Fall Color

So I just realized that I haven’t posted something to this blog in over 4 years!  I guess the best excuse I can offer is that having a baby (now a preschooler), starting (and finishing) grad school, and getting back to a full-time job gobbles up spare time and brain power faster than I realized.  But now I am excited to 1) have some free time to 2) periodically writing things that aren’t for a grade and 3) get back to some serious gardening (it has been kind of low on priorities list, and it shows!).  Although I will also add that I started drafting this post in mid-November, and am not getting around to actually publishing it until after the Winter Solstice!  So this post isn’t going to be as timely as I had hoped, but as I look out my window I’m still seeing colorful leaves on trees in my neighborhood (even after Christmas).

Right now, it is a great time in the lowcountry to get outside and enjoy the break from the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes (I could not walk from my front door from my car for most of the spring, summer, and fall without getting several itchy bites to show for it; there’s no telling how bad it would have been if I had actually kept up with any kind of serious yard work).  Although we’re not generally a fall color destination, the lowcountry does have many nice displays of deciduous foliage this time of year, too.  While this list is by no means exhaustive — mainly it’s just things I’ve been noticing in my neighborhood — hopefully it will give you a greater appreciation of the different colors to look for in your landscape.

NATIVE SPECIES for FOLIAGE:

Red Maple (Acer rubrum). The common name, as you may guess, is in reference to this tree’s red twigs, buds, flowers, and autumn leaves.  They have been called “the light that brightens the fall color sky” (Dirr, 2009) and “early harbingers of fall” because their

Acer rubrum
Stately red maple (Acer rubrum)

leaves are turning vibrant shades of red long before other eastern deciduous trees begin changing colors.  But did you know that it is also one of the most abundant species in the Eastern Deciduous Forest?  This is likely due to the fact that red maples are “supergeneralists” that can successfully establish themselves on the widest variety of sites and in the greatest range of conditions of any North American species (USDA NRCS, 2017).  Red maples can be found at elevations from 0 to 900 meters, sunny or shady sites, nutrient rich or poor soil, and wet or dry conditions.  They have been called “early harbingers of fall” because their leaves are turning vibrant shades of red long before other eastern deciduous trees begin changing colors.

 

If you happen to have access to a red maple tree (6″ in diameter or greater), you could participate in a citizen science project through NC State University called A Tree’s Life.  The purpose of the study is to collect large-scale data on tree growth in order to understand effects of climate warming.  The researchers send you a dendrometer to install on your tree and provide yearly growth measurements.  We got ours started this spring!

 

 

SAW_01033

Photo Credit: Sally and Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) has been called the most beautiful native tree of North America and the “aristocrat of native flowering trees” (Dirr, 2009).  It is no surprise that two states — both Virginia and North Carolina — claim it as their state flower.  Dogwood is another tree with beautiful red leaves in the fall.  Additionally, its red berries (high in calcium and fat) are an important food source during the fall and winter for songbirds, forest edge species, and upland game birds.  After the leaves have fallen from the tree, they break down more rapidly than most other species, making flowering dogwood an important soil improver (USDA NRCS, 2017).

 

 

 

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Photo Credit: Sally and Andy Wasowski, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

In his  book about native plants of the southeast, Larry Mellichamp rates Oak-leaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) as an “outstanding plant” — one that is a must have for the garden, with three or four seasons of interest and no negative traits.  The leaves of this native hydrangea are large and maple-like, and turn scarlet to crimson in the fall.  Although they are deciduous, in my garden, most of the leaves are retained through the winter.  Even if the leaves do fall off, the exfoliating bark of this shrub is very attractive.  The oakleaf hydrangea in my garden haven’t changed colors yet, but I have it tucked into a pretty shady part of my yard. I’ve noticed that plants situated in sunnier locations tend to drop their leaves earlier.

 

 

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  If there’s one thing most people can agree on, it is that sweetgum balls (the “fruit” of this tree) may be the most obnoxious lawn & garden issue in this part of the country.  There are even injections an arborist can use on these trees to prevent them from producing the balls, and having been on the receiving end of a sweetgum ball being ricocheted out of a lawnmower at warp-speed, let me tell you I’ve considered it.  However, there are two facts I use to remind myself that these are trees are valuable: 1) they are excellent larval hosts for butterflies and moths, like the Luna moth; and 2) they actually have some decent fall color.  The star-shaped leaves turn beautiful shades of yellow, red and purple.  I was also surprised to read that sweetgum has commercial value as veneer, furniture, and plywood panels (Porcher and Rayner, 2001) — so if you do get annoyed enough to chop it down, at least you can use the wood to make something!

 

 

Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica) is actually one of my favorite spring flowering semi-evergreen shrubs, but it is also quite charming in the fall.  In our a low spot in our yard, I have three planted in an impromptu rain garden due to their ability to thrive in poorly-drained soils (although they can survive in drier conditions if they are irrigated — a well-planned rain barrel could be useful in this capacity!).  The leaves turn red to purple in the fall and persist through the winter; so even though it is technically a deciduous shrub, the limbs don’t tend to be bare for long before the new foliage emerges in the spring.

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Winged Sumac (Rhus copallinum) is sometimes planted as an ornamental for its shiny leaves and showy fruit, but I see it commonly growing along edges of habitats or disturbed areas (like roadsides or paths).  Only the female plants produce berries, which provide winter food for many mammals, gamebirds, and songbirds — and the fruit is edible and can be made into a tea-like drink that tastes like lemonade.  The leaves are pinnately compound and turn red/purple in the fall.  Oh, and by the way, don’t worry about confusing this beautiful shrub with another plant with a similar name but bad bad reputation: poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix).  All “good” sumacs have hairy, red berries; poison sumac is related to poison ivy and poison oak and has greenish/white berries and leaflets with smooth margins.

