Sunday, May 30, 2021

Rhododendron minus is a Big Plus to Me


The genus Rhododendron consists of native azaleas (which are deciduous) and native evergreen plants commonly referred to as rhododendrons. The smallest of the evergreen rhododendrons is one called Rhododendron minus. It looks a bit like a native azalea but it has leaves that stay on the plant all winter, with fresh ones emerging in the spring.

I enjoy finding it in natural areas in May and June and have been delighted recently to find it in the metro Atlanta area in several locations: Blue Heron Nature Preserve and the Vickery Creek Trail at Roswell Mill. I’ve also seen it at Providence Canyon State Park in southwest Georgia and at FDR State Park in middle Georgia.

Last week I went to Vickery Creek to see the blooms and my timing was perfect. The range in bloom color is pale pink, almost white, to deep pink. Some of the blooms are arranged in perfect spheres while others are more loosely held.

Vickery Creek
Vickery Creek

FDR State Park

At Vickery Creek it was high on the slopes above the creek, mixed with still-blooming mountain laurel(Kalmia latifolia), bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla), sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus), and smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens).

Rhododendron minus

You might find my blog about Rhododendron maximum interesting too. Known as the great laurel, it usually blooms about a month later.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Is Your Yard NIIT?

It would be an understatement to say that plants occupy a significant part of my every day thinking. However, I recognize that is not true for most people. Plants are often simply the outside decoration of one’s property (the house being the inside). For most people, plants are something to have and to control (“I have to mow the lawn.”). It often doesn’t even matter what the plants are.  As result, plants that were not even planted by the owner come into the landscape and benefit from one or more of the components of NIIT: neglect, indifference, ignorance, and tolerance.

Plants will pop up anywhere they can ...

Neglect: as in not maintaining the property; it is often associated with properties where the owner does not reside but it can also be the property of someone not physically able to address it.

Indifference: as in not caring about what is there perhaps due to lack of interest (“just need to have some bushes and grass”).

Ignorance: as in not being knowledgeable about the different plants (“A tree is a tree is a tree, right?”). Or "If it came in by itself then it must be native." Or "It was already here when I got here so it must be native." No, no, and no.

Tolerance: as in knowing what you have, notably something invasive, and being ok with it (“that English ivy growing up the trees is fine”).


While neglect is not something we can always improve, except perhaps by volunteering to help the owner (especially an elderly or disabled owner), the other 3 components are something we can overcome. The key is learning why it matters to care, to learn, and to act.

Why care:

Our yards are home to thousands of native bugs, birds, and critters. In heavily developed areas, our yard (and those of our neighbors) can provide small pockets of refuge for creatures that depend on native plants because of their specialized diet. Think of the monarch butterfly and her need to lay eggs only on milkweed. There are many other insects like that. Or think of the baby birds who need insects to grow; a robust insect (and bird) population depends on native plants. Some of my earlier blogs include:

If Not You then Who?

Why Native Plants Help Birds Better

Why Native Plants Are Better for Bees and Pollinators

How to learn what you have:

It has never been easier to identify plants in your yard thanks to smartphones and tablets (e.g., iPads) and the internet. Plant identification groups on Facebook are numerous; I participate in one called Georgia Native Wildflowers and Plants. Here is an earlier blog about using apps and the internet to figure out what you have. Parks and public green spaces can be just as guilty about the ignorance aspect. If you notice invasive plants there, contact the park and let them know (and volunteer to help remove); plants can spread further from public spaces when left to grow.

Ignorance (this is Tree of Heaven)

How to act on what you have:

Remove invasive plants from your yard to make a place for the native ones. Often the native plants are there, waiting to recover once the invasive plants are removed. If not, we now have more native plant nurseries than ever; find one and add some life to your yard. Here are some of my earlier blogs on removing invasive plants. It is easier to remove when the plant has first arrived than after it has spread a lot.

Declare Independence from English Ivy

Remove Invasive Plants Early for Best Results

I hope you will take charge of knowing what is in your yard and root out unwanted invaders. Don't be the NIIT one!

Sunday, May 16, 2021

A Moment in Nature for May

Following on the post I shared for April, #amomentinnature for May is a baby chickadee that got briefly stuck in our garage. I didn't realize that these babies don't fly yet. It was calling and calling for its parents. I was able to pick it up and carry it over to a small tree. Shortly thereafter, I was able to see its parents bringing food to it.

It likely was a baby from a nest in one of our boxes. I had seen the chickadees coming and going to the box. The garage is not too far from that box and I had left the door open after we got home from an errand. It must have fledged and hopped over that way.

