Sunday, January 27, 2019

My Winter Greens

Winter can be a muted time of year both in sky and landscape. I’ve written before about finding winter greens in state parks, but I’ve got green at home too. Normally you might think of shrubs and trees as the evergreens you’d plant, but let's not forget the evergreen stuff on the ground too.

Mitchella repens with fruit in December
The first evergreen on the ground that I see when I walk out my front door is partridgeberry (Mitchella repens). It looks like a vine but it never climbs and is considered by some to be a subshrub. Long runners, or trailing stems, have numerous small oval leaves arranged in opposite pairs. It has small white flowers in the spring and tiny red fruits in the fall (with a few lingering into winter). At my house, it has particularly thrived in the area to the right of the porch.

Nearby are the glossy, flat rosettes of cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) on the left side of the porch. Their wrinkled leaves aren’t terribly attractive and some might even think they’re weeds! They grow up to be beautiful summer perennials and I need to make sure that leaves don’t cover up those winter rosettes or they may rot.

Lobelia cardinalis rosette and young Christmas fern

In the main perennial bed in the front, the winter leaves of two types of beardtongue mingle: I have both a white one (Penstemon digitalis) and a purple one (Penstemon smallii). Further mixed among them are the flat leaves of Stokes aster (Stokesia laevis) and the rosettes of swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). Actually now is a good time to see if they’re too crowded and to pot up extras for sharing.

I can also see the new leaves of tall goldenrod (Solidago altissimum) and rice button aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum). Both of these aggressive perennials lose their lower leaves in late summer but regrow them during the winter. Now is a good time to edit out individuals who have gotten too abundant. I’ll probably pot up a few to share for restoration projects as these plants are appreciated in large spaces.

Tiarella cordifolia
Hexastylis shuttleworthii

In the same area, here are some of the other plants with green leaves: red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), mouse-eared coreopsis (Coreopsis auriculata), lanceleaf self-heal (Prunella vulgaris ssp. lanceolata), Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), galax (Galax urceolata), alumroot (Heuchera americana), and two kinds of ginger: Hexastylis arifolia and Hexastylis shuttleworthii.

The deer have sampled some of this Carex plantaginea

Wow, that’s a lot of green and it’s just the front beds! As I walk around the side, I pass several evergreen sedges including the wonderful plantainleaf sedge (Carex plantaginea). Behind it, tiny sprigs of wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) wait patiently for spring. Like columbine and the asters, the growth is not evergreen but newly grown for the winter to give it a jump on spring. Two evergreen ferns are nearby and also throughout the property: Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) and ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron).

Ebony spleenwort (Asplenium platyneuron)
Sedum ternatum

Ground-hugging pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and green ‘n’ gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) are a little worse for the wear but still visible. Protected under a wire basket is a healthy clump of the tiny-leaved woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum). The basket protects it from the deer. I walk further and see the basal leaves of orange coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida var. fulgida). A few of these will be potted up as well for a local plant sale. Next I get to the lawn invaders: another type of Erigeron is trying so hard to grow in the lawn but the deer keep eating it; a more successful plant is golden ragwort (Packera aurea) and some of that needs to be shared as well, if you know what I mean. Here and there is the side lawn are a few pieces of lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata). Another goldenrod, Solidago sphacelata, is evergreen in several pots; it can be groundcover-like in its habit.

Packera aurea in the spring, but those leaves are present even now

So if you’d like a little more green in your garden perennials, put some of these on your spring shopping list. Around here, sales start in late March and continue all through April.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Hemlock Falls – In Praise of Winter Waterfalls

Winter in Georgia is usually one of plentiful rainfall and of course that can make for good waterfalls. Since there are few plants to look at (and they’re not blooming), winter is a great time to hike to see waterfalls. Last Sunday I had the opportunity to visit Hemlock Falls in Clarkesville and the streams and falls were bursting at the seams!

Start of the trail 

There are several waterfalls named Hemlock Falls. This is not the one at Cloudland Canyon State Park. This one is across the road from Moccasin Creek State Park and the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery. It is not part of a state park so there is no parking fee and it’s a relatively short hike from the parking area – just 1.2 miles to the falls.

Moccasin Creek with Rhododendron and Leucothoe

The parking area is small and might be crowded in the spring but only a few people were there on this foggy Sunday morning. Hemlocks frame the parking area and you could hear the gurgling of Moccasin Creek the moment you stepped out of the car. The early path is easy walking with several areas to get close to the creek if you want.  After a while, the vegetation thickens with evergreen shrubs: highland doghobble (Leucothoe fontanesiana) along the creek side, great laurel (Rhododendron maximum), and mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia). This path will be pretty in May and June when those bloom.