 

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) is one of the few deciduous (hence the common name “bald”) conifer trees, whose needles turn a lovely rust or copper color in the fall.  In wet conditions, they produce buttressed trunks and “knees” on their root systems; bald cypress will also grow well in drier sites.  They make for good urban trees (planted along roadsides and in parking lots) because they can tolerate compacted, poor soils.  Historically, bald cypress was one of the most important lumber trees in the south (Porcher and Rayner, 2001) due to the essential oils which prevented rot and promoted durability of the wood.

 

You may be surprised that several vines — such as Muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia) and Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) — are also quite showy this time of year.  The muscadine looks like yellow garland strung amongst tree branches, and Virginia creeper takes on a brilliant orange or red hue.

Larry Mellichamp describes the Virginia creeper as “the best fall color of any vine and is as good as the best shrubs as well.”  The dark blue berries of the Virginia creeper may persist through winter until they are eaten.  Unlike other climbing vines, the Virginia creeper clings to surfaces using adhesive discs and not penetrating rootlets.  Virginia creeper gets confused with poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), but they can easily be differentiated if you remember the rhyme “leaves of three, let it be; leaves of five, let it thrive.”

 

 

 

EXOTIC/INVASIVE SPECIES:

The two most common invasive species that I see this time of year — because they do have really striking, bold fall colors — are Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) and Chinese Tallow (Triadica sebifera).  Although they are beautiful, please keep in mind that they are highly destructive to our native forests and landscapes.  The SC Exotic Pest Plant Council (SC-EPPC) has listed Bradford pear as a Significant Threat and Chinese Tallow as a Severe Threat.  The litter from the tallow tree inhibits the growth of other species’ seedlings — which is a problem for native plants.

 

 

Homework!

If you are looking for more suggestions of plants to add to your southern garden for fall interest and color, I’d recommend taking a look at the lists provided in The New Southern Living Garden Book (check the “Plant Finder” section at the beginning of the book) and Native Plants of the Southeast (peruse “Plants for Special Situations and Purposes” at the back of the book).  Once you find a plant you’re interested in, both books have individual entries for each species with more information about growth requirements (sun, moisture, etc.).

How are you celebrating autumn in your garden? Please share with me the plants you’re admiring!

 

Resources:

  1. Dirr, Michael. 2009. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (6th Edition). Stipes Publishing, LLC: Champaign, IL.
  2. Mellichamp, L. 2014. Native Plants of the Southeast: A Comprehensive Guide to the Best 460 Species for the Garden. Timber Press: Portland, OR.
  3. The New Southern Living Garden Book: The Ultimate Guide to Gardening. 2015. Oxmoor House: New York, NY.
  4. Porcher, R. and D. Rayner. 2001. A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press: Columbia, SC.
  5. USDA NRCS. 2017. Plants Database. Available at https://plants.usda.gov/java/
  6. Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. 2017. Native Plants Database. Available at https://www.wildflower.org/plants/
  7. South Carolina Exotic Pest Plant Council. 2014. Exotic Invasive Plant Species of South Carolina.  Available at https://www.se-eppc.org/southcarolina/Publications/InvasivePlantsBooklet.pdf
Posted in Gardening, native plants, Nature walks | Leave a comment

A weed by any other name… is a plant to keep!

As an undergraduate I took a Soils class, and one of the most memorable statements for me from that class was the difference between dirt and soil: “dirt is just misplaced soil, and soil is more than just dirt.”  The idea being that soil is much more complex and useful than a homogenous term like “dirt” could convey and that, generally speaking, dirt usually ends up where you don’t want it (dirty carpets, dirt behind your ears, etc.).  Yes, it’s just a matter of semantics, but it makes you stop and think a little.  And now that I’ve got you thinking about soil, check out the Smithsonian’s interactive state soils webpage!

I think weeds are a good parallel to my dirt/soil story.  Weeds are plants that we don’t like where they’ve established themselves; technically the difference between ornamental plants and “weeds” is only a matter of aesthetics or function.  Generally speaking, very few people go around purposefully putting dandelions in their lawns or chamber bitter in their flower beds.  And I’m not here to suggest that we should be cultivating Florida betony, but I will tell you that it’s tuber is edible (tastes like a mild radish! yum!).  I’d also like to add that sometimes the presence of a specific weed indicates some cultural problems in your garden: for example, dollarweed (Hydrocotyle sp.) likes damp conditions, and it is possible to control it by irrigating your lawn less frequently.

However, I’d also like gardeners to think of weeds as opportunities to discover some really awesome native plants — for free!  Now, I realize the prospect of letting things just pop up in your lawn or flower beds sounds scary, especially because I think most of us are hardwired to expect a neat, orderly appearance in your garden.  I’m not saying give up your regular maintenance, but perhaps dedicate a small area in your yard to see what just happens to pop up.  If you don’t like it, or recognize it as a plant you don’t want, go ahead an pull it up.  But, if you don’t know what it is, let it grow a little while and pull out a reference book or contact your friendly local Master Gardeners or Native Plant Society to figure out what it is you have.

So here are some true stories of weeds in my yard.  There are many more that I haven’t documented here: beauties such as yellow jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), violets (Viola sp.) and blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium).  If I pulled everything that I didn’t plant, I’d be missing out on a lot of interesting seasonal color and plants that support my local ecosystem.

Red Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)
Family: Asclepiadaceae

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Red Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata)

I’ll be honest.  This summer, between the relentless rain, working full-time, and grad school classes, I haven’t had much time to work outside.  Subsequently, I have seriously lowered my standards for good housekeeping in my yard.  There are a ton of weeds everywhere, and not all of them are worth keeping.  However, there has been one delightful surprise: native milkweed that popped up in a clump of chamber bitter.  I saw another one blooming in the middle of the lawn two houses down from ours.  It seems that all this wet weather has created more damp places than usual, and we’re getting to enjoy the beautiful blooms almost as much as the monarch butterflies (who rely on the plant for a larval host).  It can grow 3-5 ft tall, leaves are opposite, and the striking flowers bloom June-August.  The flowers feature a showy upright corona and reflexed sepals.  Milkweeds are excellent nectar producers, making them very attractive to a wide range of butterflies and other insects.  Interestingly, the genus name Asclepias is a nod to the Greek god Asklepios, god of medicine and healing.  This is because of the many medicinal uses Native Americans had for milkweeds, including treating bronchial and pulmonary problems.

