Sunday, June 30, 2019

Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast (the book)

This is a brand new book released just this week, and I got my pre-ordered copy immediately. The range for this field guide includes Georgia as the southern end while the northern end reaches New Jersey. West Virginia is included but Tennessee is not. The trio of authors paired up their excellent plant knowledge with some of the best plant photographers to include details for over 1200 wildflower species (including a few non-native ones that you might find).

It has an excellent overview section that discusses the ‘ecological factors that determine where plants grow’ from sun/shade to moisture, elevation, soil makeup, and more. These are very important considerations, and I like that it was included. This book also includes a thoroughly useful description of plant families (grouped by Magnoliids, Monocots, and True Dicots), and the genera that they include. This section as well as the over 60 pages that precede the plant profiles is wonderfully educational. I felt like I was in a class, but it was a class that I wanted to be in!

At first you might think this is another flower-color-oriented seek-and-find field guide. It has that capability, pictures are arranged by color, but this field guide has smarts too – a simple key that walks you through characteristics to a specific section of that color. After identifying the flower color, the key directs you to choose the flower shape (bilateral, radial, composite, or undistinguishable – the inside cover of the book has good pictures of these); if it’s radial (a round-shaped flower), then determine the number of petals (anywhere from 2 to 7+).  The next step is to determine leaf shape (simple vs. divided), leaf arrangement (alternate, opposite, whorled, basal), and leaf margins (entire, toothed, lobed).

Penstemon digitalis,
showing bilateral symmetry
Let’s take an example, using a common white flower called beardtongue (Penstemon). It is white and the flower shape is bilateral (e.g., you could cut it in half and the two sides would match, see picture with red line through the center of the flower). The leaves are simple and opposite and the leaf margins are toothed. Using the key on page 48, that directs us to page 77 which is the start of the section of white flowers that match that criteria (and which continues through page 81). The plant we’re looking to identify is the third one on page 79: Penstemon digitalis.

If you can’t get a match, consider checking other color areas (perhaps it is really a light purple or a purple flower is more reddish …). I’ll admit that I was surprised to find butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana) in the blue section while spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) is in the red section. Clearly what is red-blue to some is blue-purple to others.

Because leaves are part of the key, don’t expect to find all the blue species of the same genus – such as violets – in the same section. If you think it is a violet, you can still go to the index, find all the violets (Viola) and then look up each of them. Of course, the book itself had to exclude some species, limiting the choices to those ‘most likely’ to be found ... so not every violet is in the guide.

Plant details include a photo, a range map (purple shading on the map means indigenous to that area, orange is outside of its range – which is true for my area for this Penstemon species where it is grown as a garden plant), as well as flowering timeframe, size, and a very detailed description of the plant and its natural habitat.

I believe in having an assortment of references so I’ll just make a mention as to how this field guide might differ from others you might use in Georgia. The most recently published was Linda Chafin’s 2016 book, “Field Guide to the Wildflowers of Georgia and Surrounding States.” This book is organized by dicots and monocots and then by families within those groups; a color thumbnail section is included in the back for searching by flower color. I reviewed this one in 2016 and still use it a lot; you can read my review here.

An older book is “Wildflowers of Tennessee, the Ohio Valley, and the Southern Appalachians,” first published in 2005 and updated most recently in 2018. It is arranged by family but includes a color thumbnail section in the beginning. Some of the families include a family key. It is popular with some of my Georgia friends.

An even older book (and one of the ones that I started with even though Georgia is not part of its range) is the 1977 “Newcomb’s Wildflower Guide.” I mention this one because it has a similar approach to having the reader figure out basic characteristics and then going to the section that matches the answers. It doesn’t have photographs and is not organized by color, but it does have great line drawings. It also includes shrubs and vines.

So, if you’re in the mood for new field guide with all the current names, fabulous pictures, and a heaping helping of good knowledge, check out Wildflowers of the Atlantic Southeast by Laura Cotterman, Damon Waitt, and Alan Weakley. Click the linked name of the book above to see pictures from inside the book.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Supporting Pollinators is Really Simple

This is the end of Pollinator Week 2019 but of course it is never really the end of our support for them. I’m grateful to have this week designated to ensure that we all take the time to think about making choices that help them not just survive but thrive. Few things in nature make me as happy as seeing a native insect interacting with a native plant (such as this metallic green sweat bee on orange milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa, found in my yard this week).

This week’s messaging by The Xerces Society, a fabulous organization, included reminders about their Bring Back the Pollinators campaign. This campaign has such a simple message that I decided to highlight it here. The campaign has four principles:

  • Provide pollinators with flowers from which to drink nectar and gather pollen.
  • Provide them with places to lay their eggs or build a nest.
  • Provide an environment that is free from pesticides.
  • Spread the word about helping pollinators.

Here's a shareable graphic!

There are decisions to be made in each one of those principles. For example, in principle 1, flowers need to be available in spring, summer, and fall so plant selections should be varied. I covered plant selection in the second of my recent posts on planting for pollinators. You can also find plant lists in that post.

