Sunday, October 28, 2018

Muhly Madness

Some native plants get all the love. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a rock star in the garden world, and nurseries have developed all sorts of colored cultivars from it. Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is a much-appreciated native shrub that is popping up in all kinds of designed landscapes. In the world of ornamental grasses, pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is getting a lot of attention these days.

Muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is peak form

Also called hair-awn muhly or pink hairgrass, this southeastern native grass is found in both the Piedmont and the Coastal Plain regions but in different environments. According to the Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States (May 2015), in the Piedmont it is found “primarily in clayey or thin rocky soils (especially in areas which formerly burned and were prairie-like) and in open woodlands.” In the Coastal Plain, the habitat description is “in savannas, dry woodlands, and coastal grasslands (where sometimes in close proximity with M. sericea), in the Mountains around calcareous rock outcrops.”

In researching this grass, I talked with Elaine Nash, a longtime friend and member of the Georgia Botanical Society and a Georgia expert on native grasses. She feels that a lot of what is being sold as Muhlenbergia capillaris is actually Muhlenbergia sericea (syn. M. filipes) which is sometimes called purple muhly grass. This species has been used for many years for basket weaving in coastal areas where it is known as sweetgrass. According to the same Flora noted above, this species is found in “maritime dry grasslands, maritime wet grasslands, interdune swales, low dunes, sometimes edges of freshwater or brackish marshes, apparently limited to the barrier islands (sometimes in close proximity with M. capillaris), sometimes locally abundant.”

Whatever is being sold, now is the time to notice it in landscapes as its tall spires of pale to deep pink inflorescences wave in the breeze. I’m seeing it in new landscapes, such as completely new construction areas like new subdivisions where it is planted in the main entrance or in the landscaping of the new homes. Many of these new areas lack mature trees and so have bright, sunny areas that are perfect for ornamental grasses. A large sweep of this grass makes a bold statement when it blooms in October, just as flowering perennials might be diminishing.

Muhly grass with non-native grasses in the background

I am also seeing it in road medians and interchange landscaping (two areas where it is hard to safely take a good photo).  In John’s Creek, there is a fabulous median strip near Sargent Rd that has muhly grass, beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and dwarf wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) mixed with some non-native landscape plants. On GA 400, exit 6 near Dunwoody/Sandy Springs was recently landscaped with a lot of muhly grass.

A creamy-colored cultivar by the name of ‘White Cloud’ is also starting to get more use. I think it lacks the impact of the pink flowering one, but perhaps some people don’t like as much pink.

This property has huge sweeps on both sides of the driveway, several rows deep

You can buy muhly grass in stores and online nurseries and even places like Amazon and Etsy (I do like local native plant nurseries when possible). It does best in landscapes where it can get full sun and good drainage. In the spring the old foliage can be clipped. In natural areas, the occasional use of fire probably benefits it, but residential usage should probably stick to traditional pruning for good health.

Nimblewill (Muhlenbergia schreberi)

I'd like to point out a smaller but perhaps more widespread perennial relative known as nimblewill (Muhlenbergia schreberi). This native grass grows up to 18 inches, but sprawls on the ground later in the year where it might root from the nodes that touch the soil.

When it showed up in my yard, I though it was Bermuda grass. A closer inspection reveals that it has no runners like Bermuda grass and the inflorescence is different as well. Here is a picture from my yard (this is a small one, only 10 inches).

Muhly grass is but one of our southeastern native grasses being sold for landscape use these days. Schizachyrium scoparium 'The Blues' is getting a lot of attention and there are other choices. If you are looking for a larger grass, look to switchgrass and the cultivars of Panicum virgatum.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Just Don’t Do It

There comes a time when one might realize that a plant has outgrown the space in which a human planted it. The human has several choices to rectify his/her mistake: prune the plant or remove it. It seems that not enough people consider the second option.

