This year, on this day when we citizens of the United States give thanks for our many blessings, I am grateful for trees – forest canopy giants, colorful understory beauties, and even specimen trees artfully sited in home landscapes to improve “curb appeal.” As far as I’m concerned, any native or non-native, non-invasive tree in the landscape is a win for the natural world.
In the last few weeks, I’ve attended three hour-long presentations by invited candidates currently under consideration for the position of Director of the NC Botanical Garden (NCBG). Up to now, the NCBG has only had part-time directors. As a long-time member and volunteer of this public garden, I am delighted that it will now have the undivided attention of a full-time director. All three candidates are impressive, and all gave wonderful talks, but it is the words of the most recent candidate that remain with me most vividly.
He spoke at length about an issue I’ve observed often myself – the alarming disconnect between most Americans – especially children – and the natural world. Many causes for this are posited, including the omnipresence of computer games and the increasing urbanization of our homelands. He used a term I hadn’t heard before that I think aptly captures this profound obliviousness to the natural world – Plant Blindness. He defined Plant Blindness as the inability of people to distinguish one green plant from another, or to even notice the plants at all. He cited truly terrifying – to me, anyway – statistics about how many Americans are afflicted with Plant Blindness. I didn’t write them down, but trust me, the numbers are not small.
I have trouble wrapping my head around this idea that most folks don’t even see the Green World that I love so deeply. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been thankful for trees. My earliest memories are of specific trees. I still remember the roughness of the blocky bark and the clean, resinous fragrance of a line of Loblolly Pines in the front yard of my home when I was about four years old. That spot and those trees are my first memory. I spent many hours sitting quietly among the brown needles, leaning against a great pine, listening to the wind caress the branches towering above me. It was a soothing, hypnotic sound, not unlike waves of a calm ocean breaking long and slow on a sandy beach. Their gentle Loblolly lullaby made it easy for me to remain quiet enough to encourage resident chipmunks to emerge from their burrows to dash about on what always seemed to be urgent business.
My family moved several times during my childhood, and what I remember most vividly about every home is the yard, especially the trees. To think that children today are growing up without ever becoming acquainted with a special great White Oak or a Southern Magnolia with branches built for climbing truly breaks my heart. But Plant Blindness has dangerous side-effects beyond never giving a child a chance to bond with the natural world.
Because an increasing number of adults suffer from this affliction, they are oblivious to the many benefits trees – and especially forests – provide. Most of the wildlife native to the southeastern piedmont region of the US is adapted to live in forests. They need forests for food and shelter. And the forests need to be healthy. An adult with Plant Blindness won’t see that a forest overgrown with Chinese Wisteria and a dense understory of Chinese Privet and Russian Olive is not remotely the same as a healthy native Oak-Hickory climax forest with an understory of Sourwood, Dogwood, Redbud, etc. They are blind to the difference, but native animals are not.
Because the Plant Blind don’t see trees, they don’t notice the beneficial effects of living beside and within forests. There’s a reason old southern homes are surrounded by towering oaks. Before the days of air-conditioned homes, trees – and forests – provided air conditioning. Transpiration – the movement of water from roots to leaves and into the air – humidifies the air, making the air cooler and more pleasant. On a summer afternoon, transpiration of trees in a deciduous forest will lower air temperature by ten degrees Fahrenheit below the temperature in a shaded area outside the forest. Ten degrees! As climate change continues to create wider summer temperature swings and unpredictable drought cycles, the substantial ameliorating effects of forests could make a critical difference. But the Plant Blind are unable to see the trees or the forests, so they aren’t likely to realize what they’ve lost.
If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve read about some of the many wonderful trees native to our region. Every species plays a role in its native ecosystem. Every species possesses its own unique beauty – fragrant flowers, handsome bark, breath-taking fall leaf color. It boggles my brain that the Plant Blind don’t see this!
Thus, on this day of American Thanksgiving, I am grateful for trees, and I invite my readers to step outside after your feast today and appreciate your native landscape. Take your child or grandchild by the hand and go caress the bark of a Loblolly Pine, a White Oak, or a smooth-trunked Beech tree. Appreciate the differences and encourage that child to do the same. Marvel at the recently deposited leaves swirling in November winds, note the Cardinals sitting on bare branches. Practice seeing the natural world in all its infinite diversity and beauty. Teach your children to be thankful for trees.
Some Useful References on Trees
- Godfrey, Michael A., FIELD GUIDE TO THE PIEDMONT
- Dirr, Michael A. MANUAL OF WOODY LANDSCAPE PLANTS
- Kirkman, Katherine L., Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold, NATIVE TREES OF THE SOUTHEAST: AN IDENTIFICATION GUIDE
- Miller, James H. and Karl V. Miller, FOREST PLANTS OF THE SOUTHEAST AND THEIR WILDLIFE USES
As I recently explained here, our backyards and gardens will have increasing difficulties remaining healthy unless we preserve surrounding native woodlands and fields too. The wildlife we need to pollinate our vegetables, gobble up pesky insects, and beautify our homes with color, movement, and song need those surrounding native ecosystems to find food, shelter, and nesting sites. Thus, I am enthusiastically supportive of regional nonprofit organizations dedicated to preserving and protecting the special places near our homes. With the “season of giving” nearly upon us, I thought I’d mention a few of the organizations that could use your help to save some of the remaining special places in the southeastern US piedmont region.
Many of these places are choice examples of native ecosystems, still mostly undiminished by intrusive non-native invasive species and destructive land-clearing. Some preserved lands are farms, many held by generations of the same family, lovingly cared for and appreciated. Many folks don’t know this, but the really prime so-called arable lands — the ones ideal for farming — are rapidly vanishing in urbanizing areas of the southeastern piedmont. The reason? Prime arable lands tend to be located in places where people like to live — beside rivers and creeks, where centuries of flood deposits have left behind deep, rich soils. The Native Americans knew this and exploited these areas for their farming activities. European colonists often took over these areas to grow their own crops.
Many historic sites — mills, forts, trading centers, and battlegrounds — are found near our rivers and streams. Water was a key transportation route and critical to survival. Many not-yet-urbanized areas near our rivers and streams are treasure troves of history and healthy ecosystems, and regional land trusts throughout the southeastern US are valiantly trying to preserve what they can.
One group in the piedmont region just west of where I live is doing a particularly fine job of preserving special places. I only recently learned about the existence of the LandTrust for Central NC when I attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation.
The LandTrust for Central NC is nationally accredited by the Land Trust Alliance — no small distinction, I assure you. They “work with private and public landowners to protect the special natural areas, family farms, and rural landscapes of Anson, Cabarrus, Davidson, Davie, Iredell, Montgomery, Randolph, Richmond, Rowan, and Stanly Counties. “
I was so impressed after listening to the presentations of the Executive and Associate Directors of this organization at the meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation that I immediately visited the group’s Web site when I got home. I was not disappointed. In fact, I think it’s one of the most well-designed and useful Web sites for a conservation organization that I’ve seen. I was so impressed, I joined, and even more impressed when, a few weeks later, I received a 16-page color publication entitled “Field Notes, October 2014.” This publication listed the many accomplishments of the group this year, including the numerous hikes and other functions it sponsored for public participation.
To all you North Carolina piedmont gardeners who live in or near the counties covered by this group, I encourage you to visit their Web site and get involved in what they’re doing. Their work protects your gardens as well as the history and ecology of our wonderful region.
