Sunday, August 14, 2022

Fall Clematis Lookalikes


I’ve written about native clematis before. For the most part, native clematis look like small bells; a friend used to call them American bells. You can read my earlier post about native clematis here. One clematis, however, is different and its difference leads to confusion with a very similar non-native species; both species are both blooming now.

Clematis virginiana, native
Clematis terniflora, not native

These two clematis species are so similar that I can’t tell them apart by the flower alone. The native species is known as virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana). The non-native species is known as sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora, also called C. paniculata). Each of them has small, open white flowers with four white petals. Their growth habit is similar and both can be found this time of year flowering profusely on roadsides where they have scrambled above shrubs and perennials to create a snowy, white blanket.

It is the foliage that we must look for when identifying the species of these similar plants. Each species has compound leaves with 3 leaflets (occasionally the non-native may have 5 leaflets and there may be some whitish stripe on the leaflet). The leaflets of the native species have toothed edges (also called dentate) while the leaflets of the non-native species have smooth edges (also called entire).

Clematis virginiana seedheads

Clematis terniflora seedheads

I also find that the seedheads of the native species are much showier, apparently because it has more carpels. See photos above.

You may ask why it matters which one we grow when they look so much alike. I could find no research about which one bugs prefer, either for nectar or for foliage (as a host plant). Given there is still so much insect interaction still unstudied, I prefer to cultivate the native one in the hope that it offers a slight advantage over the species which only recently arrived.

Sunday, August 7, 2022

Meadows Matter


I went up to Big Canoe this week; it is a large, residential community in Pickens County where they have preserved a lot of the natural areas. Along the winding roads, I spied plenty of native ferns, sourwood saplings, and even some dwarf pawpaw shrubs contributing to the cool, leafy-green feeling that is so unlike most residential developments.

I was there to give a talk to the Wildflower Bunch Garden Club about native plants. All the attendees recognized that their community has much natural beauty, thanks in part to the native plants and the natural environment. Someone mentioned a meadow area that had been developed with the help of Audubon and Walter Bland, a longtime GNPS member and owner of Rock Spring Restorations. This area is called McDaniel Meadows. On our way out of Big Canoe, we stopped to visit it and see how it has grown (it was created in 1999).

According to the sign, the meadow area and trail included plants to help create a bird sanctuary as well as be of benefit to pollinators. Berry-producing shrubs included American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), two species of Viburnum, spicebush (Lindera benzoin), elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), serviceberry (Amelanchier) and even several fruiting paw paws (Asimina triloba). These were on the edges, leaving the meadow relatively open to supporting native perennials and annuals.

A mowed edge for neatness, a bunch of goldenrod; the meadow is much deeper than it appears

I had heard in advance that the meadow wasn’t being managed much so I was curious to see how it was faring. The most noticeable “flaw” was that some of the more aggressive perennials were dominating the space. First and foremost, tall goldenrod (Solidago altissima) was taking up a lot of the space.

Thuggy plants affect plant diversity as they crowd out things that are less capable of holding their ground (for example, they crowd out smaller plants). However, these thuggy plants still contribute: goldenrod hosts more insects (butterflies/moths) than any other perennial. These plants are likely providing significant insect meals for birds that need them (baby birds, warblers, other insectivores).

Lobelia cardinalis
First ironweed bloom

Tall ironweed (Vernonia) was also quite abundant. A cloud of blue blooms in the center turned out to be downy skullcap (Scutellaria incana), while purple passionvine (Passiflora incarnata) twined its way through the plants. A bit of partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) was evident in the drier areas while cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) thrived in the moist spots. Another area was full of Canada germander (Teucrium canadense), but the flowers were just about spent.

Coreopsis in open areas
Cutleaf coneflower just starting

As we walked the trail, smaller sunny areas were more open and there was mountain mint (Pycnanthemum), Coreopsis, cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), Joe pye weed (Eutrochium fistulosum), numerous grasses, and the seedheads of spring-blooming false indigo (Baptisia) and Penstemon. Shady areas had bear’s foot (Smallanthus udevalia), Indian plantain (Arnoglossum), elephant’s foot (Elephantopus tomentosus) and natural populations of ferns.

Passionvine and bee
Joe pye and mountain mint

This was an ambitious project, and I think it is largely successful. Bird calls were abundant and I pointed out to my husband how much the birds appreciate these areas where they can feel safe darting in and out of the vegetation. Yet still there are open, sunny areas for birds that need that habitat. That thuggy goldenrod will be a lifesaver when it blooms for late summer butterflies like migrating monarchs (and seed eating birds will feast on the seeds and stem insects all winter). At over 20 years in, there is lots to still admire about this meadow.