Snow Squarestem (Melanthera nivea)
Family: Asteraceae

Skipper on flowers

Skipper on flowers of Melanthera nivea

The bees and butterflies go crazy for this 3-6 ft tall, fall-blooming perennial.  It is always covered in pollinators!  Opposite leaves, purple-mottled 4-sided stems, sandpapery feel to the leaves and stems, and the flowers are white (only disk flowers, no ray flowers like others in the Asteraceae family may have — think sunflowers and chrysanthemums).  It gets its genus name from the dark-colored stamens (mel = dark, anthera = anthers, the part of the stamen that holds the pollen) that protrude beyond the white flower petals.  They are commonly found in the coastal counties of SC down to FL, and are found in sandy, dry open woodlands, moist to dry live oak woods, calcareous sites, and maritime dunes according to Porcher.  My house is situated within walking distance of marshes, and we find shells buried deep in the soil profile (calcium!), so it makes sense to see this plant in our garden.

St. Andrew’s Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)
Family: Clusiaceae

St. Andrews Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)

St. Andrews Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)

Between my neighbor’s yard and ours, there is a retaining wall and live oak tree.  Over the years, some small trees (a few oaks, a loblolly pine, a sabal palmetto) have popped up around the live oak.  This summer I noticed a darling little woody plant with yellow flowers — and could tell it was some kind of St. Johnswort.  There are 37 different species of St. Johnswort (Hypericum) in the southeast, but you may be more familiar with the European variety used medicinally to treat depression.  Anyways, I’m not sure if our native Carolina varieties have the same healing properties, but they are a delightful ornamental perennial.  1-3 ft tall, shreddy older bark, evergreen or tardily deciduous, blooms May-August, usually found in dry woods.

Sicklepod (Cassia obtusifolia)
Family: Fabaceae

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Sicklepod (Cassia obtusifolia) — a weed to pull!

This is a case of a weed that proved to be a non-native, invasive species.  Also good to know that it is reported to be poisonous when eaten in large amounts (foliage and seeds).  This was promptly uprooted and removed from my garden after identification.  It can get up to 5 ft tall, has pinnately compound leaves (with the largest pair of leaflets being the terminal pair), and flowers from July-September.

So by taking the time to let these weeds grow to identifiable features, I was able to discern the keepers from the undesirables.  I hope my experience with weeds — both good and bad — has helped change the way you look at unexpected plants in your garden.  If you give them the opportunity, weeds are a great way to learn about your landscape and hopefully expand your native plant palette.  Perhaps I’ve inspired you to let your garden run a little wild, or at least given you an excuse to procrastinate from your yard chores.

Helpful Plant ID Resources:

  • A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina by Richard Porcher and Douglas Rayner. The nice thing about this book is that it breaks the state (and flowers) down into different zones (e.g. Piedmont, Coastal Plain) and habitats (spray cliffs, chestnut oak forests, etc.).  There is even a section devoted to “The Ruderal Communities” and I have been able to identify a lot of common “weeds” from here.  The pictures are colorful and the plant descriptions include both physical appearance and commentary on origin or uses of plants.
  • Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas by Albert R. Radford, Harry E. Ahles, and C. Ritchie Bell.  All bow before this venerated tome of botany.  (In a pinch it can also be used to bludgeon someone in self-defense)  As you are working your way through the dichotomous key, keep in mind that there is a nice glossary at the beginning of the book (sometimes it feels like botanical words like dehiscentliguliform, and squarrose sound like they are in a foreign language and you need a translator!)
  • Flora of the Southern and Mid-Atlantic States by Alan S. Weakley.  Another dichotomous key, but I think it’s a little easier to follow (each couplet is numbered, which helps you stay on track!).  And it’s available for free online, courtesy of the UNC Herbarium: http://www.herbarium.unc.edu/flora.htm
  • Weeds of Southern Turfgrasses, Clemson Cooperative Extension (2010)
  • Virginia Tech Weed ID: http://www.ppws.vt.edu/weedindex.htm
  • Native & Naturalized Plants of the Carolinas and Georgia: http://www.namethatplant.net/
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Before you plant, do your homework

I was innocently minding my own business (read: procrastinating from doing my real homework for grad school by wasting some time scrolling through Pinterest), when I came across an article from Better Homes and Gardens regarding “The Best Small Trees” to put in your yard.  I was so pleased to see some of my favorite natives: dogwood (Cornus florida), redbud (Cercis canadensis), and Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera).  But what got me hot under the collar were a few endorsements for invasive plants, including Mimosa Tree (Albizia julibrissin) — which yes, they did include a disclaimer that it has the potential to be invasive, but didn’t it occur to them to select something else that didn’t require a disclaimer in the first place?  That’s like holding up candy in front of a 5 year old, but telling them not to eat it because it will rot their teeth and contribute to childhood obesity.  I don’t know many kindergarteners who would turn down a treat, even with that warning!

And in many ways, I think gardeners are the same way: hold up a pretty flower or nice fall foliage color, and most of us will fall all over ourselves to make it work in our yard, disclaimers or not.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of “but it’s not invasive in my yard!” or even worse “Who cares if it spreads in the wild?  Isn’t that just evolution?”  As I’ve mentioned before, native plants are the base of the food chain in our local ecosystems, and when they are displaced by exotic invasive plants, we lose diversity which has far-reaching ramifications (for another blog post).

I’m not singling BHG out for being the sole offender when it comes to recommending the use of showy, ornamental invasive species.  Social media and the internet are full of what I am sure is well-intentioned, but nonetheless misdirected, advice for gardeners to plant vegetation that has the potential to harm local ecosystems.  Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa) is praised for its fast growth and purple flowers; it’s still possible to buy Japanese Bloodgrass (a cultivar of Cogongrass) online; and many homeowners still recommend bamboo and English Ivy to create instant screens or groundcovers.  A few years ago I took a horticulture class at a community college and the professor was still extolling the many virtues of a privet (Ligustrum sp.) or Eleagnus sp. hedge!

