Sunday, April 29, 2018

Supporting Hummingbirds

Hummingbirds are back in North Georgia, and I’ve got a regular visitor or two at the feeder (is it just me or do all those females look alike?). The feeder is just a part of my support strategy; it’s a little something to make up for all the plants that have been paved over by humans. Plants are the most important part of my support because there’s research out there that hummingbirds get more of what they need from plant nectar.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) on a roadside chainlink fence

Hummingbirds come back to Georgia from their winter homes in Central America. Long before humans came along with sugar water feeders, the birds relied on the blooms of native plants. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the plants open up about the time that the birds are returning. The first of my hummingbird plants to bloom is coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens). It is native throughout Georgia and the southeastern US, perfectly in the path of returning migrants.

On coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens)

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia
Next to bloom is red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), a large part-shade shrub that is found in central Florida, south Georgia and up into the Piedmont. In the Piedmont, Georgia buckeye (A. sylvatica), also called painted buckeye, takes over, ensuring that the hummers have a statewide support of buckeye nectar.

Another family of early blooming shrubs includes the native azaleas (Rhododendron). Large, tubular flowers open in early April at my house on the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens). Several other species follow, finishing up in July/August with plumleaf azalea (R. prunifolium).

By the end of April, the large blooms of crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) are opening. Whether it is high up in the trees (like at my house) or on a fence or arbor, the hummingbirds know how to find them. The coral honeysuckle is still blooming at this point, so vines can be real winners. In the perennial garden, Eastern red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) is blooming.

Speaking of high up, the tulip-like flowers of tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) open in May. I usually only notice them once the spent blooms hit the ground. These trees can be very common around here, but they support a lot of wildlife!

Salvias and penstemons are my next wave of blooms, long enough to finish out the spring. Lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) is a perennial salvia blooming now. Scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) is an annual that starts later; it needs warm soil temps for the seeds to germinate. This is a good time to mention that hummingbirds don’t need red/pink flowers; they need flowers that have the right shape for them to access the nectar (usually a tubular flower). I have two penstemons, the purple Penstemon smallii blooms first, followed by the white Penstemon digitalis.

Scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma)
Also spanning the spring to summer threshold is wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). It will be joined in summer by two other species: scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma) and spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata). The butterflies and bees love these too, and it makes me happy to have one plant support so many critters.

The heat of summer is a thirsty time, and I keep an eye on the liquid level in the nectar feeder. Between the ants, the heat, and the thirst of the birds, I find it needs to be changed/refilled about every 3 ½ days. In the garden, cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is my strongest summer flower for hummingbirds. I also have skullcap (Scutellaria sp.) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum), and I have seen hummingbirds visit both of them.

Last year I had great luck attracting butterflies with summer phlox (Phlox paniculata), especially the long-blooming cultivar ‘Jeana.’ I hope the hummingbirds got a chance to enjoy the flowers too.

Malvaviscus arboreus
Hummingbird on thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Summer is also the time that my turk’s cap hibiscus (Malvaviscus arboreus) sneaks past the hungry deer and gets a chance to bloom. And somewhere, high up in the trees, a trumpet vine (Campsis radicans) blooms because I find the spent flowers on the ground.

If I had a shady wet spot, I’d try to cultivate the annual jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). I do grow turtlehead (Chelone glabra) in a few damp patches but I have not seen the hummingbirds visit those flowers (but the bumblebees love it). There are some sources that say they like it.

If you do have a liquid nectar feeder: be sure to keep it clean, cleaning it more often in warm weather; don’t use dyes to color the water, the color of the feeder will attract them; and use only refined white sugar when you make the nectar (it is the sweetener which is most like plant nectar of all the sweetener choices).

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Tallulah Gorge State Park

I have driven past Tallulah Gorge State Park many times on trips to the Great Smoky Mountains for family vacations and to the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference in the summers. Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to be in the area so we decided to finally visit the park.

Lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum)
I really didn’t know what to expect in terms of plants, but I had heard that there was an uncommon trillium here. We decided to visit the suspension bridge first so we headed to the North Rim Trail for overlook numbers 2 and 3 and the 310 steps that would lead to the bridge.

Along the way, we found lots of blooming lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum), and I had numerous opportunities to photograph these beautiful flowers throughout the park.

Once we hit the stairs, mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) was the attraction. The buds were some of the pinkest I’ve ever seen and several flowers were open (which seemed early to me as they usually bloom the first week of May at my place).

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)
Gaywings (Polygaloides paucifolia)

In the sunny spots, serviceberry blooms were quite abundant. I believe this species is Amelanchier arborea. At the bridge we also saw blooming paw paw (Asimina triloba). We crossed the bridge (which moves gently with you) and found a new surprise – brightly colored gaywings (Polygaloides paucifolia, formerly Polygala paucifolia). It was so pretty that the phrase “This is too pretty to be native” crossed my mind – my apologies, little flower!

The suspension bridge (photo taken from when we were on the North Rim)

From there we took the additional 221 steps down to Hurricane Falls (yikes, that will be over 500 steps back up!). We passed a sign for a champion hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), but it was hard to tell if it was still doing well. At the observation deck at the bottom, silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) was in bloom and saxifrage (Saxifraga) was growing in the rock cracks.

Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera)
Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea)

We successfully hiked back up and still had enough energy to backtrack along the North Rim Trail to Inspiration Point, passing the North Wallenda Tower along the way. Just past the interpretive center (which is very nice, by the way), we found a dry sunny area with huge clumps of blooming birdfoot violet (Viola pedata). Mountain laurel was blooming at the overlook there and we found a big common green darner dragonfly resting there.

Common green darner dragonfly
Birdfoot violet (Viola pedata)

Near the fallen Wallenda Tower, I found a very large population of the gaywings again. We continued on to Inspiration Point, passing huge populations of the low blueberry again. I imagined that in good years there would bears roaming through, feasting on the fruits.  The trail offered dizzying views of the gorge along the way, and I can’t say that the last overlook at Inspiration Point was any better but you were right on the edge!

Edna's Trillium (Trillium persistens)

In all of our hiking we did actually find Edna’s Trillium (Trillium persistens), but I won’t mention where. I was amazed that I found it without actually looking.

Finding it and the gaywings – both new to me - made the trip extra special. I think there would be plenty more to explore for a second trip to the park one day.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Milkweeds in Georgia

For several years now we’ve heard how monarch butterfly populations are plummeting (as measured in their winter locations). There may not be a single cause, but there has been a decline in milkweed populations in the US and milkweed (Asclepias spp.) is the plant on which female monarch butterflies lay their eggs. Gardeners and communities have responded to their plight by planting more milkweed in their gardens and in places where wildflowers are allowed to grow (e.g., roadsides, interstate rest stops).

Roadside monarch butterfly on Asclepias tuberosa

Native plant sales had a hard time keeping up with the demand initially, but milkweed is generally available now at spring sales. Milkweeds are not the earliest plants to emerge in the spring, however, so it can still be a challenge for the early April sales to provide plants that people want to buy. Chattahoochee Nature Center (CNC) in Roswell – which is not far from me – has particularly risen to the challenge and has propagated over 50,000 milkweed plants over the last four years. Director of Horticulture Henning von Schmeling (and the center’s very talented propagator) shared some details on what they’re growing.

CNC’s large-scale production currently is focused on Asclepias tuberosa (three varieties), Asclepias incarnata (2 subspecies), and a good amount of Asclepias amplexicaulis. Species they are growing for seed production or small-scale restoration include: Asclepias verticillata, variegata, exaltata, quadrifolia, hirtella, purpurascens, rubra, viridis, michauxii, obovata, viridiflora, longifolia, lanceolata, perennis, connivens, and humistrata. They hope to collect seeds this year from Asclepias cinera, tomentosa, and pedicillata if they can find viable Georgia populations.

Where have those 50,000 plants gone? Many were planted at the Nature Center itself or sold in their plant sales. Thousands of plants went to several seed production plots in the state. Many were used for projects or for sales through other groups: 2 large beautification projects along The Ray near LaGrange (Henning says the pollinator meadow installed at the visitor center coming into GA on 85 was gorgeous last fall; there were at least 12 species of butterflies there on one visit); Atlanta Botanical Garden; State Botanical Garden; a private restoration company; GADNR non-game, Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance; Georgia Native Plant Society; Monarchs Across Georgia; Captain Planet Foundation; Keep Cobb Beautiful; Easter Plantation; Chattahoochee River NRA; and The Nature Conservancy.

If your head is swimming with all those milkweed possibilities, a new publication is available for people to better understand which of the many species of milkweed are appropriate not just for Georgia but for your area of Georgia. The publication is called Monarch Butterflies & Georgia’s Gardens, and it is available on the State Botanical Garden’s website. The brochure was created with the knowledge and efforts of the best milkweed experts in Georgia, and it is now the premier source of information that anyone in Georgia should consider. Here is a summary of the species mentioned.

The fab four: these four milkweed species grow in nearly every region and can be used throughout the state: orange milkweed, commonly called butterfly weed: Asclepias tuberosa; white milkweed, or red-ring milkweed: Asclepias variegata; whorled milkweed: Asclepias verticillata; and clasping milkweed: Asclepias amplexicaulis.

Asclepias verticillata
Asclepias variegata

The terrific trio for North Georgia: an additional 3 milkweed species are good for North Georgia landscapes: swamp milkweed: Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra (which may be sold as Asclepias incarnata); mountain milkweed, also called poke milkweed: Asclepias exaltata; and four-leaf milkweed: Asclepias quadrifolia.

Asclepias incarnata var. pulchra
Asclepias quadrifolia

Monarch lays eggs on
Asclepias exaltata in my garden

The brochure also includes a list of native milkweed species by ecoregions, a list of rare/threatened/endangered milkweeds in Georgia, and it answers the question of whether using two milkweed species not found in Georgia is ok (spoiler alert: it’s not ok).

It provides a list of places to buy milkweed in Georgia as well. It’s really a very well-done effort to educate Georgians about milkweed and helping monarch butterflies.