Behold the latest pruning catastrophe in my area: a long, double row of ‘Bradford’ pear trees that have been hacked to deal with their overgrown size. I have seen this group of trees many times and they were absolutely overcrowded. However, I think the better approach would have been to remove every other tree (note: the best approach would have been to remove every one of these useless pest trees).

There are at least two other properties within a 5-mile radius that have treated their pear trees in the same fashion over the last 10 or years (and they look horrible during the 4-5 months when they don't have leaves). I wonder if they used the same tree service (Would some tree services actually refuse to do this? I hope so.). I don’t believe that this treatment fits the definition of pollarding which implies that regular pollarding maintenance will be followed.

Please take this as a reminder to research the growth of your plant before you plant it. The internet is the perfect tool to find the mature width and height of any commonly grown plant.

And if you should find that your plant has outgrown its space, please consider a more appropriate method of pruning or removal.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Fueling the Migration

The migration story of the monarch butterfly is one that seems to resonate with a lot of people. The story of plucky insects making their way from Mexico to Canada and back again is inspiring, all along the way depending on the availability of a native plant called milkweed (Asclepias sp.) to make the next generation.

Monarch populations have sharply declined in the last decade due to lack of milkweed and gardeners all over have responded by planting more milkweed to help them.

Milkweed is only part of the story. Last week I wrote about the native plants that we might choose to put in our gardens for fall residents and especially migrating monarch butterflies. They are the nectar plants. These plants provide the fuel that adult butterflies need.

2018 Migration Photo from Journey North

Yet, as hard as we try, our gardens can’t do it alone. I know what most residential gardens look like by now, and there are not a lot of flowers left. The reported migration numbers show a lot of butterflies still north of us. What are they going to eat? The answer lies in the flowers of the goldenrod (Solidago) and aster (Symphyotrichum) plants that line our roadsides, fill up vacant fields, and populate the spaces beneath our power lines.

Late blooming field of goldenrod (Solidago altissima)

These are the messy, tangled places that some people disparage. They are lifesavers to these butterflies. Roadside populations can outnumber what we do in our gardens. I look at the asters on the side of the road, in ditches and messy places, and cheer: “Go, tiny white asters, go!” I see late blooming fields of goldenrod and silently thank the landowner who mowed it mid-summer, producing this late flush of fresh flowers just in time.

How can we help keep these roadsides going? Knowledge is the key, whether you have it or you share it:

  • If you are the owner of places like these, don’t mow them until the flowers are done (or better, wait until just before new growth starts in the spring so that the flower seeds can feed winter birds).  Resist the urge to ‘tidy up’ for human aesthetics. Want to tell people it's deliberately left unmowed? Post a pollinator habitat sign.
  • All of us can educate others on the importance of these late flowers. Let your city/county/state road departments know that these areas are important. They can mow a ‘safety strip’ close to the road and leave large areas untouched (and that could save them money!) until spring. Pollinator health can be a part of their community goals. This communication from the Federal Highway Administration written in 2017 might be a good start to encouraging them to understand that managing roadsides can be “a significant conservation opportunity.”
  • Utility companies are responsible for large areas of vegetation in and around power lines. They often contract out for vegetation control but they can dictate the schedules of the work, ask for cutting over spraying (cutting allows perennials like goldenrods and asters to regrow in the same year), and communicating in general that they are trying to support pollinator health in their management practices.

Mow strip (Photo: Jennifer Hopwood, Xerces Society)

Support our roadsides and fall-flowering areas of wild native vegetation. Recognize that there are insects that depend on them (and actually birds too). Just like planting milkweed in our gardens, our support of these places is part of what we can do as humans to help restore some of the balance disrupted by our own buildings and infrastructure.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Fall Nectar Plants for Monarch Butterflies in North Georgia

I love having flowers any time of year but fall flowers have a purpose as insects fuel up for a variety of reasons: some of them to create the next generation now while others prepare for migration. I won’t be filling my garden with double-flowered mums; I’ve got to choose the right plants if I want to help certain butterflies - like the monarch butterflies. You see, if you watch what’s going on, you’ll notice that some flowers are more popular than others.

