Nativars — what are they and why should you care?

Seed-grown Echinacea purpurea

Seed-grown Echinacea purpurea

The only gardening magazine I subscribe to is The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society. It’s a benefit of membership – the only one I use much – and membership is expensive, compared to the annual cost of other gardening magazine subscriptions.

But only this magazine consistently provides articles in which I actually learn new and useful information. It is the only magazine that asks me to think about gardening in a larger context. A case in point is the March/April 2015 issue. Articles range, as usual, from practical concerns (“Designing an Inviting Garden”) to an article addressing the long-range health of our gardens and the native ecosystems in which they grow.

“Coming to Terms with Nativars” by Graham Rice, a well-known garden writer, is an article I wish every gardener would read and take to heart, because it addresses how the choices we gardeners make – even when planting what we think are native species – can affect the well-being of the native wildlife we are trying to support with those planting choices.

As Mr. Rice explains, the term nativar was coined by the well-known plantsman, Allan Armitage, to identify cultivated forms and hybrids of native species. Nativar is a combination of the words native and cultivar. Cultivar is another coined term made from two words – cultivated and variety – and indicates that the plant in question was either deliberately developed by horticulturalists or it was spotted by them in a garden somewhere and named and propagated.

Mr. Rice’s article describes a growing concern among horticulturalists and ecologists about the role nativars are playing – or not playing – in our gardens. This is an ongoing field of research, but it is becoming clear that nativars that vary in appearance significantly from their native species often are much less beneficial to native wildlife. Traits of special concern include:

  • Double flowers – Many double-flowered nativars, such as these, do not produce much pollen or seeds, rendering them irrelevant to pollinators and seed eaters. Some doubles produce some pollen, but the changed shape of the flowers makes it nearly impossible for pollinators to reach it.
  • Foliage color – The same pigments that give many purple-leaved nativars their leaf color also apparently make those leaves taste bad. Native insects that evolved to eat those species don’t eat the purple-leaved ones, thereby endangering the completion of their lifecycles. Remember that we need those insects to feed our native birds; always the interconnectedness of life must be considered.
  • Size and flower color – If these traits diverge widely from the species, wildlife may not utilize such nativars. Bees, for example, are very sensitive to flower color. If a nativar color diverges widely from its parent species, it may not be recognized as a food source by these insects.

How do we know which nativars are good for everyone?

Lonicera sempervirens 'Major Wheeler'

Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler’

Rice consulted the experts, who suggested that gardeners interested in creating gardens inviting to native wildlife as well as humans should choose nativars that closely resemble the species, but perhaps bloom longer, such as Lonicera sempervirens ‘Major Wheeler.’ Nativars that look like the species but don’t grow as tall, such as some of the dwarf Joe Pye Weed offerings, also remain appealing to wildlife.

Height doesn't matter to the pollinators as long as the flowers of nativars resemble the species from which they are derived.

Height doesn’t matter to the pollinators as long as the flowers of nativars resemble the species from which they are derived.

Other factors to consider

Rice suggests that we need to consider three other issues when choosing plants for our gardens:

  • Propagation techniques used to produce native species and their nativars
  • Geographic origins of these propagated species and nativars
  • Wild or cultivated origins

Propagation Techniques

The genetics of plants are affected by how they are propagated. Plants grown from locally collected wild seeds will be genetically different from those grown from seeds collected from stock plants in a nursery. These differences may not be apparent to us, but the wildlife that utilizes them for food may not respond in the same way to such plants.

Geographic Origins

A native species with a wide range – say from Michigan to Texas – will vary genetically, especially at the opposite ends of its range. It makes sense that species selection would favor plants best adapted to the cold of Michigan winters, and that those plants would not fare as well in the heat of Texas summers. Purveyors of wildflower seeds that don’t identify where the seeds were collected (called provenance) are not helping gardeners choose the plants best adapted to their geographic regions.

Wild or Cultivated Origins

Rice says the experts are still trying to decide if nativars propagated from naturally occurring plants in the wild are better for native wildlife than nativars developed by horticulturalists in nurseries. For example is the nativar of aromatic aster, Symphotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies’ better because it was developed from a plant found growing wild? The jury is still out.

My October Skies asters buzz with pollinators from dawn to dusk every late summer/fall.

My October Skies asters buzz with pollinators from dawn to dusk every late summer/fall.

My Takeway Lesson

Mr. Rice’s article doesn’t much change what I’ve been doing in my yard. I do buy nativars, but I’ve always been drawn to the ones that don’t look that different from the species. Now I have good reasons to continue selecting nativars that closely resemble their parent species.

Given the exponential decrease of worldwide wilderness that I wrote about here, I think any gardener who cares about the health of our dwindling native ecosystems should pass on fancy double flowers in unusual colors and favor the many gorgeous, vigorous nativars that will not only beautify a yard, but also benefit struggling native wildlife. Seems like a no-brainer to this gardener.

When the species is as gorgeous as this Cardinal Flower, I feel no need to grow its nativars.

When the species is as gorgeous as this Cardinal Flower, I feel no need to grow its nativars.

My thanks to Graham Rice and The American Gardener for spelling out these issues so clearly for us.

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Need help getting rid of invasive plants in your yard?

Do you hate seeing this:

2-wisteria forest

and this:

English Ivy strangling a Dogwood

and this:

Japanese Honeysuckle thicket in a woodland

and this:

Dead during winter months, Microstegium vimineum (Japanese Stiltgrass) still overpowers a native holly along a creek

as much as I do? Experts battling these and other non-native invasive plants meet once a year in North Carolina to share information on the most effective eradication and management techniques. They are a good bunch of folks — native-loving plant nerds, if you will — who are passionately working to preserve the health of our dwindling native ecosystems by eliminating/controlling non-native invasive plants.

This year, the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council (NC-IPC) is hosting the annual regional meeting of its parent organization, the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council (SE-EPPC) at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill on May 26-28. Interested citizens are encouraged to attend — no degrees in botany required!

I’m looking forward to a number of presentations, especially including one from Edenton (NC) High School students and their teacher on their study of Hydrilla in their area. This highly invasive non-native plant is rapidly choking our streams, ponds, and lakes to the point of making them unnavigable by boats, and unhealthy for the natives that live in those waters. It lifts my heart to know that young people care about the future of their backyards — and their planet!

Early registration ends this Friday, May 15, so visit this page to register today if you’re interested.

I hope I’ll see you there!

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Hello, Summer — Almost

White Ibis flying over mouth of Cape Fear River in Southport, NC

White Ibis flying over mouth of Cape Fear River in Southport, NC

I know that most folks measure the beginning of summer from Memorial Day, which is still a bit more than two weeks away, but I’m thinking summer has gotten a head start this year. My evidence? Well, there’s Tropical Storm Ana, which hammered the NC coast just as Wonder Spouse and I were departing. We had a lovely, mild week of weather, and Wonder Spouse took hundreds of great photos, like the one above (Click on the photo to see a larger version). Let’s all meditate on that tranquil shot and say a collective “Aaaah,” before I return to the garden tasks now facing me.

Dazoc potatoes on May 11

Dazoc potatoes on May 11

The vegetables were very busy while we were gone. Wonder Spouse took one look at the growth of his beloved potatoes and immediately unfolded another level of his potato bags, so that he could tuck in more of his magic growing mix around his prodigies.

The Kipfel fingerling potatoes really multiplied:

Kipfel fingerling potatoes on May 11

Kipfel fingerling potatoes on May 11

I’m thinking their reputation for productivity is likely justified. If you’ve never eaten a fingerling potato, try some from your local farmer’s market when they show up freshly harvested in a month or so. Pure potato heaven awaits you.

Purple Viking potatoes on May 11

Purple Viking potatoes on May 11

The Purple Vikings are not as numerous, but the plants have really bulked up. I suspect their tubers are doing the same thing.

My beans germinated while I was gone. The Fortex pole beans came up enthusiastically, but the Jade bush beans did not. I wasn’t home to water the soil to keep it softer for germinating seedlings, and the Jades, which are not as robust as the Fortexes, may have suffered accordingly. Or the voles ate the seeds. I seem to have a bumper crop of voracious voles this year. I try not to hate any of Mother Nature’s creatures, but I’m still searching for a reason to appreciate voles.

Enthusiastic Fortex pole bean seedlings. I resowed the Jade bush beans yesterday.

Enthusiastic Fortex pole bean seedlings. I resowed the Jade bush beans yesterday.

The peppers and tomatoes are filled with flowers and tiny fruits. I spent a good half hour or so tying up tomatoes that shot up a foot while I wasn’t home to watch them. The squash seedlings now have multiple leaves; they’re still safely tucked beneath their Reemay tents until they begin flowering.

The bed of greens needs a good harvesting before the heat turns them bitter. The dill, chives, and parsley really filled out, and enhance just about every meal we eat (I don’t put them on my morning oatmeal, but they make scrambled eggs sing).

Red Ace beets look to be especially productive this year.

Red Ace beets look to be especially productive this year.

And, of course, I can’t close without showing you some of the fabulous flowers currently adorning our five acres. The Fraser Magnolia finished blooming while we were gone. I can just see small seed cones beginning to develop. Currently, the Ashe Magnolia is showing off, and I do mean showing off. This shrubby small tree decided to bloom from top to bottom this year. And when I say bottom, I mean touching the ground.

My Ashe Magnolia is just beginning its bloom cycle.

My Ashe Magnolia is just beginning its bloom cycle.

I could smell the sweet perfume of this magnolia before I got within 20 feet of it.

This Ashe Magnolia flower nearly rests on the ground.

This Ashe Magnolia flower nearly rests on the ground.

The Ashe Magnolia’s bigger cousin, Bigleaf Magnolia is full of buds. It will complete the native deciduous magnolia show in another week or two.

A Bigleaf Magnolia flower bud high above my head. This tree is about 20 feet tall now.

A Bigleaf Magnolia flower bud high above my head. This tree is about 20 feet tall now.

The deciduous azalea show is winding down, but the cultivar of Rhododendron flammeum — Scarlet Ibis — is peaking this week. The blooms don’t look scarlet to me, but they are indisputably spectacular, with a subtle perfume that adds to their wow factor.

R. flammeum 'Scarlet Ibis' grabs your attention even from a distance.

R. flammeum ‘Scarlet Ibis’ grabs your attention even from a distance.

A closer view of its flowers is even more eye-popping.

A closer view of its flowers is even more eye-popping.

A few more currently blooming floral highlights before I close this post:

Baptisa 'Purple Smoke' provides consistent spring color every year, and the plants continue to expand.

Baptisa ‘Purple Smoke’ provides consistent spring color every year, and the plants continue to expand.

 

The white-blooming form of Florida Anisetree contrasts beautifully with the more common red-flowered ones.

The white-blooming form of Florida Anise-tree contrasts beautifully with the more common red-flowered ones.

 

Seed-grown yellow foxgloves bloom for over a month every year, and they self-sow too.

Seed-grown yellow foxgloves bloom for over a month every year, and they self-sow too.

The two Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ plants I added some years ago have become a Sweet Kate horde, and that’s just fine with me. They will bloom off and on until frost, barring severe heat waves/droughts.

Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate' is blooming enthusiastically beside my front water feature.

Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ is blooming enthusiastically beside my front water feature.

To close this update, let’s meditate once more on the peace and tranquility that only a spring trip to the NC coast can provide. Wonder Spouse took this shot from the deck of our rental cottage. After several hours of rain, the sun returned on the final day of our visit and painted the sky with a rainbow framed against departing clouds (Click on it to fully appreciate the shot).

Aaaah...

Aaaah…

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One Potato, Two Potato…

Newly emerged Dazo potato sprouts

Newly emerged Dazoc potato sprouts on April 19

A quarter-century ago when Wonder Spouse and I were younger and over-enthusiastic about the growing potential of our recently acquired five acres of Piedmont goodness, he picked up a handful of soil and declared, “This land will grow potatoes!” My potato-loving man of Irish heritage had long dreamed of such an endeavor, and if you’ve ever eaten a freshly harvested potato, you know why.

Dazoc potatos on April 22

Dazoc potatos on April 22

The French word for potato is pomme de terre, which translates to apple of the earth. This made no sense to me until I cut into a freshly harvested potato the first time. Just like a ripe, fresh-picked apple, the potato was crisp, snapping open as I cut it, with the same sound an apple makes when I slice into one. And in a white-fleshed potato, the flesh glistens just like the flesh of a fresh-cut ripe apple. The French knew what they were talking about!

Dazoc potatoes on April 27

Dazoc potatoes on April 27

The first year we grew potatoes, Wonder Spouse planted seven different kinds. We devoted several beds to nothing but potatoes — whites, yellows, blues, purples. Some were fingerlings, others best for mashing, some for roasting. Wonder Spouse was in Potato Nirvana.

Just-emerging Kipfel fingerling potatoes on April 19

Just-emerging Kipfel fingerling potatoes on April 19

Our unfinished, cement-floored basement turned out to be ideal for potato storage. We ate our own harvest well into the late fall that year. Wonder Spouse’s most memorable potato culinary triumph was a 4th of July potato salad using red, white, and blue potatoes. It was patriotically delicious!

Kipfel fingerlings on April 22

Kipfel fingerlings on April 22

By the third year of potato production, the voles had found our garden. That year, we barely harvested any whole potatoes. The voles liked to gnaw about half of one, then move on to the next. Wonder Spouse gave up on growing his own for about a decade, consoled by the fact that now our local farmers’ markets were brimming with locally grown organic potatoes, even many of the same kinds he had grown himself.

