Sunday, October 31, 2021

Small Nursery Feature - Plant Life Nursery

I like to occasionally profile small nurseries that sell native plants. This week is one that isn’t all native plants, but it has been significantly increasing its native stock over the last few years. Plant Life Nursery is located in Rome, GA where it has attracted a customer following from not just Georgia but from many other southeastern states. 

Larry Spencer first started growing plants as a way to have fresh herbs for his job as a chef, but he also sold some of them part time. He eventually left that job to grow plants full time and started his landscaping and nursery business. He expanded to grow perennials such as purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and Japanese maples, honing his skills with both natural talent and advice from experienced friends. American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) was one of his early favorite native shrubs, recommended by a customer as many of his plants have been, and it’s still a big seller at the nursery (especially this time of year). 

One of this nursery’s strongest qualities is a wide variety of seed-grown plants. Larry and his nursery manager Ryan Lovvorn grow thousands of plants from local seed, all of them pesticide-free. These guys are incredibly talented in growing healthy plants. While many of these go on to become gallon-size perennials, shrubs, and trees sold to retail customers, an increasing part of the business is selling well-rooted plug trays to other small businesses. The seemingly endless rows of seedlings and plugs at the nursery in spring is an amazing sight. 

Larry’s passion for native plants as a bigger part of the nursery’s selection grew out of customer suggestions, some of them bringing local seed from their own gardens, as well as a deep sense of the environmental importance of supporting local ecosystems. Follow Plant Life Nursery on Facebook and Instagram to see a parade of monarch butterflies visiting the nursery and using its vast stock of milkweed plants to create the next generation. The list of native plants that they carry is longer every year and he says that sales of native plants now make up most of his business. 

Monarch butterflies grown at PLN

I’ve been recommending this nursery for years, but it’s the quality of the plants and the service that ensures they have many repeat customers. Larry and Ryan are friendly and helpful for customers who know what they want as well as those needing ideas. They have cultivated a wide selection of pollinator garden and bird-friendly plants for those looking to support wildlife. The nursery also supports numerous local groups with donations of native plants to community gardens as well as local master gardeners at the annual Chiaha Harvest Fair and the Georgia Native Plant Society. 

The nursery is open year-round, 7 days a week. Stop by sometime … but make sure you have plenty of room in the car for plants because you’ll need it.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

SERNEC Portal – Another Tool for Id Help

Have you wanted to have a friend who identified things correctly and could show you an example of the plant? Someone who was available 24/7 to show you pictures? Well, here is the next best thing: an online collection of pressed specimens! I have written about such a thing before in 2016 but unfortunately that site is no longer available (I believe its demise might have been due to funding issues). Then a friend told me about the SERNEC Portal and I am happy again.

The SERNEC Portal is part of the Southeast Regional Network of Expertise and Collections (SERNEC) and can be found at According to their website: “SERNEC is a consortium of 233 herbaria in 14 states in the southeastern USA. […] SERNEC is currently funded by the National Science Foundation as a Thematic Collections Network with the goal of digitizing an additional 4 million specimens from the southeast United States.”

The site is useful in many ways, but I use it to find pictures of specific plants. While I can use search engines like Google to find images, sometimes those images are misnamed or – in the case of less-photographed species – simply not available. Or I might want to find out if a particular species has been documented in a certain county. Either way, the SERNEC Portal is my friend at any time of the day. Since these are vouchered herbarium specimens, each one is correctly identified!

The Portal has many different ways to find specific plant data, but here is how I use it. Generally I am either a) trying to find a good photo of a plant so I can look at leaf details or b) looking to find county records (e.g., has this plant been found in Cherokee county in Georgia?).

1. From the main menu, choose Specimen Search and then Search Collections.

2. The next screen lists all of the contributing collections and here you could be more specific if you wanted only certain collections. I like to include them (the default), so I click the Search button on the right to proceed.

3. Start typing in the Scientific name and it will start to give you choices based on spelling. You can choose from those choices or keep typing. Enter United States into the county and the state (for Georgia you can either use the full spelling or GA). If you want, also enter the County. Note: if you have autofill turned on, the boxes may auto-populate so check your entries. Sometimes it would put my last name in the Collector’s Last Name box and of course that would never find anything.

4. I like to use the Table Display choice so I click that box on the right.

5. On this search example, I found no county records so I try again leaving the county blank. The table returned shows the specimens for Georgia.

6. The rows in the table include the name of the reporter, the date (look at those from the 1800s!), the county (if known) and a link to the image (if available). Just for fun, let’s look at the two from the 1800s. The interesting thing about older images is to see the older names used. But you can also see that there is now a newer label with the current name.

