Sunday, January 25, 2015

That Wild Land

You see it from the road, just beyond the guardrail or along the edge where the pavement ends. It’s where the deer dashes after he got too close to the road and the cars came roaring by. As you pass it in the car, there seems to be no sign of life. There is just an indistinguishable forest of trees: bare in the winter, green in the summer, and yellow/orange/red in the fall.

On the bridge over the Etowah River near me, hundreds and thousands of bare trees stand in apparent silence as we drive over and look down for a glimpse of the dark water.  Again, there is no sign of life.  I wonder how many people even notice it or, if they do, think about how that land should be “cleaned up.”

Ruby-crowned kinglet in the woods
I know these places teem with life. Exit your car and get into the woods and the songs of the birds will fill your ears. They are on an all-day search for food, either for themselves or to feed their chicks. They live in these woods.

Along with them live a hundred other creatures: squirrels, snakes, mice, chipmunks, lizards, bats, foxes and many more. Each of them searches these woods for food, a mate and a place to live.

As if supporting animal life were not important enough, these wild areas have another function. They help to filter pollution, both air and water. While all land filters water to some extent, these broad and deep areas of rich soil filter water pollution even better than the compacted and disturbed area we call “lawn” The complex ecosystems that live beneath rich soil have a whole community of critters, fungi and minerals that gets the job done right.

Areas that are adjacent to small streams play a crucial role in delivering clean water into our rivers. Yesterday I took these pictures along Scott Mill Creek, a small but swift stream that later joins Canton Creek before it folds into the Etowah River. The Etowah River is home to 76 species of native fish and is a source of drinking water for many people in the area. It's water we want to be clean!

I passed a sign yesterday in front of a broad, wooded expanse of land. It said “Available” and I laughed. I imagine all those critters living there would disagree.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ground Zero

When it comes to plants, the ground is the beginning. That is where the seed takes root and begins its journey of growth.  So much happens at the ground level and being able to watch it during the winter is pleasure for those of us in Georgia. That’s because we rarely get snow in Georgia. Even when we get snow, it doesn’t stay around for very long because the ground is warm and the temperature is often above freezing.

A warm ground means that not only are seedlings able to grow, but all the critters that live in the soil can still be active. Here in north Georgia we can turn the soil in January and find wriggling earthworms and active centipedes. Mushrooms are abundant in the winter months thanks to ample rain.

Our year-round birds like the Eastern towhee and the brown thrasher actively hunt among the leaves for their meal of choice: bugs. American robins and Carolina wrens are avid insect eaters as well and seem to find enough to keep them fed during the winter.

Brown thrasher, looking for bugs

Turtlehead seeds (Chelone glabra)

Most perennial plants are dormant and have disappeared from view, leaving only the tattered, wispy remains of their summer foliage and some seed heads. At ground level, close to the residual warmth of the soil, some plants remain green and vibrant.

Thank goodness for the lack of snow – we can enjoy the green leaves of plants like cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor), rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), galax (Galax urceolata), ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) and groundcedar (Lycopodium spp.).

Winter-bronzed leaves of Galax

Instead of snow we get rain – long, deep soakings that recharge the ground moisture and prepare the plants for spring growth. On the edge of the woods, the leaves from the deciduous trees are already breaking down. The rain and the warmth of the winter days have paired up with small insects to turn those leaves into black gold, a source of nourishment to the roots that wait below.

Fungi threads

Scratch below the surface to find tiny rootlets intertwined with mycorrhizal fungi, thin strands of a white highway that transports nutrients to connected plants. Nearby might be an acorn, its thick root thriving and growing even now, plunging deep into this rich ground, perhaps making its fungi connections already.

Ground zero – it all starts here.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Little Grand Canyon in Georgia

Exploring more state park locations in Georgia  - there are 63 different ones  - is one of my goals each year. With some extra vacation days at the end of the year, I decided to visit one that would have a decent amount of winter interest. The one I picked definitely fit the bill and I convinced my daughter to come along too. It was a fun day trip.

Located in Stewart County
Providence Canyon State Park (officially Providence Canyon State Outdoor Recreation Area) in Lumpkin, GA (Stewart County not Lumpkin County!) is located near the Georgia-Alabama state line about 45 miles south of Columbus, GA. In fact it is so close to the state line that my cell phone picked up a Central Time zone timestamp once, causing a bit of confusion for a moment.

A view from the rim near the parking area
The canyons in the park are a result of erosion over the last ~150 years because of farming practices. While the farming practices were not so unusual for that period, the “loose and unconsolidated sediments” that this land rested on could not handle it, especially during heavy rains when water traveled along gullies formed by initial erosion. Erosion is still occurring today. Here is a very excellent old resource that gives some background and has excellent pictures and explanations.

