Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 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 photo of 2020 was on the beach at Jekyll Island in early March for a conference. It seems appropriate for a year that we wish we could just wash away.

The first two months were normal, of course; we were just suspecting by the end of February that something was about to change; a few activities continued until mid-March … we’ve been home ever since, with limited forays into natural areas. At least half of my weekly blog topics normally depend on outings and learning new plants, so this year has been a bit of challenge. Several times the topic was simply about what was blooming in my yard.

Prunus  caroliniana: two types of leaves

In late January I got to solve a mystery that had bothered me. In the metro Atlanta area, we often find seedlings with toothed leaves of what appear to be Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana). Photos of blooming plants (or those with fruit) show leaves with entire edges (no teeth). Apparently both types of leaves are normal for the age and maturity of the plant, and I found examples of both at Dunwoody Nature Center (although this is a Coastal Plain native species).

The green tree frog (Hyla cinerea)

I was thrilled to find our state amphibian in my yard in 2019 and equally thrilled to spot it again in February, warming itself on the dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor). I have repeatedly seen it and another one in the same area during 2020 so the palm must be a happy spot for them. Happy frogs are surely a sign of a healthy environment, right? We also raised some gray treefrog tadpoles this year.

Houstonia pusilla

I love finding the tiny annual bluets (Houstonia pusilla) every spring. This year I found a big population in a lawn within walking distance of my house in March. It’s hard to get the camera to capture the sweep of them. Keep an eye out for yourself come spring.

Early April proved that looking carefully can find fleeting discoveries: a trio of tiny morel mushrooms popped up near the front steps. They were only there a few days before withering. If I had been more active (and therefore not home), I would have missed them.

The first morel I've seen
Female dobsonfly

I spotted a most unusual insect on the side of the house in May just as dusk was falling. This photo taken with my phone was the best I could do given the light and the short duration of her visit. It is a female dobsonfly, another good indicator of a healthy ecosystem. The larvae grow up in rocky streams (and we have one on the property).

Plantago aristata

In June, I ventured out for a site evaluation for a plant rescue location. A new plant found was the large-bracted plantain (Plantago aristata). This species is fairly widespread in Georgia and is considered mostly an annual and a bit of weed in some areas. I think it’s kind of pretty. Click on the picture to enlarge it and see the tiny flowers.

The ‘tiny hands’ photos that I talked about in May continued through the growing season. He was eager to pose and the blooms on this scarlet hibiscus were fabulous this year, many of them low enough for him to reach like these in July.

Hibiscus coccineus
Monarch gets ready to fly

Although I never had any monarch eggs laid in my yard this year, a nearby friend was kind enough to share hers with us so that we could feed them and watch the life cycle. The last of them were released in August (it was a strangely prolific year in Georgia for monarch egg-laying activity well into the summer), and I finally convinced him to hold one. He later helped release Gulf fritillary butterflies too.

Katy Ross of Night Song Native Plant Nursery introduced me to one of her favorite perennials: Brickellia cordifolia or Flyr's brickellbush, blooming here in September. I already grow the more common Brickellia eupatorioides which is cream-colored. This pink-flowered species looks a lot like blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), especially when not blooming.

Brickellia cordifolia
Annual sunflowers

In October we ventured up to look for North Georgia apples to pick. We were too late for that but stumbled upon a gorgeous field of late annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). A few migrating monarch butterflies were there too.

Fall color was surprising good in spots even after the Zeta storm in late October roared through and stripped off a bunch of leaves. One of the November highlights in my yard was the parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii) which turned completely red. Some years I only get a few red leaves on it.

Parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii)

As awful as this year has been, there were occasional bright spots: spending more time in my own garden as well as the time we’ve been spending with our grandson. He loves to be outside and, as long as the weather is nice, we roam out into the yard and woods to see what’s going on. This photo was from a mild day in December.

I hope that this year has inspired you all to add more native plants to your landscape and spend more time out in nature.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Made in the Shade

A sweep of foamflower and creeping phlox

I am encouraged by the number of folks deciding to choose more native plants for their yard. They speak about helping the insects, the birds, and ‘doing the right thing’ for the environment. It is a bright spot in an otherwise discouraging year that more people have had the time to explore the outdoors and make changes in their landscape. This week I realized that I haven’t done a post specifically about more shade-tolerant native plants for the garden and some folks need ideas for shade.

