Sunday, February 25, 2018

As Far As The Eye Can See

Erythronium umbilicatum
In 2009, I heard about a place in south Georgia with an amazing population of dimpled trout lilies (Erythronium umbilicatum). A fundraising effort was underway to help save the place from being developed. Private donations and a matching grant from the Georgia Land Conservation Program eventually raised enough to preserve the place now known as Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve. It is located in and owned by Grady County, on Wolf Creek Rd between Cairo and Whigham.

This is now the largest known population of this species and the plants are estimated to number in the tens of millions. How did this population come to be? From their website:

The huge colony at Wolf Creek is considered to be a product of a phenomenon called Pleistocene refugia. Thousands of years ago, as the Southern climate became warmer and the glaciers retreated north, some colonies of what are now more northern plants remained in locations that were suited to them. Apparently, Wolf Creek is an ideal environment, as this is the largest expanse of dimpled trout lily known anywhere. There are many millions of the plants at Wolf Creek covering over 10 acres. A square foot may have 100 plants. The slope is north-facing, the canopy mostly hardwoods and spruce pine with a heavy layer of leaf litter, the pipe clay under the soil's surface must hold just the right moisture in winter, when the plants emerge and grow. The gray pipe clay or Fuller's earth is dense and plastic. Moisture cannot penetrate through it, so the water flows downhill over the clay layer, holding the moisture above it. At Wolf Creek the clay is only six inches to two feet under the surface of the soil.

I was familiar with trout lilies because they are indigenous to the county in which I live in north Georgia. Our populations are attractive but no one could ever consider them to be a ‘carpet,’ which how this southern population was described. I put a visit to the Preserve on my “someday” list and kicked the can down the road for the next 8 years. This year, word got out that the bloom season was shaping up to be pretty spectacular, and the pictures shared on Facebook were mighty tempting.

Dimpled trout lilies (Erythronium umbilicatum)

As you can guess, I finally went there. The trout lily spread encompasses about 15 of the 140 acres of the Preserve. You can stand in place and look all around you – the tiny bright yellow blooms stretch out for as far as you can see. It really is amazing to be able to see so much of one plant in place (besides our suburban lawns!). Here is a link to a video that I took with my phone.

I was fortunate to arrive when Dan Miller was the volunteer leading a tour. Dan was one of several instrumental folks who helped to secure this place and is a very knowledgeable botanist. Dan told us how volunteers have worked for years to remove invasive plants like privet. They have also created trails, maps, and excellent signage. Many different plants were labeled for visitors, from the tiny southern tway-blade orchid (Listera australis) to the towering trees such as American elm (Ulmus americana), Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), spruce pine (Pinus glabra), American beech (Fagus grandifolia), and several different oaks. 

Listera australis
Trillium maculatum

Bee on trout lily
Vaccinium elliottii

It was a pleasure to be able to learn about the native plants of this area through the signage: two different palms are on site, Elliott’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliottii) was abundant, and spotted wakerobin (Trillium maculatum) sprinkled itself through the trout lilies. One path led us right past the unusual green fly orchid (Epidendrum magnoliae). Dan said the volunteers plan to expand the trails further through the property in the future. Although not yet visible, many other special plants bloom throughout the year here.

As with any large population, it's fun (and possible ) to find plants that are a little unusual. I found a white trout lily and a spotted trillium with a paler flower color.

The flowers are now finished for the year, but I hope you'll consider a trip next year. Maybe we can ride together.

Erythronium umbilicatum
Trillium maculatum

Sunday, February 18, 2018

A Celebration of Trees

We just rolled through another Arbor Day in Georgia, and I hope you all had a chance to plant a tree, or thank a tree, or simply appreciate the many services that trees provide to humans, insects, and critters. I’ve written about the importance of trees in previous Arbor Day posts. If you need a refresher on what they do for us, click on one of these links and immerse yourself:

Or perhaps you know all about how wonderful they are and want to dive into learning about some specific wonderful trees. Well, I’ve got plenty of those posts too!

Black cherry (Prunus serotina): A Perfect Plant for Birds in Georgia
American Beech (Fagus grandifolia): Great Georgia Trees: American Beech
Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea): Good Growth, Gorgeous Giant
Serviceberry (Amelanchier): A Tree for You and the Birds
The Cedar that Isn't (Juniper virginiana)
Native magnolias: Magnolias Southern Style
Hawthorns: Number 12
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba): Wild Fruit
Redbud (Cercis canadensis): Peas on a Tree

Or perhaps you’d like to consider some trees by a general category or characteristic. Check these out:

Spring tree alternatives (to non-native trees)
Double duty trees: trees that have more than one season interest
Evergreen trees (for that ugly spot)
Parking lot maple trees (they can handle tough conditions)
Parking lot oaks are tough too: Part 1 and Part 2
Some of the oaks I've seen in Georgia: visitors and residents

Find a tree that works for you and for the goals you have for your landscape and PLANT IT!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Gardening for Wildlife: Simplified

Four things to consider makes it simple. What if someone created a book in the popular book trend: Gardening for Wildlife for Dummies. None of us are dummies, of course, but the principles of gardening for wildlife can be outlined so that the concept is less intimidating. Wildlife is waiting for us to give it a little support, to take a bit of the negative pressure off so that it can thrive.

First of all, let’s define wildlife for the purposes of this post. Wildlife includes birds, butterflies, bees, plus other native insects, mammals, and critters that live in the soil and water like worms, beetles, frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, newts, snakes. Basically all native critters besides us!