Monarch on swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)

Monarchs Across Georgia, after helping to create a fabulous milkweed resource for Georgia, is now working to create native nectar plant lists by county (in Georgia) for the spring and fall migration seasons. They are encouraging ordinary folks like us to use our observational and investigational skills to take note of what nectar plants monarchs use. For example, turtlehead (Chelone glabra) is blooming now but I don’t think monarchs can take nectar from those flowers.

Observational skills are personal observations. Investigational skills require finding observations reported by other people on sites such as iNaturalist. You don’t even need a login to search iNaturalist, just choose “Explore” and enter your search criteria (be sure to use Georgia, USA). Observations are listed by date (most recent first) and you can scroll through results in the time frame that you want (spring or fall) and then check the location. Plants are not usually identified so you might have to figure that out yourself (most of the reports are on non-native plants because that is what people usually have in their garden: zinnia, tithonia, lantana, etc.).

On goldenrod (Solidago petiolaris)
On blazingstar (Liatris pilosa)

Based on my observations in my own yard as well as Georgia reports that I’ve found in iNaturalist and on Georgia Facebook groups, here is my plant list for late summer/early fall native flowers and I’m going to report these for Cherokee, Fulton, Forsyth, and Cobb counties:

Blazingstar (Liatris spp.) – the later blooming species are absolute magnets for southward migrating monarch butterflies. In my area, the only one left is Liatris pilosa, but I think if I had Liatris microcephala that they’d use it too. I rescued the Liatris pilosa from a nearby construction site, but I see Liatris microcephala for sale at plant sales. Other ones like Liatris spicata and Liatris aspera are done by now.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) – any species you want to use would be of use to the monarchs (although by now, Solidago odora is mostly finished and Solidago sphacelata might be too). In my area, the following species are blooming: tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima, which is the aggressive one, be warned), gray goldenrod (S. nemoralis), erect goldenrod (S. erecta), showy goldenrod (S. speciosa), wrinkled goldenrod (S. rugosa), woodland goldenrod (S. caesia), and downy goldenrod (S. petiolaris, a personal favorite of mine).

Boneset/Thoroughwort (Eupatorium spp.) – this is one that I hadn’t seen before but several people have reported (with pictures) monarchs on these plants which is fantastic because they are so abundant on roadsides. Boneset (E. perfoliatum) is done for me, but going strong are the thoroughworts: E. serotinum, and E. hyssopifolium are primarily blooming now but earlier flowers of E. album and E. rotundifolium might have been available.

White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) – formerly a Eupatorium, this is blooming nicely in my area now, so I went looking for pictures of Monarch butterflies using it and found plenty!

Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium spp.) – unless Joe Pye weed was pinched back, it is likely that using it in Georgia for a migration nectar source would be too late. Mine are done and everything that I see on roadsides is done by now. They would only help the earliest of any monarchs coming through. People have posted pictures of monarchs using it for nectar but I don’t think Georgians should rely on it.

Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum) – also formerly a Eupatorium, I have this in abundance so I was thrilled to see several monarchs using it recently (and then several other people posted monarch pictures with it). This is easy to grow and tough as nails; its only downside would be having too much of it if you don’t manage it.

Thistle (Cirsium altissimum and others) – again, this one is on the edge of being available during the heaviest part of the migration. The earlier ones definitely have an opportunity to use this native thistle. This one I found through posts by other people but I was glad to know they use it because this type of flower is perfect for them.

Aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) – there are many pictures and reports that they do love fall native asters like New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), aromatic aster (S. oblongifolium), late purple aster (S. patens), Georgia aster (S. georgianum), and even some of the small white asters.

On blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)

If you’d like to participate in this effort, email your Georgia list (with county/counties listed) to Your efforts will help other people learn about the best native plants to use for supporting monarch butterfly nectar needs. Bonus: many other butterflies and bees use these same plants so you’re helping more than monarchs.

On bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum)