Archive for September, 2012

A Piedmonter Revisits the NC Mountains

It doesn’t look particularly imposing in this picture, but that’s a mountain in the background. I discovered I had no great photos of the majestic Great Smoky Mountains when Wonder Spouse and I returned from our recent vacation in far western North Carolina. All my good shots are of flowers and/or pollinators. Go figure.

Wonder Spouse and I made the trek to higher elevations to celebrate the passage of his recent milestone birthday. For the sake of marital harmony, I shall refrain from identifying the milestone to which I refer. Happy Birthday again, sir!

We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and we met many wonderful folks as we traveled about. However, I found myself often dismayed by what has happened to much of the landscape. From a distance, the mountains are still as beautiful as I remember from childhood visits. On the ground, the story was much different. Almost every single road we traveled was edged by rampant kudzu (Pueraria montana var. lobata) overgrowth. The vines scaled towering rock cuts through mountains, smothering trees, rocks, and shrubs as far back from the road as I could see.

Even in the Nantahala National Forest, kudzu was often the only green plant I could see as we drove along. This was especially horrifying to me as we drove through the Nantahala River Gorge. On the day we were there, the Nantahala River was crowded with kayakers and rafters enjoying the journey downstream through rocky rapids. Perhaps they were too busy dodging boulders to notice that either side of the river was overrun by kudzu — an invasive exotic species originally introduced to the US in the 1930s to control erosion.

The only light moment for me during that drive was a road sign that read “Watch for slow raft buses next ten miles.” Until I saw the old school buses with platforms built on their roofs that held stacks of colorful inflatable rafts, I was mystified.

Invasive exotic plants were mercifully much less evident during our pilgrimage to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. This preserve protects a forest with 400-year-old trees. Until you’ve stood beneath Tulip Poplars with circumferences more than 20 feet, you cannot begin to imagine what our southeastern forests must have once been like.

Even in early autumn, evidence of mountain wildflowers was everywhere. Tall white plumes of Black Cohosh were still abundant. Stream slopes were adorned with leaves of all the spring wildflowers. They must be quite a sight in April. Deciduous magnolias dotted the hills, along with Cinnamon-bark Clethra. It was quite wonderful to see these native trees where they belong; I hope they eventually look as lovely in my Piedmont landscape where I’ve planted them.

Yellow Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) was blooming prolifically. I’m not sure I convinced a visitor we met on the trail that this gorgeous yellow wildflower was not an orchid. I tried to explain to him that the orchids native to this habitat don’t bloom this time of year, but I’m not sure he was persuaded.

This wildflower was also abundant at the school where we spent most of our time in the mountains. While Wonder Spouse honed his photography skills, I wandered the large property, where I constantly encountered a depressing number of invasive exotic plant species. This vine was growing on a trail we walked daily to reach the dining hall.

Oriental Bittersweet

Oriental Bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) was imported as an ornamental for home landscapes. As happens so often, it has escaped into our woodlands. This particular invasive vine is bad in spots in the Piedmont, but not on my property. I hadn’t realized how common an issue it has become in our mountains until I saw it growing here.

Not a great shot, but you can see how high it climbs into the treetops.

During my walks along the grounds of the school we were visiting, I saw many other invasive exotic species throughout the property, including mulitflora rose, privet, Japanese bamboo grass, Princess Tree, Tree of Heaven, and English ivy. All had clearly escaped from former home landscapes. Many of these plants produce fruits beloved by birds, which is how these invaders have spread so insidiously. Others make seeds that are lightweight and travel far via air and water.

The best Web site I know of to learn more about invasive exotic plant species in the mountains of North Carolina is part of the site for the North Carolina Exotic Pest Plants Council. To learn about the mountain invaders and how to control them, go here.

The size and seeming solidity of mountains make it easy to imagine that theirs is an unchanging landscape, where time stands still, or at least moves too slowly for mere humans to notice. My recent visit to the Great Smoky Mountains has dispelled that illusion. The hand of humankind is all too evident. I can’t help wondering how much longer the exquisite ecosystems native to this region can hold out.

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Beginnings and Endings

Illicium floridanum ‘Halley’s Comet’ flower and fruit

Astronomically speaking, autumn begins with the vernal equinox, which will occur on September 22. However in my yard, autumn’s influence is showing more every day. But at the same time, summer has not surrendered, thanks to frequent August rains and high temperatures that have not ventured near the record heat wave that plagued us during much of July.

In the last few days, our first round of autumn air has chilled our mornings, leaving heavy dew on grass, leaves, and garden benches, and bright blue, humidity-free skies that beckon birds to start thinking about their southerly migrations.

The late-summer rains have confused some of my plants — like the Florida Anise-tree in the opening photo. While still ripening the abundant fruits it produced from its spring flowers, it has put out quite a respectable second flush of new flowers. All the trees — red- and white-bloomers are doing this to some extent.

The annual flowers in my vegetable garden are also reinvigorated, looking nearly as lush as they did in June — quite unusual in recent summers.

But most plants are well into seed-production mode. My pecan trees this year set abundant fruit, but I suspect the July heat wave damaged them. Instead of being harvested and devoured by squirrels, most of the nuts have fallen to the ground. A few look as if the squirrels tasted and rejected them.

Pecans fell prematurely and are being ignored by squirrels.

Only a few nuts still remain on the trees, apparently more successful in maturing to full ripeness, as these two here:

Perhaps the squirrels will approve of these?

The bronze fennel I grow in the vegetable garden as food for Black Swallowtail caterpillars were not visited by those butterfly larvae this year. Instead, they bloomed prolifically, and now their seeds have ripened in abundance. I predict a bumper crop of fennel volunteers in my garden next spring.

