Sunday, November 27, 2016

Fall Color At Home

The fall color this year has been pretty good overall. Some plants have done poorly due to the dry weather in Georgia, but others have been spectacular. Although I would love to take trips into the mountains of Georgia to see fall color, I rarely take the time to do so.

Wild red maple (Acer rubrum)
Luckily, I don’t have to travel far to see beautiful leaf colors each fall. I live in an area that was primarily an oak-hickory forest, and many wild trees are still around on the edges of country roads, in the backyards of many homes, and in thick stands on undeveloped land.

My own backyard is a good collection of what I see all around me in southeastern Cherokee county. I have oak species such as white oak (Quercus alba), red oak (Q. rubra), scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), black oak (Q. velutina), post oak (Q. stellata), water oak (Q. nigra), blackjack oak (Q. marilandica), and southern red oak (Q. falcata). These oaks provide colors such rich golden and chestnut browns, deep bright reds, and robust burgundies.

Scarlet oak across from the mailbox

More trees bringing an awesome show of red color include red maple (Acer rubrum), blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) lends a hand with deep oranges and reds. Florida maple (Acer floridanum) and chalkbark maple (A. leucoderme) punch out some bright orange-reds as well.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)
Beech and white oak

Numerous hickories bring on a wide range of golden hues, from the medium yellow of bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) to the almost burnt-butter golds of mockernut (C. alba), pignut hickory (C. glabra) and sand hickory (C. pallida). Assisting in the yellow department is tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), Florida maple again (Acer floridanum), persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), and green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica).

Sourwood and hickory in the backyard
Wild and crazy sweetgum leaves

A true wildcard can be found in an oft-maligned tree known as sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). The color range of this common tree is from yellow to purple with every shade in between. As much as people hate its seed capsules, I guaranteed they are loving it from afar come November.

The view from the deck 

Same direction but further into the woods

Evergreens really set off the reds/oranges/yellows of the deciduous forest, and we have several species of pine trees to do the job - along with help from Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), a tall upright juniper that is so important to native birds.

Quercus alba several miles away

Actually, all these native trees provide enormous value to local insects and birds and should be kept (and planted in new landscapes). Many are available from nurseries (by special order if needed, let's create some demand!).

If we all used some of these gorgeous native trees, we’d have more fall color to see at home and we wouldn’t have to travel to the mountains to see native trees putting on a show (although we can still go there if we want to!).

As you enjoy this year's fall color, think about how you might add more to your own view.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Slim Pickings

Butterflies are still flying but the floral resources are dwindling. Between the natural progression of the seasons and the very dry weather we’ve had for the last two months, the butterflies in my area have a choice between autumn sage (Salvia greggii), scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), and some small white asters (Symphyotrichum pilosum).

Cloudless sulphur on Salvia greggii
The salvia plants are still blooming because I am careful to keep them watered for the butterflies. Both of these species will bloom until frost anyway, but they need supplemental watering this year to keep going. The most noticeable butterfly still around is the cloudless sulphur, a medium-sized butterfly with soft yellow wings. This species of butterfly loves the tubular flowers of salvia and have no interest in the small, shallow blooms of the aster.

Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea)

A few dark skippers are also still flying. Skippers like the scarlet sage as well as the asters. Occasionally, a bumblebee will visit the sage flowers too but they are few and far between these days. Tiny bees visit the asters.

Insects are very particular about the flowers they visit. The sulphurs have the ability to get nectar from the large tubular flowers of autumn sage, but the skippers have a shorter proboscis so they stick with the shorter flowers of scarlet sage and the asters. If any Gulf fritillaries come through, I don’t think they’ll find anything to eat. In the summer they like flowers like lantana and blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), and I don’t see them on the sages.

Cloudless sulphur on Salvia coccinea (white form)

You can see that supporting butterflies requires a variety of different types of flowers. When you’re thinking about the plants you’ll choose for next year’s butterfly garden, keep that in mind. I know I’ll keep trying to have these long-blooming sages in stock for the late butterflies in the years to come.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I Thought I Knew You

There is a tree in my backyard and in scattered locations throughout my neighborhood that changed this year. This is a maple tree of smaller stature than a red or sugar maple. I have always considered it to be a Florida maple, also known as southern sugar maple (Acer floridanum or synonym Acer barbatum). I haven’t changed my mind on that, but still the tree surprised me this year.

Some years ago (my earliest photo file is dated 2011), I first noticed this small tree because of its fall color. The leaves were a pure, clear yellow with no hint of red or orange. The leaf shape is similar to a chalk maple (A. leucoderme) or a sugar maple (A. saccharum), but both of those have orange-red colors. In addition, the chalk maple usually has noticeable hairs on the underside of the leaf, and this maple does not have that.

Florida maple (Acer floridanum) in 2011
I have always enjoyed and admired the soft yellow color of this tree in the fall. Over the years, I have used that distinctive color to find more and more of them peeking through the woodland edges of my neighbors’ properties. Each new one I found was a treasured discovery of the land that came before us.

