Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017 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 as well as 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.

Buck on driveway
Just like January 2016, we saw snow in January 2017. I happened to be outside with the camera when this buck walked across the driveway. I also like the green frond of the Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) sticking up in the foreground.

In looking through my pictures from February of 2017, I find it amazing how many things were blooming then. There was red maple, spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and blueberry (Vaccinium sp.).

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) on Feb 10th

Question mark
In March, I was very surprised to spot a question mark butterfly fluttering around. This species overwinters as an adult. The adult is not dependent on flowers, feeding on tree sap, carrion, dung, and rotting fruit. You can read more about the butterflies I found in the garden in 2017 here.

April brought a welcome visit from two Monarch butterflies who laid eggs on my emerging milkweeds, one on April 10th and the second on April 13th. The butterflies were noticeably worn looking. I raised over 25 butterflies from those eggs, a success rate of just 50%. You can read about some of the perils for young insects in my blog on critters that lay enough eggs to get some to survive.

Monarch laying eggs on Asclepias incarnata milkweed

I found this gray tree frog in May near the pool. I often hear them in the evening but they are so good about hiding during the daylight hours. The pool does attract a unique set of critters, not all of which belong. During June I found several of these unusual bugs around and in the pool. After some research, I figured out they were dung beetles (Bolbocerosoma bruneri). Some were saved but some drowned before I found them (as clearly they are not meant to be in water).

Tree frog
Dung beetle (Bolbocerosoma)

July brought a surprise set of blooms from my spider lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis). I guess I hadn't been watching it for buds so the bright white flowers were a delight to find.

Hymenocallis occidentalis
Bee on Pycnanthemum

In my evolution as an amateur naturalist, bugs excite me just as much as flowers these days (you may have noticed). August is a great month for mountain mint flowers (Pycnanthemum sp.) so I like to hang out near it and photograph the pollinators that stop by.

This year was a super year for my Southern monkshood (Aconitum uncinatum) and it bloomed well into September. It even set seeds. I enjoyed noticing that the hummingbirds stopped by for nectar.

Aconitum uncinatum
Black and white warbler

I keep my windows pretty dirty but still a bird runs into them every now and then. In October I found this black and white warbler recovering in the potted plants on the deck. It flew off shortly after I took this picture.

Fall is a great time to find fungi and I found this one as I was chasing pictures of fall foliage in November. It looked like a sugar-coated pastry.

I've fallen into a routine of visiting my dad in Virginia in December. During this year's visit, we visited Jamestown, VA where there is a reconstructed fort area depicting how it might have looked in 1607. Unlike the decorations we'd find in nearby Williamsburg, the holiday decorations were true to what they would have found there naturally. This one was composed of American holly (Ilex opaca), Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), and pine.

I wish you a Happy New Year, full of beautiful and productive encounters with our native wonders. For more pictures, you can also follow me on Instagram:

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas in Dixie

Juniperus virginiana
Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, evergreen plants and decorations in the home and the landscape are a welcome sight in the South.  Evergreen trees and bright berries form the basis of these decorations, a delight to both humans and wildlife. Wildlife enjoy them in the garden, of course, using the plants for shelter and the berries for food.

Evergreen trees, particularly conifers, are the basis for many of the decorations whether they are the Christmas tree itself or the source of evergreen boughs and roping. Christmas tree farming produces a variety of trees available for cutting. One of the favorites is Fraser fir (Abies fraseri) which is not native to Georgia except in one high elevation county.    Other trees include sand pine (Pinus clausa), which is grown and sold in south Georgia, Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), white pine (Pinus strobus), and eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana). 

Unlike most of the other trees that require extensive grooming to produce the right “shape”, eastern redcedar (which despite the name is really a juniper!) naturally produces a pleasing Christmas tree shape. It also has a wide native distribution, from southeastern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and east of the Great Plains. A southern form, Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola, is native to coastal areas.

Juniperus virginiana
Our native junipers have interesting features.  Juniperus virginiana has two different types of leaves (yes, needles are leaves). Juvenile leaves are needle-like while adult leaves are scale-like. Young trees will have only juvenile foliage, but some adult trees can have both types. The berry-like “fruits” are actually seed cones with fused, fleshy scales. Trees are usually dioecious so only female trees bear the cones.

While junipers provide excellent cover and food for birds, many farmers fight them. They are quick to sprout up in pastures, and they are the host plant for the cedar apple rust fungus. I had a chance to spot one of the galls on a local juniper this year – it was an amazing organism. 

