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.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Collateral Damage

The leaves are starting to fall, many of them stressed by the hot temperatures and lack of rain in September this year. I’m not sure that it will be a very colorful fall in my area. As the leaves fall down, so very many of them, I am reminded of this post that I wrote about 5 years ago on another site about being tolerant of insect herbivores (those that eat leaves).

Chewed Franklinia leaves
Things have to eat to survive. When plants are eaten, they don’t always look as good as before they were eaten. Think of a head of leaf lettuce growing in your garden. It is so beautiful there - wavy leaf margins and a blush of burgundy at the tips - until you lop it off to harvest it for your dinner. You weren’t really thinking about how the plant would look after that, were you?

Plants eaten by caterpillars sometimes lose their good looks too. Caterpillars don’t go into the endeavor to make the plant look bad. That’s just collateral damage, a consequence of getting the nutrition they need to reach adulthood and become a beautiful moth or butterfly.

Leaf damage comes in various forms:
  • Some caterpillars eat entire leaves; the spicebush swallowtail in my yard modestly consumed one leaf each night, leaving no trace whatsoever of what had been consumed.
  • Some caterpillars eat holes in the leaves or just the edges of them, leaving a patchwork of damaged leaves.
  • Some caterpillars skeletonize the leaves, leaving a lacy reminder of what was there.
  • Others, like fall webworms, smother the branch tips in a tangled web of silk, turning all the leaves to a crispy, brown mess.
An oak sapling with the top growth eaten by caterpillars

For the most part, only a fraction of the plant is affected by caterpillars. The larger the plant, the less noticeable the damage is. A large oak tree, for example, may have damage only on the branches high in the tree. A milkweed perennial, on the other hand, may lose a lot more. Yet both of them are doing exactly the same thing: supporting the larval form of a moth or butterfly.

Sourwood growing new leaves
after caterpillars ate it
After the caterpillar is finished growing up, many plants will sprout new leaves to replace the ones that were eaten. Nature has a way of dealing with the situation. Plants have been living with bugs that eat them for thousands of years.

Are a few chewed leaves so bad? If the infestation seems unbearable, don’t reach for the pesticides. You can pluck some off by hand (wear gloves if they bother you). Another alternative: blast them with a spray from the hose. Some may come back to the plant, but others will get eaten by predators that might not have reached them otherwise (frogs, toads, lizards). Rest assured that when you are not looking, hungry birds will be helping you out by snatching a few.

Everything has to eat and, no matter how many we think they eat, there are always plenty to fall down in the fall. Allowing caterpillars the freedom to eat leaves in our garden demonstrates our willingness to share the table we call Earth.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Georgia’s Coastal Islands: Jekyll Island

I have lived in Georgia for 31 years now but had never traveled to one of Georgia’s barrier islands until now. The Georgia coast is short, but it includes 15 barrier islands (not all of which are easily accessible). In conjunction with a family trip to Florida, we decided recently to visit Jekyll Island. I chose Jekyll because of its numerous bike paths which would allow us to explore the entire length and width of the island easily.

This photo is of a sunrise from the beach. To avoid stepping on the dunes, this was taken from the boardwalk at the Beach Village (there are many convenient boardwalks).

This quote (from this source) is a good one and provides good background on the coast in general:
Georgia does not have a long coastline; it extends roughly one-hundred miles from Tybee Island in the north to Cumberland Island in the south. Georgia’s coast is not a continuous beach where sea suddenly meets dry land, but an irregular, beautiful mixture of rivers, streams, swamps, estuaries, and islands. Another important item to note about Georgia’s coast is that it is not a static place; because of tides - the daily rise and fall of the ocean - the points where the ocean touches the land is constantly changing. At low tide, sea level is down and coastal rivers freely flow out into the ocean. But at high tide the ocean level rises by up to seven feet, pushing seawater inland for distances up to ten miles, sometime more. When this happens the coastal rivers overflow their banks and flood low-lying areas, creating saltwater marshes. These marshes are one of the most important geographical features of the Georgia coast.

