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.
One minute, summer sun kisses green leaves, flowers abound, birds sing. Then you blink, and color happens.
For some plants, color comes in patches at first.
Or this ornamental spirea:
Fall fruits droop heavy on branches, then tumble to earth.
The native Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) has finally dropped all its nuts. For a few weeks, walking beneath it required a hard hat.
This past Tuesday, a strong cold front approached. Thick clouds darkened the sky, winds blew in gusts, twirling falling leaves into eddies of gold and red. Later that day, the rains came — almost two inches. The trees that always abandon their leaves first took the winds, rain, and ensuing cold air as their cue.
The first native trees to bare their branches for winter in my yard are always the Ashes. Ash trees dominate the active portion of our floodplain — about an acre or so. I think they’re probably Green Ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), but local experts tell me this species often interbreeds with other native Ash species, so I’m not certain.
Their fall color is subtle, but they do cast a distinctive yellow-green glow over the canopy just before they discard their summer clothes.
Ashes are not the first trees most folks notice when walking through their native moist habitats, but they are key components. Their numerous seeds are devoured by many bird species, including Wood Ducks. The larvae of several of our more colorful southeastern US butterflies eat Ash leaves, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Orange Sulfur, and one of my favorites, Mourning Cloak. This beauty has dark wings edged in deep gold; I count myself lucky when I spot one or two floating through my floodplain, usually on warm late-winter days, when the over-wintered adults begin seeking mates.
Ashes are easy to identify. They have compound leaves. Botanists define a compound leaf as consisting of a set of leaflets. For example, Poison Ivy has a compound leaf. Those “leaves of three” we all look for actually comprise one leaf. Look for a longer leaf stem (a petiole) that attaches the multi-leaflet leaf to a branch.
A casual observer might confuse the compound leaves of Ash trees with those of another Piedmont forest regular — Hickory, but a closer look is all you need to tell the difference. Ash leaves are attached to branches directly opposite each other. This opposite-leaved arrangement is less common in our native trees and shrubs. A single-leaved tree with opposite leaves that we all know is our native Dogwood. Hickory leaves alternate on the branch, plus most have fewer leaflets per leaf than Ash leaves.
After the rains blasted through, the next day, most of the Ashes on my floodplain were bare. In the blink of an eye, their subtle color was gone.
This year as the Ashes performed their vanishing act, I got a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t help but wonder if this will be the last year I am able to enjoy their subtle drama. Why?
The Emerald Ash Borer, a non-native, devastating tiny insect, has a confirmed presence in a few NC Piedmont counties just north of mine. This insect has already killed every native Ash tree in many of our northern states. Every single one. They do it in one year. Experts have no idea how to stop them. Here’s the latest information from the NC Forest Service on this Ash-killing bug. Follow the links on that site to learn more.
A key take-away message about preventing the spread of Emerald Ash Borer and several other devastating non-native insects is about firewood. It is critical that any firewood you buy be from local, uninfected trees. Unfortunately, the firewood industry is not closely regulated. Recently dead trees look like a prime source of money to firewood purveyors. More than half the states in the US, including all of the Southeast, have imposed some firewood movement restrictions. Click on your state on this map to see what restrictions apply for you.
Ignorance is our greatest enemy in the fight to save our Ash trees. If you buy firewood, I urge you to learn what counties in your state are still considered safe sources of uncontaminated firewood. Be wary of pre-packaged firewood sitting outside grocery and hardware stores. Odds are it was shipped in from somewhere else. Ask the store manager where the firewood came from, and if he or she doesn’t know, tell them why you won’t be buying from them.
In my area during every impending cold spell, I’ll see folks selling pick-up trucks full of firewood in parking lots. Firewood sales are a supplemental source of income for most of these folks; many of them probably have no knowledge of the restrictions on where they should be collecting their firewood. In North Carolina, no one should be buying or selling firewood from Granville, Vance, or Person counties outside the boundaries of these counties. They are quarantined due to the confirmed presence of the Emerald Ash Borer. Here are the areas in the US with currently imposed Emerald Ash Borer quarantines.
Unless the experts devise a way to kill this insect in the next few months, it is just a matter of a year, perhaps two, before every Ash tree on my property — about a dozen 75-foot trees — will be dead. Their absence in the landscape will be visible to even the most casual observer. What will be less obvious is the disruption in the Piedmont ecosystem where these trees occur. Birds and insects that evolved to rely on Ash trees as a food source will go hungry. If they cannot adapt to other food sources, they will die trying to find Ash trees elsewhere.
No one knows how many components of an ecosystem can disappear before the viability of the entire ecosystem is destroyed, so that the remaining components die. Think of it as an ecosystem-scale game of Jenga. Sooner or later, the wrong piece is removed, and the entire structure fails.
In the blink of an eye, our native Ashes may disappear. How many more blinks before our native forests are gone too?
