Sunday, October 29, 2017

Chattahoochee Bend State Park

One of the newest Georgia State Parks is nestled around a bend of the Chattahoochee River near Newnan in Coweta County. At 2910 acres, it is also one of the biggest, stretching for 7 miles along the river. 

I didn’t know much about the park plant-wise, but I figured that it was worth a trip to check it out and went on the spur of the moment last week; my daughter gamely tagged along.

Once we exited I-20, it was still a long drive along quiet country roads to get to the park. We entered the park from Flat Rock Rd, but it didn’t occur to me what that meant. There is actually an outcrop in the park and you can explore it from Trailhead 1 which you reach before you even get to the Visitor Center. The area was crowded with participants in the Georgia Orienteering Club, so we kept going, but I noticed yellow flowers along the road there and vowed to stop by on the way out. 

After a brief stop at the Visitor Center, we headed for the Day Use Area down by the river to find the trail that went along the river.

We lingered briefly by the boat ramp to examine a climbing vine that I later found out is climbing buckwheat (Fallopia scandens). Small white asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) were still blooming and bluemist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum) was here and there until the shade of the Riverwalk Trail took over.  The woods were filled with trees that were familiar to me: American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), box elder (Acer negundo), and later big patches of paw paw (Asimina triloba), large river birch (Betula nigra), hackberry (Celtis sp.), maples and oaks. We even saw an American hazelnut (Corylus americana).

Climbing buckwheat (Fallopia scandens)
Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

The trail is very close to the river and abundant stretches of river cane (Arundinaria sp.) were there. Sprinkled throughout were the fading blooms of white snakeroot (Ageratina sp). Also long past bloom was wingstem (Verbesina sp.) with just enough faded petals to recognize it was one of the yellow flowered ones. The bridges constructed along the walk were very well done. One tall bridge was flanked by two large deciduous hollies (Ilex decidua) so it was easy to get a good picture of the fruit. We walked as far as the observation tower which unfortunately does not have a good view of the river but would be fun for kids.

River cane (Arundinaria)
Observation tower

Ilex decidua
Wood oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)

We turned back to try to find the beaver ponds via the Wild Turkey Trail but only walked along a dry trail with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and Christmas ferns that led back to the road. With not enough time to go further on the Riverside Trail (and no apparent way to drive to another portion), we decided to head back and stop where the yellow flowers were.

Fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius)
The brightest yellow flower turned out to be a patch of coreopsis, but then I realized that there was another yellow flower nearby that was different. It was a Stone Mountain daisy (Helianthus porteri). That’s when I realized that the “flat rock” was an outcrop, an environment that is home to many special plants.

As I looked around, I found other special plants such as the fleshy leaves of quill fameflower (Phemeranthus teretifolius) and prickly cactus (Opuntia sp.). After I got home, I found references that elf orpine (Diamorpha smallii) blooms there in the spring, another outcrop special plant. 

It looks like a spring trip back to the park might be in order so that not only can I finish the Riverwalk Trail, but also spend time on the Flat Rock Trail as well. How wonderful that this area was protected!

Sunday, October 22, 2017

All the Painted Ladies

Despite the warm weather, nature knows that fall is coming. Leaves are quietly dropping, and each stray leaf still tricks my mind into thinking that a butterfly is fluttering by. A few are still flying, mostly Gulf Fritillaries and Cloudless Sulphurs. A couple of weeks ago, right after I wrote my wrap-up of 2017 butterflies, a new one came through – a Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui).

The ladies that I usually see are the American Lady (Vanessa virginiensis), a very similar butterfly that hosts on pussytoes and related plants. The Painted Lady is considered a visitor to Georgia while the American Lady is a resident. Although the butterflies look very similar, the Painted Lady uses different host plants, including mallow relatives. It’s amazing they can look so similar and yet use different plants.

American Lady
Painted Lady

I never expected to see one, but this year’s Painted Lady population seems to have exploded. Reports of huge populations in the west (Nebraska, Colorado) are in the news. This species is another one of the butterflies that migrate for the winter, usually going to the southwest part of the United States.

