Sunday, November 25, 2018

Christmas Fern

There lives in the woods of the Southeastern U.S. a large and hardy evergreen fern known as Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). Range maps show that it has been reported in almost every county in Georgia as well in most counties in nearby states. This plant is so ubiquitous near me that we are surprised when we don’t find it on sites designated for plant rescues.

Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

Christmas fern is happy in dry shade, a trait that is sure to endear it to many a homeowner if they only knew. My backyard is full of it but the area near the house didn’t have it when I moved here. The ferns were probably cleared out during construction. I have since added them back here and there, often first using them to define the edges of pathways through the area and then filling in more as I get them from plant rescues.

A nicely designed use of Christmas fern at McFarlane Nature Park
A sweep of Christmas ferns in a landscaped garden

They transplant so easily. A friend of mine once collected 100 of them from rescues and then used them to plant into a sloped area where she’d cleared out English ivy. I like to plant young ones into small spaces and then watch them grow to fill it up like they might do in a natural crevice in the woods. They also grow easily from spores, especially if the area has a little moss (moss is like nature’s germination nursery, especially for ferns). I’m sure that I’m one of the few people that have ferns in the lawn (I do transplant them out of the lawn when they get too big).

Christmas ferns in my lawn
A bit of moss is perfect for germination

Christmas fern in snow (2017)
The common name of this fern probably refers to its evergreen presence at Christmas time. I certainly enjoy seeing its greenery during the winter months.

I especially welcome the sight of a green frond sticking out of one of our light snowfalls. That just seems so Southern to me – “I have snow, but I still have green plants!”

By mid-March, the fronds from the previous year are near the end of their life and hairy, golden fiddleheads rise up from the center of the clump to replace them. See a picture of that and read more about other landscape-worthy native Georgia ferns at my earlier blog post.

A beautiful natural sweep of Christmas fern at Red Top Mountain State Park

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Climate-Wise Landscaping (the book)

‘Practical actions for a sustainable future’ is the subtitle of this new book and it is all that it promises. I like practical books and I like books that help guide us into actions. Regardless of the reason behind climate change, Climate-Wise Landscaping offers guidance. You might need ideas on plant selection and landscape design that can deal with hotter/drier/wetter conditions than you had before. Or you might be looking for ways to have a lighter footprint on the planet. The authors have covered both areas of concern in this time of changing conditions.

I am familiar with the book’s two authors, Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt, from a native plants blog team in which I participated. Each author brings her own perspective to the text, but they blend together beautifully, integrating design with practical tips and coming together through a love and belief in the usage of native plants in our landscape.

The book has 10 sections to explore: Lawn; Trees and Shrubs; Water; Ecosystems; Soil; Planning and Design; Herbaceous Plants; Urban Issues; Food; and Materials. 

You might think that you know what they’re going to say about things like Lawn, and you’d be right that the section advocates for less of it. But the section also includes other tips for those of us that will keep a bit of lawn  like using tools that don’t pollute, reviving a lawn or prepping for a new one, adding some meadow space as a replacement, and other ideas that help you reduce your landscape’s negative impact on the environment.

The book is especially good with explaining a topic while providing depth to enhance your understanding of it. Within each section are ‘Action Topics’ and each one begins with a ‘Why This Matters’ section so that you go into the topic knowing why it matters. Sprinkled throughout the book are quote and knowledge boxes.  Knowledge boxes explore a concept with a little more depth for those who need it.

One of the many knowledge boxes to expand on key concepts

Quote box

The quote boxes include inspirational quotes from a variety of experts and noted environmental authors over a wide range of time (all perfectly true for today): E.O. Wilson, Sara Stein, Lorrie Otto, Darrel Morrison, and Doug Tallamy to name a few.

For those of you in urban areas, check out Section 8: Urban Issues. I particularly like the action topics on maximizing urban vegetation and creating wildlife corridors because, of course, I am all about the plants.

The action topic on cool pavement techniques in the same section is one that I wish that more people, urban and not, would consider. Beyond the heat aspect, the concept of permeable surfaces for driveways, pathways, and gathering spaces, also covered here, is important for a variety of reasons including water quality.

If you’ve been wondering what actions you can take in your own landscape (or how to inspire someone else) to make a difference in this changing climate, this book is a well-compiled tool to guide the average person. Making a change in our own landscapes can seem like a drop in the bucket, but our changes do contribute and can inspire others to add another ‘drop,’  and some drops can be larger than others, depending on who we inspire (imagine inspiring an organization with large land holdings!).

You can order a signed copy of the book here. For occasional bits of inspiration, follow the authors on Facebook: Sue Reed and Ginny Stibolt.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Plant Id Using Smartphones and Internet

This buttonbush is unique enough to be
identified by apps; others are not so easy
It may be a plant whose label you lost or something that just popped up in the yard, but the mystery is real and you want to figure out what it is.  You take a picture and email it to a few friends but they don’t know it either.

Someone suggests a smartphone app or a Facebook plant group and off you go. Your success depends on a number of factors, and I’d like to offer some thoughts on getting the most from your efforts.

