Sunday, March 25, 2018

Cultivating Children

I’m in a spring mood, an “everything is unfurling and fresh” mood, and a “thinking about children” mood. Recently, some friends and I visited an old friend’s garden and his great-grandson was there. This 5-year-old was excited to follow us around as we dug up things, pulled weeds, and pruned unruly growth. The experience reminds me – and I want to remind you – that we need to encourage children to explore, enjoy, and learn from nature. We need to cultivate them just like we cultivate our gardens.

Purple spotted butterfly caterpillar
The Vitamin N book that I read and profiled last year had great ideas for getting more involved in the natural world. Some of them are planned activities, but there are many spontaneous things we can do. Why, just walking to the mailbox can be a path to a discovery of bugs, fallen leaves, broken twigs, and all sorts of cool things.

If you need some ideas on what things might excite kids, here are a few that I scribbled down as we await the birth of our first grandchild in April:

Here in Georgia, we have ‘little brown jugs,’ which are the hidden flowers of Hexastylis arifolia. I will gently peel away the winter’s leaf litter to show these unusual flowers. Older kids would enjoy examining traditional flowers more closely to see why insects play a role in pollination (they help move the pollen from one part to another). Another lesson might be about pines and grasses and how they use wind pollination to get the job done.

Little brown jugs visible after leaves removed
Another spring topic is the magic of a seed sprouting: how nature packs just enough energy into a seed to get it started but then it uses its new leaves to get energy from the sun to grow more.

Ripe maple seeds ready to twirl down
The dispersal of seeds is a fascinating subject. From blowing dandelions to watching maple samaras twirl to the ground, the work of the wind is just one way that seeds get where they're going. Throw some seeds into a moving creek and talk about where the water will take them.

A cluster of berries is a good way to develop an interest in birds that eat fruit – and poop out the seeds - and talk about why little children don’t eat just any berries that they find!

Use the unfurling of a fern’s frond as a lesson in growth. Take a picture of it each day and compare how it changes from day to day. Perhaps use the photo to sketch a drawing.

Watch a bee visit a flower and get the pollen she needs for her babies (packed onto her legs). Later, research ‘bee bread’ with your youngster, to learn about how a female bee mixes pollen and nectar to make food for the bees that hatch. Focus on native bees, most of which create solitary nests for babies that grow up in the provisioned cell their mom made for them. We need more children growing up with an appreciation for our native bees.

A female bee gathers pollen and nectar on her legs

Any time of year, get down on the ground and find the many bugs and critters that work our soil: earthworms and roly-poly bugs plus many more. Find them under rocks, under leaves, even under the pots of plants on your porch. You don’t have to go far to find these guys. Talk about how their job is to eat the dead leaves and other plant debris, pooping out fertilizer packets for the plants to use. Without their services, we'd be up to our eyeballs in dead plant material. They also are food for birds like robins, Eastern towhees, and our state bird, the brown thrasher.

During the summer, find caterpillars and research what they become. Will it be a moth or a butterfly? If you can’t figure it out by an internet search (I usually type: ‘yellow caterpillar with black dots’ or a general basic description), create a free account on and upload your picture.

There are so many things in nature to inspire kids. Step outside and see where it takes you. If you’re stumped, let them start the topic and take it from there. We need more kids who understand that nature is a thing, is an important thing, and is something that we need to take care of. In addition, research increasingly shows that time spent in nature is good for our mental health and well-being.

So get out there and cultivate some kids - yours or otherwise. It'll do us all a lot of good.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


After 15 years, it is amazing that it is possible, but I found another surprise in my woodland recently. While I have found elm (Ulmus sp.) seedlings before, I have never noticed a mature elm in the area. The seedlings were enough to be noticeable but not so many that they were a nuisance so I forgot after a while.

Pile of elm seeds 

A few weeks ago, I was performing my spring trillium-hunting ritual when I noticed small green seeds among the leaves on the ground. I took a picture of them and send it to Scott Ranger, a very knowledgeable friend in the Georgia Botanical Society. He replied that they were the samaras of winged elm (Ulmus alata). I’ve seen winged elm on several hikes with the Society.

I decided to try to find the tree, which must surely be located on my property. Binoculars in hand, I scanned the treetops for trees that appeared to have something going on, growth-wise, but didn’t find it (I did find a lot of maples in flower).

Ulmus alata twig
Winged elm (Ulmus alata) samaras

The next day, I wandered over to my neighbor’s yard to look at something and realized that his driveway was full of elm samaras! Looking up, I found the tree. It was big, and the top branches were still full of green samaras. The tree is right on the property line, growing on the side of a creek that runs through both properties.  The samaras were so interesting looking – with fuzzy hairs on the edges and a split tip. The small round seed is in the center.

Winged elm tree (Ulmus alata)
Ulmus alata bark

Fall twig of winged elm (not my yard)

I found a couple of broken twig tips to collect for photos. Just then my neighbor came out. We talked about the tree and the seeds. He said he’d like to grow some to replace some of the many trees that they’d lost recently (to disease, he said).

I told him that I’d pot up for him any seedlings that I might find in the woods this year (I’ll probably give him some other native seedlings too now that I know he’s interested).

Despite the name of this post, this tree is not a problem at all and I’m happy to have discovered it. It is a host plant for the Question Mark butterfly – a butterfly that I found in my yard last year for the first time. Now I know where it came from.

Also, all these samaras are tasty seeds for many birds and small critters. What a great find!

