Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Week in New Blooms

Uvularia sessilifolia on March 21
One of the reasons that many of us like spring is the sense of renewal after looking at dried sticks and brown stems for several months. Each new bloom of spring is magical and this is probably the best week so far (or am I just appreciating it more?).

I have made a more conscious effort this week to photograph new blooms in my garden and I thought I would share that progression: from Saturday March 21 through Friday March 27. During this time we have had good temperatures and several days of rain (again) so the plants are really making progress. My earliest milkweed (Asclepias exaltata) emerged last week and grew about 8 inches this week. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) emerged in one of my big pots and is currently about 4 inches tall. If we’re on schedule for early April monarch adults—like I’ve had in the past—I’ll be ready.

Here’s a rundown of what bloomed in my garden this week for the first time this season:

Trees – paw paw (Asimina triloba), American plum (Prunus americana), sassafras (Sassafras albidum – first time ever), crabapple (Malus angustifolia – first time ever), serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), and dogwood (Cornus florida).

Sassafras albidum
American plum (Prunus americana)

Shrubs – blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), Alabama snow-wreath (Neviusia alabamensis), dwarf witch-alder (Fothergilla major), coral honeysuckle vine (Lonicera sempervirens), red buckeye (Aesculus pavia), dwarf paw paw (Asimina parviflora), and chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia).

Viburnum prunifolium
Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

Perennials – shooting star (Dodecatheon meadia), scorpionweed (Phacelia bipinnatifida), spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), crinkleroot (Caradmine diphylla), sessile bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia), perfoliate bellwort (Uvularia perfoliata), spotted geranium (Geranium maculatum), wood anemone (Anemone quinquefolia), bulbous bittercress (Cardamine bulbosa – like that weedy bittercress on steroids but not aggressive), spreading phlox (Phlox stolonifera), golden groundsel (Packera aurea), blue cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides), foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia), mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).

Cardamine bulbosa
Golden groundsel (Packera aurea)

Phacelia bipinnatifida
Cardamine diphylla

Don’t think that spring is just getting started here; we’ve had plenty blooming before now. In no particular order, these were blooming prior to this week: early trilliums (Trillium cuneatum, T. lancifolium), Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Hhepatica, trout lily (Erythronium umbilicatum), other species of toothwort (Cardamine), Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium reptans), false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum), yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima), spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), red columbine (Aquilegia canadensis), butterweed (Packera glabella – this one and golden groundsel is to lure in the monarch butterflies, one already sited in Atlanta this week), bluets (Houstonia), pussytoes (Antennaria), green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum), violets (Viola pedata and others), Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) and Florida anise (Illicium floridanum).

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Coming soon in the next week: Erigeron, woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata), coral bells (Heuchera americana), hairy phlox (Phlox amoena), and golden Alexander (Zizia aurea). I must say: if I have to stay home, I’ve been working on making this a destination for years and it’s finally paying off!

Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) on March 27

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Spring Has Sprung – Coronavirus Edition

As of March 19th it is officially spring in Georgia. It came just a smidge earlier this year. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the last time spring arrived on March 19th was in 1896. Now I think it’s a bit of stretch to say it didn’t arrive on the more usual date (March 20th) since it arrived at 11:50 PM on the 19th, beating out the 20th by a whole 10 minutes but technically they are correct.

Of course, in Georgia, we’ve been enjoying flowers for some time, with non-native daffodils blooming back in January and small native spring ephemeral flowers right along with them (especially in south Georgia). The trout lilies, bloodroot, and spring beauties have slogged their way through some really wet days (over 23 inches this year, easily double our normal).

Trillium cuneatum, green color form

The mottled trilliums (Trillium cuneatum being the most common one near me) are emerging now. They occur naturally on my property and I’ve been trying to protect them from deer browse over the last few years (with sprays and small cages); now I’m seeing more than ever so I think the effort is worth it. Violets are starting to bloom and the golden yellow flowers of green-n-gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) are appearing too. The Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) has been gorgeous.

Bees do it! (on the plum)
Chrysogonum virginianum

My blogs are most often about what’s happening this week so I am compelled to acknowledge we are in the beginning of an intense time because of the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2 virus, COVID-19 disease) with widespread closures and recommendations to stay away from gatherings if possible. I’ve seen a lot of reminders that “Nature isn’t cancelled!” and it’s true. We can still responsibly enjoy being outside in nature (when it’s not raining).