Stop encouraging people to use bad plants!

It makes me sad that in today’s world, where so much good information is free and easy to access on the internet, that such much unreliable information is out there.  I think as a home gardener, without any professional gardening training requirements, it’s easy to fall prey to the persuasive power of social media and advertising (I’m looking at you, Scott’s brand!  Turns out, at least in our neck of the woods, it’s inappropriate to apply a Weed & Feed product to lawns: just a quick Master Gardener tip from me to you, warm season turfgrass goes dormant during the winter and fertilizer should not be applied until the lawn is completely green — otherwise you risk the grass breaking dormancy too early and getting “burned” by a frost.  Weeds may become established during periods when fertilizer should not be applied, so you should make plans to have a separate herbicide from your fertilizer).

Before you apply any chemicals to your yard or plant a new tree, shrub, vine, etc., I’m asking you to do a little homework.  You may surprise yourself and have some fun, or at the very least a new-found sense of independence and expertise!  When it comes to any chemicals, get in contact with your local Extension Office or Master Gardeners.  The service is FREE and they provide accurate, research-based, locally-pertinent information.

As for plants, you can’t go wrong with Extension or MGs, but please also consider your local Native Plants Societies.  The SC Native Plants Society provides some great fact sheets for homeowners regarding native alternatives to invasive species (get the same look or landscape function without the ecological damage!), native plants suited to different sun & moisture conditions, and even a coastal-specific planting list.  Many states also have information available about invasive plants, such as the SC Exotic Pest Plant Council.  SC-EPPC provides great resources for identifying problematic plant species — I especially like this guide.  Study it and think hard about what you put in your yard.

So that’s my soap box for today.  I promise to try to become more diligent about regularly posting pretty pictures of what’s blooming in the garden (kinda never got around to that this spring!  Ooops!).  We’ve been having a ridiculously rainy summer, or should I say monsoon season, but between downpours I’ve been sneaking out to photograph the progression of blooms.  More on that soon!

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Unexpected Guests: the critters that crash my yard!

There are a number of reasons to garden: relaxation, aesthetics, exercise, self-sufficiency via growing your own food.  Perhaps the main agenda in my garden is to attract wildlife (and look pretty while doing it!).  I feel a spark of excitement and joy each time I find a new critter in my garden (we found a tiny turtle once!) or get a return visit from an old friend (there is a pair of red shouldered hawks that like to perch in the snag at the top of our neighbor’s oak tree).  E.O. Wilson — an acclaimed naturalist and author — proposed a hypothesis, called biophilia, that I think helps describe why so many gardeners like me get excited about sharing our outdoor space with wildlife.  Basically, Wilson suggests that human beings are naturally attracted to living creatures and natural landscapes.   Biophilia is the reason we are emotionally tied to our pets or even travel hundreds of miles to observe the kaleidoscopic display of fall foliage.  As humans we instinctively crave to make the natural world part of our lives, and gardening is a very popular way to do that.  Here are a few of my suggestions to bring nature to your home.

Host Plants & Food Sources

This summer I had the ability to observe the full life cycle of Gulf Fritillary butterflies — from egg to caterpillar to crysalis to butterfly — on a passion vine right in my own front yard.

Gulf fritillary butterfly perched on its larval host plant, the native passion vine

Gulf fritillary butterfly perched on its larval host plant, the native passion vine

In case I haven’t stressed the importance of utilizing host plants in your garden, let me reiterate: insects are incredibly picky about what plants they will and won’t eat.  I remember as a child, catching various “bugs” and placing them in a jar with an obligatory smorgasbord of whatever greenery I found nearby: blades of grass, azalea leaves, pine needles.  I had no idea, as I suspect is true for most of the population, that insects and plants have developed specialized relationships over thousands of years.  Insects must be able to identify their host species and synchronize their life cycle to coincide with their host (e.g. if their host plant is deciduous, they need to lay their eggs such that there are green leave available).  Additionally, insects have to be able to overcome physical and/or chemical defenses the plants produce to deter becoming a snack.  A classic example is the monarch butterfly.  A female will only lay her eggs on milkweed plants (Asclepius sp.).  The monarch caterpillars have the ability to digest the toxins found in the milkweed, unlike other caterpillars of different species.  In his book, Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy describes the fate of tent caterpillars on a black cherry tree.  There wasn’t enough black cherry leaves on this particular tree to support the group of caterpillars and they were facing starvation.  Even though the tree was covered in Japanese Honeysuckle, and the caterpillars were in dire need of food, they did not consume any of the Japanese honeysuckle because it is not a host plant for this species.

Another choice for wildlife is planting native plants that will provide seeds or berries at important times of the year.  Plant “living bird feeders” like purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) or Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia sp.)  that will maintain a seed head through fall and winter for birds to feast upon.  Recently, I noticed a handful of tiny birds eating the seeds leftover from my prolifically-blooming Helianthus angustifolius — I didn’t have my binoculars or get a chance to take a picture, but they resembled female pine warblers (I am not a proficient birder, so we’ll have to see if I can get a good picture of them if they return!).  I also know that at this time of year, cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are migrating to more southerly grounds.  This particular species usually eats fruits and berries year-round, and the berries of juniper species are particularly important in the winter — such as red cedar (Juniperus virginiana).  Other fall and winter berry native plants include a range of hollies: American (Ilex opaca), inkberry (I. glabra), dahoon (I. cassine), and yaupon (I. vomitoria).  I’m also a fan of wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera).  Just coincidentally, all the berrying shrubs and trees I’ve just mentioned are evergreen, and make lovely foundation plantings or functional screens.  It’s like a landscaping “two-for-one” deal: beauty and function.

I’ve only just scratched the surface of possible plants to use to nourish wildlife in your neighborhood.  If you’re interested in learning more about some possible host plants in the southeast, I would recommend checking out the South Carolina Native Plant Society’s fact sheet Gardening for Wildlife as well as the Institute for Regional Conservation’s Natives for Your Neighborhood database. I like that you can search by plant or by butterfly species — I hope in the future they will include more wildlife information!