Here are the main principles that you would find in my dummies book if such a thing existed (thanks to my husband James for the cover mock-up, using one of my pictures from last year):

  1. Plant more native plants.
  2. Stop using pesticides.
  3. Leave natural materials on your property.
  4. Provide sources of water and shelter.
That’s it! Just four things to consider: 3 things to do and 1 thing to stop doing. I'll cover them in a bit more detail.

Plant more native plants than most of your neighbors. Have your landscape be above average when it comes to native plant usage. Shrink your lawn, get rid of your crape myrtles and Asian elms, and plant native flowers that bloom throughout the year. Do your research and be mindful of what you plant: regionally appropriate plants, host plants for local butterflies and moths, good nectar source plants, and plants that make seeds or berries for birds (remember that not all birds eat berries).

There are 2 purposes for providing native plants for wildlife as a food source:
  1. Flowers provide food for pollinators in the form of nectar and pollen, later they turn into seeds or berries for birds and small critters. Plant flowers that bloom throughout the year.
  2. Plant foliage is food for herbivores such as the larvae of butterflies and moths. Some of these larvae/caterpillars become food for birds.
Seasonal blooms - Spring: Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis); Summer: Phlox paniculata 'Jeana'; Fall: goldenrod (Solidago sp.)

Stop using pesticides. The natural world has a food chain where one critter usually eats another one. The tiniest of aphids are food for ladybug larvae and other insects; small songbirds, tiny hummingbirds, and lizard/anoles eat them to some extent. If you spray them with insecticide then anything that eats them will ingest the poison.  Explore other ways to reduce high populations of unwanted bugs until wildlife can catch up: spray them with a hose or squish them with your fingers. Hold a bucket of soapy water under Japanese beetles and tap them; they usually react by dropping to the ground (or into your bucket!).

Birds eat bugs! Photo copyright Romin Dawson

Leave natural materials on your property as much as possible: the leaves that fell from your trees, dead limbs, tree snags if they are in a safe area. Dead plant material provides several ways to support native insects and birds.

  • Dead logs are shelter places for lizards and salamanders, homes for beetles and wood-boring bees.
  • Dead leaves shelter over-wintering butterflies and moths, as well as being a source of food for many decomposers like worms. 
  • Dead branches support lichens and fungi which in turn are sources of food for others. Pile them up in brush piles in inconspicuous places and let small birds and chipmunks take shelter there.

Adult Question Mark butterflies hibernate
in natural areas
Question Mark that I found in March was
an adult that stayed over the winter

Brown-headed nuthatches nest in dead pines
Provide sources of water and shelter. A source of water might be as simple as a birdbath that you keep clean. It could be a stream or pond on your property. Shelter sources could be bird boxes, evergreen trees and shrubs, tree snags for woodpeckers and other cavity dwelling birds like the brown-headed nuthatch. When the leaves fell off your plants, did you find bird nests hidden in the branches? Birds love a thicket so consider some shrubs that grow densely even if they are not evergreen.

So now you have some basic principles about gardening for wildlife – just four things to consider. Here’s one more thing that gardening for wildlife doesn’t have to be: it doesn’t have to be messy or untidy. Incorporate these principles however you wish, in the front yard as well as the backyard (although you may want to save the brush pile for the back). Even the National Wildlife Federation no longer calls your certified garden a ‘backyard wildlife habitat’ – it is now more broadly called ‘wildlife habitat.’

Disclaimer: This is not a real book; this is a mocked up cover with one of my photos. 

Sunday, February 4, 2018

A Look at February

Roundleaf Hepatica is the first to bloom
February is a mixed month for those of us in North Georgia, akin to having a foot in winter and a foot in spring. Chilly nights often give way to warm days with bright blue skies. The chance of a snow event is lower than in January but don’t count it out. Non-native daffodils poke out of the leaf litter but so do native perennials like liverwort (Hepatica), trout lily (Erythronium), and bloodroot (Sanguinaria).

Looking through the years, my February topics usually include 3 things: celebrating Georgia’s Arbor Day, appreciating my local birds for the Great Backyard Bird Count, and gushing over early spring flowers. Here are some posts that are just as timely in 2018 as they were then.

White oak (Quercus alba)
Arbor Day is celebrated in Georgia on the third Friday in February. That is a very good time for planting a tree in Georgia. Trees are one of my very favorite categories of plants so I’m always happy to talk about why we should plant trees for the future.

The Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) is a wonderful citizen science project that helps contribute local data about bird populations while also helping us recognize what is sharing this little piece of land with us. I’ve got a post from 2012 and another from 2014 to explore. I hope you’ll be inspired to count this year from Friday, February 16, through Monday, February 19, 2018. This is their 21st year of the count.

In between the trees and birds, take some time in February to look for emerging plants and flowers. If you'd like to get your spring on early, read some of these previous February posts:

In addition to looking for flowers, you can appreciate the buds of woody plants as they swell in preparation for opening their leaves and flowers. Some of them are beautiful in their own way, allowing us to be amazed at all that nature does in order to deliver the year's new growth.

While you're looking for swollen buds, keep an eye out for other signs of spring. This is a late January post on things to notice that remind us of the promise of spring.

Caulophyllum thalictroides
Erigenia bulbosa at The Pocket

Perhaps you'd like to find places to see early flowers, even in February. Last year I wrote about my visit to the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail in Walker County. The Trail had plenty of beautiful flowers by the last week of February. I might have to repeat that trip.

Finally, if you're ready to start making lists of plants to get at the spring plant sales, this blog is about some of my favorite spring perennials to use in the garden and has some good ideas for your list of things to add to your landscape.

Claytonia virginica
Trillium cuneatum