I first saw this butterfly at the Riverwalk in Roswell on September 30th; several of them were nectaring on pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) in the wetlands (see picture on left). A friend mentioned that they’d had one of them visit and that got me thinking that maybe one had visited me too, just the week before.

Their behavior is slightly different from the American Lady: they have a rapid, erratic flight and are generally a bit skittish. Luckily, one came to visit just two days after my Roswell sighting, allowing me to add this species to my list.

Painted Lady

It's been a relatively good butterfly year, at least in terms of diversity. Many of my friends have also reported seeing zebra longwing butterflies just like I did.

And yesterday I saw two monarch butterflies on pansies at Lowes and another one at Home Depot. I had no idea that monarch butterflies would use pansies for nectar. I immediately picked up some that were neonic-free.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Aster Love

Symphyotrichum cordifolium
Move over mums, when it comes to providing late-season support for bees and pollinators, it’s asters that master the season! Stores are pushing out containers of pinched mums that have flowers covering the surface of the plant. They’re gorgeous but notice that you don’t see any insects, especially on the double-flowered forms which are so prevalent. If only more native asters were propagated for fall gardens that could use them as true perennials.

I wrote about asters five years ago (has it been that long?), and I still have the ones that I wrote about then, plus I’ve added a few more. The asters native to my area are mostly leggy perennials so no one’s gonna pinch them into a compact ball. They do look fabulous mixed in with other fall perennials like clumping goldenrods and warm-season native grasses like little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium).

Symphyotrichum puniceum
Native asters (Symphyotrichum sp.) also have another advantage over non-native Chrysanthemum. Native asters are host plants for 112 different species of butterflies and moths, making them the 2nd most used herbaceous host plant (number one is goldenrod (Solidago)). If you like to support butterflies and moths (or you like to feed the birds with caterpillars and seeds), add lots of asters.

Here are the asters blooming this week in my garden. The purple/blue asters include:  the large Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum), the smaller purple aster (S. patens), swamp aster (S. puniceum), heartleaf aster (S. cordifolium), Short’s aster (S. shortii), smooth blue aster (S. laeve), wavyleaf aster (S. undulatum), plus a hybrid of two natives, Symphyotrichum ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ my only one with a bushy habit.

When it comes to identifying asters, you have to employ all parts of the plant for clues - petal color alone won't do it. You also need to take note of the habit: different species can be found in wet places, dry sunny places, and part shade areas. I've also noticed that, among the species, there are those with bright yellow center (disk) flowers as well as many with tan disk flowers. The tan disk flowers usually turn a soft purple after a while. This coloring-changing disk flower characteristic is especially noticeable in the calico aster (S. lateriflorum) whose small flowers are clustered so close together.

Symphyotrichum cordifolium, tan centers
Symphyotrichum laeve, yellow centers

Symphyotrichum undulatum
Symphyotrichum shortii

The small white asters are heaven for the tiniest of bees and small skippers. They include: the delightfully bicolored calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum), the rice button aster (S. dumosum), smooth oldfield aster (S. racemosum), hairy oldfield aster (S. pilosum), and the now-more-distantly related white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata).

Symphyotrichum pilosum, note the hairy stems,
has fewer blooms in part shade 

S. pilosum blooms heavily in sun on roadsides in October
If you don’t have any native asters in your garden, check out a fall native plant sale near you and pick up a species or two. Already have some - get some more! You can even branch out to the goldenasters if you’ve got enough blue and white ones.  When it comes to aster love, you just can’t have enough.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Vitamin N (the book)

Many of us could use more vitamins, especially Vitamin Nature. I recently heard about Richard Louv’s 2016 book entitled “Vitamin N: The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life.” The title was intriguing and I wondered what practical advice he’d offer for people to get more nature into their life. You may recognize his name from the press about his book “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

From the beginning, I particularly like his statement of benefits to getting more nature: “The evidence indicates that experiences in the natural world may reduce the symptoms of ADHD, serve as a buffer to depression and anxiety, help prevent or reduce obesity and myopia, boost the immune system, and offer many other psychological and physical health benefits. Time spent in nature may also improve social bonding and reduce social violence, stimulate learning and creativity, strengthen the conservation ethic, and even help raise standardized test scores.”