Provide Habitat

I have convinced our neighbor to let us keep up a dead tree trunk (maybe 15 feet tall, without branches) that sits on our property border because of the thrill of seeing pileated woodpeckers (Dryocopus pileatus) pecking holes in search of insects, specifically ants and beetle larvae.  Don’t underestimate the importance of dying or dead trees (snags) on your property!  In addition to food, dead trees provide shelter, prefered “lookout” perches for birds of prey, and ultimately contribute to enhancing the nutrients in your soil as they break down.  If you’re worried about aesthetics, you can always plant some vines around the standing dead tree (our native trumpet vine,  yellow jessamine or wisteria are good choices).  If you do decide to cut down the dead tree due to safety concerns, please consider leaving the logs somewhere on your property to provide that same valuable habitat and food source!

An unlikely habitat we unknowingly created was actually one of our rain barrels.  Last summer, Robert left the screened top off of one rain barrel so that he could easily fill buckets and cart them to different parts of the yard.  One day he noticed we had tadpoles swimming in the barrel!

Tree frog (Hyla sp.) tadpole, summer 2011

We were so excited to come home each day and watch their growth and changes.
I asked a friend of mine, a naturalist with the Charleston County Parks, to identify the type of frogs we had.  I knew it had to be a tree frog of some capacity (how else would the parent have been able to lay eggs in the 3 foot tall rain barrel?!).  There are over 50 different genera within the Hylidae (tree frog) family, and according to one of my reference books, Amphibians & Reptiles of the Carolinas and Virginia, there are 5 different species in the genus Hyla found in our area.  It was difficult to make an ID with just the pictures, but after consulting another colleague, my naturalist friend was able to tell me that I definitely had a tree frog of the genus Hyla — most likely squirrel tree frog (H. squirella), but the tadpoles also had characteristics similar to Spring Peeper (H. crucifer) and Pine Woods (H. femoralis) tree frogs.

Our tadpoles all grown up and exploring the world beyond the rain barrel

I hope I’ve inspired you to find ways to share your outdoor space with your wild neighbors.  I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please comment below!

Posted in Backyard Biology, Gardening, Rain Barrels, South Carolina Native Plants Society | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Fall is in the air (and in my garden)

It always amazes me how nature works like a precise clock.  Without even checking a calendar, I can tell that autumn has arrived in my garden (despite the misleading 80 degree temperatures).  My tea olive has bloomed, goldenrod flowers are bursting forth in plumes of bright yellow on all the roadsides, and best of all, my swamp sunflowers (Helianthus angustifolius) have started showing off their big, yellow daisy flowers.

First, a few words about what makes goldenrod an awesome native plant.  Did you know that one species of goldenrod, Solidago altissima, is the South Carolina state wildflower?  The common name “goldenrod” actually applies to multiple genera of plants, including 75 species of the genus Solidago that are native to the United States according to the USDA PLANTS database.   Goldenrod is a member of the Aster family, so when you’re looking at yellow goldenrod blooms, it’s actually a cluster of many small, daisy-like flowers.  The flowers are not only beautiful, they also attract a ton of pollinators: bees, wasps, butterflies, and other miscellaneous flying bugs flocked to my goldenrod when it was blooming in August.  At one point they were covered in a blanket of love bugs.  And, despite what slanderous slurs have been flung around regarding this fall beauty, goldenrod does not — reapeat, DOES NOT — cause your fall allergies.  I think it’s just a matter of mistaken identity and bad PR.  The real culprit is ragweed (Ambrosia spp.).  They both bloom at the same time, but goldenrod’s pollen is too heavy to be dispersed by wind — ragweed’s is small and mobile, leaving a path of runny noses and itchy, watery eyes in its wake.

Solidago odora in my front garden, August 2012

I have two different species of goldenrod that are native to South Carolina growing in my garden.  I am a bad horticulturalist: I don’t have tags in tact on my plants anymore, but I’m fairly confident the first goldenrod is Solidago odora or “anise-scented goldenrod”.  I’ll be honest with you, I can’t smell anything in particular with my plants (but then again I also don’t notice the fragrance of four o’clock flowers, so maybe my nose is deficient).  Solidago odora was the first goldenrod I added to my garden and came from Mepkin Abbey — back when they used to have a greenhouse specifically for growing native plants for sale.  I acquired mine at the SC Native Plants Society’s 2010 Symposium in a plant propagation workshop lead by the horticulturalist from Mepkin.  Which leads me to another great feature of goldenrod: it is exceptionally easy to propagate and hardy.  I honestly don’t know if mine reproduce more readily from seed or from spreading rhizomes.  All I know is that I started with two little plants, which filled some large decorative pots of mine in a year; I transplanted them this spring into one of my front beds and they have thrived — even despite the disgustingly hot and dry summer we had (and even with my rainbarrels, I am not a reliable irrigation provider).

Love Bugs enjoying goldenrod

I’m fairly certain that the second goldenrod species is seaside goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens.  I bought these last year at the SCNPS Lowcountry Chapter’s plant sale.  It’s just starting to come into bloom now… not quite peak yet as you can see from the picture below.  The plants can grow up to 6 feet tall (mine are in the 3 to 5 foot range), and maintain an evergreen basal rosette of leaves throughout the year.  The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinators and the seeds are foraged by many songbirds, like the American Goldfinch.

Solidago sempervirens, October 2012

Finally, my other favorite fall bloomer is swamp sunflower, Helianthus angustifolius.  This perennial is another SC native plant, found commonly from the coast to the piedmont.  Despite its common name, it can be found in both wet and dry sites (like my front yard).  It has hairy leaves and stems   Usually the deer do a good job of ‘pruning’ my plants for me, which isn’t a problem with my swamp sunflower!  It bounces back bushier and covered with literally hundreds of flowers.  And the flowers attract every kind of pollinator — bees, wasps, butterflies, etc.  According to the book Forest Plants of the Southeast and Their Wildlife Uses (by James Miller and Karl Miller), seeds from sunflowers like this are often eaten by small mammals and birds, such as  Northern Bobwhite, American Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadee, and Dark-eyed Junco.