Kipfel fingerlings on April 27

Kipfel fingerlings on April 27

Then he spotted potato bags in a gardening catalog, and hopes for his own potato harvest brought back his potato-loving enthusiasm. I told you about his first trial with three potato bags here, and his results are here. The voles cannot penetrate the bags, and the potatoes grow unmolested.

Purple Viking potato emergence on April 19

Purple Viking potato emergence on April 19

He grows a different variety in each bag, and his harvest last year was better than his first harvest the year before. Each year, he tweaks what he uses in the growing medium, how he settles the bags in the garden, and so on. This year, he is growing a continuing favorite, Purple Viking, a new fingerling variety (for him) called Kipfel, and an early potato that intrigued him called Dazoc. All are looking good so far.

Purple Vikings on April 22

Purple Vikings on April 22

Purple Vikings store well, are drought-resistant, and yield consistently large tubers. They make the best-tasting mashed potatoes you will ever eat in your life. It has snow-white flesh, and its skin is purple splotched with pink-red. In our area, freshly harvested Purple Vikings are usually available in our local farmers’ markets in June.

Purple Vikings on April 27

Purple Vikings on April 27

Kipfel fingerlings intrigued Wonder Spouse, because they are purported to be one of the most productive fingerling varieties, and for Wonder Spouse, abundant fresh potatoes are always a good thing. It is also supposed to be more heat-tolerant — a bonus, since our Piedmont summers tend to heat up by May.

I think Wonder Spouse settled on Dazoc as his third variety this year, because these dark-red-skinned potatoes are purported to make great hash browns — one of his favorites (and mine, when he makes them). This variety was developed in the early 1950s in Nebraska and maintained by local growers even after commercial growers moved on to other varieties.

This year, Wonder Spouse plunked his potato bags in an area of the garden full of blooming crimson clover. The clover has grown tall, but I’m trying to nudge it from around the bags without removing it entirely. My neighbor’s honeybees work the clover from dawn to dusk, and I really don’t want to deprive them of this resource, especially since soon the potato plants will be taller than the clover. And the more bees visiting my garden, the more tomatoes, peppers, squash, beans, etc. I will have to harvest and share. It’s a win-win for the garden — and Potato Nirvana for Wonder Spouse.

In another month or two, we'll have Purple Vikings to enjoy. This was last year's harvest in early July.

In another month or two, we’ll have Purple Vikings to enjoy. This was last year’s harvest in early July.

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For Arbor Day: Plant the Right Tree

Northern Red Oak Tree Top

Northern Red Oak Tree Top

I’ve never paid much attention to Arbor Day until this year. I knew it was a day to celebrate trees and to encourage people to plant them. I knew I routinely get mail from the Arbor Day Foundation offering me “ten free trees” as a reward for becoming a member. And that was all I knew. So I did a little research.

Chionanthus virginicus

Fringe tree: Chionanthus virginicus

Most states observe Arbor Day on the last Friday in April. Some southern states designate their celebration in January or February — better times to plant trees in the deep South. Some more northern states observe the holiday in late May for the same reason. In the United States, Arbor Day started with an early settler of the Nebraska Territory, J. Sterling Morton.  In 1872, when he created Arbor Day, Nebraska’s lands were being transformed from healthy prairies to farmlands. Native prairie ecosystems are relatively dry, soils are rich, and naturally occurring fires maintain the balance of species that comprise healthy prairie.

Purple Coneflowers are native to prairie habitats.

Purple Coneflowers are native to prairie habitats.

But when you plow up prairie to create farmland, soil erosion becomes a big problem. Those wide open spaces make it easy for strong winds to pick up huge masses of soil and blow them far away. Hard rains exacerbate erosion. Mr. Morton’s solution was to plant trees around fields to serve as wind breaks. He planted more trees to provide building materials and fuel, and to create shady spots during hot Nebraska summers. Morton grew into a prominent citizen over the years. He persuaded a lot of people to plant a lot of trees. Here’s a fact I didn’t know until yesterday: the Nebraska National Forest — all 141,864 acres of it — was entirely and deliberately planted by citizens of Nebraska. If you ever doubted that humankind can transform the Earth’s ecosystems, look no farther than the Nebraska National Forest — once prairie, now trees.

Native fall color left to right: American Beech, Musclewood, and Sourwood

Native fall color left to right: American Beech, Musclewood, and Sourwood

I spent several hours on the Web site of the Arbor Day Foundation. This nonprofit sponsors a number of great programs. They help cities and college campuses promote and grow trees in their locations, they help people all over the world plant trees to improve their lives, they sponsor nature camps for children who otherwise see very little of the natural world, and they help replant our national forests after forest fires. In these cases, they appear to partner with local experts, for example, the National Forest Service partnered with them to replant fire-devastated forests.