Any topic about shade needs to start with some parameters around what “shade” is in the garden. I’ll start by saying what it is not. Full sun is a term that is used in the garden and it is defined by the number of hours of sun that the landscape receives (most specifically during the time that leaves are on the plant, of course). Full sun is defined as 6 or more hours of direct sun; it could be in the morning (the gentlest type of full sun) or the afternoon or a mix of both. In this post I talk about measuring amount of sun.

Shade is therefore something less than 6 hours and that is what gives us the variety of terms such as “part sun,” “part shade,” and “full shade.” The first two terms are similar in number of hours (4-6 hours of direct sun) but are distinguished by the amount of morning vs. afternoon sun (part sun having more of its hours in the afternoon—which is harsher—while part shade has more in the morning). Full shade is defined as less than 4 hours.

Red columbine with scorpionweed

With that in mind and with one more caveat at the end of this post (so read all the way), let’s talk about some Georgia native plants that can handle various shade conditions (and I’ve probably forgotten a few so please add your favorite in the comments if I did).

Ferns: Of course ferns are great for shade; while Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is one of the best throughout the state, read about other native ferns at my earlier blog: Ferns That Work For You.

Ferns in a large group can be a strong design element

Perennials: foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia); coral bells (Heuchera americana and H. villosa); galax (Galax urceolata); black cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and the related doll’s eyes (Actaea pachypoda); evergreen native gingers (Hexastylis spp.) and the deciduous Canadian ginger (Asarum canadense); native pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens); Trillium species; toothwort (Cardamine spp.); Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Solomon’s plume (Maianthemum racemosum); mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum); Robin’s plantain (Erigeron pulchellus); green & gold (Chrysogonum virginianum); red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis); scorpionweed (Phacelia bipinnatifida); woodland stonecrop (Sedum ternatum); partridgeberry (Mitchella repens); fly poison (Amianthium muscitoxicum); bellwort (Uvularia spp.); rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) and other Thalictrum species; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis); spring beauty (Claytonia spp.); trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum); Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica); woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata and P. stolonifera); geranium (Geranium maculatum); golden ragwort (Packera aurea); dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata); woodland violets (like Viola hirsutula and many others); star chickweed (Stellaria pubera); wild bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia and other relatives); and Jack in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).

Note that many of these shade-tolerant perennials are spring bloomers because they take advantage of the extra sun they can get before deciduous trees leaf out.

Trillium maculatum with trout lilies in South Georgia

Shrubs: hearts a bustin’ (Euonymus americanus); mapleleaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium); red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and bottlebrush buckeye (A. parviflora); doghobble (Leucothoe spp. and Eubotrys racemosus) and the related pipestem (Agarista populifolia); Florida anise (Illicium floridanum and I. parviflorum); yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima); spicebush (Lindera benzoin); Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica); mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia); rhododendron (such as Rhododendron catawbiense or R. maximum); devilwood (Cartrema americana, formerly Osmanthus americanus); witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana); leatherwood (Dirca palustris); Alabama snowwreath (Neviusia alabamensis); lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum); and our native hydrangeas like oakleaf (H. quercifolia) and smooth hydrangea (H. arborescens).

Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

Small Trees: American and bigleaf snowbells (Styrax americanus and S. grandifolius); silverbells (Halesia tetraptera and others); musclewood/ironwood/hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana) and the similar hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana); pagoda dogwood (Swida alternifolia, formerly Cornus alternifolia) and flowering dogwood (Benthamidia florida, formerly Cornus florida); southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) or chalkbark maple (Acer leucoderme); Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana) as well as Carolina cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana); and Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).

Alternate leaf dogwood (Swida alternifolia)

One more item to clarify is how plants do when placed in light conditions that aren’t what they prefer —or if the light conditions change due to trees maturing or trees dying/falling. Plants that get less sun than they require will have fewer blooms and grow at a slower rate. Plants that get more sun than they prefer will look stressed, and if the moisture of the area is too dry they may die. Good moisture may help a plant survive more sun than usual up to a point. If the moisture is too much (e.g., standing water), the roots may not get the oxygen they need and the plant could die.

Enjoy exploring some of these choices to make your shady spot come alive. Plants that were made for the shade are the ones that will do best and natives offer lots of choices.

Shade plants welcome spring exuberantly (bloodroot in this photo)

Sunday, December 13, 2020

The Winter Feast is Set


Seedheads of Symphyotrichum racemosum await the birds

After a brief cold spell, temps warmed up this week and we ventured outside again to explore the yard (I still have that 2-year old with me and he loves to be OUTside as he says). The moment we step outside, tiny birds fly up and away, startled away from the brown stems and fluffy seed heads.

It took all year to prepare the feast for them: a year of making choices (native plants appropriate to each part of the garden), a year of helping them grow (pulling out weeds, watering during the driest times), and finally, the time when we choose to leave them in place and not “clean up” the dead stems and leaves.

Dog fennel seedheads
New England aster seedheads

Seed heads and dried stems contain nutritious seeds (some very tiny) as well as become a place for overwintering insects and their eggs. Birds like Carolina wrens, goldfinches, and cardinals are some of the more frequent visitors. A tidy yard would not provide nearly as much food for them.

I am reminded each time I’m outside of how much they depend on our winter gardens. If you like to support birds in your garden, here is a link to my earlier blog on how native plants support birds. You can start now by putting down the clippers and watching what happens.

Hypericum densiflorum seeds
Pycnanthemum muticum seedheads

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Ligustrum’s Winter Reveal

Privet (Ligustrum sp.) is one of the worst non-native invasive plants in Georgia. It thrives in all conditions (sun, shade, wet, and dry), allowing its seeds to germinate and grow almost anywhere they land. During the leafy seasons—when other plants are fully leafed out—privet plants might not be as noticeable, but come winter their evergreen leaves stand out, revealing their presence.

Ligustrum has opposite leaves

While the small-leaf Ligustrum sinense (often called ‘hedge’ by old-timers) is the more well-known of the naturalized privets here, the wax-leaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum) is getting more use in landscapes and, as a result, is starting to invade more areas. I had been watching a group of 3-4 plants get larger and larger in one neighbor’s wooded area. It had seeded in some years ago from another neighbor’s wax-leaf shrubs, but I had hoped that the shade would keep it from blooming. This year, after most of the deciduous leaves dropped from the plants around, I noticed that the largest of the plants had such abundant fruit on it that the branches drooped with the weight.

Fruit on multiple branches
Sourwood next to the Ligustrum

As time goes by, it will shade out some of the native plants that might have grown there like sourwood saplings and blueberries. One of the sourwood saplings nearby had bright foliage; you can see in the picture where the privet grows relative to the other plants.

Now is a great time to identify any evergreen invasive plants in your landscape or restoration area and remove them. Most of Georgia enjoys year-round planting conditions so get some native shrubs to replace them. While it might seem that the birds need these fruits, research has shown that bird populations overall do better with a diverse mix of native plants, and there are many that provide fruits.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

The Oaks in My Yard

As I continue to stay home most of the time (still a pandemic here!), I get a chance to appreciate more what is in my own yard. This week I’m focusing on the many oaks in my yard (a mostly wooded 2-acre tract among many others of similar size). Our part of Cherokee County is just inside the Southern Inner Piedmont ecoregion, a few short miles south of the Blue Ridge ecoregion. The area is rich in a diverse collection of native trees.

Fall color of Quercus alba
Flaky bark of young Quecus alba

The first oak that I noticed and the most prevalent is white oak (Quercus alba). A large canopy tree, it has beautiful leaves and fall color and abundant plump acorns for wildlife. Its flaky bark is noticeable even as a young tree. The deep burgundy-colored leaves are a late season treat.

There are no large water oaks (Quercus nigra) in my neighborhood, but there are plenty of young trees. Perhaps the big ones were removed when homes were built over 30 years ago. The trees are quite noticeable this time of year as they hold their green-yellow leaves longer than almost any other deciduous tree. The leaf shape can be quite variable, and I am never quite sure if very young saplings are water oaks or Southern red oaks.