Viburnum fruits ready now
Elderberry also ready

Sunday, July 31, 2022

The Floral Backup Plan

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis)

Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is blooming this week at my house (and has been for a little while). I had one plant last year, an unexpected plant from a stray seed in one of my pots. This year it is in numerous pots as well as growing up in the leaf litter around the pots; annuals apparently don’t always need a lot of root space. One plant is growing in the ground where a seed was transported further away.

This tall, succulent plant is one of our native annual plants; annual plants create a lot of seeds to ensure that the next generation makes it. Since I have more plants this year, I’ve noticed they are susceptible to deer browse. Such browsing would reduce the plant’s chance of reproducing, but this plant has a backup plan.

In addition to the pretty flowers that we see, jewelweed can form some cleistogamous flowers that self-pollinate and create more seed. The showy flowers that we see are chasmogamous flowers. The cleistogamous flowers require less energy from the plant, especially for one that was damaged by grazing. I read an interesting statement from this article: “If the plant is predetermined to develop into both chasmogamous and cleistogamous flowers, we called it dimorphic cleistogamy. Very often, dimorphic cleistogamous flowers occur at different times or in different locations on the plant.” While I already knew that violets can produce cleistogamous flowers at the base of the plant, the article also mentioned that our native American hog-peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata) does as well (that might explain why I have so much of that too!).

Above, left to right: a seed and the remains of the seed pod; a new seedling; and one of the showy flowers (and it looks like there's an ant inside it).

Many of us know that jewelweed is also called touch-me-not, a reference to the explosive seedpods that open when you touch them. This allows the plant to eject its seeds further away from the original plant. The seeds from the cleistogamous flowers often drop closer to the plant.

Seeds from showy flowers are cross-pollinated by insects and help to create genetically diverse offspring, a benefit to the species in general. Seeds from the cleistogamous flowers are not genetically diverse and are produced as a backup plan to keep the population going until more favorable conditions exist. I know you’re hoping I’ll show you one of those cleistogamous flowers but I haven’t been able to identify one. I found a statement that “Cleistogamous flowers are very small (about 1 mm long) and are borne near the bases of the leaves,” and I found this article with one photo.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

The Ever-changing Roadside

Sabatia angularis

Roadsides can be wonderful places: full of native plants, places of nectar and host plants for butterflies and moths, and sometimes refuges for pockets of diversity. They can also be awful places: tangled in thickets of invasive plant species, ignored areas where seeds land, sprout and thrive.

In my area, I have both kinds of roadsides. During the growing seasons, I try to take time to appreciate the good ones, observing how they are managed and what grows there. This week I noticed bright pink flowers and pulled over to find the annual rose-pink gentian (Sabatia angularis) blooming in an area that was over-mowed last year. This year they are letting it grow, mowing only a six-foot strip next to the road.

Earlier this year, that same strip had lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), Small’s ragwort (Packera anonyma), and daisy fleabane (Erigeron sp. -- all of them important spring-blooming native plants. Currently blooming in addition to the rose-pink gentian is orange milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), St. John’s wort (Hypericum sp.), and partridge pea (Chamaecrista sp.). In the fall, I can already tell there will be thoroughwort (Eupatorium sp.) and goldenrod (Solidago sp.). Across all the seasons, native grasses fill in the spaces.

Salvia lyrata

Hypericum punctatum

Spring show of Packera anonyma

This place is a natural seasonal progression of pollinator plants, providing both nectar and host plants for a variety of insects. Because of its support for insects, it also provides support for birds that need insects for themselves or their young.

I’ve written about roadsides before; I am very fond of them. If you have the chance to help save one or persuade someone to manage it in a more favorable to insects, please do so. Being able to recognize good plants from bad is the first step to saving the good ones, so plant identification is important.

My previous roadside posts:

Roadsides: Trash or Treasure

Roadside Plants in June

Wild Roadside vs. The Average Garden

Flowers of the Fall Roadside

A roadside combo of Asclepias tuberosa and Passiflora incarnata

Sunday, July 17, 2022

July 2022 Moment in Nature

This #amomentinnature has been a long time coming. I have tried to grow turk's cap lilies (Lilium superbum) for several years. My friend has given me several but I wasn't successful in growing them to flowering size. This year it worked; I had 6 stems mature enough to flower.