Native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

Native Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

But when the Arbor Day Foundation (ADF) sells trees to US citizens via their Web site, I think they are creating more problems than they are solving. Why? Because from what I saw — and I looked pretty thoroughly — the ADF makes no distinction between native and non-native trees in their offerings. Further, the “Tree Wizard” tool they provide to help folks figure out what kind of tree they should buy is inadequate. And finally, they do not reveal where they get the enormously diverse array of trees —  many not native to North America — that they offer for sale. This last bit is important, because the same species grown in a nursery in Wisconsin is much less likely to thrive in South Carolina. Even within a species, genetic diversity exists, and the genes selected for in a Wisconsin-grown tree are almost certainly not optimal for South Carolina growing conditions.

Where your Redbud was selected and propagated affects how it fare in your yard.

Where your Redbud was selected and propagated affects how it fares in your yard.

I worked through the Tree Wizard to see what trees it would recommend for my area. After it determines your hardiness zone, it asks what sort of tree you want. Your choices are: evergreen shrubs, flowering trees, ornamental trees, shade trees, evergreens, fruit trees, nut trees, and shrubs. Note that selecting only native plants is not offered as an option. I selected flowering, shade, and nut trees. Under “growing conditions,” the tool gives the following soil type options: all types, acidic, alkaline, drought tolerant, loamy, moist, rich, sandy, silty loam, well drained, wet, wide range, and clay. If you know anything about soil science, you know that not all of those choices are standard soil type options. What the heck is a drought-tolerant soil, for example? You can only pick one type here; I picked loamy. “Sun exposure” choices were all, full sun, partial shade, and full shade. Of course, any gardener with experience knows that in the southeastern US at least, the direction from which the sun exposure comes can be more important than the amount of sun. Some delicate understory native trees prefer morning sun and afternoon shade, for example. I picked full sun. The Tree Wizard next asks you to specify how tall and wide a tree you want, and what rate of growth you want. I picked all heights and all spreads, and all growth rates.

Southern Magnolia

Southern Magnolia

The Tree Wizard displayed 11 pages of results. Its top choices based on my input were: White, Pink, or Red Dogwood, Redbud, Washington Hawthorn, Japanese Flowering Cherry, Kousa Dogwood, Saucer Magnolia, and Southern Magnolia. Most of these are actually native to North America, but the Tree Wizard doesn’t tell you that. Additionally, if you want a dogwood or a redbud to thrive in my region, you should never plant it where it receives full sun all day.

A thirty-foot tall kousa dogwood thrives in the shelter of our backyard, where the house shades it from searing afternoon summer sun.

A thirty-foot tall kousa dogwood thrives in the shelter of our backyard, where the house shades it from searing afternoon summer sun.

Species names of the tree options are provided, which is interesting in itself. For example, both the Pink and Red Dogwood options are listed as Cornus florida var. rubra. I guess we’re just supposed to trust them regarding which color they send us. They appear to offer only species, no cultivars. For example, the Southern Magnolia they offer is described as likely to mature to between 60-80 feet, which is what the species does in its native environment. Spicebush ST on milkweed Frankly, I am disappointed in the Arbor Day Foundation. Clearly, they do a lot of good things, but when they aren’t partnering with local experts, they appear to blindly follow standard horticulture industry practices for selecting plants. Given the critical issues our native forests face, this is not good enough, especially for an organization that promotes itself as environmentally friendly. As it stands now, this organization — along with most of the horticulture industry in the United States — is actively encouraging plant blindness. They want you to believe that a tree is a tree is a tree. This is dangerously wrong. But the horticulture industry will not change unless its customers demand it from them. This is what I ask all of you who care about the future of our native ecosystems to do when you visit your local nursery, garden department, mail-order nursery, etc.:

  • If the plant’s description does not tell you it is native to your region, ask the sellers its origin and why that information is not on the label. If they don’t know, tell them you’re not buying the plant — at least until you’ve had time to research it yourself. I’m not saying you must only buy native plants, but you do need to know an unfamiliar plant’s origins before you consider adding it to your landscape.
A non-native annual zinnia attracts pollinators without adversely impacting the health of your yard's ecosystem.

A non-native annual zinnia attracts pollinators without adversely impacting the health of your yard’s ecosystem.

  • Know which species are considered to be invasive non-natives in your region. When you see them offered in your local nursery (and you will), ask the sellers why they offer plants known to be damaging to the local environment. Tell them you won’t ever buy such plants, and that you’ll be patronizing establishments that don’t sell such plants.
Native Joe Pye Weed attracts more diverse pollinators in my yard.

Native Joe Pye Weed attracts more diverse pollinators in my yard.

