Sunday, December 29, 2019

2019 in Pictures

I take a lot of pictures throughout the year and not all of them make it into a blog post. At the end of the calendar year, it’s a good time to reflect on the beauty of nature as well as share some of the extra pictures.

I believe that each day is an opportunity to find and appreciate something beautiful in the native plants and creatures of Georgia. The photos above include a fanciful "2" from a scarlet oak leaf, a sand dollar from my trip to Jekyll Island, a black swallowtail caterpillar from a friend's house, and an interesting look at a sweetgum ball that shows the seeds and some tiny bits of chaff.

In January I went up to North Georgia to scout a field trip location to a waterfall. I thought this moss was pretty unusual and it's always nice to see something green in January. Early February was a trip to a place with white ash (Fraxinus americana); I looked for seeds on the ground to confirm it (the seeds are slightly different from our more common green ash).

In March I was working in an area of my garden when I spotted this green tree frog, our state amphibian (Hyla cinerea). It always amazes me when I find new things after 16 years. April brought the delightful blooms of a fragrant crabapple (Malus angustifolia) and one very happy Eastern tiger swallowtail who enjoyed them for hours.

In May, I celebrated the beautiful blooms of nettle-leaf sage (Salvia urticifolia) in my garden. I first saw this plant on a BotSoc field trip and asked around until I found someone selling it. In news of the wild and weird, I happened upon this wasp who specializes in capturing spiders for her young. This was in June; she does paralyze it first but the poor thing looked quite sorry to be dragged to her lair.

Critters are a special part of the natural environment. This year, in July, I saw the first fox in our yard. She had 3 kits with her but they were moving too fast for a picture (learning how to chase chipmunks). This was our second year having the piebald deer - it's a boy! This picture was taken from my neighbor's yard in August; they liked to treat him to corn in the evenings. We haven't seen him since so he may have moved on.

I was visiting a friend's house in September when I saw this gorgeous native Clematis viorna seedhead. So many colors! A moment of nerdness for October, please: I've been trying to find a New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) in my area so that I could learn to distinguish it from giant ironweed 
(Vernonia giganteaand in October I finally did. Those elongated phyllaries are the difference.

November brought a bright spot of color when I found this meadow katydid on a very dull thistle seedhead. Those blue eyes are quite something. A day in December on a plant rescue allowed me to find two different praying mantis egg cases so I used them for a side by side comparison picture. On the left is the more round, 3-dimensional egg case of the Chinese mantis. On the right is the flat, almost 2-dimensional case of the Carolina mantis.

I wish you a Happy New Year, full of beautiful and productive encounters with our native wonders. For more pictures, you can also follow me on Instagram:

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Another Look at Winter Decorations

Humans have been pulling materials from the great outdoors for thousands of years, using them for food, fuel, tools, and even for decoration. I love natural decorations and the creativity used to craft them makes them very special.

This year I went to visit my dad again in Virginia and popped over to Williamsburg to see what folks there created. I did a similar post in 2015 from a visit there. While some designs repeat, I found plenty of new ones to photograph. As you might imagine, I especially like the ones that use a lot of native materials.

This first fir wreath includes a bit of native mistletoe.

Simple fir (left) and white pine (right) greenery with a little splash of color. I think the berries on the right are from a type of native deciduous holly like Ilex decidua or Ilex verticillata.

Beautiful native magnolia leaves (left) with pine cones. Berries don't appear to be native. On the right is the decor from the Raleigh Bakery and it includes two ginger cookies plus fir branches, grapevine, and some bittersweet (and hopefully it is the native one which is what early settlers would have had).

Heavy use of native Southern magnolia leaves on this one (left) plus white pine roping. The one on the right is a grapevine wreath with mostly non-native materials (some juniper at the bottom and perhaps native lotus pods) but I loved the fanciful design with antlers.

Grapevine with white pine cones (left) and a splash of color in a tankard. On the right, mostly non-native but the juniper with blue fruits is gorgeous and the oysters would be native.

What appears to be a hasty collection of sticks, pine cones, lotus pods, a few feathers and whatnot. But I like it!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

The Mosquito Fern

There is something to be said for going to the same place more than once and with different people. Recently I went to the Newman Wetlands Center in Hampton, GA for the annual holiday party for the Georgia Botanical Society. We have used that location for several years now and I wondered if I’d learn anything new by going there. Of course the fellowship of fellow native plant enthusiasts is always worth the trip, so I went.