Water oak (Quercus nigra) leaves
Southern red oak (Quercus falcata)

Southern red oak (Quercus falcata) is abundant in the neighborhood, and the turkey-foot shaped leaves and tiny acorns can be found everywhere. I have a hard time not calling it turkey oak (a common name used for a different species) based on those leaves. The thick leaves with a felt-like underside are mostly a rich brown in the fall but occasionally offer hints of red.

Quercus marilandica leaves catch the sun over the driveway

Blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica) is fairly abundant, mostly as young trees but I did find a large mature one in the back yard recently. I am not sure that I’ve found any acorns for it, however. Fall color can be so-so except for the ones near the driveway which are reddish. Wind-pollinated oaks can hybridize, of course, and in some cases I wonder if a little white oak got into these.

Scarlet oak near my mailbox
Scarlet oak leaves and acorns

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) is a favorite one and the neighbor across the street has a gorgeous one (perfect for my viewing too). Glossy red leaves are about at their peak right now so a trip to the mailbox gives me a nice look every day. Acorns are good-sized; a quick check at the apex reveals the faint concentric rings that distinguish them so quickly as scarlet oak.

Quercus rubra with great color
The bark of the same tree

I knew that Northern red oak (Quercus rubra) was in the neighborhood but was never quite sure if I had one. I noticed a bright tree in the woods this week and it turned out to be that very species. The color is fantastic this year and it is still holding most all of its leaves.

Over the last 17 years I have watched a young oak sapling close to the driveway grow taller and thicker. I thought for some years that it might be a Northern red oak. A friend suggested that could be Shumard oak (Quercus shumardii). It has not produced any acorns yet and probably won’t for a while. Of course it could be a hybrid (the standard line for those we can’t figure out …). Fall color is so-so, a bit red-orange-brown.

My maybe Quercus shumardii

I have not identified Black oak (Quercus velutina) or Post oak (Quercus stellata) in my yard but both are easily found in the neighborhood, identified by fallen leaves and acorns on my walks. One more oak within the larger vicinity of my area is Chestnut oak (Quercus montana). I visit a favorite spot each year to pick up some the very large acorns for kids to see. The acorns sprout so quickly that if I'm late, most of them are already attached to the ground.

So I have potentially 7 species in the yard, 9 in the neighborhood, and 10 in the greater area (this doesn’t count all the species planted in shopping areas, read some of my earlier blogs about those). I feel fortunate indeed to live in such a diverse place. A wonderful reference about oaks can be found here as a downloadable PDF field guide. Get out there and see what's in your area!

Sunday, November 22, 2020

In Memory of a Tree

The Zeta Storm came roaring through our area with 60-mph winds just before Halloween, downing trees all over the area. Our property suffered no damage but we lost power, internet, and landlines. As we got out over the next few days, I was dismayed to see so many oaks down.

A toppled large scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea) outside the neighborhood was a distressing discovery. I had admired it for all the years we’ve been here; it was always a gorgeous color in the fall and a big provider of acorn mast for the critters. This year’s acorns were scattered all over the road as well as still affixed to many of the upper branches. I gathered a big bagful.

The fallen tree in 2019
Acorns will carry the legacy

Not far from this one, two other scarlet oaks were down. One had just survived the construction of a new house and I celebrated last year that it would live to bring beauty for years to come. Another lay across the road, a fence and other trees that were smashed in the downing of it.

Fallen scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

Despite the sadness, I know that other plants will get a chance to thrive in the sunny void these trees left behind. Nature creates and nature destroys … and then creates again. I’ll take that bagful of acorns and help to create many more trees to honor the ones lost that day. Trees to remember a tree.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Fall Foliage Delights Again

Pinks, oranges, and yellows make for a pleasing view

The Zeta storm came through with fierce winds at the end of October and many people predicted a diminished fall foliage season because so many leaves were ripped off the trees. Turns out, they were a little too pessimistic: slowly but surely, color began to appear.