Native junipers are more available in the nursery trade these days thanks to the introduction of cultivars like Juniperus virginiana 'Grey Owl' and ‘Burkii’. These plants make nice specimens and are certainly good for screening and wildlife shelter.

American holly (Ilex opaca)
Like red berries? Hollies are the major group of native plants appreciated for bright red berries in December.  There are a variety of species and forms to choose from – from dwarf shrubs to tall trees. American holly (Ilex opaca) is an evergreen tree as is yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria).  Yaupon holly also has dwarf forms (‘Nana’). 

Some of the deciduous hollies such as winterberry (Ilex verticillata) are used for floral arrangements.

Deciduous holly (Ilex decidua)

Other greenery that has been used through the years – but which I hope stays in the ground these days! – includes ground pine and ground cedar (Lycopodium spp.) and galax (Galax urceolata). Pine roping made from the branches of pine trees like loblolly pine (Pinus taeda) is very popular and still used today.

If you are in need of some holiday decorations or just like a bit of greenery growing in your yard in the winter, consider some of these plants. As native plants and evergreen plants, they provide benefits to birds in terms of food and shelter while they brighten your view.

Some of you may recognize the title of this post as the song title ‘Christmas in Dixie’ by the group Alabama. It is one of my favorites. You can listen to it on You Tube here. Note: this blog was originally published by me in 2012 on another website that no longer exists.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Wetlands - a Place for Water

Cattail (Typha latifolia)
You might think that is a strange title, but water really does need a place to go on its way to bigger places like rivers and oceans. Humans have spent much time draining wetlands, thinking they have a better use for that land. Places that hold water perform a special role: they help prevent floods as well as provide filtration services to clean water. They also provide habitat for birds, reptiles, and even mammals.

Two weeks ago I visited the Melvin L. Newman Wetlands Center, a part of the Clayton County Water Authority. This is a restored wetland which was used (i.e., drained) by humans for farming in the past. A well-constructed boardwalk trail loops ½ mile through an active wetland, giving visitors plenty of opportunities to see wetland-specific flora and fauna up close. The education center contains a big collection of educational materials, including stuffed animals and parts (like turtle shells). They have documented over 130 bird species alone at the center.

Trees that have died when
the wetlands were restored
Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum)

It takes special plants to live in a place like this. Depending on the amount of water in the wetland at any time (it varies), some plants’ roots may be dry, some may be moist, and some might be submerged entirely. Plants that can’t adapt to fluctuating water levels, especially being under water, will die. One of the trees here shows everyone how it adapts. The bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which was planted here, has small grows around it that look like stumps. They are called cypress knees, and they seem to help the tree because the trees don’t grow the knees in environments that aren’t so wet. Another wetland tree that has been added at Newman is Ogeechee lime (Nyssa ogeche), a relative of black gum.

Hibiscus seedpods and cattails (behind)
Cane (Arundinaria)

While these trees have been added as part of the wetland restoration in 1995, many plants that were already there are capable of this environment. We saw elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis), maples (Acer spp.), cane (Arundinaria spp.), and tag alder (Alnus serrulata). Many others have ‘moved’ in. You might ask how plants know when to move in. One way is via birds that fly from one wetland to another, depositing seeds when they poop. Wind and waterways are other sources. The wetland now has cattail (Typha latifolia), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), Hibiscus, arum (Peltandra spp.), cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) and many others. The center says that they burn the wetland occasionally; this practice might help some thrive more than others.

Invasive plant management is part of the job too. Plants like privet and Japanese honeysuckle are adaptable to wetland conditions too. The center is actively managing them. Aquatic weeds like parrot feather (Myriophyllum aquaticum), shown in these pictures as bright green growth in the water, flourish in the winter but are somewhat crowded out in the summer by the growth of other plants.

I learned several new things, including that the oily sheen you sometimes see on wetland water can be part of natural bacterial processes. We also saw a beautiful large black cherry (Prunus serotina) exhibiting the mature bark sometimes referred to as burnt potato chips.

Winged elm (Ulmus alata) was scattered about, easy to find with its yellow-green leaves and winged twigs.