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Just Over The Line

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit a private 7-acre property in Tallahassee, FL that is naturally rich in Trillium underwoodii, one of the early blooming toadshade trilliums. This trillium species is native to south Georgia into Florida and Alabama. Tallahassee is south of the Georgia state line via GA 27 from Bainbridge or GA 319 from Cairo/Thomasville - it is just a cartographer’s squiggle away from being in Georgia. I paired the trip with a visit to Wolf Creek Trout Lily Preserve in the Cairo/Whigham area in Georgia.

Trillium underwoodii

The trip to the garden was arranged by the Georgia Botanical Society, an organization whose field trips extend the length and breadth of the state. I don’t always take the time (and my vacation days off from work) to go to the ones furthest away, but this particular trip was tempting. Coupled with the timing of a great trout lily bloom season at Wolf Creek, it seemed like the right time to go see both.

Love the blue of Phlox divaricata
Zephyranthes atamasca

We were treated to a number of spring-blooming plants in the front of the property: woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), Atamasco lilies (Zephyranthes atamasca), trilliums of several species, and toothwort (Cardamine sp.), among others. Even here, spring was yet to be in full bloom, with a number of heavily budded native azaleas scattered throughout. Around the back, however, one azalea dared to risk it: a tall Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens) held its open, fragrant flowers high for all to admire.

Fragrant Rhododendron canescens
Baby beech with seed still attached

Before we moved into the woodlands, we stopped to talk under a canopy of tall trees. Seedlings of American beech (Fagus grandifolia) were all around our feet, and I was delighted to find a few just emerged, wearing like a hat the outer shell of the seed from which they sprouted! You can still see the two embryonic leaves (or cotyledons) that demonstrate that American beech is a dicot.

Into the forest we walked, single file, admiring the numerous Trillium underwoodii around us on both sides. This trillium species is naturally occurring on the property and their shapes and sizes varied as expected with a large population: short, tall, wide, skinny. The patterns on the leaves changed a bit but consistently presented the silver stripe down the center for which this species is known (yes, there are other differences but for the average person, the stripe helps). I had spent the previous day looking at Trillium maculatum at Wolf Creek and so was anxious to compare the two. Here is a good trillium reference that I saved from a 2010 presentation by Tom Patrick, perhaps the best trillium expert in Georgia (and he was with us for this trip).

We passed over one of the property’s creeks and saw a unique site: a flowering chokeberry that still had one of last year’s fruits.  The area also had flowering leatherwood shrubs (Dirca palustris) and dimpled trout lilies (Erythronium umbilicatum). As we got deeper into the woods, we passed huge southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora). It was wonderful to see these trees in their natural range.

Unfortunately, the path wasn’t all smiles – I got to see firsthand the struggle folks in this area have with coral ardisia (Ardisia crenata), a horribly invasive woodland shrub that makes thick colonies and spreads by fruit and roots. Several folks pulled up plants along the way but we were hardly making a dent in the population overall.

As we finished up our visit, Dan Miller pointed a large, single-leaved trillium. He said that he called this a ‘dead-end’ trillium. Over the years he had watched trilliums like this develop single leaves that get bigger and bigger but never develop into the next stage of growth (3 leaves).

We also found several examples of trilliums with more than 3 leaves (4-6 instead of 3) but still always with a single flower. It was a fun trip learning more about this beautiful trillium.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Perennial Favorites

Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia)
Nevermind the calendar, spring is already here this year. Did someone say that General Beauregard Lee (Georgia’s favorite groundhog) predicted 6 more weeks of winter? Perhaps he was just being safe after being wrong several times. Anyway, early spring or not, many of us are thinking about what we’d like to add to the garden this year. Spring plant sales will be along soon enough, so here are some previous blogs of mine to get the ideas flowing. All posts are linked by underlined words (hotlinks); just click on them.

This post about favorite native spring perennials is mostly about spring ephemerals which bloom before the trees finish leafing out. Other posts about ephemerals include one on bluets, spring beauties, and bloodroot and another one about Georgia trilliums.  

A broader selection of spring perennials can be found in this post and there are several posts that focus on specific groups of plants:

Blue-flowering spring perennials
Native gingers
Violets in a range of colors
And the one that started it all for me: orange butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Can you see the Phlox paniculata under this butterfly?

We might as well think ahead to summer perennials too. They are usually found at the same sales. I've got a lot of posts about them, including a broad (but largely inadequate) post labeled 'summer perennials' - one post is never enough! I've since followed that up with a bunch of plant-specific posts:

Helianthus (Sunflowers)
Rudbeckia (Black-eyed Susans)
Silphium (Rosinweeds)
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum)

Goldenrods can behave and they are so good for late
summer and migrating butterflies

I also have blue-flowered summer perennials, hot flowers for hot days, and late summer yellow flowers.

That about brings us to fall. While you might not find fall flowers at this year's spring sales, you really should leave some room for them. So, stay with me here, and I'll give you a few more ideas:

Late season native flowers
Fall colors (flowers) in the native garden
Goldenrod - learn about the nice goldenrods and the late butterflies will thank you!

Finally, I have a few 'mixed' posts about perennials that might be of interests. These post may span all the seasons but have a common purpose in mind.

Native plants for butterfly and pollinator support (with printable lists for the 3 seasons)
Native lilies
Awesome easy native perennials (great for beginners)

You should have a nice big list by now. Happy shopping!