Now I think we can agree that sounds like a bunch of good benefits! If only we had some help figuring out creative ways to get that dose of Vitamin N. The author describes this book as a handbook offering ‘over five hundred practical actions’ that can help do just that. The actions included are for children, for adults, for people with different abilities, in both urban nature and wilderness environments, and composed of both organized activities and independent play.

An anole in my garden
The book is divided into chapters but I’ll admit that I have a hard time describing the logic of what goes into each chapter. However, it doesn’t really matter as you can just dive right in. Each section contains ideas and most of them are great; they resonate with me because they are things I’ve done or considered myself. I am especially fond of chapter 3: the nature-rich home and garden. I have always espoused the idea that you can have lots of nature at home if you plan for it.

Inside each chapter, there are subsections (like “Explore Nearby Nature”) and a related group of suggestions. You can really open the book to any section and find ideas. The ideas can be as simple as going on a backyard bug hunt or plant safari which includes learning about which plants are native and which are not (that one is in chapter 3). I really appreciate his emphasis on learning and using native plants throughout the book.

The unexpected combinations of nature are an everyday delight in the garden;
false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea) and small aster yesterday

As the book continues, the ideas get bigger. They’re about involving the community, teachers, libraries, even considering nature-smart careers. It’s a handbook that you can grow with as well as one that helps grow you and yours into people that see nature, appreciate it, and learn to cherish it. A nine-page bibliography gives you plenty of other books to explore.

This is a great, practical book for everyone who wants to be more active in nature and encourage it with their children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or any child that you have the opportunity to coach. I’m definitely saving this one. We all could use more Vitamin N.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

If Not You, Then Who?

Our natural areas are shrinking. It’s not hard to spot new development all around us, sometimes repurposing previously developed areas but often tearing into undeveloped land. In my area, even ‘wild looking’ land may have been used for farming 100 years ago, but it has grown back with oaks, pines, native shrubs, wildflowers and grasses (along with a few non-native plants at the edges). It wasn’t perfect, but it was becoming all the critters had left.

Development creates residences and businesses that are swiftly replanted with non-native grasses, perennials, shrubs, and trees. The designers might throw in a native oak or maple, but these designs provide very few ecosystem services compared to what they replaced. Not only the services in the plant material (pollen/nectar/fruit/seeds/leaves) but in other services like: nesting areas in dense vegetation; water purification in dense roots and free-flowing streams; a feast of bugs for birds, reptiles and other insects; even decaying wood, snags, and rotting leaves for the critters that depend on those things.

We have the opportunity to make a difference. We can learn that a sweep of knock-out roses in our yard is not a replacement for the diverse set of vegetation that the bulldozer removed to make room for our house. Knock-out roses don’t support nearly as many insects or birds as native plants. Neither does a crape myrtle. 

We instinctively know that the company selling mosquito spraying contracts only cares about our money not whether bees die too. Throw that advertisement away!

Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum) is local to my area

We can take steps to learn what might have been growing in our area and what native vegetation might be suitable to add to our landscape. We can research where to get these plants, go obtain them, and plant them. We can do that.

Some of us might remember 1971. In that year, “The Lorax” was published by Dr. Seuss. It was a children’s book with a powerful message represented, I think, in this single quote:  "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not." 

Southeastern blueberry bee
This bee is the southeastern blueberry bee. It only forages on blueberries when they are in bloom in March and April. It completes its whole life cycle around this one type of plant - not roses, not crape myrtles, not geraniums. Blueberries are native shrubs that are found in almost every native woodland around me; there are wild ones on my property. They belong here and the bees need them. My landscape needs them and they need to be in landscapes throughout my county.

We can’t wait for someone else to care and for someone else to make the change. Butterfly populations are shrinking, fireflies and bees are fewer in number, therefore birds find fewer and fewer bugs to feed their babies. 

If not you, if not me, then who? It’s time to care a whole awful lot … and spread the message.