Being home more can mean time to accomplish some tasks we’ve been putting off—from deep cleaning, to fix-it projects, to extra time in the garden. Guess which one I picked? One of the front beds has been crying out for a re-do for several years. I’m also doubling down on removing a pesky non-native annual/biennial that has been increasing these past few years: Youngia japonica, or false hawksbeard. It thrives in part-shade and is now found throughout my woods thanks to my lackadaisical approach to removing it. Thankfully it is easily pulled and I try to pull the ones about to bloom first. I should have it under control in about 20 years.

False hawkweed, Youngia japonica

If you have extra time, pulling invasive plants is a great project. Many folks in Atlanta have English ivy run amok. Put on some longsleeves and gloves (the sap can be irritating) and start pulling it up! Get the kids to help stuff it into bags and haul it to the street. You’ll have room for native plants (some might even emerge once the area has some breathing room), and I’ll bet money that you’ll see a reduction in mosquitoes come summer without having to pay for sprayed chemicals.

I encourage everyone who can to take advantage of the spring weather to get outside more--whether it’s in your own yard, helping someone else (from a safe distance away from each other!), or just walking in your neighborhood or in a local city/county/state park. Perhaps one of the outcomes of this event is a renewed appreciation for nature and some cleaned up invasive plants.

Flower fly on Hepatica acutiloba
Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Cues of Care When Using Native Plants

I think we can use native plants in the landscape just as we would use non-native plants: a pleasing group of perennials here; a specimen tree there; a row of shrubs between the neighbors. People often ask how we can convince homeowner associations (HOA) to support the use of more native plants. I have long felt that we should use them like any non-native plant, but I recently came across a useful term—cues of care—that might help us describe how to use them better.

These edging stones and the fence give indications that this is a garden.

Cues of care are those large and small efforts that show that your landscape is both designed on purpose and cared for. The best use of this term was in the very excellent article that Jennifer Ceska wrote last year, featured in the blog on

Many folks think of ‘native plants’ as messy, often envisioning tangled roadsides. It’s ironic that those messy roadsides are often the result of invasive plants being there. When I get a chance to drive down country roads with no invasive plants, the roadsides are beautiful and well-behaved. 

Using native plants as part of your home landscape, your community garden (church, school, public park), and even city and county-managed local roadsides needs to be part of how we repair the ecosystem and begin to restore insect and bird populations. Your strategies for doing so should consider:

  • Selection of appropriate plants based on conditions (sun/shade/wet/dry), functionality desired, and regionally appropriate species.
  • Attractive design (your first cue of care) with 3-season bloom choices if possible.
  • Regular maintenance of the space (your ongoing cue of care).
  • Signage if appropriate for public spaces, trails, to fulfill educational goals (another cue of care).

An informal but obviously designed space thanks to hardscape and placement

What are some of the cues of care that we can employ in these spaces? Here are some of my own ideas as well as some pulled from Jennifer’s article. Use as many as you like, subject to any local constraints (I know one HOA said no bird feeders ...).

1. Use landscape design techniques. These include designing spaces clearly intended to contain plants like annuals, perennials, shrubs or small trees. In the case of smaller plants, this includes grouping them in pleasing arrangements (often in numbers of 3, 5 or 7).
2. Employ negative spaces such as small turfgrass sections, paths, or seating areas to differentiate the landscape from the human space.
3. Create clear edges between the spaces and maintain them for neatness. Examples of edges range from formal (poured concrete edges) to informal (rocks, timbers, mulch, or even cleanly mowed strips). Use hardscaping such as paths, patios, sidewalks, benches, rocks.
4. Use signage to identify plants, to indicate habitat certification (NWF, GNPS, Audubon), or to provide points of education (“This ground is left bare to support nesting native solitary bees, an important source of pollination services for native plants.”).
5. Employ a little yard art plus birdbaths, birdfeeders, and birdhouses.

Numbers illustrate plant types repeated

A noticeable lawn edge
Rocks and logs edge an informal path

So, ladies and gentleman, pick your plants and get those spaces designed. We can do this. It's time to go native!