Prunus serotina bark
Winged elm (Ulmus alata)

It was fun to spend a sunny fall day exploring this natural habitat. Birds chirped and flitted around us constantly. It’s obviously an environment that is well used by nature. I’m glad that humans are learning about the natural water filtration benefits as well. Understanding the many roles that wetlands play helps us to conserve and restore them to everyone’s benefit.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

December Snow

Snow-dusted blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
An early December snow arrived on Friday and we got 7-8 inches. It started out light, and I was as excited as every other person on Facebook, snapping pics of snow-dusted leaves in between work phone calls. 

When the evergreen mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) got too much snow, my husband and I gamely fashioned a crook to shake them off from afar - to keep them from snapping under the weight of the snow.

Vaccinium corymbosum early in the snow event

Still, the snow kept coming. We went out 3 more times to shake them off, the last time with a flashlight. As we stood back to check our work, I noticed a pine tree sinking slowly towards the ground. We stood back, helpless to do anything about it except watch in horror.

Then it snapped, crushing the plants in the front bed as it fell. It was too dark and still too snowy to do anything about that so we went back inside.

The pictures below are not black & white; that's how little color there was in the gray morning light.

Pine in front bed; Viburnum prunifolium took a direct hit

A tangle of broken branches in the front bed

Snow was still sprinkling come morning, and we shook the bushes again. A flash of blue sky appeared; the snow stopped, and the whole sky turned blue. By 10:30, a robust melting made it look like it was snowing heavily. The birds nervously approached the bird feeder, startled whenever a clump of snow broke free from the branches.

A viburnum that won't bloom in spring; this branch
was broken in the crush; it was loaded with buds.
Juniperus virginiana

I spent the afternoon trimming up the fallen pines and freeing lanky shrubs trapped by snow. A large Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana) had snapped and spilled into the neighbor’s driveway. Fresh trimmings for holiday decor! Nope, I piled them on the brush pile to keep the critters warm.

So ends this unusual snow event for us. The plants should be fine, the front bed will get reworked come spring, and folks all over the area have been reminded why they don’t like snow.

Pretty view but this droopy pine later snapped too.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is dedicated to inspiring the conservation of native plants. I have used the plant database on their website ( for years. It contains over 9000 native plants, providing information on distribution, descriptions, growing conditions, propagation, benefits to wildlife, and more.

I never thought I’d have the opportunity to visit the center in person, but in late October I did.

Looking towards the Savanna Meadow Trail
Virginia creeper

Founded in 1982 by Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes, it was renamed in 1995 in honor of Lady Bird Johnson. It is located in Austin, TX in an area known as the Texas hill country. The grounds showcase plants that are native to Texas, of course. I was interested to see how the design of the center would present plants from throughout the state as well as exhibits that they have about using native plants. Some of the areas, such as the delightfully kid-friendly Luci and Ian Family Garden, are relatively new.

Symphyotrichum oblongifolium
Monarch on
Salvia farinacea

The gardens in October are a nice mix of fall blooms, fall fruit, and leaf color. One of the first things we did was climb the observation tower to get a view of the grounds. The tower has a nice Virginia creeper vine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) scrambling up the stones, festooned both in gorgeous foliage and ripe fruits. From the top, colorful sweeps of pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and purple aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) beckoned us back down to explore the gardens. Once down there, we found monarch butterflies visiting the flowers.

From there we struck out on the Savanna Meadow Trail. It was full of grasses and forbs in all stages, some blooming and some going to seed. We saw Texas shrubs like algerita (Mahonia trifoliata), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), cacti, fragrant sumac (Rhus trilobata), and trees like Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and the Texas live oak (Quercus fusiformis). There was so much to do that we didn’t take the time for the Arboretum Trail, choosing instead to explore the family garden.

A mature Texas live oak (Quercus fusiformis)
Quercus fusiformis

The family garden, opened in 2014, is a wonderful space. Kids can explore a flowing creek, a grotto, giant bird nest, a Fibonacci spiral, and all sorts of natural materials to climb on. From there we wandered into the adjacent woodland trail, enchanted by the sounds of huge wind chimes suspended in the large trees above us. The trail led us back to the central gardens where we found more butterflies in the pollinator garden, including queen butterflies.

The explorable flowing creek in the family garden

The grotto in the family garden
Throughout the gardens, we found excellent plant signage, beautiful use of natural materials for paths and seating, creative landscape design, and an abundance of insects and birds - even a squirrel dashed by in search of a tasty Texas oak acorn. It was awesome to be in a place that was truly demonstrating the beauty and landscape-worthiness of local native plants. I hope to go back and visit again one day.

Aqueduct leading to cistern
Queen butterflies