The publication featured an exciting project for which they are actively seeking funds. They’ve already received a substantial grant to provide more than half of what they need, but they still need more than $100,000 to purchase and secure the site, and this site has it all. Located just above the Yadkin River in Davidson County, the nationally significant 13-acre site’s biggest claim to fame is as the location of one of the last major Confederate victories in the Civil War. Over half of the original earthworks of the Confederate Fort York are still intact! Just below Fort York is the historic Trading Ford Area, a low-water crossing point used by Native Americans as a trading site. Nearby is the location where the Spanish explorer, Juan Pardo, documented meeting a local Indian tribe in 1567 — twenty years before the Lost Colony was settled by the English. Fort York also overlooks the spot where Nathanial Greene and his troops narrowly escaped General Cornwallis’ army during the American Revolution.
Previous owners of the land appreciated the amazing historical significance of this area and have left it undisturbed, which means the native ecosystems on the land are also healthy and worthy of protection. Frankly, I’m amazed that local, state, and federal governments haven’t stepped in to protect this land. Thank goodness the LandTrust of Central North Carolina is on the job!
Please visit their Web site, read of their many accomplishments, and the many opportunities they offer the public to enjoy these preserved lands. Consider making a donation to this group this season. You’ll help preserve some very special piedmont places, and albeit indirectly, your gardens will benefit too.
Most avid gardeners understand that their home landscapes don’t grow in a botanical vacuum. Our little tomato patches, and rose and cottage gardens all grow within a larger context. In my case, that context is the southeastern piedmont region of the United States. It’s easy to forget this larger context when we are battling aphids on our tomatoes or worrying about black spots on our rose leaves, but it’s important not to forget.
I was reminded of the interconnectedness of the natural world and the increasing fragility of those connections when I recently attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation (FOPC). This small nonprofit organization was created to help support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program (NCPCP), a tiny NC government group charged with conserving native plant species in their native habitats now and for future generations. David Welch, the Administrator of this NC program says his group is one of the only one of its kind in the country targeting the preservation of rare plant species. He says, “We’re breaking new ground, setting the standards in this field.”
This year’s meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation focused on the preservation status of rare plant species native to the piedmont region of North Carolina. You should visit the Web sites of the FOPC and NCPCP for all the details, but as I understand it, the ultimate goal of the NCPCP is to establish two preserves for each plant species on their list. They use data from the NC Natural Heritage Program to identify which plant species are most imperiled, and to learn where they are still known to exist.
The NCPCP divides my state into four regions: mountains, piedmont, inner coastal plain, and outer coastal plain. Currently, the NCPCP has 419 plant species on their list of plants they need to preserve; 21 of these are on the federal protection list. That breaks down to 177 mountain species, 87 piedmont species, 92 inner coastal plain species, and 157 outer coastal plain species. For those who are counting, that adds up to more than 419, because some of these rare species occur in more than one geographic region of NC.
At best, the NCPCP is managing to create one preserve a year. At the rate they’re going, many of the endangered species will likely be gone before the NCPCP can protect them. The FOPC is trying to help accelerate preserve creation by soliciting funds from the public, but they are a tiny, mostly unknown nonprofit. They need the help of every North Carolina lover of the natural world, which is why I’m writing about them today.
Early in this century, a number of federal and state programs existed that granted funds to organizations like the FOPC and NCPCP to enable them to do their work. But I learned at this meeting from Jason Walser, Executive Director of The Land Trust for Central North Carolina, that today only 10% of the funding once available for land protection is available today. Only ten percent!
Why should we gardeners care about preserving rare species? I can think of several reasons. First, as lovers of beauty and appreciators of the gifts plants bestow on us, we value the exquisite beauty of all plants, especially the rare ones. From an ecological perspective, rare and endangered species are the proverbial canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors in coal mines, miners carried canaries with them, because the birds were more sensitive to low oxygen levels than humans. If the canaries suddenly keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to evacuate the mine before they too died. The demise of rare plants usually points to environmental degradation. Factors such as pollution, habitat destruction via land clearing, habitat fragmentation, and the introduction of invasive non-native species are destroying the special environments that shelter these species. When they start disappearing, we know we are losing pieces of our ecosystems. No one knows how many links in the chain can disappear before the entire ecosystem fails. Personally, I don’t want to find out.