Fiery Skipper moth taking advantage of H. angustifolius nectar source

Despite the deer enjoying a few spring and summer meals, you can see from the picture below that my sunflowers tower over my other shrubs and small palm tree!  I’m guessing they are about 7 feet tall!  Which isn’t unusual for this plant.  I will warn you though — give this plant plenty of room to spread out!  It can quickly take over a bed with its agressive rhizomes.  Not that I mind.  I love coming home to these cheerful yellow daisies — which, by the way, make excellent cut flowers!  I will definitely be digging up the small plants in the spring and replanting them around the yard and taking them to plant swaps.

H. angustifolius towers over other plants

Both the sunflower and goldenrod can be seen in full bloom this time of year; I usually see them growing together in roadside ditches and rights-of-way.  Next time you’re stuck in rush hour traffic, take a look outside your window and see if you can find any!  I’m sure their cheerful yellow flowers will brighten your day.

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Water, water everywhere?

Robert and I attended the fall kick-off meeting for the Lowcountry Chapter of the South Carolina Native Plants Society last week.  It was fantastically inspiring and interesting — our guest speaker was Patrick McMillan, who is a naturalist, Clemson University Professor, Interim Director of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, and hosts a show on our local PBS station called “Expeditions with Patrick McMillan.”  Although the main focus of his talk was about the development of the South Carolina Natural Heritage Garden — a tremendous undertaking to include and highlight plants from the coastal, piedmont and upstate regions of South Carolina — one particular statement hit home for me: “I do not take water for granted.”

I guess sometimes I forget that not everywhere in the world is blessed with the sheer volume of water here in the Lowcountry. Our river, lake, and ocean access is something most of us don’t think twice about (although, perhaps, we do grumble about having to get flood insurance for our house due to proximity!).  Our shallow water table makes basements exceptionally rare.  Even if you don’t live on the Coast, most of us don’t worry too much about the origins of our drinking water.  From two summers interning in the engineering department at Mount Pleasant Waterworks, I have a greater appreciation than most of the population (I suspect) about just what it takes to pump fresh, drinkable water to your kitchen sink… or (sorry to be gross) what happens after you flush.  The truth is, there are people in the world that aren’t that lucky.  Mr. McMillan described a trip to South America where he walked 5 kilometers with a woman to fill up her buckets with water that would have to last her family for a week.  Incredible.  Humbling.

I do not take water for granted.

There are some actions Robert and I have initiated to be more water-responsible (high efficiency washing machine, rain water harvesting), and there are many more home-improvement projects on our bucket list for the future (low flow/low flush bathroom fixtures, installing a gray water line for irrigation).  If I may step on a soap box for a moment, I think flushing the toilet with potable, drinkable water is just plain silly.  What a waste of our precious resources!  No, seriously, let’s think about that for a minute.  The water that gets pumped to your house — for showering, washing dishes, doing laundry, irrigating your lawn — has been filtered and disinfected to a point that it is deemed appropriate for human consumption.  Why on earth do you need pure, drinking water to flush a toilet?!  (Or wash your car or water your plants?)

Which brings me to an exciting garden-relevant point about drinking water.  Plants don’t need to be watered with pristine, EPA-approved, potable water provided (for a fee) by your local utility.   Actually, Robert and I have learned by experience that sometimes rainwater is actually better for irrigating certain plants.  For example, we have observed that resurrection fern will not transform from its brown, dried out state to its lush green foliage if tap water is used to water it — rain water works like a charm!  Apparently, many plants just don’t like all the extra disinfectants and disinfectant byproducts in tap water.  Plus, rain water can be used for free!  Call me old-fashioned, but I’m a “penny saved, penny earned” type of gal.

You can buy rain barrels ready-made online or at big box stores.  A couple years ago Robert started collecting 55-gallon pickle barrels to construct rain barrels.  He was able to fabricate the rain barrels for a fraction of the cost of a ready-made barrel — the pickle barrels came from Craigslist and then it was just a matter of drilling a few holes, adding screen and some hardware.  Honestly, l think he did it so he’d have an excuse to tinker around with some of his power tools!  One day, I’ll get him to post his directions for construction, but for now you can reference the Rain Barrel Manual published by Clemson’s Carolina Clear initiative.

Robert working on one of our seven rain barrels

So now for some fun math!  Let’s estimate that the surface area of our roof is 1,500 square feet.  We have, as I mentioned, seven 55-gallon barrels — so a potential storage capacity of 385 gallons.  There are 7.48 gallons per cubic foot of storage.  Divide 385 gallons by 7.48 ft3/gallon and that equals about 51.5 cubic feet of potential storage.  Stick with me!

Now I want to find the size of rainfall that will completely fill all seven of our rain barrels.  I set up a simple equation: the amount of storage in my barrels (51.5 cubic feet) is equal to the surface area on my roof (1,500 square feet) multiplied by some rainfall depth (X)

51.5 = 1,500X

X = 0.034 ft or (multiply by 12 to get) 0.41 inches

That’s NOTHING!  Less than half an inch of rain will fill up seven 55-gallon rain barrels.  Incredible!  Unfortunately, that means when we get any storm greater than half an inch, our rain barrels overflow.  Wasted water makes Robert sad, so now he has his eyes on acquiring a much larger cistern to hold more rainwater!  This is a perfect example of how impervious surfaces (roofs, sidewalks, driveways, roads) contribute to stormwater runoff.  Just a little bit of rainwater falling on hard, non-porous surfaces adds up quickly to many, many hundreds of gallons of runoff.  Runoff is a potential threat to our local waterways because it carries pollutants (think chemicals from roadways, fertilizers from lawns) and increases the potential for soil erosion (another pollutant).  But at least we’re making a little bit of a dent in the runoff from our roof — imagine if everyone in our neighborhood had at least one rain barrel!  It’s amazing to think of amount of water that would be saved for irrigation and kept from polluting our nearby waterways.

