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.