Sunday, July 26, 2015

Hot Flowers for Hot Days

It's been stinking hot the last few weeks. Steady temps in the mid-90's are only occasionally interrupted by afternoon thunderstorms (sometimes violent ones). Luckily summer flowers are busting out all over and they've got hot hues to rival the hot temperatures.

Here are some of my favorite flowers blooming now in North Georgia and further north. While all of these grow in North Georgia, many of them were also observed during my trip to North Carolina for the recent Cullowhee conference.

First up are the amazing summer lilies: turk's cap lily (Lilium superbum) and Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii). These lilies are similar looking, but there are differences that can help you separate them.

Turk's cap (Lilium superbum)
Strong stem on Lilium superbum

Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii) is a smaller plant

Swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus)
The native hibiscus are all very showy but none quite as much as the statuesque swamp hibiscus (Hibiscus coccineus). Thick stems are more than 6 feet tall and support large, deeply lobed leaves and flowers that are 5 inches wide.

It's hard to believe that stems this size are not woody plant stems, but the plant does die back to the ground each winter. I leave the stems up all winter in the hope that bees will hibernate in them.

Monarda didyma, Lumpkin County

Another hot red flower is scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma). On the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, we found these blooming in moist ditches and open, wet woodlands. They obviously appreciate a moist environment. While they look great alone, when we found them with tall American bellflower (Campanulastrum americanum), they were even more spectacular.

One of my favorite mid-summer flowers is the orangey-red flower of the plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium). Native to a limited range in Georgia and Alabama, this species grows very well in gardens too. The hummingbirds love it as do the large Eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies.

Plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium)
Sometimes plants have a second flush of blooms. Currently reblooming in my area are coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) and butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa).

Roadside populations of Asclepias tuberosa can be vibrant orange
So if you need some hot flowers for your summer garden, give some of these a try.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Moths - The Other Butterflies

Moths and butterflies both belong to the Lepidoptera order of insects. They share many of the same characteristics: they start out as eggs on a leaf, develop into caterpillars, transition to a period of quiet transformation and then emerge with wings to procreate and start the cycle again.

Luna moth, does not eat as an adult and only lives a week

Some of the differences include when they feed - butterflies are active during the day while moths are generally active at night or during dawn and dusk. The antenna can be different. Butterflies have simple antennae that end in a swelling or "club."  Moths can have simple antennae (but no swelling at the end) or they might have feather-like ones. In general, butterflies are more brightly colored than moths but there are exceptions on both sides.

Azalea sphinx moth, adult eats nectar
This week is National Moth Week which is a time dedicated to the appreciation of these insects. Between their coloration (usually browns and grays) and their nocturnal habits, we don’t notice them much.  Yet they are important pollinators and a significant part of the local ecosystem.

Couldn't id this one, but I love his expression!

Clymene moth (or Jesus moth) sitting on Eupatorium (host plant)

You can see more moths if you put up a white piece of cloth with a light at night. Most of us just see them hanging out on foliage in the morning or fluttering around our windows at night. I have found brown moth cocoons in the soil sometimes.

Snowberry clearwing moth caterpillar on
native honeysuckle

And of course, we find moth caterpillars on our plants, happily eating their way through what is usually the longest phase of their life.

Having caterpillars on your plants is a good thing. That means you have what it takes to support life in your garden. You probably also have happy birds because they need caterpillars to feed their babies. The birds will eat a few and a few will live on, just the way nature intended.

Southern pink moth

So take a few moments to learn more about moths this week and appreciate them for the roles they play in our ecosystem. Just like butterflies, they help make our little world go round.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Botanical Garden – ABG in Gainesville

I recently visited the Smithgall Woodland Legacy area of the Atlanta Botanical Garden (ABG) in Gainesville, GA. The 5-acre garden just opened in May of this year. The planted areas on both sides of the wide concrete walkway are packed with plants in a design meant to bring color to every season.

