Sunday, March 28, 2021

Small Bits of Beauty


Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Spring has sprung, but it is more of a journey than a destination, especially when it comes to native plants. We don’t suddenly wake up with a full-blown blooming yard in our native plant gardens; rather we discover it one species at a time. As the trout lilies (Erythronium) and bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) finish up their blooms, early trilliums (for example, Trillium cuneatum) are in now full swing and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica) are just getting started. 

The early shrubs (spicebush and early blueberry) are giving way to red buckeye (Aesculus pavia) and the later blueberries. My earliest viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) is just days away from making a spectacle of itself. The serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) next to it is enjoying its time to shine.

Phacelia bipinnatifida

Red buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

I share many pictures on my blog of plants in my garden; I imagine some people think it must be a showplace. It’s not. I work full-time and have activities that keep me from being fully attentive to maintaining a perfect landscape. We have deer and chipmunks and squirrels (maybe rabbits too) who nibble, rub, and uproot things at will. Perfection does not live here.

Instead of big sweeps of color, my garden delights me in small bits of beauty scattered throughout the property and throughout the seasons. A quiet walk finds them: returning blooms from favorites as well as plants blooming for the first time. This year found my first bloom on twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla) and Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens). I might find new plants: a new trillium sprouting (or was it moved by a critter?) and a new group of slender toothwort (Cardamine angustata) in the path (note to self to move that one later).  

Twinleaf (Jeffersonia diphylla)

Here are some of the special blooms for this week.  I learned this week that the female flower on the Allegheny spurge (Pachysandra procumbens) is located at the base of the panicle (see the arrow below). There is so much more to come, and I look forward to appreciating each one as the season progresses.  

Caulophyllum thalictroides
Pachysandra procumbens

By the way, I want to help promote another metro Atlanta area blog that you might like. The author’s journey to appreciating native plants and passion for spreading the message is much like my own:

American plum (Prunus americana) starts as Chickasaw plum finishes

Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Impermanence of Plants

Wild comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum)

Plants don’t live forever; that’s probably not a shocker to anyone. Annual plants have the shortest lifespan, one growing season, but we know that when we plant them and set our expectations accordingly. Woody plants can have the longest life, and we hope for that when we plant them. 

But plants don’t always live as long as we want, and this is perhaps the mostly likely time of year when we realize that a plant that we had has vanished or is just dead in place. My wild comfrey, shown here in 2012, faded away within a year or two.

Each spring we discover what comes back from winter slumber, anxiously looking for that first bit of green as a leaf emerges on a woody twig or an herbaceous plant puts up that first stem or fiddlehead (in the case of a fern). Each green discovery is a joy and, to be honest, a reaffirmation of my talents as a gardener. Until I find the one that didn’t make it ….

A ladyslipper (2011); it bloomed for several years then faded out

Sometimes I might not have realized something was gone until I discovered the old plant tag sticking in the ground. I pull it out and save it for potential reuse but the pile of ‘dead tags’ builds up over time. Or I might not remember that I even had the plant until a friend says “Remember that plant we got at Cullowhee, how’s yours doing?” Then I realize that I’ve lost it at some point: a sad moment of realization.

Storms come and knock plants down – I lost a big pine tree last year; unfortunately it took several other small trees (like 10!) with it. It’s just part of natural change and opens up the area to more sun and gives different plants a chance to grow until the canopy fills in again.

I bid a final farewell this year to the azalea shown on the right: Rhododendron x 'Milleneum' was tortured by deer and then shaded out by a blueberry that was growing ever larger. The azalea was no more than a dead stick with a tag at this point. I am really happy with the blueberry (Vaccinium elliottii) that has taken over the space; it is much more productive for the bees than the azalea was.

So to garden is to experience change and that’s no different with native plants. Plants come and go either because of their life cycle or some other reason. The garden is different every year in some way; and I guess that keeps it interesting.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

A Moment in Nature for March

Following on the post I shared for February, #amomentinnature for March is my best patch of bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) showing off at just the right time for me to actually get a good picture of it!

Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

March is typically a very good month for spring ephemeral native wildflowers. In addition to the trout lily that I featured in February, I now have spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) blooming, sweet Betsy trillium (Trillium cuneatum), rue anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides) and false rue anemone (Enemion biternatum). 