This gusher was right on the path
Small waterfalls burst out along the edge of the trail, sometimes soaking it. In the summer, these may be mere trickles. Sturdy shoes are a good idea both for the mud and the occasional root and rocks. The trail includes a couple of benches and a really nice bridge over the creek before you get to the falls. I particularly liked how someone worked a fallen log into the path. Once you get to the bridge, the path is noticeably trickier so carry a stick or use a friend's helping hand to safely navigate some of it.

The area at the falls is wide and suitable for a good rest and snack. The trail continues beyond in a much smaller fashion to another falls called Moccasin Creek Falls. We continued about .2 of a mile further but then decided to turn around. There is a nice wet cliff with saxifrage in that area, just about even with the top of Hemlock Falls.

Hemlock Falls, bursting with water in winter

There are many waterfalls to visit in Georgia. I think I'm going to have to make a better effort to visit more each winter. Here are a few links to explore, including ones that I have been to. Enjoy!

DeSoto Falls in Lumpkin County
Raven Cliff Falls in White County
Lula Lake and Falls in Walker County
High Falls in Monroe County

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Look Closer

Bolbocerosoma beetle
Nature is incredibly complex. Did you know that 'A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes.'? Source. Even not accounting for dirt, we share this planet with millions and millions of different species – from plants, to insects, to animals, reptiles, birds, fish, fungi, and more. We know that we haven’t identified all of it because we discover more each year. We don’t really have to go far to discover new things – our own yard is home to so much if we look closely.

I’ve lived in the same place for 15 years now and you can be sure that I have looked all over it, especially in the first few years. I still find new plants. I found a fern I’d never noticed after 13 years and have since found 3 instances of it around the property.

I found golden tortoise beetles on leaves after 11 years, emerald green tiger beetles on the sidewalk after 13 years, and dung scarab beetles (Bolbocerosoma) drowning in the swimming pool after 14 years. 

Every year I have found new birds - even if only because they ran into my windows (I’ve let my big windows get really dirty and collisions are down every year!). This is a black and white warbler that hit the window in 2017; it recovered and flew away.

I identify new butterflies almost every year and I’ll probably never stop finding new moths and caterpillars because there are vastly more of them. Frankly, it’s a matter of the more I look, the more I find.

Intensely watching a defined area was the subject of a year-long project by a Nebraska employee of The Nature Conservancy. I’ve always enjoyed Chris Helzer’s blog about his work (and life) on Nebraska prairies. He announced in January 2018 that he’d be observing one square meter of prairie for a year. This quote from Chris captures how I feel about my place: “I honestly don’t think I ever visited my plot without seeing something I hadn’t seen there before.”

Perhaps he was inspired by David Haskell’s book The Forest Unseen: A Year's Watch in Nature. That book documents a similar effort except it was in a forest. [That’s a great book, you should read it, by the way.] Chris's final species total (and it doesn't include insects that flew away before he could take their picture): “As of December 27, 2018, I have photographed 113 different species of plants and animals within my little square meter plot.  That includes 15 plant species, 21 different flies, 18 beetles, and 14 bees.” You can see some of his pictures in his blog.

So as the new year rolls on, pledge to pay more attention to what's going on at your place. You'll probably get a few surprises.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Write Your Own Prescription

Moss on rock with lichen
I am just getting over my first ever bout with the flu (that I can remember) and am seriously behind on my outdoor time. A recent reminder of how doctors are acknowledging the health benefits of being outside didn’t help me feel any better mentally – now I feel even more behind.

After I finished my flu prescription, I needed a nature one! I have watched people on Facebook display their outdoor adventures for weeks. The warm, wet days of this Georgia winter has been a perfect combo for exploring the natural world of fungi, and the mushroom group has been full of glistening caps and full baskets.

I finally got outside this week, but most of my yard’s fungi had already collapsed or been nibbled on. Still, I was refreshed by the sound of the birds and the crunch of the leaves beneath my feet. Even the nibbles in the mushrooms were a happy reminder that life was moving on in the great outdoors while I wasn’t looking.

A nibbled mushroom
Mushrooms on a log

I was rejuvenated too by the wet, green growth of mosses in plump, round mounds and along tree trunks. Green-gray lichens were swollen with moisture, permeating the air with freshness. I could feel my lungs take it in as if they were hooked up to an oxygen tank. Of course, they were!

Parmotrema perforatum
Stereum complicatum

Remember to take some time and write yourself that nature prescription. It’s just as good for you as that vitamin pill. If you need some ideas on what to do outside, reference my 2017 blog entry about Vitamin N and the ideas available in that book. Vitamin N not only refreshes you, but it also grounds you with the world around us. And that’s good for us and Mother Nature.

Note: I found this fabulous resource for common lichens in the Georgia Piedmont region. It helped me identify the one shown above as perforated ruffle lichen (Parmotrema perforatum).