I hope you find this useful. Scans of this data and search tools that make it available really help bring more tools to the average folk. And thanks to the students for their many hours of scanning that make it possible.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

A Moment in Nature for October

I don't expect to find new caterpillars in mid-October except for those who migrate, like Gulf fritillary, so my #momentinnature for October is the discovery of not just a young caterpillar but something I've never seen in my yard. My heart did a happy somersault when I spied this little one.

Early instar Eastern black swallowtail Oct 15, 2021

This is the caterpillar of the Eastern black swallowtail. I have never seen an adult in my yard (except for the ones I raised when a friend gave me caterpillars in 2019) and have speculated that they are just not naturally in my area.

I have several native host plants in the yard (all in the Apiaceae family) but this caterpillar (and its 11 siblings) were on fennel (a non native herb) that I planted last year. I have plenty of Golden Alexander (Zizia aurea) to feed them; in fact the Zizia was right next to the fennel but was almost entirely covered up by tiny white asters this time of year so the fennel was easier to find.

I look forward to seeing them take flight in the spring (these will likely overwinter before emerging as adults). Here is a photo from the batch I raised in 2019.

Eastern black swallowtail August 2019

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Invasive Spiders Don’t Have to Stay


Last year I wrote about the non native and invasive Jorō spider that arrived in Georgia in 2014-2015. I had visited an area in Cumming that had quite a few of them, not terribly far from me. I saw none in my neighborhood last year. This year I have had over 30 in my yard, in my neighbors’ yards, and in the area just outside my neighborhood where I walk. I have killed every one that I could reach. I expect to have hundreds next year.

Jorō spider (Photo: Sarah Sanke); messy golden web

Discussion about this spider has exploded in North Georgia as more and more people have seen them and experienced how prolific they can be. People in areas like Cumming, Gainesville, Athens, Alpharetta/Johns Creek, Dunwoody, and Buford are reporting hundreds of them in residential yards and parks. UGA has put out a couple of articles that have been picked up by national news (USA Today, for one) indicating that they are ‘here to stay’ and nothing can be done. I have found their response to this infestation to be not only a disappointment but also a hindrance to any progress removing them. One particular article was especially galling as a UGA employee said we should be happy to have “zillions” of them for pest control. 

People point to these articles as “proof” that they should not bother to deal with them - "UGA said we shouldn't bother". Have we given up on kudzu? Do we not try to control pests like tiger mosquitoes and the woolly adelgid? We continue to fight these invasive species and we should do so with this spider. We have seen the future and it cloaks our yards and natural areas in large, exceptionally sticky webs, killing pollinators and spoiling human enjoyment of our own yards. People in Gainesville and Cumming can give you an idea of what living with 'zillions' of them means. 

On top of insect declines thanks to residential mosquito spraying, now our pollinators have to deal with 2-8 foot webs (some spiders join together to make large communal webs). Our small birds are at risk of being caught in these very sticky webs, dying of exhaustion. I have found webs with numerous dead bees in them.

Good information has finally come out that they are most visible in late summer (August-September) with females creating egg sacs in October. Now is a critical time to kill them to reduce future populations. The Center for Invasive Species has created a visual aid to compare the Jorō to other native spiders and that is helpful; we don’t want people to kill the wrong spiders.  Unfortunately even that source (Center for Invasive Species) is not actively recommending that people kill them.

What will it take for our public university to at least get off their “oh well, what can be done” stance and encourage people to reduce the population of these spiders? They should be giving guidance to cities and counties that manage public parks on when to look for these and how they might control/remove them. Otherwise we will see pest companies take up the charge in response to homeowner requests, potentially fogging areas with more chemicals than necessary, further harming native insects in the process. Finally, a somewhat balanced article came out two days ago, but for many the message to ignore them was already received.

So, choose for yourself if you want to let these spiders increase their populations but please consider that spiders in your yard this year also mean more for you and your neighbors next year. Notice the difference in the two iNaturalist maps; the 2021 map shows denser populations as well as dramatically increased range. The 2020 map did not have reports in TN, NC or SC and metro Atlanta is now quite dense with reports.

2020 map is a detail of reports which were only in GA

2021 map is further out to show increased range

My method for spotting them includes looking for floating leaves that were caught in the web. Then I look more closely to determine if it is a Jorō or a native spider. They are often up high but I’ve found them just 3-4 feet off the ground in vegetation. They like power poles. Once I identify it as a Jorō, I use a broom/rake or long stick to reach up above them and try to quickly wrap the web and the spider up together and get them to the ground where I squish the spider. I know that some people are using the long-reaching bug sprays (hornet/wasp) to hit the ones that can’t be reached manually. Regardless of how you kill the spider, do try to get the web down so that bugs/birds don’t get caught. I am also seeing new spiders move into choice locations where I removed one before so double check spots.