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Dandelion Message for Americans

A popular post has been circulating on social media entitled “Want to Help Bees? Leave the Dandelions Alone This Spring.” While this is a very admirable message, I’d like to point out that it is taken from a talk by a British ecologist about a native plant in Britain (dandelions). It is meant to convey a broader message, of course, but I think that the finer points that need to be made are getting lost in the weeds for American gardeners. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Flowers for native bees are important throughout the seasons. 
  • Stop trying to kill every weed in your lawn, particularly using chemicals to do it. 
  • We can support native bees in our own yard – everyone can do something. 
  • It’s important that each landscape be contributing to native insects. 
  • Native plants are the right choices.

Southeastern blueberry bee

Do we have native bees checking out dandelions in March? Yes, but they primarily emerge to get nectar and pollen from the native plants that flower in March: red maple (Acer rubrum) trees, spring beauty (specialist bee on Claytonia sp.), early blueberries (specialist bee on Vaccinium sp.), native plums (Prunus sp.), etc.

Native bees aren't here for the dandelions; they're here for native plants and those are the ones we want in our lawns, on our roadsides, and in every sidewalk crack they want to occupy. Throughout the year, native bees help native plants be the best they can be (at producing native fruits for wildlife).

Now if the only message you got out of what I just said is that dandelions are not native to the US and we should not support them, let me explain again:

  • Native plants matter to all native insects.
  • Flowering native plants help native bees.
  • Don’t get rid of things to have a perfect landscape.
  • You should have flowering plants native to your area in your yard during all 3 seasons (spring, summer, and fall), even if that means having pots of plants on your patio and balcony.
  • Everyone can contribute to helping native bees and other insects.

So, if you’re going to share the dandelion message, remember that not everyone reads beyond the headlines and that the message is bigger than leaving dandelions alone. Share the message that really matters. We need flowering plants even in our lawns and they should be native plants.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) in the lawn at my library

Sunday, March 1, 2020

AlterNATIVE: Native Choices Instead of Ornamental Pears

Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia)
After a wet and warm winter, the wild ornamental pears seem to be blooming even earlier than usual. I think, based on last year’s pictures, the timing is about the same except for one oddball or two. We just finished National Invasive Species Awareness Week so it’s a good time to talk about this emerging invasive plant. I call it ‘emerging’ because it literally has been happening over the last 15-20 years while we watched.

Despite the increasing spread of ornamental pear (Pyrus calleryana) on roadsides, it continues to be sold to unsuspecting homeowners in less discriminating stores like the big box stores (less so in real nurseries). I post about it every year, from helping people to realize what it is on the side of the road (one of my most popular posts), to general ranting, to downright gloating about my neighbor’s seedling abundance (he was able to get rid of them). This year, I want to talk about what people should buy instead and maybe—if demand goes down—the stores will finally stop selling them.

Everyone loves early blooming trees because flowers are beautiful and we’re tired of winter by February (if not sooner). We do have native early bloomers—they are timed to flower when native insects are emerging. Non-native plants which bloom before our native bees have emerged are not providing benefit to any pollinators except for the equally non-native honey bees. 

Here are some the native trees and large shrubs that bloom early in North Georgia and might be considered as alternatives (or alter-natives) for ornamental pears with the added bonus that they contribute to the local ecosystem.

Serviceberry (Amelanchier)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) is a medium-sized, full sun tree that blooms in March, has yummy fruits for humans and birds, and excellent fall color. I have written about it before, so please visit that blog here. For reasons you’ll see below, this is probably the best choice for urban or smaller yards.

Plums (shrubby members of the Prunus genus) are excellent early bloomers. In my area, Chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) is the most common but there are species of plums found around the state so select one that is regionally appropriate for you. They tend to sucker a bit, so site them accordingly, giving them the room they need. I like to dig up extras for friends and plant sale donations.

An early native bee on flowering plum (Prunus angustifolia)

Viburnum prunifolium (often known as blackhaw) is one of the taller, more upright native viburnums. This species and its cousin the rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum) can reach over 20 feet, making them nice choices for small yards. They also have very good fall color. Like the other two choices above, they produce fruit for birds and small mammals, however, they benefit from cross-pollination so it’s best to have two. Those of you in small yards can give one to your neighbor!

Viburnum prunifolium in spring
Viburnum prunifolium in fall

Two other early blooming trees include red maple (Acer rubrum) and sassafras (Sassafras albidum). They are not quite as showy but you can be sure that they benefit insects and critters much more than any stinky pear!