great views. Our interest in photography had us stopping to capture interesting angles and good looking plants. She teaches me photography and I babble on about plants.

Does the forest enhance the lake view or vice versa?

The deciduous forest had shed most of its leaves and at times we walked through areas with high diversity. The path was littered with the colorful reminders of red oaks, white oaks, southern red oaks, beeches, sourwood and some of the prettiest red maples that I’ve seen in a while. In other areas, we were in a pine forest and the path was all pine needles.

At least five different oak leaves in this view
As for the recovery of the vegetation from the deer control efforts, I found pretty good amounts of understory plants. There were beautiful sweeps of Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides), river cane (Arundinaria), and hearts a bustin' (Euonymus americanus). The latter is always a deer treat at my house so clearly the control efforts are working to some degree.

Christmas ferns

The yellow fall color of hearts a bustin'

If you enjoy beautiful hikes on well-marked trails, be sure to visit one of our many beautiful Georgia State Parks. It's a great way to opt outside any day of the year.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Oakleaf Hydrangea, A Four Season Shrub

Double flowering form in mid-May
There aren’t many plants that can look good in all four seasons. One might say that an evergreen plant would be such a plant, but that seems like cheating. 

Our native oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) manages to look good year round, even when it doesn’t have leaves! This is the time of year that I really appreciate it.

Oakleaf hydrangea is native to the central and western parts of Georgia. It was discovered in 1775 by William Bartram as he travelled through Crawford County, Georgia. 

His journal included a sketch and these words: 

NEXT day we travelled about twenty miles farther, crossing two considerable creeks named Great and Little Tobosochte, and at evening encamped close by a beautiful large brook called Sweet Water, the glittering wavy flood passing along actively over a bed of pebbles and gravel. The territory through which we passed from the banks of the Oakmulge to this place, exhibited a delightful diversified rural scene, and promises a happy, fruitful and salubrious region, when cultivated by industrious inhabitants, generally ridges of low swelling hills and plains supporting grand forests, vast Cane meadows, savannas and verdant lawns.
I OBSERVED here a very singular and beautiful shrub, which I suppose is a species of Hydrangia (H. quercifolia.) It grows in coppices or clumps near or on the banks of rivers and creeks; many stems usually arise from a root, spreading itself greatly on all sides by suckers or offsets; the stems grow five or six feet high, declining or diverging from each other, and are covered with several barks or rinds, the last of which being of a cinerious dirt colour and very thin, at a certain age of the stems or shoots, cracks through to the next bark, and is peeled off by the winds, discovering the under, smooth, dark reddish brown bark, which also cracks and peels off the next year, in like manner as the former; thus every year forming a new bark; the stems divide regularly or oppositely, though the branches are crooked or wreathe about horizontally, and these again divide, forming others which terminate with large heavy pannicles or thyrsi of flowers, but these flowers are of two kinds; the numerous partial spikes which compose the pannicles and consist of a multitude of very small fruitful flowers, terminate with one or more very large expansive neutral or mock flowers, standing on a long, slender, stiff peduncle; these flowers are composed of four broad oval petals or segments, of a dark rose or crimson colour at first, but as they become older acquire a deeper red or purplish hue, and lastly are of a brown or ferruginous colour; these have no perfect parts of generation of either sex, but discover in their centre two, three or four papiliae or rudiments; these neutral flowers, with the whole pannicle, are truly permanent, remaining on the plant for years, until they dry and decay; the leaves which clothe the plants are very large, pinnatifid or palmated and serrated, or toothed, very much resembling the leaves of some of our Oaks; they sit opposite, supported by slender petioles and are of a fine, full green colour.
Oakleaf hydrangea is a fine garden shrub, one of the best used native shrubs in the nursery trade. Quite a few cultivars have been created to showcase dwarf qualities, different color forms and fancy flowers. The dwarf forms - such as ‘Pee Wee,’ ‘Sikes Dwarf,’ ‘Little Honey,’ ‘Ruby Slippers’ and ‘Munchkin’ - provide choices for the smaller garden since the species form grows to 8 feet tall and wide.

The flowers age to pink and remain on the plant in summer
The flowers are very popular with native insects. The fertile flowers are located inside the panicle (the showy flowers are sterile), but the pollinators (bees and beetles) know where to find them. The seeds are small and dry. Try collecting them and growing a few babies. You can also propagate the shrub from cuttings taken in the spring or by layering branches.

The four seasons of interest can be described as follows:

Spring – the soft gray-green leaves open before the flowers, oppositely arranged like two hands in prayer. The flowers bloom in very late spring, lush panicles of fertile and sterile flowers in creamy white.
Summer – strikingly large leaves offer handsome foliage all summer, accompanied by the still present flower panicles which have now transitioned to a dusky pink.
Fall – the leaves change to a variety of colors, even on the same plant. Some plants have bright leaf colors while others have muted shades of yellow, pink and russet. All are gorgeous. Flower panicles can still be present, now faded to the color of old lace.
Winter – while the leaves are late to fall, eventually they do, revealing stems of exfoliating bark and large leaf buds poised for the spring. Flower panicles may break off or may remain all winter.

Faded flower and muted fall color

Brilliant fall color
The one downside to this shrub is that deer are very fond of it (as they are of all hydrangeas). Put it in a protected area if you have deer. Then sit back and congratulate yourself on your excellent selection each and every time that you see it.