We don't have to tolerate these invasive spiders. Take action now to reduce next year's population.

Red spot is noticeable
Very pregnant female

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Garden for Life

There are a number of reasons why people garden. Some people want things to eat, some want flowers, and a number of people do it just to satisfy the expectation that the landscape has plants in it. Chances are that no matter what your reason is, you spend time making choices about what to plant. It’s a point that I’ve tried to make many times: what you plant can really matter. Today’s post is about choosing host plants, a choice that allows you to actually contribute to creating new life through your landscape.

Spicebush caterpillar

Host plants are those used by insect herbivores (those that eat leaves such as the caterpillars of moths and butterflies). While some insect herbivores are specialists (limited host plants) and others are generalists (have several different host plants), the important point is that these insects do have relationships with plants and without their special plants, they can’t make more.

Spicebush butterfly

Since most people are interesting in supporting butterflies, I will focus this post on them. Keep in mind that if you include a number of “keystone” plants in addition to what I mention here, you will likely support hundreds of species of butterflies and moths.

Georgia is home to over 160 species of butterflies. Butterflies include large and well-known species like the Monarch butterfly and our state butterfly, the Eastern Tiger swallowtail; medium-sized species like the American lady, the Gulf fritillary, and the Cloudless sulphur; small species like hairstreaks and azures; and all the ones known as skippers. With careful plant selection, the average residential landscape can support close to 30 of them by providing host plants. Some plants support multiple species. The following table is available as a PDF file here.


Native Host Plants

Eastern Tiger swallowtail

Tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera), native cherries and plums (Prunus), ash (Fraxinus), or sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana).

Spicebush swallowtail

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Sassafras, tuliptree (Liriodendron), sweetbay magnolia (M. virginiana)

Eastern Black swallowtail

Golden Alexander (Zizia), Angelica, meadow parsnip (Thaspium), and other parsley-family members (Apiaceae).  Note: parsley, fennel are non-native hosts.

Pipevine swallowtail

Woolly pipevine (Aristolochia tomentosa), Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria)

Zebra swallowtail

Paw paw (Asimina triloba)

Giant swallowtail

Wafer-ash/hop-tree (Ptelea trifoliata), Hercules club & prickly ash (Zanthoxylum sp.)

Palamedes swallowtail

Redbay (Persea borbonia) and plants in the Laurel family (Lauraceae)

Red-spotted Purple

Black cherry (Prunus serotina), hawthorns (Crataegus), oaks (Quercus), serviceberry (Amelanchier), and willow (Salix)



Milkweed (Asclepias sp.)

Hackberry Emperor

American snout

Hackberry (Celtis sp.)

American lady

Cudweed (Pseudognaphalium) and pussytoes (Antennaria)

Painted lady

Native thistles (Cirsium) and members of the mallow family

Red Admiral

Question mark

Eastern comma

Nettles (Urtica) and false nettle (Boehmeria cylindrical)

Silver-spotted skipper

Long-tailed skipper

Pea family plants like butterfly pea (Clitoria mariana) and Amorpha and American wisteria (Wisteria frustescens)


Mourning cloak

Willow (Salix)

Common buckeye

Plantain (Plantago), native wild petunia (Ruellia), and purple false foxglove (Agalinis)

Gulf fritillary

Zebra longwing

Passionvine (Passiflora)

Variegated fritillary

Passionvine (Passiflora), Violets (Viola)

Great Spangled fritillary

Violets (Viola)

Cloudless sulphur

Partridge pea (Chamaecrista sp.) and Senna

Red-banded hairstreak

Sumac (Rhus sp.)

Summer azure

Dogwood (Cornus sp.), NJ Tea (Ceanothus americanus) and wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia)

Carolina satyr

Fiery skipper

Zabulon skipper

Various native grasses

I hope this information inspires you to more deliberately pick a variety of native host plants for your garden. I have enjoyed watching butterflies and moths use my plants to create new life. Sometimes I collect a few and raise them in a mesh enclosure outside so that I can share with others how special their life-cycles can be. My grandson helps to gather fresh leaves for them when he comes over, and we enjoy watching the released ones fly away. Be sure to clean the enclosure with a water/bleach solution between uses.

A fresh monarch is ready to go south

Black swallowtail newly emerged