Sunday, June 24, 2018

Unplanting for the Pollinators

We’re wrapping up National Pollinator Week. We focus so much on “planting” for pollinators, but there are times when we should be removing plants in order to support our pollinators. You ask, “How could removing plants possibly help our pollinators, don’t they need the plants to survive?”

The answer is “Yes, they do need plants to survive.” They need specific plants to survive in most cases. The poster insect for this point is the monarch butterfly which needs milkweed (Asclepias) plants to survive. The adult butterfly can nectar on many plants, but without milkweed for the baby caterpillars, the monarch will not survive as a species.

The same is true for thousands of Lepidoptera species (butterflies and moths). These insects have evolved with plants from their local ecosystem and depend on them for food. Likewise, pollinators like bees have plants that they evolved with: short and long-tongued bees nectar on specific groups of plants. Some bees build their egg tunnels in specific perennials and, should those plants diminish, may not be able to adapt in time to new plants.

Kudzu flower in a sea of leaves
Ok, back to the 'unplanting' – when should we do this? When non-native plants outnumber the native plants then biodiversity starts to go down. An extreme example is when kudzu, that rampant vine from Asia, overpowers an area until it is the only visible plant. The dozens of different plants – annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees – that lived there are gone.

Butterflies and moths and bees and birds now only have one plant in that spot. Most of them will leave. And their populations will dwindle as they adjust their birthrate to the reduced amount of food.

You would be surprised at people that just let kudzu (or other invasive) grow. They might beat it back a bit to keep the fence clear. Yet kudzu is not the worst offender. There are plants which have taken over more acreage than kudzu ever will. Sneaky plants that people don’t recognize but which are just as unpalatable to North American insects as kudzu would be. Plants that reduce the populations of the native plants that our pollinators need to thrive (and survive). In my area, Japanese honeysuckle and Asian privets have choked out many thousands of acres, especially along sensitive waterways.

English ivy in residential area; foliage also holds water and mosquitoes

How shall we deal with this? We need to be aware, we need to remove them, and we need to educate people responsible for areas that become infested. Parks and roadways are prime areas for plants to move in and overpower the native plants. Ignorance and neglect are the friends of invasive species!

The good news for large areas is that often just the removal of the pest plants will give native roots and seeds a chance to sprout and grow. Native plants can rebound. In severely degraded areas, replanting may be required.  Each situation needs careful consideration of the site-specific conditions.

Got milkweed? Monarch on Asclepias tuberosa

A tiny carpenter bee works the equally
tiny flowers of mountain mint
(Pycnanthemum ternuifolium)
Check your yard for the balance of native and non-native plants and consider how it really supports pollinators, not just their adult form, but their larval form and nesting needs too. Once we have restored a balance by 'unplanting' some of the non-native plants and incorporating regionally native plants, we can better support our pollinators again.

I wrote one of my favorite blogs on Pollinator Week in 2011 and you are welcome to read it here. It has lots of plant suggestions.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Georgia Lilies

Our native lilies are so beautiful and exotic that I’m never surprised when someone questions whether they are native to the U.S. (you see, some people still think that native plants must be drab plants, that’s why they buy foreign ones in a store). We have six species of native lilies in Georgia and this post is dedicated to them.

Lilium michauxii, 2009 in my garden
Lilium superbum, Blue Ridge Parkway

The first native lily that I ever saw is Michaux’s lily (Lilium michauxii). It is indigenous to my county and we found it on a plant rescue once. Also called Carolina lily, it is found in the Carolinas and all of the southeastern states. Its bright colors and dramatic petals are worthy of the highest admiration. I soon became aware of the similar-looking turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum). It would be some time before I’d get a chance to see it in the wild. The towering plants that I found on the Blue Ridge Parkway left no doubt as to why someone might call this the superb lily!

Lilium canadense from Debbie M.

Lilium canadense ssp. editorum from Karen M.
The next lilies that I saw were gifts from friends. The Canada lily (Lilium canadense) is an easy-growing species that happily grows into a small colony, especially in areas with good moisture.  There are several different forms of it so when I came into possession of what was thought to be Michigan lily, it turned out to be Lilium canadense ssp. editorum.