Then the moles came through! Four of the six stems were cut off, leaving just two. I dumped sharp gravel into the holes, hoping to save the last two. It worked and both of them bloomed this week.

Lilium superbum

As I admired the blooms one afternoon, a single Eastern Tiger swallowtail butterfly floated into the area. I have seen very few of them this year. So. Very. Few. She came over and sampled the lilies and the nearby Phlox paniculata

I took photos as she went from flower to flower. As I looked at the photos later, I realized I had captured a glimpse of her pollination services. 

Her wings collected pollen as she sipped nectar; the pollen was transferred to the next flower as she visited it. What a special moment to witness!

Notice the dark pollen on her wing

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Where Do I Start?


Change can be intimidating. If you’ve been inspired to transform your existing landscape to one that includes more native plants, chances are you are wondering how to start. This is a question that comes in occasionally to native plant societies and I have fielded it a few times. Certainly, we recommend using a landscape designer, but that can be costly or sometimes people can only afford to replace small areas at a time (you can still get a plan and do one section at a time).

Butterflies are a good reason to add more native plants

I wrote a blog last year entitled “Easing Into Using More Native Plants” that outlined some strategies. It should be no surprise that the recommendations included Replace, Reduce, or Remove:

Replace – this requires no significant design changes; simply identify a non-native plant (like a shrub or tree) and swap it for a native one of similar size and appropriate for the spot (sun, shade, etc.)

Reduce – this focuses on reducing lawn to create more productive plantings but it might also apply to a plant that is overgrown for its space, especially a tree or shrub; replace with a smaller plant or group of perennials.

Remove – this focuses on removing invasive plants, especially those mature enough to fruit and create more in adjacent areas (like nearby neighbors or natural areas).

These shrubs are over 30 years old and sit in a prime sunny spot;
these are good candidates to replace.

Use those 3 R’s to identify manageable changes. Once you’ve figured out what you want to do, act like a pro and do two fact-finding steps. The information from these two steps will help you make the best choices for your change:

Learn – identify your light and moisture conditions in the chosen spot. On a sunny day in the spring or summer, watch how the sun moves across the landscape and count the number of hours that your intended spot(s) has direct sun. Check the moisture and determine if it is damp or dry (or in between). Full sun is 6 or more hours of direct sun or less sun but in the harsh afternoon.

Research – find what plants might be available and what your goals are. While searching for unusual native plants can be rewarding, often we are limited by what we can find at a nursery. This link on the native plant society website can help you find nurseries; just give them a call or check their online inventory listing.

Happy shrubs reward you with good blooms and dense growth;
this is Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica)

You know what you want to do and you’ve chosen your plants; now do it!

Plant – choose an optimal time (in Georgia: October and November are good months for planting trees and shrubs) for best success. I’ve have been amazed at how many people are planting things now during summer days with temps in the mid-90’s.  

Practice Care – the first year of any plant, including native ones, requires some attention. Water them if you don’t get enough rain, provide good organic mulch (not dyed!) in modest amounts, and protect them from critters.

Working small areas can make the change manageable

Sunday, July 3, 2022

Pollinator Favorite: Bottlebrush buckeye


Aesculus parviflora

The bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora) is a large native shrub with a small natural presence in southwest Georgia: Early, Harris, Clay, and Quitman are the reported counties. Its presence is more widespread in Alabama. This summer-blooming species – it is just now starting to bloom at my house – is not as well-known as its spring cousin, red buckeye (Aesculus pavia).

Bottlebrush buckeye has long panicles of small white flowers (parviflora means ‘little flower’) with long, pinkish-white stamens and red anthers. The panicles can reach 12 inches long and certainly resemble a bottlebrush. The leaves are compound with mostly 5 (but occasionally 6-7) leaflets.

While the shrub was first noticed by William Bartram in the 1770’s, it was described in 1788 by Thomas Walter based on a single population found in South Carolina. Bartram’s account of it was from southern Alabama where he found it as a large, stoloniferous shrub growing in the shade along stream banks.

The flowers in the panicle open from the bottom

The shrub can reach a height of 15 feet; the width varies and suckering growth can make it seem even wider. My first plant was a neighbor’s donation of one of her suckers. While it can take some afternoon sun in good moisture, this species is naturally found in part-shade, open woodlands. Like the red buckeye, the plant seems to be ignored by deer most of the time, a very desirable trait for many gardeners.