After a wonderful potluck lunch and brief meeting, the group headed out into a beautiful day for a walk along the boardwalks. Birds were singing and we found plenty of plants to talk about, including a long and lively discussion about cherrybark oak (Quercus pagoda). Those of us who had been there before had plenty to share with new folks, including this uncommon species of oak whose leaves were scattered over a wide area.

As we passed over a stretch of water, clumps of a tiny, burgundy-tinted aquatic plant were very evident. While the bright green parrot feather (non-native) was very noticeable, this new-to-me plant needed to be present in abundance to be appreciated. And present in abundance is exactly how it gets its name: mosquito fern (Azolla cristata).

According to my research, when it is widespread, it is so thick as to deter the development of mosquitoes in what is otherwise still or slow moving water. It is described as a small aquatic nitrogen-fixing fern. In addition, it is described as an annual! What a unique plant.

Mosquito fern (Azolla sp.) covering several feet

While we assumed the species we found is native, the Georgia fern book indicates that we would need a microscope to be sure: “The minute male spores of Azolla species join to form jellylike masses with protruding arrow-like hairs, called glochidia. Species identification is based on details of the glochidia and requires a microscope for examination. As fertile plants are rarely found, species identification is usually difficult.”

What a fun find and it's always time well spent when you're with plant folks!

Sunday, December 8, 2019


The leaves are falling so it’s your last chance to figure out what those trees and shrubs are. Or is it? Do you really need leaves to figure out the identification of woody plants? One of my early blogs was on the topic of using bare twigs to identify woody plants in the winter. Twigs are the most recent growth of a woody plant (a tree or a shrub).

Since twigs are the most recent growth, the characteristics that we look for are often still fresh and noticeable. Here is a review of what I wrote last time (you might be surprised to know that plants haven’t changed since I wrote it in 2010 so it’s all still true!):

  • Leaf arrangement: even when the leaves are gone, you can see the leaf scars of where they were.  Are they opposite one another along the stem or arranged in an alternate pattern?  If you can’t see the leaf scars, remember that branches themselves were once leaves - how are the branches arranged?  Focus if possible on the “twigs” – the most recent year’s woody growth.  Be careful to check in multiple places because one twig might have fallen off, or one set might be slightly off, making the arrangement appear to be alternate.  Here is a branch from our native hearts a bustin' (Euonymus americanus), showing off perfectly opposite twig arrangement as well as a pair that aren't perfect:

Euonymus americanus twigs, two examples

  • Leaves on the ground can sometimes provide a clue: this is not the most reliable approach, especially if there are a lot of different plants around, but it might give you a few things to start looking at if you recognize the leaves.  For example, you might find maple leaves and several kinds of oak leaves on the ground.  But when you look at the plant in question, you notice it has opposite twig arrangement.  Of those choices, maple is the only one that has oppositely arranged leaves and twigs.

3 oak leaves and maple

  • Leaf and bloom buds already formed can be familiar: for some people, memory is all they need to recognize a plant without leaves. Here is a picture of one of my favorite bare twig plants, American beech (Fagus grandifolia):
The twig of American beech (Fagus grandifolia)

  • Leaf scars and bundle scars: some plants have very noticeable and unique leaf scars.  Leaf scars are the spots left behind when the leaf fell off. Bundle scars can be found inside the leaf scar – they reflect where vascular bundles connected to the leaf and they can be very unique in number and in the shape of them.  Here is a photo of bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) showing its leaf scar and the bundle scars (dots) within the leaf scar.
Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis)

  • Bark characteristics: some bark is very distinctive and you can learn to recognize some trees by their bark.  You can then verify your identification with another characteristic.  For example, Cornus florida (Flowering dogwood) has rather unique bark and it also has twigs that are opposite one another.  Recognize the bark and then verify it with the twigs.  
  • Remaining fruits/seeds left clinging to the twigs: sometimes you can find fruit or seeds clinging to the branches.  Some fruit is in the form of a capsule that may open to release seed, leaving the capsule behind.  Here is a picture of the branch where the fruits of beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) used to be.