  1. Smartphone apps (software): these tools are getting better but they are only as good as their data, which could be incomplete (so your picture is being compared against an incomplete set of possibilities). My suggestion is to try it out on a plant or two that you already know and see how it does.
Pro: Their guesses might point you in the right direction even if they didn’t give you the final answer.
Con: You should verify their answer against other sources, taking into account the appropriate range for the plant they are suggesting (one source guessed a plant that wasn’t even in the US).

  1. Internet groups (real people on Facebook and websites like Houzz and others): these groups can be friendly and helpful, prodding you for more information to help narrow down the choices.
Pro: Their queries for more information (are there hairs on the leaves, cut open the fruit to see how many seeds) can help you learn more about what to look for when identifying plants.
Con: Not every person who answers is actually knowledgeable,  unfortunately, so take every answer as a suggestion that you can use to look up comparisons.

  1. Search engines (Google, Bing, Duck Duck Go): I think that effective searching is almost an art, but with practice you can improve on your results. I am really only familiar with Google, but I make use of both the regular search and the image searching function. Here is a page that I find very helpful with identifying native plants in Georgia: Name That Plant.
Pro: There is a lot of data out there and, like using the other two, your search might give you more clues to follow even if it doesn’t give you the perfect answer.
Con: You are really on your own with interpreting the results, but that’s not as bad as it sounds. A word of caution using the image search – sometimes a picture is not the plant that you searched for, but it comes up because your plant might be mentioned in the description or some accompanying text.

Example of using iNaturalist with
Virginia creeper photo
Whatever help you use, always double check, compare to the appropriate range for where you found your plant (use USDA range maps), and compare to other pictures in books or on the Internet. [Note: If you don't like the app after you've tried it, consider deleting it from your device so that you don't use it in the future, especially if it was wrong or misleading.]

Bottom line is get out there, try things, learn from your efforts, and keep going. Being curious about identifying things was exactly what got me started. Tools are great as long as you understand how to get the best out of them and when to seek further help.

Here are just a few of the available plant id apps for smartphones (apps are free to download unless otherwise noted). Some apps note that certain OS levels are required or needed for best experience. All are available for iOS, most are also available for Android:

iNaturalist - not technically listed in the App store for “plant identification” but it’s a good tool. Use “observe” function and then choose “what did you see” for suggestions. Developed in the US.

PlantSnap - $.99 at App store, this one seems to have the most ratings.  The app says it uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to make the matches (probably not uncommon approach). Developed in the US.

Leafsnap - one of the earliest apps but now poorly rated on App Store. Uses recognition software. Developed in the US.

PictureThis  - mixed reviews, the app says it uses artificial intelligence to make the matches. Developed in China.

Garden Answers - One review says that you can pay a small fee to have an expert review your picture; not sure if that applies in all cases. One review definitely sounded fake. Owned by a US company,  but it is not clear where it was developed.

An example of a plant group on Facebook; look for local groups too like
Native Plant Groups and state Master Gardeners. The first answer is not always right!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Flowering Dogwood – Iconic Southern Beauty

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has long been one of the most beautiful and iconic symbols of the southern United States. Perhaps I think that because I grew up in Virginia where it is the state flower (it is also the state flower of North Carolina and the state tree for Missouri). The beautiful floral display of flowering dogwood graced many a home d├ęcor item, from tea towels and throw pillows to china and table accessories. The tree itself was in our yards, where its blocky bark and red fall fruits were just as familiar as the flowers.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate this tree for its many qualities to humans and wildlife alike. In this fall season, two of those qualities are front and center: excellent fall color and fruit for wildlife. Throughout the year, it is a nice medium-sized tree, perfect for smaller lots (or plant a bunch if you have more room).

Flowering dogwood fall color and fruits

Where you plant this tree affects its performance. It needs enough sun to set sufficient flowers and fruit, yet it needs enough shade to achieve the elegant layered branch structure and to avoid crispy leaves. I think it is perfect for areas with morning sun and afternoon shade.  Allow room for it to gracefully spread 20-30 feet wide and tall over about 30 years. The white “petals” are really modified bracts; the flowers are small yellow flowers in the very center.

A mature flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) has a beautiful shape

I’d like to offer a few thoughts about a health problem that has been with us since 1987: dogwood anthracnose, a fungal disease that has spread into the region (first detected in the south in 1987 after initial detection in the US in 1978). First, choose quality trees and I recommend getting them from a nursery (rather than transplanting from the wild). Second, site the tree appropriately and protect it from the stress of dry conditions (e.g., water as needed, mulch appropriately). If you notice problems, consider applying a fungicide. I found two good resources from the Forest Service and from the Connecticut AES with helpful pictures for diagnosis and care.

Flowering dogwood is native throughout the Eastern US, from the deep south all the way to Canada. It is a member of the dogwood family (Cornaceae) which also includes black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), another native tree with good fall color and fruit for wildlife. It is related to several other dogwoods that are more shrub-like (read my earlier post about those dogwoods here).

An unusually red one from 2012

Seeing the fall color now is a good time to notice how beautiful this native tree can be. If you have fond memories like I do, you can now appreciate it even more for its other qualities.