As our native ecosystems are degraded, their health declines. When native plant species disappear, the native animals that need them — insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals — also disappear. As gardeners, we should be paying attention, because this will affect our home landscapes. Butterfly gardens won’t get many visitors if the native plants their larvae require are gone. Other native pollinators — from mason bees to bumblebees to many species of wasps, flies, and beetles — require native ecosystems for their reproductive cycles. Without our native pollinators, fruit and vegetable production will decline as flowers fade without being pollinated. It is in the best interests of everyone who enjoys the natural world and/or likes to eat fruits and vegetables to start paying attention to what we are losing at an increasingly rapid pace.
Now that I know how few grant funding sources remain for the work of preserving and protecting our native ecosystems, I feel obliged to call upon my fellow plant-loving gardeners to step into the void. As we approach the traditional season of giving, I’m asking that you set aside a few dollars to give to one of the many struggling nonprofit groups trying to preserve as many links in the chains of our ecosystems as possible. I’m starting with North Carolina groups, because that’s where I live. I’ll be featuring some of the ones I support in the coming weeks, beginning today with the NC Friends of Plant Conservation.
You can get a sense of the kind of plants they’re protecting from their Web site, and from this blog by Rob Evans, Plant Ecologist with the NCPCP. Even small donations can make a big difference. As you can see from this page, even $25.00 is enough to pay for essential tools they need to protect the preserves.
We protect ourselves, our gardens, and those who come after us when we protect our native ecosystems. This year, please consider donating the money you were going to spend on a new plant or gardening tool for your yard to one of the many conservation nonprofit organizations valiantly working to protect us all.
For the last few days, I’ve been outdoors grabbing photos. The fall color has been wonderful this year, but a strong cold front is moving in and plans to stay quite a while. We won’t get the snow and below-zero temperatures that Denver got slammed with, but lows in the low 20s will most definitely put an end to autumn color here.
Nature’s last blaze of glory is all the sweeter for its impermanence. After the leaves fall, the landscape will go quiet while flora and fauna slumber through winter’s chill.
Our native spring wildflowers don’t last long either. But their departure makes way for a continuous display of leaves, blooms, and fruits from so many other species that I don’t feel their loss as much as I do the disappearance of Nature’s rainbow autumn cloak.
I’ve been watching my non-native Parrotia persica, hoping that it would have time to don its golden glow before the first hard freeze. It just barely managed it. A few more days would deepen its color, but I think it’s stop-in-your-tracks glorious right now.
As much as I’ll miss autumn’s spectacular display, I welcome winter’s coming embrace. While the trees sleep, deepening their connection to earth with spreading roots, I will turn my attention to internal tasks. While it is too cold for weeding, mulching, pruning, and other winter yard work, I will ponder the next growing season. The first seed catalogs have already appeared in my mailbox. Now is the time to dream of future flowers and fruits.
Soon enough, the earth will warm, and I will be back out there covered in rich loam, surrounded by fragrance and bird song, ready for another turn of Nature’s wheel.
This cutie-pie and I want to wish everyone a Happy All Hallow’s Eve today.
Wonder Spouse and I were at the North Carolina Zoo last Friday. I attended the annual meeting of the NC Friends of Plant Conservation. I’m planning on telling you about it in my next post. While I was talking plants, Wonder Spouse took advantage of the lovely autumn weather to avail himself of the nearly infinite photographic opportunities our zoo offers.
This Eastern Screech Owl was on the arm of a keeper just outside the NC Zoo’s fabulous tropical aviary, our favorite exhibit. Wonder Spouse didn’t ask, but I’m betting that this native bird was a recovering patient at the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, where zoo staff and volunteers labor to save the many injured native NC critters that citizens bring to them.
If you’re a North Carolinian, or even just passing through, I highly recommend a visit to the NC Zoo. As I’ve told blog readers here before, not only are the animal exhibits some of the finest in the United States, the botanical exhibits and plantings are worthy of any botanical garden around.