I hope, now, you won’t take your water for granted!  Start mitigating the effects of stormwater runoff with a rain barrel today!

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Passionate about Passiflora!

Passion flower, Passiflora incarnata

Passiflora incarnata in my 2011 garden

Although it looks exotic, it’s actually another native of South Carolina.  The fragrant, flowering perennial vine blooms from May through September and is hardy in zones 6-9 and is deciduous — do not worry if it dies back to the ground in the winter; it will come back in the spring.  The vine scrambles along the ground or up neighboring plants or structures to lengths/heights of about 8-12 feet!  And if you’re a food-plant enthusiast like Robert, you’ll be happy to learn that maypops (a common name for passion vine) produce a delicious fruit (so I’ve been told!  I’m hoping ours will produce one day, too!).  Apparently, a related species of Passiflora is used to flavor Hawaiian Punch.  The fruits of P. incarnata are yellow and approximately the size and shape of chicken eggs.  I’ve borrowed a picture from Floridata of the fruit.

The genus name Passiflora or “passion flower”, was given by 16th century Spanish missionaries in South America who saw a correlation to the Crucifixion of Christ in the showy flower structures: The frilly corona, sitting at the top of the flower, is the crown of thorns; the five anthers are the five wounds; the three styles are the three nails; and the five petals and five sepals are the ten faithful apostles (not counting Judas and Peter).  The coiled tendrils represent the whips for scourging.  I love symbolic stories like that!

Another nice thing about planting native plants, like the passion vine, is that it supports local wildlife.  Butterflies in particular are very picky about the types of plants they will lay their eggs on — the caterpillars simply cannot eat any green leaf they happen to find.  P. incarnata is the larval host plant of a couple different types of butterflies, including the gulf fritillary and zebra longwing.  This weekend, we found a lot of gulf fritillary caterpillars and butterflies (Agraulis vanillae) on our passion flower vine in our front yard.  This butterfly is fairly common in our area and has a similar appearance to another orange butterfly that passes through this time of year on its migration: the monarch.

Gulf fritillary caterpillar feasting on maypop leaves August 25, 2012

Adult gulf fritillaries lay pinhead-sized yellow eggs singly on leaves and tendrils of the maypop.  Robert and I looked all over our maypop vine for the eggs (since the butterflies keep stopping there — perhaps trying to lay an egg) without success.  We did find about a dozen or so caterpillars of various sizes.  I think the bright orange caterpillars with their pointy black spikes look like something out of SciFi author’s imagination!  They are devouring every part of the vine: leaves, stems, and flowers.  I’m not sure how long they stay in the caterpillar phase before pupa… I’ll just have to keep my eyes open for a chrysalis!

Adult gulf fritillary butterfly sipping some nectar from maypop (August 25, 2012)

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Purple Perfection

Carolina Wild Petunia, Ruellia caroliniensis

SC native alternative to Mexican petunia: Ruellia caroliniensis

This is a new plant I came across while putting together my order for the Native Plant Society plant sale this past fall.  I bought one on a whim, because I wanted to see how it would compare to it’s aggressive cousin, the Mexican petunia (R. brittoniana).  I couldn’t be more smitten with it!  For many weeks this spring, it has put on quite a show of flowers.  If you’re not familiar with Ruellias, their flowers last only a day!  But each day, they produce more flowers.  The nursery that I ordered the plant from said that this display should continue from May until September — how exciting!

July was a brutally hot and dry month this year, and my R. caroliniensis died back a bit.  Fortunately, it seems we’ve had a good rain storm almost every day this August and my little plant is making a comeback!  I’m hoping it will bloom again, as expected, through the fall!  Fingers are crossed!

Ruellia caroliniensis as of August 25, 2012

From what I can tell, the internet is full of conflicting advise about the little bit of information it publishes about the native Ruellia.  The plant has a slightly hairy texture and square stems.  Some sources say it grows to a height of six inches to three feet (mine is currently about a foot tall) and prefers dry, sandy soil.  I’ve seen conflicting sources online stating its sun preference from full shade to full sun — I have mine out in full sun, but it has other grasses and small shrubs growing around it to give it some protection.  Maybe in a shadier location it wouldn’t have burned out this summer (something to experiment with next year).  For butterfly lovers, this wild petunia serves as one of the larval host plants for the common buckeye butterfly.  I’ve seen some nibbles taken out of the leaves on my plant — I’ll have to keep a closer eye out for caterpillars!

Here’s a nice fact sheet from the University of Florida and another nice resource about wild petunia from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.  The Institute for Regional Conservation also has a brief description of the Ruellia.  Hope these are helpful and that you can track down a native plant nursery to get your own Carolina wild petunia for your garden!

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Hokie, Hokie, Hokie Hi! to the ‘VT Spirit’ Daylily

For those of you not fortunate enough to have been steeped in the glorious Virginia Tech tradition, I’ll have to explain the title to this post.  One of the most well-known cheers in Blacksburg goes as following:

“Hokie, Hokie, Hokie Hi! Tech, Tech, VPI.  Sol-a-rex, sol-a-rah.  Polytech Virginia.  Ray, rah, VPI.  Team, team, team!”

I’ll admit it looks goofy all typed out — but hear it amidst a crowd of pumped up Hokies and it’s almost impossible not to feel the need to clad yourself in head to toe orange and maroon.  Even your garden plants!

So imagine my excitement during my most recent stop in Blacksburg, when a friend told me that not only did my unplanned trip fall upon the weekend of the annual Horticulture Club plant sale — but also that they would be selling a newly developed daylily with an orange and maroon hued flower.  And this would most likely my only opportunity to get one!  So I did what any Hokie fan(atic) with a sunny spot in her garden to fill would do: I made my pilgrimage to one of my favorite corners of campus (the Hahn Horticulture Garden) and claimed my own pot of ‘VT Spirit’.

Some ‘VT Spirit’ for my garden!