There are several canyons to look at and even wander in
The erosion is over 100 feet at this point and the process has created some unique views of the underlying layers of sediments. The top layer is the Clayton formation which is a red-orange sand and clay layer. This is what the early settlers would have seen, plowed and planted in. 
An island remains for now
Below it sits the deepest layer - the Providence Sand layer is 119 feet thick  and ranges in color from white to buff to tan, and even salmon, pink, and lavender. This layer was formed as an ancient sea bed with strong currents (as evidenced by the presence of layers that are at angles). According to the resource referenced above:
"The layers of sediment visible in the canyon were deposited by water between 85 million and 65 million years ago. The presence of the fossilized remains of marine organisms in some of the layers suggests that portions of this area were once a part of the shallow ocean bottom or shoreline."
Isn't that amazing? Next time I go, I'm going to look for fossils! There are also occasional areas of white clay called kaolin. And plants, plenty of plants are there. The area is known for having one of the few native populations of plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium), a beautiful summer-blooming red native azalea. We saw it there, heavily budded for next year.

A blooming plumleaf azalea from the summer, not this trip

Rhododendron minus, blooming sporadically
We also found Rhododendron minus, including a few out-of-season blooms! Both of these rhododendron relatives were found at the bottom of the canyon, adjacent to the seasonal streams. Wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) was also abundant throughout the canyon and the female plants were loaded with berries.

A peeling birch (Betula sp.)

In one area we found moisture-loving alder (Alnus) as well as inkberry (Ilex glabra) with a few inky berries still on it. In some areas the plant growth on the canyon floor was thick as nature worked to reclaim the territory. We found pines, sycamores, and birches.

As we followed the looping white trail we were at times at the top of the cliffs and exploring a plant community that perhaps echoed what might have been there before the farmers. There were oaks and enormous redcedars (Juniperus virginiana), and a delightful assortment of American holly (Ilex opaca). Since this was the week before my American holly post went live, I was thrilled to find so much of this.

We also found the remnants of old residents - cars that were abandoned to nature were scattered in several places, rusting, breaking and giving back to nature in various ways. As I looked at a broken window, I was grateful for the invention of safety glass.

Juniperus virginiana

We circled around to the last section of the trail and found the best views of all (see earlier pictures). We also found some longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and female juniper trees that were loaded with vibrant blue fruits and some trees were already forming new cones. 

Flowering dogwoods (Cornus floridus) were loaded with bright red berries, persimmon fruit (Diospyros virginiana) lay on the ground, and a few sprigs of mistletoe (Phoradendron leucarpum) were noted in the bare twigs of a tree near the visitor's center. Combine those with the wax myrtle and the hollies we already saw and this was certainly a place that would be popular with birds that like fruit.

I encourage you all to explore your state parks. They are OUR parks, funded by our tax dollars and supported by our visits. To find state parks in Georgia, click here. Happy trails!

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Natural Decorations

Native magnolia, fir and gray wax myrtle berries
Natural materials make beautiful decorations. Early settlers to this land had limited resources when it came time to decorate for the holidays and native evergreens and pine cones were the base of many decorations. Non-native materials (like pineapple) and decorative materials (like ribbons) were added if they were available.

This week I visited Williamsburg, VA with my dad and we strolled down Duke of Gloucester Street to see the decorations on the historic homes and businesses that line that street. The creative wreaths are a traditional part of those decorations and they change from year to year – as they did in colonial times, shaped by the creativity of the maker and the materials available.

Native white pine rope, fir, holly leaves
and berries, and juniper

I believe that during hard times, the use of native fruits would have been even more prevalent than represented in this year’s pictures. Materials like dried seed pods from Iris and milkweed (Asclepias) and even sweetgum balls are mentioned in historical documentation.

As you can see in these pictures, dried flowers from the summer as well as dried crops like wheat and star-shaped cotton bolls are used too. These days the various merchants add bits of their craft to make their wreath even more meaningful.

I will mention the native materials that I can see in each.

Native fir, pine cones, antlers
and dried yarrow flowers
Native fir and juniper berries
with wine corks

If you’re interested in learning more about Williamsburg holiday decorations, there are several books out there that describe them in more detail. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to make your own next year. Let your local native plants inspire you!

(If you are reading this on the website, click on any picture to see it larger and launch a slideshow.)

White pine rope, magnolia leaves, rose hips, pheasant feathers, perhaps locust pods

Pine, pine cones, dried yarrow

Grape vine, fir, drumsticks and flutes,
Fir, pine cones, magnolia

Virginia pine and pine cones

White pine, fir, magnolia, perhaps deciduous holly, pine cones

Fir and magnolia with white pine roping
Fir, pine cones, deciduous holly

Shoemaker with white pine cones, fir and magnolia

I think this one has sumac fruit

White pine cones, fir, magnolia
Other than the fir, not much native here

Fir, magnolia, deciduous holly, dried yarrow, rose hips

Dried yarrow is probably the only native here

Chowning's Tavern with oyster shells, scallop shells and reindeer moss

Fir and osage orange fruit (Maclura pomifera)

Dried flowers at the hatmaker's place

Fir, white pine cones, deciduous holly, dried yarrow

Scallop shells, fir, magnolia, deciduous holly at King's Arms Tavern

Fir, pine cones, dried yarrow

Grape vine, antlers, pheasant feathers, fir, berries

Fir, scallop shells, deciduous holly

Pine and perhaps a rattlesnake master relative, beautyberry, oyster

Fir and pine cones

White pine, pine cones, fir, perhaps holly (could be nandina!)

Grape vine seems to be the only native

Pine cones, dried yarrow, turkey and pheasant feathers