The islands off the Georgia coast are called barrier islands because they form a barrier, or wall, blocking ocean waves and wind from directly hitting the mainland. Georgia has fourteen primary barrier islands - from north to south they are Tybee Island, Little Tybee Island, Wassaw Island, Ossabaw Island, St. Catherine’s Island, Blackbeard Island, Sapelo Island, Wolf Island, Little St. Simons Island, Sea Island, St. Simons Island, Jekyll Island, and Cumberland Island (the largest of Georgia’s barrier Islands). Most of Georgia’s barrier islands are protected by the state or federal governments. Some have been reserved as national wildlife refuges and wildernesses, and one - Cumberland Island - is a national seashore.
We were there just inside the off-season so the weather was nice but the island was not very crowded. The island is very easy to get around, accessible by bike paths clearly illustrated on maps. You can also drive, but I imagine parking spaces fill up during the seasonal months. The beaches are very clean; we picked up very little trash in the area between Great Dunes Park and South Dunes. The sand dollars were delightfully abundant, both alive and dead (only pick up dead ones!).

The bike path is unpaved through this Maritime Forest section

Iopomoea imperati and
Heterotheca subaxillaris
Centrosema virginianum and Serenoa repens

We visited the beach at sunrise and found wide dunes with sea oats (Uniola paniculata), beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati), and small shrubby things. Further back from the dunes was a good mix of plants, with blooming plants like camphorweed (Heterotheca subaxillaris), Spanish needles (Bidens alba), and spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum) attracting the very abundant Gulf Fritillary butterfly. In less developed areas, the areas beyond the dunes had more woody plants like cabbage palms (Sabal palmetto) and tangles of shrubs and vines. Messy as these areas can be, they are important protection zones from extreme weather.

My husband captioned this: "Put a bird on it!"

An Eastern redcedar leans over a tidal marsh near Driftwood beach (there was a gator in the water)

Outside of the beach, the bike paths went through the other habitats such as maritime live oak forest, freshwater wetlands, and tidal marshes (several of which still had a healthy population of mosquitoes so stops were quick!). Many of the paths have informative signage about the environment and what it supports. I will preface the remainder of the blog by saying I only saw a fraction of what is there. I was not prepared for long stops with extensive exploration. What I did see convinced me that Jekyll contains great amounts of natural areas, rich with a diversity of native plants. Online resources for identifying plants on Jekyll include iNaturalist and Save Jekyll Island.

The Plantation Oak (Quercus virginiana), 375+ years old; considered the largest

There was one particular tree that I sought out. The Plantation Oak on Jekyll is famous for being old and large. It is a live oak (Quercus virginiana) that is located in the historic district next to Crane Cottage, near Faith Chapel. Information on the internet is a bit vague on where it is so I am determined to be specific here! I originally found a large tree next to a small airport, but that was not it. We finally got directions to the Plantation Oak from a friendly employee at the nearby Jekyll Island Club Hotel; the tree is marked with a plaque.

It's amazing how much of this tree is intact given how long it's been here

We visited Driftwood Beach, which more known for what is dead than what is living: erosion has caused trees like live oaks and pines (probably also some junipers and palms) to die and remain in place. Some of the trees appear very close to the water, a testament to the ability of their roots to hold on even in death. This is a fantastic place for sunrise photos as well as good morning light in the adjacent wetlands.

Some of the most abundant plants included live oak (Quercus virginiana), Eastern redcedar (Juniperus virginiana), cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto), saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), wild grapes (Vitis rotundifolia and 5 other species of grape), Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria), wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), one of the bays (Persea sp.), groundsel bush (Baccharis halimifolia), and many, many grasses, sedges, rushes, and cordgrass (Spartina sp.), etc. I was also excited to find Hercules club (Zanthoxylum clava-herculis) in the wild for the first time. In general, many of the aforementioned plants were loaded with fruit, no doubt making this island a good stop for some migrating birds.