Silver-spotted skippers

When it blooms, I have primarily 3 visitors to it: the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (our state butterfly), the silver-spotted skipper butterfly, and bees. 

The flowering lasts for 3-4 weeks as the panicles mature at different times. Good pollination yields small buckeye nuts which are easy to grow into new shrubs.

Fall color is a nice clear yellow

Habit is large and loose

Summer can be a tough time for flowering plants. If you need more native shrub ideas, check out my earlier blogs.

Don’t Blow it all on Spring 

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Annual Thoughts on Pollinator Week


Another Pollinator Week finishes up today and—in a week of seeing very few pollinators—I wonder if we're just going through the motions. Those of us pledging to support pollinators, plant native plants, avoid pesticides … we’re the same people each year. Of course a few new people get the message each year but it seems like we’re wiping up a flood with a tissue.

The big contributors to pollinator decline are apparently not the ones we’re reaching:

  • Homeowners who sign up for mosquito treatments, affecting neighbors all around.
  • Businesses who sign up for chemically-soaked landscape services, also affecting others.
  • Cities and counties who approve mosquito-spraying licenses, implement large spraying programs, approve development without conservation, and fail to promote native plants for development.
  • And all of the above that plant non-native plants without a thought to what that means for supporting our native insects and birds.

In my suburban area, I have watched the growing use of pesticides, the increase in lawn-scaped residential properties, and the reduction in native plants that have transformed this area into a fraction of what is needed for a healthy pollinator population. Non-native honeybees have taken up some of the slack, but they do so while the diversity of our own bee populations decline.

  1. What you do in your landscape, what you spray, it doesn’t stay there. A reduction in insects today may be the result of spraying 1-2 years ago.
  2. What you plant matters. Insects can’t reproduce if the native host plants they need are not available.
  3. Convincing other people works. Talk to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your legislators and representatives. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Grow this movement and educate others about why it matters.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

June 2022 Moment in Nature


I have not seen a lot of bugs this year, but there is one that is strangely in abundance: the ebony jewelwing, a type of large damselfly. I have so many this year that I was able to take some time and really look at them and even photograph them. While I was observing one, she came out towards me to inspect a bit of spiderweb hanging in the air to see if it contained a bug but I think it was just a bit of leaf. #amomentinnature

They are fairly skittish, often flying up from shady corners of the yard before I even have a chance to realize they are there. They usually just fly a short distance and then come back to near where they were. They hunt for mosquitoes and gnats and small insects.

Male jewelwing
Female jewelwing

This website is a great resource to learn more about them. Both males and females have an iridescent green body but the wings are slightly different. The wings on the female are a dark bronze and there is a small white spot at the top (on the forewing). The males overall seem a bit brighter, perhaps slightly more blue-green than green.

Similar to dragonflies, they lay their eggs in water, usually slow moving streams and I have one of those. If you spot one of these near you, be sure to take a moment to appreciate them.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

White Oak Leaf Damage


Questions abound this spring about visible damage to oak leaves, particularly to white oaks, one of our most abundant species in north Georgia. Some trees are so damaged they look like they’ve been sprayed with herbicide. Facebook groups and local extension offices have fielded numerous inquiries about what is happening to the trees and what homeowners should do about it. My trees are similarly infected so I decided to look more closely at what was happening.

White oak (Quercus alba) in my yard showing damage

I won’t take credit for determining that the source of the damage is the solitary oak leafminer. Other folks had already provided links to articles and photos of this moth’s lifecycle. My goal was to confirm that it was this moth’s larvae inside the leaves. I had heard that the insect was feeding inside the layers of the leaf, so I used a pair of sharp sewing scissors and my 10x hand lens to get a look.

The small oak leafminer caterpillar

It was clear, for the most part, that the damage only affects the upper tissue layer; the back of the leaf was fully intact. The tiny caterpillar, no bigger than a grain of rice, was feeding on the leaf’s tissue amidst a collection of frass (its own poop). Several of them had formed clear enclosures; these are the cocoons in which the larvae will transform to the tiny moth (microlepidoptera) it becomes.

Forming cocoon
Cocoon completed

The bottom line is that this damage is perfectly natural, doesn’t hurt the trees, is mostly likely short-term, and certainly doesn’t require any chemical responses. While some folks recommend discarding the fallen leaves (to remove the unhatched cocoons), keep in mind that trees all around you will still contribute to the next generation. These kinds of irruptions are normal in nature and will balance themselves.