There are plenty of good things yet to come so now is a good time to take a moment and appreciate the early ones. Don't have these early flowers in your yard? Take a hike! Here are several good ones in North Georgia; consider also visiting one of the locations of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area (NRA). Find 17 maps for it here and pick a spot.

Cloudland Canyon State Park - my blog on a visit there
The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail - my blog on a visit there

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Wasps (The Book)


Spiders, scorpions, wasps … these are some of the least welcome insects around our home. Of course, most of us realize that they have a job to do in our local ecosystem. Without spiders, we’d have far more insects than we realize, and some birds love to feed spiders to their babies (apparently they can be a good source of taurine, an essential nutrient). Scorpions eat a lot of insects too. Wasps, however, benefit their ecosystem in more than one way: not only do they eat extra insects (adult female wasps capture insects to feed their babies) but as adults they are also important pollinators.

A recently published book, Wasps: Their Biology, Diversity, and Roles as Beneficial Insects and Pollinators of Native Plants, gives abundant details on understanding these oft-misunderstood insects. Heather Holm has published several key books on bees and pollinators of native plants, both of which I’ve reviewed before. Her books are always detailed, attractive, and contain exceptional photographs and illustrations. Her website also includes free downloadable resources.

Who would use this book? According to her website, “This is an essential book for conservationists, naturalists, insect enthusiasts, biologists, nature photographers, native plant aficionados, and anyone interested in beneficial insects and pollinators.” I could not agree more. I was always fine with wasps being in the garden; I now have even more respect for them. The book has some fascinating details. I learned that the reason that females are larger than males is because the mother puts more food in their chambers (the mother knows very well whether the larva will develop into a female (fertilized egg) or a male (unfertilized) ).

As large as the book is, 416 pages, it doesn't even cover all the wasps in Eastern North America. These are the most common flower-visiting wasps: 68 genera and 150 species are covered. The author hopes that better knowledge of wasps will encourage citizen scientists (average folk like us!) to identify the more common species for appreciation and to help document them (you can log your findings on iNaturalist, for example).

A brief breakdown of the chapters is as follows:

Chapter 1: Overview of wasps, types of nests, and the concept of social vs. solitary (most are solitary), plus nest construction (making the materials using their mouth!).

Chapter 2: Life cycle of wasps, including the 5 stages of growth, how eggs are laid and nests are provisioned (While all the food is some type of insect, there are several different ways for the food to be provided; it is fascinating how different they can be!).

A queen bald-faced hornet
An old paper wasp nest

Photos above: My grandson and I rolled a log over this week and found a queen bald-faced hornet quietly over-wintering in a cavity. [We rolled it back.] Above right is a paper wasp nest from last season; it looks like two wasps never finished emerging.

Chapter 3: Wasp anatomy, including several very detailed photos and drawings to help explain. I was surprised to learn that wasps have two different kinds of eyes. Females use the length of their antenna to help make perfectly shaped cells every time.

Chapter 4: Diet, and here is where we learn how our native plants support them because flower nectar is the primary source of energy for adults. Their relatively short tongues dictate what they use but, like some bees, they will chew through the base of longer flower tubes to get nectar. In the spring, adults may use spring sap flows on trees until enough flowers are open. Some of the social nesting wasps may resort to cannibalism in times of scarce food.

Chapter 5: Ecosystem services are provided in two areas: 1) pest insect control (great table on p.64), and 2) plant pollination. Of course, both of these areas are rather species specific. Did you know that some wasps are specialists on spiders?

Chapters 6-17: Family profiles of the wasps included here, 12 in all. Each chapter is quite detailed with photos that help identify the species. On page 412 there is a section called "Wasp genera at a glance" which points back to these sections for further id.

Chapter 18: Planting guides, including the Southeast one on page 395. For guidance on which to use in your garden, look for the flower icon. Pages 386-7 provide specific wasp/plant tables for those who look to support a certain species.

I hope you consider buying this book; it certainly has given me a better appreciation for these vital insects. It is so well done, exceptionally detailed, and beautifully shipped. You can order it here; shipping is free.