Sourwood shines bright
Since I am staying home most of the time, this report is mostly based on the trees in my area. The first color to appear was on the sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboreum). Their long leaves slowly turned a variety of pinks and soft oranges, deepening to vibrant purples as the days continued. Hands down, the sourwood trees have been the stars of Fall 2020, putting on a show for 2-3 weeks, even holding on after a rain.

While the sourwoods were still there, red maples (Acer rubrum) burst into color. In their usual variety of yellow to pink-red, I sometimes had to get closer to figure out if what I was seeing was a sourwood or maple in my mini forest. As the golden yellow of the hickories (Carya sp.) started, the woodland glowed like a botanical fruit cocktail of color. For two days, I could hardly bear to stay inside, and my camera seemed unable to capture the magic.

View from the front

As I write this now (Nov 14), the maples are gone, the sourwoods persist, and the American beeches (Fagus grandifolia) are changing to their buttery colors. Hints of the deep colors of native oaks are just emerging, a prelude to phase 2 of North Georgia’s fall show. 

While the number of leaves this year was reduced because of the storm, those who got to stay did their best to put on a good show and it was beautiful! Be sure to watch as the oaks finish this one out.

Like to have more color? Read through some of my earlier blogs on fall foliage.

A neighbor's black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is always red

Sunday, November 8, 2020

How to Rake Leaves

I was out raking my leaves this week and, while listening to leaf-blower noise from neighboring properties, it occurred to me that perhaps people need a primer on how to do what we did for many years growing up. 

I hope this small reminder will help encourage more folks to set aside their leaf-blower in favor of some good exercise and a more environmentally-friendly way of dealing with our fallen leaves.

And yes, in a few weeks, I'll get to do it again (just as those with leaf-blowers will). It's a great way to work off some of that Halloween candy.

Here are my tips:

1.      Own a rake. I like the flexible metal ones and, when properly stored, they last for years.

2.      Dress comfortably and in layers so that you can be more comfortable as you warm up with the exercise.

3.     Wear lightweight gloves to avoid blisters and unexpected icky things when you pick up the leaves. Long sleeves and yard shoes help too.

4.      Reduce your lawn so that you don’t have so much to do each year.

5.      As much as possible, rake your leaves into your non-lawn areas so that you don’t have any work associated with bagging them. It’s like sweeping!

6.      Get a buddy to help you out.

I personally think that #4 (reduce the lawn) is a very important one. Let’s plan to do that more in time for next year’s leaf season.

My raking buddy
Still plenty left to fall!

Sunday, November 1, 2020


These spindly bits of brown “twigs” might catch your eye this time of year in moist woods with American beech (Fagus grandifolia). In some areas, they can be abundant around the roots of these trees. Often what is most noticeable are the taller stems from the previous year of this very modest plant called beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana). Tucked among them, almost protected, you might see the pale but soft stems of the new flowers emerging. 

Cleistogamous flowers
Last year's flowers

Beechdrops is an obligate parasitic plant that requires its host, specifically the roots of the American beech tree, to complete its life cycle. The genus name of the plant, Epifagus, is from the Greek “epi” which means ‘on’ or ‘upon’ and the word Fagus which refers to the beech tree. It is an herbaceous plant—meaning it has no woody parts—that grows up to 18 inches tall and lacks chlorophyll. Most of the ones I find are about 12 inches tall by the time they finish up and turn brown.

Group of Epifagus virginiana around a beech tree

The small flowers are alternately arranged on the stem and have attractive purple stripes if you get down close enough to look at them. According to my research, the flowers on the lower part of the stem are cleistogamous (self-fertile); these flowers are small and more round. The flowers on the upper part of the stem are chasmogamous, more tubular in shape, and about 8 mm long. It is unclear what pollinators are associated with this plant but one research source suggested that ants may be involved.

New and old flowers

This plant is a member of the broom-rape family (Orobanchaceae). This family contains other similarly unusual plants like Conopholis americana (parasitic on oaks and beech) and Orobanche uniflora (parasitic on saxifrage, sedum, sunflowers, and goldenrod), both of which are found in Georgia. [Monotropa, known as Indian pipe and which also lacks chlorophyll, is not in that family.]

So if you're out exploring and you come across these modest plants, take a moment to appreciate them for their uniqueness. They are but one part of the very complex ecosystem in which we live.