These fragile remains held flowers and fruits of beautyberry

I’ve only scratched the surface of a very deep topic. For those of you that would really like the tools to identify winter twigs, I suggest you get a 10x hand lens and a good key. If you’re in the Southeastern US, I recommend “Woody Plants of the Southeastern United States: A Winter Guide” by Ron Lance. In addition to very detailed keys, the book has descriptions of each plant according to winter characteristics and most plants have detailed drawings of the twigs themselves (and a good glossary too!).

So don’t be intimidated by those bare branches – get out there and figure it out. I suggest starting with a tree that you already know and examining the twigs and winter features. Good luck!

Sunday, December 1, 2019

A Glorious Moment

We are exiting the fall foliage season and this one turned out better than many of us thought (given the heat and drought in September).  An early freeze had people further worried – sorry crape myrtle owners, many of those leaves got turned to mush – but most of the native woody plants sailed through that pretty well. This past week has seen some gorgeous leaves on my blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) but the real stars are the oaks (Quercus sp.).

I walked around my neighborhood on a beautiful sunny day this week to appreciate them, especially some of the scarlet oaks (Quercus coccinea). The deep red leaves were at their peak this week and the sunny day helped them glow. People should be streaming into nurseries right now, pointing to their smartphone photos, asking for help finding just that tree. This is fall color that people are willing to pay for!

There were several trees that were huge, with wide crowns of orange-ruby leaves glowing against the sky. Medium trees had smaller crowns but their red leaves contrasted nicely with adjacent pine trees.  And small trees, struggling to thrive in the shadow of bigger neighbors, poked out with branches of bright color in all directions.

New house with existing scarlet oak
Sometimes the color is a bit red-orange

I worry about these trees in an environment of landowners who see more value in the nursery than they do in the wild edges of their yards. These trees are a standout for just a few weeks each year. If you didn’t notice them then and realize how gorgeous they are, then you wouldn’t know their special beauty. Those who buy non-native trees for their fall color (e.g., Japanese maples, gingko) can have native color that supports the ecosystem in so many more ways.

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
A house was built recently on a 2-acre vacant lot where there are some beautiful scarlet oaks. A small one is growing near a big one, both of them the color of a cherry lifesaver. Should the new owner decide to landscape the area, I suspect the small one will get removed because those doing the design and the work will not realize what value the small tree has; it’s just in the way.

And so we lose the valuable floral heritage of Georgia, one tree at a time. I wish I knew how to convince people to understand what they have before they get rid of it. My neighbor has a beautiful pair of scarlet oak trees; I look forward to this time every year when they make my trip to the mailbox a little extra special. I noticed a seedling near my mailbox this week, a likely present from a squirrel’s trip across the road. I will do all I can to keep this one growing strong, as a present to the future owners.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thanks, Trees!

Southern magnolia
While we are in this “season” of thankfulness, I’d like to remind folks about the many reasons why trees, and native trees in particular, are an important part of our environment. I used to discuss this topic every year at Arbor Day at my kids’ K-6 elementary school. Even the youngest kids were quite adept in thinking of a few basic reasons to be thankful for our trees:

Oxygen – this was usually the first answer shouted out. Our science programs appear to be doing an excellent job getting that point across.

Shade – in the hot Georgia summer, our students knew that having a tree to shade the house, shade the swing set, or even shade the car in the parking lot was a good thing.

Materials and Shelter – trees give us wood to make homes, furniture and paper as well as many other by-products. I tried to remind them that trees also provide homes for other creatures like birds and squirrels.

Food – the kids were always able to name fruits and nuts that come from trees when thinking of what trees do for us. I would also always mention that birds and squirrels get food from small fruits and nuts like acorns. I like to help them realize that humans are but a part of this world and that other creatures rely on trees as well.

Beauty – this was not always an item that the kids thought of, but they were more than happy to agree with it when I suggested it.

Erosion Control – the older kids would often think of this one on their own. We’d talk about how mudslides occur in some areas when too many trees have been removed.

Windbreaks and privacy – these are two additional reasons to appreciate trees, but they are not ones that we discussed with the kids. I think as houses get closer and closer together, more kids will probably be able to verbalize the privacy one!

These are all great reasons. The “oxygen” one in particular has encouraged people to plant almost anything because plants=oxygen and the more the better, right? That big stand of kudzu is just an oxygen factory!