Southward bound monarchs need fall flowers

Plant selection is also a critical factor in principle 2 for the pollinators that need to lay their eggs on specific plants – these are known as ‘insect herbivores’ and are primarily the butterflies and moths. Think about the monarch butterfly laying her eggs on milkweed. For bees, principle 2 is addressed in some of the maintenance points (e.g., leaving stems and bare ground) that I outline in the third of my posts on pollinators.

A buckeye caterpillar turns into ...
A buckeye butterfly!

Not using pesticides should be well understood if you actually want to have insects, but sometimes companies try to convince us that their product is ‘safe.’ However, studies are finding that products meant to control one type of insect actually do harm non-target species, and that even ‘natural’ products cause some harm. The rise in usage of mosquito misting companies is particularly alarming, and harm to pollinators in the area is increasingly documented.

Who doesn’t remember the old education efforts to combat mosquitoes by making sure that you didn’t have standing water in the area (e.g., old tires, empty cans, and unused buckets)? We should still be doing that. Honestly, they can't make babies without standing water! Dense, thick-leaved vegetation like English ivy has also been shown to support mosquito larvae. We also know that encouraging the right enemies helps us: dragonflies and damselflies as well as many species of birds are all superb mosquito hunters.

On principle 4, I love some of the simple ideas for spreading the word: telling your neighbors, posting wildlife certification signs, and posting pictures on social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I love to share pictures of the insects that I find. We have so many ways to share now, spread the news!

Variegated fritillary butterfly

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Meet the Beetles (in my flowers)

My native Spiraea plants bloom each June, each inflorescence of tiny white flowers becoming a showy beacon of pollen and nectar for the insects whose life cycle apparently coincides with that time. By and large, the insects which are most attracted to it are beetles. It’s as if these beetles know that this is the right time to emerge! With Pollinator Week starting tomorrow, I thought now is a good time to celebrate these little-known pollinators.

I have two species of meadowsweet, which is what our native Spiraea is often called: white meadowsweet (Spiraea alba) and Virginia meadowsweet (Spiraea virginiana). The Virginia one is blooming vigorously right now and its location by my front steps means that I see it multiple times a day. The flowers are tiny but numerous. The long-horned beetles show up almost immediately, first singly and then pairing up in joyous feast of food and sex.

What always surprises me is just how many species of long-horned beetles show up. Even ones that look very similar, once you really look at them, turn out to be not just a different species but even a different genus! Here are some of the ones that I’ve seen on these flowers.

Red-shoulder pine borer
(Stictoleptura canadensis) 
Flower long-horned beetle
(Strangalia luteicornis)

Margined leatherwing
(Chauliognathus marginatus)
Zebra long-horned beetle
(Typocerus zebra)

A less-showy visitor is a very small species of scarab beetles in the genus Trichiotinus. What they don’t have in looks, they make up for in numbers - these tiny guys are all over the flowers. Among all these beetles can be found the occasional small bees (sweat bees), large and noisy brown-belted bumble bees, and I even found a mosquito taking a rest on the flowers. 

Scarab beetle (Trichiotinus)

By the way, another similar shrub which also attracts these beetles is smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens). I have seen these same insects on those clusters of tiny flowers.

Back to the beetles – where do they come from? All the native beetles that I’ve mentioned are wood beetles: their mommas deposit eggs in soft wood and the larvae spend their youth chewing up and breaking down decaying and dead wood. In other words, they are cleaning up.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

AlterNATIVE: Native Trees Instead of Mimosa

Every year I remind people that the mimosa trees (Albizia julibrissin) that bloom in May and June are not native. I do this via a Facebook page for native plants. Every year, I brace myself for the inevitable comments that follow:

  • ‘I grew up with it and it reminds me of childhood.’
  • ‘It’s so pretty and graceful.’
  • ‘Hummingbirds love it.’
  • ‘It’s not invasive in my yard!’
  • ‘Why can’t we all just get along?’ (they never say that about kudzu)

That annual post is a sad reminder that we still have more work to do on helping people to understand why invasive plants – the ones that can spread themselves from place to place – contribute to the decline in insect and bird populations. How do invasive plants contribute to a decline in birds and insects? They do it by decreasing the diversity of plants that can feed native insects and birds.

In the wild, on unmanaged roadsides, mimosa trees create huge canopies on the sunny edges, reducing space for native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants that would grow there otherwise. Grasses, goldenrods, and other native flowering plants would be feeding insects and birds throughout the year. One person always comments that it is simply a ‘pioneer plant’ and not invasive, but it out-competes native pioneer plants regardless of how you describe it.

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
This year, one person asked for recommendations of native trees that might have a similar look for those who admire it. That question is what has inspired me to write this blog. My recommendations would fall into two aspects: 1) The person wants a medium-sized tree with a spreading growth habit, or 2) The person wants a tree that blooms in the summer.