These small interactions with nature help to remind me that my yard is meant to be a haven for wildlife. The insects that adult birds need to raise chicks is an important part of why I garden with native plants.

Here are some of my earlier posts on gardening for birds:

Sunday, May 9, 2021

The Nature of Oaks (The Book)


A new book by Douglas Tallamy has been released; it should be no surprise to anyone who has seen his presentations that it is in praise and support of perhaps his favorite plant: our native oaks. In this book, The Nature of Oaks: The Rich Ecology of Our Most Essential Native Trees, he uses a white oak (Quercus alba) in his yard to illustrate a month-by-month stroll through the year. This monthly profile describes what is happening with the oak and, even more importantly, how it is supporting the local ecosystem throughout the entire year.

It starts with October (cute reason why noted in the prologue) with acorns (which are falling in October). Each chapter is a folksy walk through one or more stories related to the month’s focus. In this one: planting acorns (including how he planted this one), producing acorns, and moving acorns (wildlife). November continues with the acorn focus but adds in the fascinating story of acorn weevils as well as two other insects that use acorns.

Acorn weevil larvae
White oak acorns with weevil hole

As so it goes: each chapter focusing on a seasonal aspect of the oak, how it looks (photo for each month), who it’s feeding/supporting. January, in particular, offers not only an insight into how birds use it (even when it’s dormant in the winter) but then branches into the wider discussions on what birds eat and how insects are made.

I like how some chapters serve as less obvious lessons for the benefits of having an oak. March, for example, talks about the benefit of leaf litter. August covers some the ecosystem services like rainwater absorption and carbon sequestration. Other chapters teach new things – like April’s dive into oak galls (I’ve seen at least 4 different kinds in my yard).

In fact, this book is – to a large extent – a parade of entomological details about the incredible diversity of insects supported by plants in general and oaks in particular. It is the perfect book for an entomologist who loves oaks to write.

What is the best oak for you to cultivate? One that is regionally appropriate! Tallamy provides good resources at the end of the book for determining what species are native for each state.

Quercus alba is a dominant one in my area but there are many others

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Fringetree: Native Vs. Not

Chionanthus virginicus
I always knew there was a non-native species of Chionanthus to compare to our native fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus). I always wondered if I would be able to distinguish one from the other should I encounter the non-native one, called Chinese fringetree (Chionanthus retusus). Recently I had a chance to see that one so I thought I would share photos of both here.

Chionanthus (pronounced ki-o-nan-thus) is a genus in the olive family (Oleaceae). In general it has leaves that are arranged in an opposite arrangement on the stem. Plants have flowers that are male or female so you need a female to get the olive-like dark blue fruits (and a male to help with pollination). 

Both species can appear as a very large shrub or small tree. The genus name is derived directly from Greek with chion meaning snow, and anthus meaning flower (strange how we are not calling it snowflower). They both have lightly fragrant flowers.

Since I knew nothing of the non-native one, I researched it a bit to understand the differences. The key differences are the shape of the leaves and the arrangement of the flowers. The specific epithet retusus refers to more blunt/rounded leaf tips (perhaps even with a small notch). I can’t say that is definitive as the leaves I saw were quite similar to the native one that I rescued. However, purchased Chionanthus virginicus plants tend to have a narrower, more pointed leaf (than the one I found), and I know that has confused some people in the past (wondering if they got the non-native but clearly a narrow, more pointed leaf form would be virginicus).

Chionanthus virginicus leaves and fruit

Chionanthus retusus leaves

The arrangement of the flowers, and any subsequent fruit (remember that fruit can only develop where flowers were present), is much a more distinctive difference. The flowers of Chinese fringetree (retusus) occur on the new season’s growth, primarily on the ends of the branches, while those of virginicus occur on the previous season’s wood, behind the new leaf growth. This tends to provide a showier flowering effect on retusus because the flowers are not obscured by the leaves. The panicles of flowers on retusus can be more upright as well. When fruit is present, it will be on the terminal ends for retusus.

C. retusus flowering on new wood
C. virginicus flowering on old wood

In addition, the color of the flowers on retusus is a brighter white compared to the creamy color of the virginicus, and it seemed to me that the petals were just a little bit wider on retusus. There is another native species, Chionanthus pygmaeus, dwarf fringetree; it is native to Florida and might be sold occasionally.

If you are in the right range and don’t grow our native fringetree (grancy graybeard for those of you who like that name), do give it a try. It is quite the lovely small tree.

Chionanthus virginicus in the wild