As people have learned more, we’ve come to understand that trees have special relationships with some creatures even beyond what I’ve listed above. The leaves of some trees can have a “host” arrangement with certain bugs such that a decline in those trees can result in a decline in certain bugs.

Oakworm moths grow up on oak trees

Adding just any tree (or plant) will not support these bugs because this arrangement evolved over thousands of years. Supporting native insects requires that we support native trees because they evolved together. Oh, and do you know who appreciates an abundance of native insects? Birds!

As you take time to be thankful this week, be thankful for all our trees do for us and the critters around us. Should you have an opportunity to plant a tree (or replace one), please consider a regionally native tree for all the extra benefits it will bring. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Fall in Suburbia

Seeing fall color “in the wild” is fantastic but most of us spend the majority of our time within just a few miles of our house. And for many of us, those areas are business parks, shopping strips, and subdivision entrances – the hallmarks of suburbia. As I drove the 10-15 miles to visit the grandbaby this past weekend, I passed many of these landscaped areas, and I took note of what was displaying good fall color.

Red maples in a development

By far the most prevalent tree appears to be red maples (Acer rubrum) and they were in glorious form. I’ve written about parking lot maples before, so click over to this blog entry to see pictures and my opinions about which cultivars and hybrids you might be seeing. Sticking these guys into parking lots and along streets just might be the most successful native plant usage effort ever (although muhly grass is coming up in that department and is especially noticeable now). Red maple trees are handsome, the color is fantastic, and the debris (fallen leaves and fruits) is not cumbersome.

A nice parking lot mix: oaks and maples

Speaking of cumbersome debris, I really have to question the decision to use oaks in parking lots. I have written about this many times because I love to find new ones, but honestly, the acorns have got to be hazardous for customers! I hit up some of my favorite parking lots this past weekend to get acorns for a seed swap at the native plant society meeting. I see it as a service to old ladies to get those acorns out of the parking spaces for them. Oaks can have great color - goldens and reds - and you’re probably seeing some of them and will continue to as they change color through November. Here are some of my previous parking lot oak blogs if you’re wondering what’s out there:

Taxodium distichum near Marta
Some of the more unusual trees that I spotted in the area included a lovely group of sugar maples (Acer saccharum) at a neighborhood. The pure, clear orange color is always a good indicator, but the way they drop their leaves (starting at the top) and the dark trunk are two good clues too.

Another shopping center had invested in bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) trees. As a deciduous conifer it offers a lovely bit of fall color. I was surprised one year to find a row of black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) trees at a business park. The fall color was so deeply red and consistent that I am sure they are cultivars. Like the red maples, leaf drop would be very unobtrusive and the birds eat all the fruits before they ever hit the ground.

So while you’re running errands or going to work, have a look at what’s planted nearby. I’m always grateful for every native tree that gets the job over a crape myrtle or other import. Like our yards, these areas can help provide a little more native back into the mix for the local ecosystem.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Let's Fall, Y'all

I love Georgia's fall foliage colors. Where I live in the Piedmont, we are far north enough to have a beautiful mix of colors in November. The color can be fairly long-lasting when you consider the progression of colors among the various hardwoods.

Fall 2019 

We start with the orange of Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and the brilliant reds (and yellows) of red maple (Acer rubrum). Red maple has a particularly striking range of colors. The picture above, taken this week at a lake in Canton, GA, is probably mostly if not all red maples because they are often found at lake edges around here.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)
While the maples are still showy, the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) leaves start to turn. They also have quite a range, often on the same tree: pinks and yellows with hints of orange and purple. Tall hickories (Carya sp.) also light up the woodland areas with yellow and gold, fading to burnt butter as they finish.

Poking around the roadside edges are bright sumacs (Rhus sp.) and pines draped with muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) vines turning soft yellow. The grape leaves show up well against the green of the pines. A serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) or two also reveals itself along the sunny edges, it's small but bright leaves finally giving it away. The star-shaped leaves of sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) color up in an amazing range of colors along the roads too: yellow to pink-red to deep purple.

It will be later in November that the oaks (Quercus sp.) and American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) finally turn in rich shades of gold, red, and brown. Paired with the green of the pine trees, they make for beautiful displays along the hills and ridges of North Georgia.