We don’t have many native trees that bloom in the summer but I do have a recommendation: sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). Now that happens to be an awesome tree for a variety of reasons, over and above the presence of summer blooms. First, it’s perfectly at home in a large part of Georgia, going as far south as the Florida border on the western side of the state. It may be under-reported on the eastern side of Georgia because it is quite widespread in our neighboring Coastal Plain states of Alabama and South Carolina. The blooms are much loved by bees, both native and honey bees, so it has good wildlife value. Finally, the fall color is just plain awesome while the fall color on mimosa is non-existent.

One other June-blooming plant is a large shrub that is tree-like: buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), shown with accidental butterfly in front of it (wink). It likes a moister environment, growing even in wet areas like pond/lake edges, but it would definitely give you gorgeous flowers in the same timeframe. My neighbor has one next to a pond and it is quite large now and always covered in bumble bees and butterflies when blooming.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Alternative trees with spreading branches, but which bloom in spring instead, include two of our native dogwoods: flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia).

Pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifolia)

Two other recommendations of trees with spreading branches are Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis) and any of the species of serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.). I have also found that my bigleaf snowbell (Styrax grandifolius) has a nice shape as well.

These are recommendations that Georgians throughout the state can consider as better alter-NATIVES for trees like mimosa. So while you’re looking at mimosas on the roadside now, start dreaming about planting a nice native tree this fall. And in case you are not sure what mimosa is, here's a picture of it from near my house.

Non-native Albizia julibrissin

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Native Clematis

For people familiar with the vast array of non-native clematis grown in gardens – big showy, open flowers – most of the native ones will surprise you. In Georgia we have bell-shaped, spring-blooming native clematis as well as a very common late summer one.  All of them are garden-worthy, with a little understanding, and deserve wider use.

Generally considered to be a perennial, herbaceous vine, clematis are usually scramblers with a small amount of modified leaf stalks, or petioles, which can twine around something slender. Most species do not have persistent woody growth, but the summer one (Clematis virginiana) might. In my garden I let it scramble, and it can be hard to see if the vines persisted.

Clematis viorna
All the spring and summer blooming native clematis have bell-shaped blooms, earning them the sometimes name of American bells. They have a bunch of other common names, so don’t get too attached to that one! There are about 6 different species of these, with more species expected to be named in the next few years as taxonomists complete some research underway.

When it comes to the flowers of these species, the colorful petals are actually sepals that surround a cluster of stamens.  The flowers are pollinated primarily by bumble bees, and some species are noted for fragrance. Most grow as scrambling vines, but a few of the species grow straight upright like a perennial.

Clematis sp. (Carter Lake)
Clematis sp.

Northern leatherflower (Clematis viorna), also called vasevine, is perhaps the most commonly identified but it is also the species that is perhaps most likely to have new species broken out from it (from what I’ve heard). I have one plant, shown as the first picture in this blog, rescued from land in Sandy Springs, GA. It has gorgeous deep pink, shiny sepals with cream-colored insides. It grows 7-9 feet in a growing season.

Labeled as Clematis viorna but maybe new species
Another plant that I have, which I bought, was labeled C. viorna but it really does not resemble the other. The sepals are noticeably ridged, are not shiny, and have purple insides. You can see it above with the silver-spotted skipper butterfly and here to the right.

I have another plant that was raised from seed collected in Floyd County that looks similar to it; I’ve been given to understand that some of these will probably be considered a new species eventually.

I find both of my ridged, purple ones similar in looks to Southern leatherflower (Clematis crispa) because of the crispy-looking edges. C. crispa is a species which I have only seen in pictures, which show the sepals to be more dramatically splayed than these. C. crispa grows 6-9 feet each year and is noted as being fragrant. Both C. viorna and C. crispa should be in our gardens and can be found at plant sales on via online nurseries.

Less available in cultivation are whiteleaf leatherflower (Clematis glaucophylla) and netleaf leatherflower (Clematis reticulata). Both of these are uncommon in Georgia but can be found on hikes in well-preserved habitat (which is how I was able to see the netleaf leatherflower).

Clematis reticulata

Three more species are erect-growing plants, not very vine-like and they are all uncommon. Fremont’s leatherflower (Clematis fremontii ) is state endangered and only found in one location; curlyheads (Clematis ochroleuca) is state listed as special concern; and Alabama leatherflower (Clematis socialis) is state endangered and only found in one location. I have been fortunate to photograph two of these special species. These are not plants that will be in our gardens but hopefully we can keep them safe in the wild.

Clematis socialis
Clematis socialis

Clematis fremontii being grown for conservation use

The last species is the most rambunctious and also is often confused with a non-native relative. Virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) is a white, open flower that grows in moist areas and often blooms in abundance, making a large mass. It is quite similar to sweet-autumn clematis (C. terniflora); I can only tell them apart by looking at the foliage (the non-native species has smooth leaf margins). Both are vigorous growers, growing as much as 20 feet in a season. They bloom from July to September and have no fragrance. The native species can retain some of its woody growth from a previous year.

Clematis virginiana

Depending on where you are, I would certainly recommend that you add either C. viorna or C. crispa to your garden. They are unique and elegant flowers on relatively well-behaved vines that will add both charm and diversity to your native plant insect buffet.

Closer look of Clematis virginiana
Many Clematis species have beautiful seedheads too