The 168-acre site was donated to ABG in 2002 by Lessie Smithgall and her late husband Charles A. Smithgall. In addition to the garden, but not open to the public, are a greenhouse and a nursery that are used by ABG staff for propagation, allowing it to broaden its conservation efforts.

The paths are wide and paved for easy access

My visit on a hot July day was with friends and we arrived at opening time to try and beat the heat. Our leisurely walk from the Visitor Center took us along the Woodland Promenade to the Stream Garden. We passed expertly designed beds of perennials and shrubs laid out underneath some of the remaining mature oaks. I appreciated the use of native perennials and shrubs in some areas.

Benches are found fairly often and we paused halfway through the Stream Garden.  The recirculating stream was beautifully done and blooming blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) was a cool contrast against the rocks. Just ahead was the Train Garden, a source of delight for all the toddlers that came by.

Purple coneflower and mountain mint plus some spring blooming plants

We stopped again in the nearby Glade Garden and admired the mix of native tall phlox, purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and mountain mint (Pycnanthemum spp.). The mountain mint was covered in happy bees. But the temperature was still rising, so we headed back towards the entrance, this time crossing over our previous path to check out the Overlook Garden.

For those folks looking for a more natural experience (or just more time outdoors), there are two unpaved ½ mile trails available: the Sourwood Trail and the Holly Ridge Trail. From the Overlook Garden we could see people walking along those paths.

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)

Last stop was the Forest Pond which laps two sides of the Visitor Center. Aquatic plants happily wiggled their roots in the wet edges. It was a beautiful and serene area. A children’s craft area was on the deck nearby.

As we drove out, I noticed extensive plantings of the late-blooming plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) along the drive.

Over the next few years, more features for the garden are planned. Check their website for activities and changes as they grow.

The tall purple flowers of alligator flag (Thalia dealbata) tower over the pond's edge
Plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium) blooms in June-July

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Celebrate Your Freedom to Plant Native Flowers

With the sound of fireworks ringing in my head, I am here to celebrate our freedom - our freedom to decide that we can personally make a difference in the local ecosystem around us. We can choose to help our local insects and birds by planting native flowers and plants in our yards and our communities.

The news is full of articles about the decline in bees, monarch butterflies, and birds. These declines can be directly traced back to human behavior. We’re discouraged. Some people feel it is beyond their personal control. In reality, each of us can make a difference, and when enough people choose to change, it makes a huge difference.

Green bee on native Eupatorium
My Facebook news feed recently had an article about a woman in Tennessee that made a difference. She noticed that milkweed was growing in a public space and contacted city officials about not mowing it. They agreed and the concept of protecting pollinators and butterfly host plants grew until it became bigger than just not mowing! They now want to do more to help pollinators.

Monarch chrysalis
Not all of us have an opportunity to do something like that, but we have full control to support native insects in our yard. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years with local insects. 

Some insects have relationships with several native plants (for example, they eat their leaves). Some of them have a relationship with only a single group (or family) of plants (like the monarch butterfly and milkweed).

They can't just switch to a new plant to eat. Very few of the foliage-eating insects have had enough time to develop a similar sustaining relationship with non-native plants (some can eat the leaves of plants that are close relatives to their native hosts).

Wrens love insects

Birds are affected too. Birds eat insects, as adults and as 96% of baby birds. If foliage-eating insects can’t live on non-native plants, then the population of foliage-eating insects declines. If the population of those insects declines, then the bird population declines.

As humans have developed land and replaced native vegetation with non-native ornamental plants, populations of some birds have significantly declined.

So if you’d like to help out the bees, butterflies and birds around you, feel free to ignore the expectation that you use the same non-native plants as your neighbors. Break free of shopping at the big box stores for the same non-native shrubs, trees and perennials that they sell to everyone.

Celebrate your freedom to find the best plants for your all-American landscape! Of course, they can be every bit as beautiful as non-native plants.

P.S. Need help learning more about native plants and where to find them? Get in touch with your local native plant society and pick up a copy of ‘Bringing Nature Home.’