While I was reading about this particular daylily, I noticed that it was classified as a “triploid” daylily.  I’ll admit, I’m not very conversant about the chromosomal nature of many plants — so I did a little digging.  It turns out that most daylilies have two pairs of 11 chromosomes (diploids).  One set comes from the egg cell and one set from the pollen.  (So think of it like humans.)  There are also tetraploid daylilies (44 chromosomes total) and triploids (33 chromosomes) like the ‘VT Spirit’.  The catch with triploid daylilies is that they are considered sterile — they are unable to create viable seeds because when the chromosomes split to form sex cells, they do not create even pairs.  In other words, if a daylily egg or sperm is supposed to have 11 chromosomes — you can get to that by halving a dipoloid or tetraploid.  But when you divide a tripolid in half, you get 11 chromosomes plus some leftovers.  The plant still flowers, and in cases like seedless watermelon, fruit is produced — but because the fruit is unfertilized, no seeds are produced!  Pretty nifty trick, huh?!  Triploids present another commerical advantage over their diploid relatives: extended bloom.  Because the seeds do not develop, the plant can continue to produce flowers.

There’s still a lot out there about plant genetics that I don’t know — but it’s been fun to follow this ‘polypoidy’ tangent with my new daylily!  I’ll keep you posted if I make any other interesting discoveries about this topic.

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Pure Gold

Carolina Yellow Jessamine, Gelsemium sempervirens

Yellow Jessamine

Show SC pride! Plant the state flower!

If you have had the pleasure of being a third grader in the state of South Carolina, you probably remember having to learn all your state symbols for social studies!  For a quick refresher, here’s a sampling of all the best our state has to offer (and the year they were adopted into state law as an official symbol):

  • Flower — Yellow Jessamine (1924)
  • Tree — Palmetto (1939)
  • Bird — Carolina Wren (1948)
  • Stone — Blue Granite (1969)
  • Animal — Whitetail Deer (1972)
  • Fish — Striped Bass (1972)
  • Dance — Shag (1984)
  • Shell — Lettered Olive (1984)
  • Dog — Boykin Spaniel (1985)
  • Reptile — Loggerhead Turtle (1988)
  • Insect — Carolina Mantid (1988)
  • Butterfly — Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (1994)
  • Hospitality Beverage — Tea (1995)
  • Amphibian — Spotted Salamander (1999)
  • Spider — Carolina Wolf Spider (2000)
  • Opera — Porgy and Bess (2001)
  • Snack — Boiled Peanut (2006)
  • Color — Indigo Blue (2008)
  • Marine Mammal — Bottlenose Dolphin (2009)

What an eclectic collection!  As far as I can tell, the yellow jessamine is the first official state symbol for South Carolina (please correct me if I’m wrong) — which actually surprised me.  I thought that the palmetto would have been around longer (it’s on the flag!).  If you go to the South Carolina State House Student Connection website you can find a complete listing of all the state symbols with links to the related legislation.  My absolute favorite to read is the prose penned for the yellow jessamine.  I wish politicians today could express themselves as poignantly!

“…we would recommend the Yellow Jessamine for the following reasons:

(1) It is indigenous to every nook and corner of the State.

(2) It is the first premonitor of coming spring.

(3) Its fragrance greets us in the woodland and its delicate flower suggests the pureness of gold.

(4) Its perpetual return out of the dead of winter suggests the lesson of constancy in, loyalty to, and patriotism in the service of the State.”

I’d like to add my own accolade to the list penned nearly a century ago.  Yellow jessamine is the great motivational role model for all of us.  The yellow jessamine teaches us to bloom when circumstances seem dreary, rise above obstacles and reach for the light.  Typically, the jessamine blooms in early spring (February-April) but mine started blooming in December this year (we’ve had an atypically warm winter).  It is one of the first blooms in the spring, and thus provides a valuable nectar source insects and birds.  I counted two bees on my yellow jessamine in the time it took me to put letters in the mail box this morning!  It is a fast-growing evergreen vine capable of reaching heights of more than 20 feet. Oftentimes when I’m walking around my neighborhood in early spring, I’ll find the delicate yellow flowers spread like confetti on the ground under a canopy of trees.  The vine is not immediately visible — you have to search the top most branches of the trees!  The plant tolerates a wide spectrum of soil and light  conditions — but it will grow faster and bloom more prolifically if it is in good soil with plenty of sunshine.   There are no major insect or diseases that affect this plant — this is probably due to the fact that is is a native plant species (its range spans from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas, USDA zones 6-9).

Another nice trait of yellow jessamine is that it is extremely easy to propagate from cuttings.  Dirr recommends using a rooting hormone (3,000 ppm IBA) but I think you could just as easily root it without.  Simply cut a couple inches (you don’t need a long piece) of the vine — all you need are a couple of nodes (intersections of the leaf petiole and stem).  The important thing is to remove at least one set of leave and place this node under your rooting media: you can either use a potting soil, peat/perlite mixture, or just a glass of water.  If you are using soil or another mixture, make sure you keep the media moist.

If you’re looking for something a little bit fancier-looking than the normal yellow jessamine, here’s a pretty little double-flower cultivar, called ‘Pride of Augusta’. I borrowed the image from Clemson HGIC 1103.

One final note: it is pronounced “jess-a-min” NOT “jazz-min”.  They are completely different species!  Also, do not confuse the actual plant with Japanese Honeysuckle.  ALL parts of yellow jessamine are poisonous!  Do not let children attempt to ingest the nectar.

I hope you’ve been inspired to add a little “pure gold” to your garden!

REFERENCES:

Dirr, Michael A.  2009.  Manual of Woody Landscape Plants.  6th ed.  Champaign, Illinois:Stipes Publishing, LLC.  pp 460-461.

Floridata.  2011.  Gelsemium sempervirens. Tallahassee, FL: Floridata.com LC.  Available at http://www.floridata.com/ref/g/gelsem.cfm Accessed 12 February 2012

Russ, Karen.  2007.  Carolina Jessamine.  HGIC 1103.  Clemson, SC: Clemson Cooperative Extension.  Available at http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/plants/pdf/hgic1103.pdf

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