Acer floridanum in 2016
The surprise in my yard this year is that the tree didn’t color yellow, it turned soft orange. From a distance, I thought it was a sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) shining in the sun. I walked over to take a look and realized it was the maple! I was flabbergasted to see such a change. Was it a chalkbark maple after all? I reached up to feel the leaves - still smooth on the back.

Over the next several days, I watched the tree turn its new colors. I searched for pictures on the Internet and found examples of Florida maple trees with similar colors. Perhaps the pure yellow years were the exception!

I checked other trees in the neighborhood – some continued to turn yellow while others showed some soft orange. A friend brought me sample leaves from hers, one that she had always considered to be a chalkbark maple; it also had a smooth back.

As an aside, even though I still feel that my tree is Acer floridanum, I always find good and helpful information from the Name That Plant website and went to see what they'd have. Here they have a comparison of leaves and a statement about the shape of the lobes: Acer floridanum (Terminal lobes of some leaves broader toward tip than toward base) vs.  Acer leucoderme (Lobes narrower at the tip than at the base, tips pointed (even acuminate)). Since I had both leaves, I decided to compare them (see below).

Note: their source is Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide, a great book itself, and thanks to Name That Plant for highlighting that important difference. When identifying plants, always try to gather/photograph several leaves if possible to capture some of the natural variations and make sure you have a good representation.

Well, this has been exciting - I like nature that keeps me on my toes! It will be interesting to see what it does next year. If it would bloom and set seed, that would be a new and welcome development ~

Florida maple (Acer floridanum) wearing its 2016 colors

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Wild Fruit: The Pawpaw

This summer I had the event I’ve been waiting for – my pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees had fruit and I harvested them. Pawpaw is a large native shrub (or small tree) in the custard-apple family (Annonaceae), a North American member of a largely tropical family. Despite its tropical heritage, pawpaw’s native range is large, extending all the way up to New York and west to Texas. It is a plant whose habitat is largely one of rich bottomlands - the moist, low areas adjacent to rivers and streams.

Pawpaw fruit from my trees
The flowers are small, maroon bells that bloom just before the long, droopy leaves appear. They are largely pollinated by flies that are attracted to their unpleasant odor. Pollination occurs most reliably when you have cross-pollination with at least two plants from different populations. Even that is iffy if the insects don’t help you out; some people resort to hand pollination. But this year was a success for me and I watched over a cluster of 3 fruits for several months, just waiting for the late summer to harvest them.

Spring flowers and early leaves

Someone recommended a new book about this very unique fruit and its history in America. Published in 2015, the book is Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit by Andrew Moore. At 245 pages plus an index of resources (and a recipe for ice cream), the book is an informative walk through the fruit’s history, the people that have tried to bring it to mainstream (and some that are making money off it), and a delightful description of the author’s travels through the native range in search of fruit to eat (and he does eat a lot!) and a story to tell.

The first thing to get through is the many different spellings of the common name: pawpaw, paw paw, papaw, poppaw, pappaw and more. Settlers to this land have been discovering, eating, and writing about this fruit from the beginning. Of course, Native Americans were using them even before that and had their own names for the plant. It’s clear that most everyone that tried them loved them. They were probably transported around by humans, and there are many towns named for pawpaw. Early explorers wrote about the many ways that Native Americans used them (besides fresh): dried, cooked into breads, soups and stews. They used the inner bark to make rope and string. The seeds were sometimes ground into powder and used as medicine.

There are local market records in the 1800s of selling pawpaws at markets, and in 1888 the American Horticultural Society praised the fruit for its potential, but attempts to bring the pawpaw into cultivation didn't happen until about 1916. In that year, the American Genetics Association held a contest to find the best pawpaws so that a breeding program could be started. From 230 different location entries, a winner from Ohio was selected. Alas, nothing came of it. Curiously, the author mentions that cultivation of native blueberries was just starting at the same time and look where they are today!

A portion of the book provides profiles and stories of people that have grown pawpaws and tried to get them out to the general public. The PawPaw Foundation was established in 1988, and there are several named cultivars available. At one point, Ocean Spray expressed interest in using them but they needed a large quantity of pulp. The largest orchard is in Maryland and contains 1000+ trees on 5 acres. Harvesting techniques (still by hand) are discussed along with seed germination tips. At this time, pawpaw usage remains a boutique item with large quantities going to high-end restaurants via rapid shipping methods. Kentucky State University has a dedicated research program. Pawpaw festivals celebrate the fruit and its possibilities every year with the largest in Ohio, a 3-day event! I’d love to try some pawpaw beer sometime – perhaps I’ll have to go one year.

Asimina triloba fall color
The final part of the book takes the reader on a mad dash through the areas where pawpaw grows. The author describes his travels in search of wild pawpaw patches and the people he met along the way. Some of the descriptions of places are very detailed; I may have to look for the roadsides he described in Williamsburg, VA the next time that I’m there.

If you live in the natural range of pawpaw, consider introducing one to your garden. It is the one and only host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly (if you need another reason). Remember to get two plants from different sources if you want fruit (planting seeds or seedlings will do the trick).

Zebra swallowtail (Walker County, GA)

I did try the fruit and it was rather unusual tasting but not an immediate hit for me.  I learned from reading this book that I probably should have let it ripen another day or two for best flavor. I will be just as excited next year to give it another try!