Lilium michiganense; Photo: R&T Ware

Richard Ware of the Georgia Botanical Society corrected that id and has kindly provided me with a photo of Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense) to share. Native only to Floyd County in Georgia, it has deeply reflexed tepals and rich, red color. Like the turk’s cap and Canada lilies, Michigan lily usually produces multiple flowers per plant.

Wood lily (Lilium philadelphicum) is found only in two counties in NW Georgia. The shortest of our Georgia lilies, which I photographed in Dade County, was not even knee high in full sun. A nearby one in partial shade was taller as it reached for the sun. The tapered tepals give this lily a dramatic look.

Lilium philadelphicum

Lilium catesbaei; Photo: R&T Ware

The last of the six lilies also has tapered tepals. Catesby’s lily (Lilium catesbaei) is native to the Coastal Plain; it is also called pine lily. This is another one that I have not seen in person. Richard and Teresa Ware have also provided one of their photos for me to share. Similar to Michaux’s lily and wood lily, the pine lily may only have one flower per plant and the size is 2-3 feet tall.

You may encounter non-native lilies naturalizing near where humans have planted them. The Philippine lily (Lilium formosanum) and the Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) are similar looking white lilies that might be near homes or in cemeteries. The tiger lily (Lilium lancifolium) has orange flowers and distinctive dark aerial bulbets in the leaf axils. Some people mistake this one for turk’s cap lily but the foliage is different enough even when not in flower to distinguish them.

I hope you enjoyed getting to know Georgia's lilies. For a broader look at Georgia's native plants in the lily family (Liliaceae), check out this previous post of mine.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Growing Butterflies in the Woods

Pipevine swallowtail in my yard, 2017
The pipevine swallowtail butterfly is a beautiful dark butterfly that is native to Georgia. The female looks for plants in the birthwort family (Aristolochiaceae) on which to lay her eggs. While I am not aware of having pipevine around here, I did see a pipevine butterfly in my yard last year. Preoccupied with other things at the time, I did not wonder what might have attracted her.

Most people that aspire to have a buffet of butterfly host plants will grow woolly pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa) which has a rather small native range in the state – only four counties per USDA maps. I actually saw it in its native habitat about a month ago in Big Lazer Creek WMA in Talbot County. In very north Georgia, bigleaf pipevine (Aristolochia macrophylla) is the native species. I have seen the huge leaves dripping from roadside vines on the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. It was magical to watch dozens of pipevine butterflies fluttering around there.

About 3 weeks ago, I saw another pipevine butterfly in my yard, but this time she was in the woods. She was staying fairly low to the ground and it was obvious that she was checking out the plants as if she were looking for something. I tried to tell her that I had some woolly pipevine on the sunny fence in the other direction but she kept going further into the woods. A week later, in a completely serendipitous decision, I spied a small plant in the yard that I decided that I wanted to identify. I remembered that a friend knew what it was, so I took a picture and emailed it to him. The answer was Virginia snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria, formerly Aristolochia serpentaria).

Virginia snakeroot (Endodeca serpentaria)

I immediately went back to the woods to the area where I saw her touching down to the plants. There I found a piece of the snakeroot and it had one half-chewed leaf. Under the leaf was a tiny black caterpillar! I looked around for more plants and found nine caterpillars total. Each plant only had one caterpillar and there were many plants that didn’t have any. In researching the plant, I found that one plant is not enough for a single caterpillar so the butterfly knows to leave some empty. Once it has eaten the first plant, the caterpillar will leave and crawl to find another.

So now I know how the pipevine butterfly is living in parts of Georgia where those other two species are not found. Virginia snakeroot’s distribution is bigger than either of those two, extending from north Georgia even down into the Coastal Plain and Florida.

A single tiny flower
Seed capsule

The plant is easy for humans to overlook. I have found about 50 plants throughout the shady areas of my property now, sometimes almost hidden in muscadine vines on the ground. Most are only about 6-10 inches tall with 5-6 leaves arranged in a zig zag pattern. One plant was taller (about 12-14 inches) because it was growing close to another plant; it still only had 5-6 leaves. I was able to find a couple of plants that had grown a single flower at the base of the plant and were developing a seed capsule.