I've written about fall color before in previous blogs with examples of specific colors (in case you're trying to identify something you've seen) and ideas for adding fall color to your landscape:

Yellow Fall Foliage

Orange, Red and Purple Fall Foliage

Fall Color in 2018 (lots of links in this one)

Dependable Fall Color for your Landscape

Another part of the same lake 2019 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Fertilizer, Bird Food, and Mulch

Pawpaw leaves ready to fall
Did you know there is a magical product that can deliver all these things: fertilizer, bird food, and mulch? It’s an all-natural mulch, keeping the roots of your trees and shrubs not just moist but also cool or warm as needed. Insects like to nestle in it, providing opportunities for birds to find a snack or a meal. Over time it breaks down, providing a slow-release fertilizer to all the plants around. Best of all, this product is free! All you have to do is manage it. It’s called leaves.

I am pleased that the message of ‘leaving the leaves’ is getting around these days and for a variety of reasons. My Facebook news feed might be a little skewed given how many environmental groups that I follow, but I see that the message is also being picked up and distributed by local communities and news outlets.

A thick layer of leaves in the forest in a state park (not a lawn)

Where possible, gently move leaves from sidewalks and lawns using soft rakes, brooms (brooms even work on lawns), and even your hands. Avoid using blowers and lawn mowers that might harm overwintering insects with fast speeds and cutting blades. It is helpful if you have deep beds or semi-natural areas to contain them (this might be a good time to consider reducing the lawn!) If you have nowhere to put them, consider gently bagging them and offering them to friends or local community gardens.

In early fall, I sweep just enough down the driveway to walk

While some folks are even recommending that leaves simply be left on the lawn, that’s not always possible and might damage it if the quantity is heavy. Consider it though, especially once you’ve dealt with the initial drop and only a few more have fallen.

So sit back, watch the leaves turn nice colors and fall and then just do as little as you can in dealing with them. There will be benefits to you and nature too. Oh, and tell the others too!

An example of leaves that can be left on the lawn

Sunday, October 27, 2019

The Bumbles Are Still Busy

By all reports it is a good year for the monarch butterfly migration, but I haven’t seen any at my house. I did see them at a park down the road, happily feasting on Georgia aster (Symphyotrichum georgianum).  Thank you to Marcia for donating those asters and to Richard for planting and nurturing them. Other folks throughout the Atlanta metro area are reporting sightings and it’s been marvelous to hear about it.

At my house, the tiny white asters (Symphyotrichum dumosum and Symphyotrichum racemosum) are having a very good couple of weeks and, as I stood outside wondering about monarchs, I noticed just how very popular they are with small bumble bees. The flowers on the plants gently moved up and down as bees in a variety of sizes quickly sipped and moved on. The tiniest of the bumble bees are my favorite.

I went inside for the camera, adjusted it for light and upped the shutter speed in order to capture some of them. The plants were covered in tiny blooms, and the bees found them all. As they swiftly moved from flower to flower, most of them seemed to be interested only in nectar. Only a few of them had pollen on their legs. A couple of carpenter bees were there too but they were quite sluggish. A single honey bee wove in and out.

My front bed is a sea of blue mistflower (Conoclinium) and white asters (Symphyotrichum)

A female gathering pollen and nectar
A male wants only nectar

As I drive around town these days, I often see the bright white of these tiny asters peeking out from roadsides. Some are tall, untouched by man or beast. Others have been cut down and they’ve re-sprouted. The flowers can be so dense and the plants numerous enough to be noticed at 45 mph. I pulled over one day this week to look at a large population near an apartment complex. An undeveloped field hosted scores of hairy oldfield aster (Symphyotrichum pilosum), lots of grasses, some bitterweed (Helenium amarum), dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium), and the occasional piece of goldenrod (Solidago altissima).

Late season flowers are so important to a wide variety of insects, from migrating monarchs to my tiny bumble bees. Be sure to plan for late season flowers, include them in your garden, and encourage people to leave wild edges in place. It makes a difference.

Here is one of the Monarch butterflies on the Georgia aster at the park that I mentioned in the beginning. These robust plants were protected from deer so they were bigger and more floriferous than any I have seen in the wild (or my garden!). And while I have found that the deer also might munch on the small white asters, those species adapt very well and manage to flower with abundance.