The juicy fruits of tough bully (Sideroxylon tenax) were beautiful
I found a monarch butterfly enjoying Bidens alba

Landscaped areas on the island used a fair number of native plants include the coontie palm (Zamia pumila), mulhy grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), wax myrtle, yaupon holly, Walter's viburnum (Viburnum obovatum), and plenty of live oaks and cabbage palms. Several pavilions also used dune sunflower (Helianthus debilis). While non-native plants are also used, it was nice to see such a good mix of native ones included.

Do consider visiting one of Georgia's beautiful and important barrier islands. They have some beautiful beaches, marshes, birds, and native plants!

Map of Islands (source

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Beyond the Garden

I love having native plants in my garden. Every moment that I can do so finds me slipping into the garden to find a beautiful flower, a hummingbird sipping on cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), an insect collecting food (or prey), and to listen to the sweet song of birds. As much as I love bringing these plants into my garden, I know there is a very important place for them to be as well.

Liatris spicata in South Georgia
Native plants need to be in their ecosystem. Great sections of woodlands, mountains, seashores, prairies, and every kind of natural ecosystem need to be preserved and conserved because their communities are so much more than just the plants.  Acres and acres turning into miles and miles of preserved land, the scope of what we need is as vast as it is varied.

A plant doesn’t live in isolation. Botanists and volunteers perform site surveys that measure the quantity and type of plants found within a measured plot as little as a square meter. Virgin areas can yield counts in the dozens – all different species. Compare that to your average yard where you have a tree circled by mulch and some non-native turf.

Rich biodiversity of plant species supports a robust and varied insect population. A healthy insect population balances itself (some insects keeping others in check) while also attracting and supporting more birds than suburban gardens could do alone.

Home of shoals spider lilies (Hymenocallis coronaria) in Middle Georgia

Conservation can also have other benefits (although what is better than helping our fellow earthlings survive and thrive) as well. Birding and other activities like fishing and hiking bring in big tourism dollars.

When The Nature Conservancy purchased the South Cape May Meadows Preserve in southern New Jersey in 1981, the goal was to protect an important natural system for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. In a pleasant surprise, it turned out that protecting and restoring the habitat for birds also expanded local tourism revenues and reduced costs from storm damage.

By improving habitat and making the preserve more accessible, the restoration attracted many birders who would not otherwise have visited the county and played a key role in over $200 million in per year in new spending. Source

Here you can see that the benefit to protecting the shoreline from storms and erosion is another benefit. Protecting plants, insects, birds  - all while improving the local economy and preventing erosion! Who knew that nature could be so good for us?

A waterfall in North Georgia
The health benefits of being outdoors observing nature are being documented more strongly every day. There is special concern about how little time that children spend outdoors and what that means not only to their health but to their connection to the natural environment.

Land conservation allows more space to be available, often in expansive state and national parks, allowing citizens of all means to enjoy beautiful landscapes for a small entrance fee. Our first national park was designated in 1872. Georgia State Parks started in 1931 with Indian Springs State Park and Vogel State Park. It was the automobile that got people interested in going places like parks.

How can the ordinary citizen help protect more land? Here are a few ideas:

  • Visit conserved places (state and national parks as well as private holdings) to show that you value what has been set aside. Your visit and your tourism dollars both support efforts to conserve habitat.
  • Volunteer your time and efforts to help keep these areas clear of invasive plants or repair benches and walkways. Not sure if there are regular workdays? Just ask!
  • Support legislative efforts to fund land purchases for conservation and become involved in efforts to lobby for more conservation.
  • Teach others about the importance of conservation. That teenager that you spent time with exploring the natural world might become a future  botanist and make an important discovery.
  • Money - your donations to conservation organizations large and small can make a difference in funding a staff member or buying land.

So while I love incorporating local native plants into my garden and I will absolutely continue to encourage others  to do so as well – let’s all take some time and some energy to support the efforts that conserve and preserve these wonderful plants in the plants where they were born.

Okefenokee view, South Georgia