Keep a sharp eye out for goblins tonight, folks. I’ll be back here to talk plants again soon.
It was inevitable, of course, the prediction of our first freezing temperatures. They’ll actually arrive a bit behind the average date this year. By next Sunday morning, the weather forecasters are calling for temperatures around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. At my house, that will likely translate to the upper 20s — more than cold enough to kill the still-blooming flowers in my yard.
As has been their habit in recent years, the nasturtiums in my vegetable garden have staged a takeover, covering the beds that once held summer vegetables.
Pretty much any flower still blooming — from salvias to coral honeysuckle to abelias, verbenas, lemon basil, and Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ — will be killed by the upcoming freeze. The bees know it’s coming. They work frantically on my salvias and other flowers from the time the air warms up enough for flight until full dark.
I’m hoping I’ll be able to protect my deliciously productive lettuce bed through this first bout of cold.
I didn’t manage to start my own seed for the fall lettuce, but I found starts of two of my favorite varieties at my local farmers’ co-op.
I also planted some Premium Crop broccoli. It is growing well, but is just starting to create flower heads. I’m hoping the Reemay cover over it will allow it to grow to harvestable size before cold weather settles in for the season.
The weather forecasters have been talking about the upcoming freeze for about two weeks, so I knew it was time for winterizing our front water feature and moving the potted plants from their summer home beneath the towering Southern Magnolia to the greenhouse.
Wonder Spouse kindly helped me with both tasks. Those pots are heavy — especially the waterlogged ones that sit inside my water feature all summer.
We relocated two Green Frogs who were summering in the water feature. We end up relocating amphibians every year at this time. We carry them down to the permanent pond on our floodplain. It was quite warm when we moved them, and they were very energetic, so we’re hopeful that they found a spot on the muddy bottom to sleep through winter’s cold.
After pulling out all the sprouting weeds in the pots, cutting off dead bits, and generally sprucing up the plants, we found good spots in the greenhouse for all the potted plants. The heater in the middle of the above shot keeps the greenhouse from going below 45 degrees — except for power outages and prolonged bouts of low temperatures. Most years, the little heater is enough to keep all the plants healthy.
The annual Changing of the Lizards occurred about three weeks ago. All summer long, the skinks own the front deck, basking in the sun, and scurrying into the flowers when I approach. But every fall, the skinks vanish and the anoles return. I think the anoles summer in the trees and shrubs, but every fall, they return to the west-facing front of my house, where winter sun warms the front wall all season. We often spot them hiding behind the drainspouts, or wedged beneath the overlapping boards of the house’s siding. This year, I decided to create a spot where they could soak up sun more comfortably.
I took some flat stones from a bed we dismantled, and stacked them so that small spaces — just large enough for lizards — remain between the layers. The structure is in a flowerbed beside the front wall of our house, where it should receive plenty of winter sun all season. I’m hoping that the sun will heat up the rocks enough to encourage the cold-blooded anoles to come soak up the warmth. I’ve already spotted some of them on the structure on cooler days, so I’m hopeful that the Lizard Palace will be a popular option for them as we progress into winter.
I’ve started keeping the bird feeders well-stocked, but they’re not getting much attention these days. I think most of the trees and shrubs in my yard produced abundant fruit this year, and the birds are taking full advantage of that fact — which is wonderful! The massive Southern Red Oak at the top of my hill produced zillions of small acorns this year. The Blue Jays and larger woodpeckers spend most daylight hours dining on these nuts.
And the great Southern Magnolia in our front garden is absolutely loaded with cones extruding scarlet seeds on thin filaments. These dangling fruits must truly be delicious, because every warbler, robin, woodpecker, etc. animates this tree until full dark. I find myself looking for excuses to linger nearby, so that I can watch the feathered folk engage in circus-worthy acrobatics as they vie for tasty magnolia treasures.
Have you tucked in your outdoor potted plants and other cold-sensitive items in your yard yet? If not, make haste. Our first taste of wintry air is almost here.