A chewed leaf, the sign of a young caterpillar
The tiny pipevine swallowtail caterpillar

Take a good look at this plant so that you can recognize it for what it is. The leaves look similar to a young bindweed plant which many people would yank as an undesirable. Unlike bindweed, which is a vine, this plant stops growing at about 6-10 inches. If you have this, you might just be growing butterflies in the woods too.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Pine Mountain, Plant Refugium

Several weeks ago I had a lot fun exploring plants in new places with the Georgia Botanical Society on their annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage.  However, one of the places was familiar to me – and familiar in several ways: we explored part of the Pine Mountain Trail in FDR State Park. I’ve been on that trail in the winter so it was especially nice to see it in spring. It was also familiar because there are a lot of plants that I’m used to seeing in the northern parts of the Piedmont eco-region.

Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia
You see, Pine Mountain is an unusual collection of plants and has been described as a refugium, with areas of plants familiar to more northerly areas growing side by side with plants of the Coastal Plain. On our hike, for example, we saw huge blooming stands of mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) – a shrub often associated with north Georgia mountains - growing adjacent to titi (Cyrilla racemiflora), a shrub of the Coastal Plain.

Pine Mountain is a 1,395-foot-high peak that is the southernmost mountain in the eastern U.S. It is at the bottom of the Piedmont eco-region, several dozen miles north of the Upper Coastal Plain (see my earlier post). It has a variety of habitats, from dry ridge tops to moist valleys. There were many times during the hike that I felt like I was in North Georgia, with gurgling streams and waterfalls. Galax, trillium, and Solomon’s seal were in the ground layer while several species of blueberries, azaleas, and mountain laurel filled in the shrub layer. We even found trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) setting seed.

We walked from the radio tower parking lot, following the Pine Mountain Trail to Cascade Falls and back (about 4 miles total). The trail is well-maintained and easy to navigate until you get to Big Rock Falls; from there you need to cross a couple of small streams. The trail goes further if you like and a great map is available at the visitors center.

Swamp doghobble (Eubotrys racemosus)

Chinkapin starting to flower (Castanea pumila)
The plants associated with the Coastal Plain were fun to discover. One of the most prevalent was large gallberry (Ilex coriacea). It loved the wet edges of the trail and was blooming, tiny 5-petaled white flowers. The titi (Cyrilla racemosa) wasn’t blooming yet on this trip. Redbay (Persea borbonia) was nearby but the leaves were twisted and deformed by the fungal disease known as laurel wilt. In the same low, wet area I found something new for me: swamp doghobble (Eubotrys racemosus). It was previously considered a Leucothoe but has deciduous leaves.

Both American chestnut (Castanea dentata) and Allegheny chinkapin/chinquapin (Castanea pumila) can be found on the trail. We found lots of old burs from the chinkapin and it was just setting this year’s flower buds. Nearby, sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) and mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) were blooming. It was also a very good time for the airy blooms of hawkweed (Hieracium venosum) along the edges of the trail.

Rhododendron minus, one of our lesser known rhododendrons

A very pink mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

Low growing Clematis

The trail was very busy with young hikers and families but they were going for speed and destination. Our usual slow pace allowed us to find the quiet blooming treasures like the small flowers of dwarf paw paw (Asimina parviflora) and a flowering Clematis (perhaps C. viorna). 

We tried to point out the spectacular populations of mountain laurel and the beautiful flowering Rhododendron minus to those who saw us taking numerous pictures. I like people to know what they are seeing and most were very appreciative of the very good year for mountain laurel. I loved finding the very pink ones as white is the more common color.

Littlehip hawthorn (Crataegus spathulata)

Alabama cherry (Prunus alabamensis) resembles black cherry

Georgia oak (Quercus georgiana)

Young Georgia oaks (Quercus georgiana) were numerous on the trail; I think that their leaves are quite handsome. Alabama cherry (Prunus alabamensis) and littlehip hawthorn (Crataegus spathulata) were two new floral treats for me. Neither are unique to the area but the timing was right for flowers. 

Clearly, late-April/early-May time period is a good time to hike this trail for nice flowers and abundant water features. Plan for it next year.