A good friend of mine and her significant other recently purchased and moved into a lovely new home in an adjacent county. They invited me out earlier this week to help them understand what’s growing on their 3-acre patch of Piedmont. I confess, I was a bit envious.
Their home backs onto state park land that protects a scenic river. This land has been covered in Piedmont forest for probably about 100 years now. Most likely before that it was farms and forests, and the forests were certainly regularly logged. That’s pretty much the story of land use for all of the southeastern Piedmont.
Unlike my home, which is on an increasingly busy road (a country by-way when we first moved here), theirs is quite a ways from the nearest main thoroughfare, accessed via a maze of well-established roads filled with nothing but mostly older houses. Frequent speed bumps likely discourage any non-residents from using these roads.
The result? My friend’s new home environment is noticeably quieter than mine. And the vegetation growing on her land and the adjoining protected forest made me long for my childhood days, when all the forests around here looked like that one — mostly anyway.
Her home sits atop a Piedmont ridge. Steep slopes on two sides fall down toward intermittent drainage ways that feed the river below. Large white oaks dominate the landscape; this year’s crop of acorns littered the ground. Mixed among the oaks were tulip poplars, red maples, sweet gums, sourwoods, dogwoods, redbuds, elms, viburnums, and a few mature loblolly pines — in short, all the native species I expect in such an environment.
But in addition to this mix of obviously healthy native plants, what struck me most was what wasn’t there: invasive non-native plants. I only saw two species, and both are likely still controllable if my friends take aggressive action immediately: Japanese Stiltgrass, and Privet.
Just for comparison, in my five-acre yard, I’m fighting those two species and:
We started battling a new invader this year: Oriental Bittersweet. As is true of most of our most pernicious invaders, this non-native vine was planted in the southeastern US for the ornamental value of its abundant, colorful berries. Alas, these berries are beloved by birds. They have “deposited” the seeds all over our southeastern forests. I was horrified when I visited the North Carolina mountains a year or so ago and discovered this invasive vine was snarling vast acreages of once lovely mountain forest.
This evil vine established a beachhead on my property beneath a native dogwood adjacent to my busy road. This mature dogwood produces abundant crimson berries every autumn, and I am certain that birds dining on the dogwood berries excreted the Oriental Bittersweet seeds that took root beneath the tree. It disguised itself among a bed of poison ivy that I was ignoring, which is how it became well-established. Wonder Spouse sprayed it with herbicide last spring, which knocked it back considerably. But it’s still there, biding its time until I forget about it. But I am determined that this latest invader will not gain permanent residence on our land.
I’m also watching for what is likely the inevitable incursion of kudzu. It dominates the property directly across the street from me. It would have crossed the road to my land years ago if the state didn’t mow it off the road every growing season. I can feel it plotting its invasion, perhaps via the drainage pipes beneath the bridge on my road that permits access for the creek that adjoins our property.
I know I’m not the only Piedmont homeowner battling invasive non-native plants. My blog has recently been visited by a number of viewers searching for information on controlling invasive plants. I have reluctantly concluded that unless your invader is just establishing itself in your yard, trying to pull it up manually will not control it. Herbicides seem to be the only option that will work in most cases. In my yard, deer will nibble on English Ivy in the dead of winter, but they never touch the Japanese Stiltgrass. I’ve read that even goats — known for happily devouring ivy, kudzu, and most any other plant in their paths — will not eat Japanese Stiltgrass.
Japanese Stiltgrass is creeping up the slopes of my friend’s new yard, working its way up from the intermittent drainage way below. That’s its favorite mode of transportation — water, which is why my floodplain is so plagued by it. I’ve resisted herbicides for fear of what they will do to my abundant frogs and salamanders, and the few fish still inhabiting my creek. But the literature states that the key is to use herbicides that do not contain an ingredient called a surfactant, because this is what causes the poison to stick to wildlife and hurt it. This link suggests herbicides that will kill this grass and are supposed to be safe in wetlands.
Wonder Spouse and I are planning on trying this weapon against our increasing infestation of Japanese Stiltgrass. I felt better about trying this weapon after talking with the curator of the Habitat Gardens at the NC Botanical Garden. She told me that she’s using it in her yard to battle this invader. She said the secret is to apply the herbicide consistently for five years — the amount of time the seeds of this grass remain viable in the soil.
I hate using herbicides, but there is no way Wonder Spouse and I can manually remove the invaders fast enough to prevent their spread on my land. I’m going to encourage my friend to begin using them now to prevent her from having my kind of problems. Right now, her land — the property that afflicted me with temporary forest envy — is about 20 years behind mine in invasive plant incursions. It’s been protected by the large stretch of contiguous forest it adjoins and its distance from major roads. But they must remove all the privet hedges planted by the previous owner immediately. And they must start applying wetland-safe herbicides to their Japanese Stiltgrass now — before their yard starts looking like mine.
For those of you wondering why I am so passionate on this issue, I refer you to my previous posts on this topic here and here and here. I truly believe that this is a battle we cannot afford to lose, folks.