The monarch butterfly is but one example of the special relationship between insects and native plants. I hope that those who are inspired to help monarch butterflies will be further inspired to help other butterflies as well by researching and planting their host plants.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Mushrooms of the Georgia Piedmont (the book)

If you thought we had a lot of native plants, wait until you hear how many mushrooms and fungi we have! I love to find new mushrooms as I explore the natural areas looking at flowers; they are always a fun surprise. However, I’m often puzzled as to which ones they might be, and I certainly am never confident enough to consider eating one. A new regional book is now available to help us all learn more: it is Mushrooms of the Georgia Piedmont & Southern Appalachians by Mary Woehrel and William Light.

The hardcover book is thick and quite detailed. The first sixty pages are devoted to a thorough, and often illustrated, introduction to a more than basic understanding of what mushrooms and fungi are, where they fit into scientific classification, some important information on toxins and poisonous mushrooms, a nice overview of medicinal properties, and tips on collecting and identifying mushrooms in the wild. 

This book is a solid reference for any level of enthusiast. Of course, it wouldn’t be a modern book without including as references some of the better online sources available.

Morel mushroom
Coral mushroom

The rest of the book encompasses almost 600 pages of species accounts, organized by group. As thick as this book is, the authors acknowledge that it doesn’t cover all of the several thousand species found in this area. The familiar ones are there: morels, puffballs, stinkhorns, and chanterelles to name a few. The ones new to me had exciting names: carbonaceous fungi, Earth tongues, hydnoids, and corticoids (cedar-apple rust is an example of a corticoid).

Cauliflower mushroom (looks like a brain!)
Reishi (Ganoderma lucidum)

The photos are good but the words far outweigh the pictures. Each species featured has descriptive information on the cap, flesh, gills, stipe, spore print, chemical staining, microscopic details, occurrence, edibility, and comments that can run half a page! I’ve seen plant reference books with less detail per species.

Amanita mushroom (bulbous base)
Russula mushroom (gills are important
identifiers on mushrooms)

I’ve used the book to identify fungi that I’ve seen before and to identify something new (witches butter and devil's urn).  It’s a lot to read at once, but I look forward to digesting a group at a time to better understand this incredible category of the natural world. If you’re in the Piedmont ecoregion, you might consider investing in this excellent reference book.

Devil's urn fungi grow adjacent to a fallen branch in my woods

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Native Plants Make a Difference (no fooling!)

Tiny Anemone quinquefolia
Plants are plants are plants, right? They all make oxygen – check! Many of them have pretty flowers for bees and butterflies – check! Some of them make fruit for birds – check!

So what is the big deal about native plants? Why should we have to look harder to find these darn native plants when the nurseries and the big box stores have oxygen-making, flowering, and fruiting plants for our yards?

The reason that native plants make a difference is that, in study after study, research demonstrates that non-native plants don’t support pollinators and birds on an equal scale with native plants.

Let’s start with birds. The worst news is that the fruit of non-native nandina (Nandina domestica) can kill cedar waxwings that gorge on it (and gorging is one of their natural feeding behaviors). At least two reported incidents have been documented (including this one in 2017 near Atlanta) but certainly there would be some unreported deaths as well. Even for non-poisonous berries, the nutritional value of the non-native fruit can be lower than the value of the native plants it replaced.

American plum (Prunus americana)

Fruits of the non-native buckthorn – which creates dense competitive thickets, displacing native fruit plants – are lower in fat, requiring migrating birds to eat more of them. The same is true in Georgia for privet (Ligustrum sp.). Some studies have shown that, in areas where both native and non-native fruits are present, birds eat the native fruits first. Other studies report increased amounts of birds of concern in suburban yards that have more native plants.

The bad news continues for birds, however, and here is where insects are affected as well. Insects in your area didn't evolve with non-native plants so butterflies and moths can rarely use them as host plants. As a result, populations of those insects decline (you've heard about the monarch butterfly's decline in population, right?). In addition, all the birds that feed caterpillars to their babies have to work harder in an area with non-native plants to find food for them (and usually they create fewer nests). From this article about buckthorn (again, a similar invasive to Georgia's privet infestations):

Buckthorn and other exotic plant species can take over a plot of land, squeezing out native plants. Insects with plant-specific diets might find their necessary plants disappearing or gone.
If parent birds hunt buckthorn or certain other invasive shrubs for nestling food, they could be wasting time and energy. If near-nest vegetation is buckthorn-heavy, for instance, the parents must fly farther and work harder at procuring food.
Studies have shown that thickets colonized by exotic plants have fewer songbirds, and those birds had lower reproductive success. Birds that do choose to nest in such areas needed larger territories to support successful nesting. That can increase territorial competition and/or mean fewer nesting birds in a given area.
Southeastern blueberry bee on blueberry
In addition to the insects that depend on foliage to eat, other insects are affected by the flowers available. Some insects, bees particularly, can be floral specialists. The spring beauty bee and the Southeastern blueberry bee both depend on specific native flowers.

So, stop fooling the birds and native insects and get what they really want. Native plants make a significant difference when it comes to supporting our pollinators and birds.

We are in the middle of the season of spring native plant sales. Get out there and get some native plants!