  • If sellers cannot tell you more than what the label on the plant says, find another nursery where the staff is more knowledgeable. Unless the horticulture industry loses sales from promoting the notion that plants are interchangeable regardless of origin, they will not change.
  • Work with plant sellers who grasp the concept of your yard as an ecosystem. If they can tell you which plants will work together to look beautiful and support native wildlife, patronize their businesses. Your yard is not your living room. Don’t pick plants as you might accessorize a room. Every plant in your yard is a vital, dynamic life form that interacts with every other life form on your property. Make your choices based on how the seasonal dance of life and color will look over time, not on the color of a flower today.
Native Plumleaf azalea blooms in mid-summer, providing a native source of food for local hummingbirds.

Native Plumleaf azalea blooms in mid-summer, providing a native source of food for local hummingbirds.

  • Stop subscribing to gardening magazines that promote plant blindness and tell them why you’re stopping. “Gardens as rooms” is a decorator’s notion, and not relevant to the construction of vibrant ecosystems that we need to be creating to protect our planet’s future. Beauty can also be healthy, but health cannot be achieved via plant-blind choices.

I am happy to acknowledge that the Arbor Day Foundation is doing much good for the environment. Their failing is the failing of much of the horticulture industry. Its promotion of plant blindness — plants as completely interchangeable entities — must be stopped. Only we gardeners — this industry’s target market — can effect this change by directing our dollars to those businesses that  promote awareness of this increasingly critical issue. In my area, I can think of several wonderful locally owned plant nurseries that actively promote native plant gardening and ecosystem-appropriate designs. I can also think of several with inventories full of fancy non-native plants with unknown invasive potential, plants that must be coddled to thrive here, plants that don’t belong here.

Food gardens are easily integrated into a healthy small landscape.

Food gardens are easily integrated into a healthy landscape.

When you visit local nurseries, ask the hard questions. If you don’t get the right answers, tell them why you won’t be patronizing their establishments again. If we walk the talk, the horticulture industry will follow. Let’s get moving! Happy Arbor Day, ya’ll. And I promise to write about my gardens for the foreseeable future. :)

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For Earth Day: Wild No More

Wilderness – empty, untamed land unaffected by humans – no longer exists anywhere on Earth. No spot, however remote it might seem, remains untouched by the hand of man. Although an increasingly obvious reality for some time, a recent study by Haddad et. al at NC State University (Habit Fragmentation and its Lasting Impact on Earth’s Ecosystems) provides compelling evidence.

The Data

Haddad and his colleagues looked at data for ecosystems all over the world. They found that 70% of existing forestlands are within a half mile of forest edges. Think about that. In most forests all over the world, you can stand in the middle of the tract and you’ll be only a half mile from its outer edge.

When these researchers assembled a map of global forest cover, they found very few forested areas that were not impacted by human urbanization/farming/ranching/mining/roads – some kind of human development. Even more alarming, almost 20% of the world’s remaining forestlands are no more than the length of a football field – about 100 meters – from a forest edge. To my mind, such areas are not forests anymore; they are woodlots at best. The study’s conclusion: no wilderness remains.

The active floodplain that is part of my yard is longer and wider than 20% of the Earth's remaining

The active floodplain that is part of my yard is longer and wider than 20% of the Earth’s remaining “forests.”

So what?

Trees are trees, right? Wrong, my friends. This is why we are in trouble. As I wrote here, the plant-blind humans among us far outnumber those of us who can distinguish native species from non-native invasive ones. We know green does not equate to healthy.

Non-native invasive wisteria vines choking a small woodlot beside a road near my house.

Non-native invasive wisteria vines choking a small woodlot beside a road near my house.

More Bad News from this Study

The intricate interweaving of plants and animals, fungi and bacteria evolved over millennia. These complex interdependencies are not fully understood for all ecosystems, but this recent study provides some staggering results. They looked at ecosystem data from all over the world – everything from forests to grasslands – over time spans encompassing decades of collected data. Impacts varied with the fragility of the ecosystem being studied, but in a mere 20 years, some ecosystems showed a decline in plant and animal species of 50% – or higher!

Non-native invasive English ivy overwhelms all natives in its path, destroying the diversity that once thrived there.

Non-native invasive English ivy overwhelms all natives in its path, destroying the diversity that flourished before its arrival.

In the Blink of an Eye

Think about that. In two measly decades, over half the native plant and animal components of ecosystems were gone. Many species require a minimum amount of land – unfragmented land – to maintain themselves. Now that these ecosystems have been chopped into tiny bits – ghosts of their former selves – the native flora and fauna cannot adapt. The interdependencies that evolved over millennia are being destroyed in 20 years. And the pace of destruction, the demise of species, is accelerating every hour of every day.