Peeling bark is evident on older branches

Bartram text courtesy of: Travels Through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws; Containing An Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of Those Regions, Together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. Embellished with Copper-Plates 
(spine) Bartram's Travels 

William Bartram
xxxiv, 522 p., ill.

Call number VC917 B29 (North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) 

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Deciduous Delights

Sweetgum leaf
People often seek out evergreen trees and shrubs for their landscape. The reasons are varied: for privacy reasons, because they like to have something green all year or perhaps as shelter for birds. 

All those reasons are good, but this time of year is the perfect time to realize that deciduous trees and shrubs are the ones that wow us in the fall. We should definitely include some of them in the landscape.
A sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) provides a red highlight
For weeks and weeks in the fall, deciduous woody plants stop producing green chlorophyll in their leaves and reveal amazing colors. As you may have learned, the exact color that the leaves turn has to do with the chemicals within them. Carotenes and xanthophyll pigments give us yellow, orange and brown colors while anthocyanin pigments give us reds and purples. Some of them even go through several color phases before they fall.

Landscapes with multiple colors catch your eye
The ideal fall combination is composed of plants that have fall color in all the categories: yellow, orange, red, purple and russet-brown. Include a few evergreens as well to provide the contrast. At minimum, you’ll want yellow, red and green. Now that fall is almost done, you might have realized that you were lacking in certain colors. I have previous posts that list some of our native choices for those colors: yellow and orange/red/purple. You can find some evergreen ideas here.

In addition to trees, there are some native shrubs with outstanding fall color: Viburnum, Fothergilla, native spireas (Spiraea), blueberry (Vaccinium) and huckleberry (Gaylussacia), and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia). Mix some of those in with your evergreen shrubs for a strong fall finish (plus they have great spring blooms).

Fothergilla, perhaps 'Mt. Airy'
Hydrangea quercifolia fall colors can be bright or muted as here

When the leaves are done falling, celebrate the free mulch and fertilizer that they provide while birds search for worms and tasty beetles beneath them. Deciduous woody plants are truly wonderful things to have in the landscape. If you didn’t have enough this year, I hope this post and the others linked here will give you some ideas for planting.

A deciduous forest offers so much to see

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Last Hurrah

Canada goldenrod (Solidago altissima)
After over a week of rain, the ground is covered with wet and mostly gray-colored leaves. Half of our fall color-watching-season seems to have been washed away. 

I was thrilled to come upon this bright field this week, merrily sporting a knee-high sea of blooming Canada goldenrod (Solidago altissima).

Normally this species would have been much taller and the blooms would be finished by now. Someone must have mowed this field mid-summer, forcing the goldenrod to regroup its energies and put out all new growth. Mixed among the goldenrod are the bright red leaves of sumac (Rhus) at the same height.

As we finish out our fall and head into winter, this last burst of floral color is a happy sight. I hope that some of the monarch butterflies migrating southward might spot this field and stop by for some nectar. Someone did them a favor when they mowed this field for a change.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sumac – Roadside’s Rowdy Rhus

This time of year is when our native sumacs light up the roadsides with spectacular fall color. Any other time of year, these plants will not be noticed (or worse they will be removed as “weeds”). It’s a shame to see these plants so unappreciated. Let’s examine their qualities and perhaps we can convince a few people to let the suckering sumacs do their thing.

Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra)
I am speaking here of plants in the Rhus genus. This does not include plants with sumac as a common name such as poison sumac (which is Toxicodendron vernix) or stinking sumac (which is the non-native Ailanthus altissima). The sumacs that are native to Georgia include fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica), winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), smooth sumac (Rhus glabra), staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and the uncommon Michaux’s sumac (Rhus michauxii).

Winged sumac (Rhus copallinum)
Of all these species, the two most likely ones you would encounter in Georgia are winged sumac and smooth sumac (easily distinguished from each other by the wings on the leaves of the first one). 

Both are large shrubs that spread by suckers and have striking fall color. The compound leaves have numerous leaflets. They also produce upright bundles of red fruits that birds adore, so without leaves they might be a bit hard to tell apart.   

Fragrant sumac (Rhus aromatica) on Stone Mountain

Fragrant sumac is a lowing growing shrub with only 3 leaflets and looks very similar to poison ivy. Like the other two species, the fruits are red although there are fewer of them. The red fruits help to distinguish it from poison ivy which has white berries. Like its Rhus cousins, fragrant sumac has great fall color too. In the winter, the presence of male catkins at the branch tips helps to identify it.

Beyond human aesthetics, sumac is beneficial to wildlife. During the growing season, at least 54 native moths and butterflies use it for a host plant for their eggs. The clusters of tiny flowers attract numerous pollinators. In the fall and winter, birds and small mammals eat the fruits.

Fruit of Rhus glabra
All 3 of these common Georgia species are tough, dependable plants. Their tolerance of average to poor soil makes them suitable for hard to grow areas and their suckering habits help to hold slopes and stabilize poor soils. 

While they might not be appropriate for a small garden except perhaps in a container, these adaptable shrubs can find a place in many larger landscapes. At the very least, let's hope they can continue to decorate our roadsides.

Smooth sumac on Lookout Mountain in North Georgia