Sunday, June 5, 2022



The elderberry shrubs near me are having a great year – big growth, loaded with flowers, and apparently spared from the utility contractors’ plans for 2022. Elderberry reminds me of that aunt you’d visit who dressed in a comfortable, eclectic caftan with oversized jewelry, who was always happy to see you and had a great selection of sweet treats. It is a comfortable, welcoming, and rewarding large native shrub for insects, birds, and humans.

Tiny flowers in a cluster (cyme)
Elderberries fill up a space!

Using the latest Flora of the Southeastern United States, I am glad to see our native species is back to being Sambucus canadensis; it was briefly treated as S. nigra ssp. canadensis. The Flora authors have it classified as part of the Viburnaceae family which it shares with Viburnum. It was previously classified as part of the honeysuckle family (Caprifoliaceae). The Flora suggests that species canadensis may one day be further divided into two varieties, with var. canadensis in most of the state and var. laciniata in south Georgia.

Both Sambucus and Viburnum have oppositely arranged leaves but elderberry is distinguished by having compound leaves. Both genera also have cymose inflorescences composed of numerous tiny white flowers that can each turn into a berry, thus creating a large amount of fruit (either for humans or birds).

Plate-sized inflorescences and compound leaves

Elderberries need a large space but I have seen people prune them to a narrower, more upright form. The deer keep mine, which were here when I moved in, from ever getting above knee height unfortunately. I hope one day to have a place for them to thrive. On roadsides, they thrive in moist low areas like ditches. These photos are from a roadside near me; you can see they are under powerlines so every few years the utility contractors knock them back. Thankfully, they always return.

Low, damp roadsides are perfect (and much better with native shrubs)

Sunday, May 29, 2022

May 2022 Moment in Nature


Flowers have been opening for 3 months now in Georgia. From the early trout lilies to the flowers of big shrubs like oakleaf hydrangea, there is something to see every day in Georgia’s native floral show. A round of plants opened up recently that just grabbed my attention: Stop and appreciate us!

So this month’s #amomentinnature is not a single item but a collection of beautiful flowers that are native to Georgia. Flowers that live in my garden and could be in many other Georgia landscapes.

Rhododendron catawbiense (top left) hybrids were having their best year ever with dozens and dozens of blooms.

Sundrops (Oenothera fruticosa) fill the front bed with sunshine (even after I donated 15 of them to a local plant sale!). Upper right.

Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica) is always one of my most anticipated blooms and surprisingly easy to grow. It is so incredibly beautiful. Lower left.

Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) is one of our most well-known Georgia native shrubs and beautiful in all seasons. Lower right.

Get out there and appreciate what's happening and add more to it!

Sunday, May 22, 2022

A Sneaky New Weed


A new weed from South America is showing up in southern lawns and, unfortunately, I am the first person that I know of that has it! I first read about this on a Facebook post by the Alabama Extension Invasive Plant Page on May 12. On May 15, I found it in my lawn. The name of it is skyseed (Chevreulia acuminata). It was first found in the US in 2012 in Alabama but not identified until 2019.

Flower of Chevreulia acuminata

This is a very short, small plant that spreads on thin, wiry stems. In last week’s blog, I talked about leaving turfgrass long enough to shade out weeds and keep the soil cool. Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t stop creeping, perennial plants like this from spreading. The thin, white flowering stems can produce flowers when only a few inches tall, allowing it to hide in the grass.

The flower on this plant appears on a white stem and looks like a seedhead from the moment it opens. Once the flower goes to seed (seemingly in just a few hours!), the seeds are easily detached, making this a tricky one to remove. I know I didn’t get them all.

Creeping stems and emerging flower

Flowers and seedheads look like dandelions

I opted for manual removal, but I’m sure that some stems probably didn’t pull up completely. Over the course of this week, I discovered and pulled new ones every day from an area that is about 3x3 feet. How did it get here? This area of lawn is not near the street; rather it is a small semi-circle of grass near the front door.

Be on the lookout for this sneaky new weed. The puffy flowers/seedheads will probably be the first you see of it. On Facebook, another person reported finding it in Coweta County, a fair distance from my lawn in Cherokee County. She had a good idea for gathering it up: she used her portable vacuum cleaner to get the seedheads!

Typical plant size
With penny for scale

Note: the fluffy seedheads look similar to the annual trampweed (Facelis retusa) but that is a different weedy, non-native plant.