Your Child’s Future

Do you have children? Grandchildren? By the time they are adults, the natural world you have likely taken for granted all your life will be gone. Its transformation is already underway.

So what? say the plant blind. We still have trees. We still have animals. We can still grow food, drink the water, live comfortably. Maybe you can, in some parts of the world – for now. But this study notes that as ecosystems fail, the critical functions they provide disappear. The amount of nutrients and carbon sequestered by ecosystems will change, likely resulting in imbalances we’ve never before experienced. Water quality and availability are adversely impacted as the species and the habitats they evolved in to filter and sequester that critical resource disappear. The demise of forests results in air quality degradation and temperature increases, which lead to higher energy costs for cooling and unexpected adverse effects on native species such as this.

Can’t we just add in some other plants and animals from elsewhere to do the job?

Substituting other non-native species won’t solve the problem. Those species evolved in different ecosystems. Plant and animal species are not interchangeable components that you can plug in when gaps appear.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be duplicated with non-native species.

The functions fulfilled by this vibrantly healthy wetland cannot be duplicated with non-native species.

Irrefutable evidence of the adverse effects of ecosystem fragmentation can be found easily via your favorite search engine. Here are a couple of links for you to ponder:

Adapting to the New Reality

On this Earth Day, 2015, we must all face this new reality. We must all act together to ameliorate the effects of our actions for the sake of our children, and for the sake of the planet. Every individual can participate in planetary repairs, ecosystem by ecosystem.

What You Can Do Today

Here in the southeastern United States, most of us live on land that was once forested. Plants and animals native to our area mostly evolved to live within forests. If you want to ensure the continuation of the southeastern forest and its native inhabitants (and therefore your water and air quality), consider taking these steps.

  • If you are a homeowner with a yard, remove as many non-native invasive plant species from your property as you can. Don’t know a privet from a holly? That’s no excuse. Online resources with photos and advice abound. Search this blog for posts on our invasive species to get you pointed in the right direction.
Learn to identify and eradicate this dangerous non-native invader: Elaeagnus umbellata, blooming now in our woodlands.

Learn to identify and eradicate this dangerous non-native invader: Elaeagnus umbellata, blooming now in our woodlands.

As you eliminate the non-native invasive species, replace them with native species adapted for your specific growing conditions. Resources are everywhere to help you with this, but you must decide to make this a priority. The goal here is to provide food and shelter for native animals and plants.

  • Minimize the size of your lawn. Yes, I know this is suburban heresy, but as I wrote here, it is essential that everyone stop wasting space and resources on this non-native monocrop that occupies space needed by our native ecosystems and contributes significantly to the pollution of our streams. Forget what the real estate “experts” have told you. If you want your children to live in a world with clean air and water, lose the lawns. Now.
So much lovelier than a lawn any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

So much lovelier than a lawn any day of the week.

  • Work to ensure that neighborhoods are interconnected with greenways, so that native plants and animals have a safe migration path. These greenways can connect forest fragments together to provide more room for more natives to survive. Simply allocating green space and putting in a walking trail is not enough. Most greenways are riddled with invasive exotic species. In my area, even so-called progressive towns like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, NC are overrun by invasive non-native species along their greenways, especially areas that follow creeks and ponds.

If all neighborhoods would adopt an adjacent greenway and make it their mission to eradicate invaders and re-plant natives, healthy ecosystems could be restored to these areas. Get your local youth groups involved – Boy and Girl Scouts, church and school groups, etc. Imagine the beauty and vigor of such restored areas! I’ve seen it done at the NC Botanical Garden, where staff and volunteers have been chipping away for decades at contaminated forests they manage. Wildflowers return, waterways clear. You and your neighbors can do this for your adjacent woodlands.

  • Learn the names of the native plants and animals on your property and on adjacent properties. Teach those names to your children and grandchildren. This is the only way to combat plant blindness. This is the only way to teach people how to distinguish a healthy ecosystem from a green desert devoid of natives and overrun by invaders.
Recognize and rejoice in the natives when they appear.

Recognize and rejoice in the natives when they appear.

  • Do you live in an apartment, maybe in an urban area? You can still help. Are your local parks full of non-native plants? Can you volunteer to help park staff eradicate invasive species? Research and implement urban green-scaping. This process is well underway in Europe. Green walls and roofs provide havens for wildlife while cooling and cleaning the air and reducing rainwater runoff.
  • Support the nonprofit organizations working to preserve and protect the ecosystems we still have. You can’t go wrong by supporting your local branch of The Nature Conservancy, but odds are high smaller, local conservation organizations are also working to preserve ecosystems in your area. Don’t forget groups like the National Audubon Society or other wildlife preservation non-profits. If you don’t have dollars to donate, volunteer your time. These groups always need help. Bring your children with you when you volunteer if they are old enough to help. Pitching in to save what is left must become a habit across generations if it is going to work.

I Know We Can Do This!

Everything I’ve written in this blog over the years applies to the issues I’ve described today. That’s why I garden mostly with well-adapted native plants (and a few choice non-natives with proven non-invasive tendencies). That’s why I garden organically, so that native insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds, etc. can live and flourish in my artfully constructed home ecosystem. That’s why I rejoice every time a new native animal or plant species shows up in my yard – right where it should be, validating that my efforts to rebuild healthy habitats are working. My yard is not Biltmore Gardens, nor would I want it to be. My five acres are beautiful, mildly chaotic, and perpetually changing. They vibrate with life and health, and I work most every day to keep them that way.

You won't see a scene like this in a typical American sterile suburb.

You won’t see a scene like this in a typical American sterile suburb.

Gardeners Can Lead the Way

Ashe Magnolia tree about to open its flower buds

Ashe Magnolia tree about to open its flower buds

We gardeners must lead the way to this new reality. We must teach the plant-blind to see beyond green to the beauty and power of a Water Oak, the painterly colors of deciduous azaleas, the pollinator allure and purple pizzazz of Coneflowers. By choosing to nurture these natives in our gardens, we demonstrate daily why we love and value our healthy home ecosystems, and why we must preserve them for the sake of those who come after us.

Coneflowers galore

I know we can do this in our yards, greenways, woodlots, urban parks, and even the edges of soccer fields. Join me in preserving what is left of our native ecosystems for yourselves, your children, and our planet.

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The Payoff

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

Anyone who tells you gardening is easy is lying to you — at least if you garden with any seriousness. It is hard work to plan, plant, water, feed, weed, mulch, prune, harvest, etc. And when you do it on five acres as I do, it is very hard work.

A close-up of the same azalea's flowers

A close-up of the same azalea’s flowers

Ah, but then spring comes, the yard greens, rainbow flower colors burst forth from every corner of the yard as birds and frogs sing love songs — and that’s the payoff. Best of all, when I do things right and the weather gods are kind, my sweat equity pays off bigger every year. Blooming azaleas grow larger and more spectacular, deciduous magnolias hold fragrant blooms aloft to scent the air and lure pollinators. The beauty is almost overwhelming. Seriously, sometimes I just have to sit down and mutter “Wow!”

A view of the north slope garden.

A view of the north slope garden.

I knew that prolonged heavy rains were arriving mid-day here today, so I spent an hour or so this morning wandering around my yard taking photos and paying compliments to all my green charges who repay my efforts so enthusiastically every year.

Frasier magnolia flower buds

Fraser magnolia flower buds

The shots so far are all from the acre of north slope we’ve enclosed within a deer fence. Here my blooming woody beauties grow unmolested.

Rhododendron alabamensis is just beginning to open its flowers.

Rhododendron alabamense is just beginning to open its flowers.

All of my deciduous magnolias are unfurling their leaves and revealing their flower buds. I think the Fraser magnolia may just beat the Ashe magnolia in the first-to-bloom contest.

Magnolia ashei flower bud

Magnolia ashei flower bud

My latest big-leaf magnolia species addition is Magnolia pyramidata. I planted it last March. It is tiny, but so were the others when I planted them some years ago. When I see the small new magnolia just unfurling its leaves, I can look to its magnolia cousins for the payoff a few years of patience will bring.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

I can’t resist offering a few more views from the north slope garden.

Pinxterbloom azalea

Alabama azalea in foreground; pinxterbloom azalea down slope

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum 'Shasta' in back

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum ‘Shasta’ in back

New leaves are also lovely in their own right.

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

Although I can’t take credit for planting the myriad, multiplying wildflowers that grace the wetland on and adjacent to our five acres, I can take credit for appreciating it, encouraging it, and lavishing it with compliments when it begins its spring display.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Lizard's tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

Lizard’s tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

One of my additions to this breathtakingly healthy wetland is a Red Buckeye.

The entire Red Buckeye tree

The entire Red Buckeye tree

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence  shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

I took 171 pictures today. Not all of them were great, but even so, I think this is enough for one post. Soon I must update you on the vegetable garden. Much is happening there. And other parts of the yard are also in full, glorious flower. Truly, I am blessed with an embarrassment of botanical riches. But as I count my blessings, I remind myself that I had a lot to do with the beauty that now surrounds me. All the sore muscles, the sweat, the dirt, and yes, the bug bites are all worth this annual payoff — a payoff that grows larger and more wonderful every year.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

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