I hope the birds eat some of these, or I’ll be growing a fennel garden next year.

Fruit set on the native trees is abundant. Pileated woodpeckers are arguing daily over dogwood (Cornus florida) berries, which turn scarlet well before their leaves.

By the time the leaves turn, the fruits will all have been devoured.

The long, mild spring helped the Sweet Bay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) produce an abundance of fruit-filled, squat cones:

Although shorter than cones of sister species, it is still unmistakably a Magnolia fruit.

Local wildlife seems to be working overtime as winter’s cold looms closer. Last week, I had noticed that a few tadpoles were still lingering in my little water feature. This morning, when the thermometer on our hill read 49.3 degrees Fahrenheit, a new froglet emerged and settled on a dew-covered leaf. These little ones never photograph well for me, but I think perhaps it’s another Cope’s Gray Treefrog. I hope so.

Warming up in the first rays of morning sun.

Two hours later, one of the Green Frogs that’s been living in the water feature all summer emerged seeking sun. These frogs have more than doubled in size since they first arrived after a rainy night.

The Green Frogs have flourished this summer.

The insects and arachnids seem to go into a near frenzy of activity this time of year, perhaps trying to squeeze in one more generation of themselves before winter’s cold shuts down production. Two days ago, I was surprised to see a male Carolina Mantis on the wall beside my front door. I know he was a male, because he was so skinny that I at first thought I was looking at a very large Walking Stick insect. Then he turned his characteristic triangular head in my direction, and I realized my mistake.

I haven’t seen a Carolina Mantis in my yard in maybe ten years. The Chinese Mantises were all I saw, and even they have been sparse this year, I think due to a lizard population explosion in my front garden.

I suspect this fellow was looking for a mate, and I hope he found one. I’m all for helping our native mantises thrive. Click on the photo below to enlarge it enough to see that he was staring at me.

This male Carolina Mantis lingered for about an hour before disappearing.

The Black and Yellow Garden Spiders (Writing Spiders) are disappearing one by one. I think they are laying their egg cases, then fading into oblivion. Two large ones remain in my front garden. This beauty resides in my lantana hedge, where she grows fat on unwary butterflies and moths. Check out the design on her back:

Early inspiration for tattoos, perhaps?

Another one lives beside my little water feature. This morning, she was waiting patiently for breakfast:

The mist from the water feature gives her a bit of a sinister air.

The other Garden Spiders that once resided in the plants that sit within my water feature have all vanished. But one left behind a very large egg case. Before I carry the water plants inside my greenhouse for the winter, I’ll gently relocate this case to a spot in the garden where the hatchlings will be appreciated next spring.

Note the messy web left around the egg case — a defense perhaps?

Finally, two caterpillars crossed my path this morning. Caterpillars are everywhere right now. I know this by the frass (entomologist jargon for caterpillar poop) littering my deck below the oak tree, and by the myriad birds that hunt for them in the trees all day. I’ve been hearing the chipping call of a patrolling Summer Tanager nearby for several weeks.

This intimidating caterpillar was on my deck railing this morning.

White-marked Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Don’t touch those hairs. They will sting and give you a painful rash. This one likely fell from the oak tree above where I found it.

This one and its siblings have been eating my native coral honeysuckle for a couple of weeks now.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth Caterpillar

Honeysuckle is one of this species’ favorite food groups, and my vine is huge, so I let them have their way. They don’t eat the flowers or fruits, merely stripping the vines of leaves in a few spots. Note the discarded skin on the branch behind it, left over from an earlier molting.

How do I know the identity of these caterpillars? I’m glad you asked. Everything I know about caterpillars I learned from my go-to reference — Caterpillars of Eastern North America by David L. Wagner. Dr. Wagner’s book is full of excellent photos and all the information you need to know about what the caterpillars eat and what they’ll turn into. I highly recommend this book.

That’s just a sample of what’s going on right now on my patch of North Carolina piedmont. I’ll fill you in on some other highlights in another post soon. Meanwhile, get out there and enjoy that autumn air while it lasts. Word from the weather seers is that heat and humidity will be returning within 48 hours. But not for long — we hope!

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A Great Time to Go Native: Fall Plant Sale at the NC Botanical Garden

You can never go wrong with Purple Coneflowers.

Those of us living in the southeastern United States hear the refrain every year: fall is for planting. Truer words were never uttered. In our hot, humid, often droughty summers, plants do well to survive at all. Spring planting of new trees, shrubs, and perennials is a huge gamble, even if you water during droughts. Spring-planted plants just don’t have big enough root systems to withstand all that our summers often throw at them.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

However, as the cooler, usually wetter weather of autumn arrives, new plants can focus on root growth while soils are still warm but not desert dry. Native deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials do especially well at establishing themselves when fall-planted, because they can devote all their energy to root growth after leaf fall.

Mid-summer blooms of Buttonbush lighten shady moist spots in your landscape, and provide nectar for pollinators, and seeds for wood ducks.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better selection of native trees, shrubs, and perennials than you will find at the NC Botanical Garden’s annual Fall Plant Sale. Members get first crack at the goodies on Friday, Sept. 14 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. — and a 10% discount! If you’re not a member, you can join that evening and use your discount immediately. The public gets their chance at the plants the next day, Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Bring your own flats or boxes to use to carry your purchases home.

Umbrella Magnolia offers gorgeous flowers, dramatic leaves that turn tobacco gold in fall, and these scarlet seed cones before the leaves turn — a native showstopper!

Why go native? If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve read my reasons more than once. To summarize:

  • Native plants are adapted to our region, so they are better able to withstand our droughts, wet spells, heat waves, and occasional ice storms.
  • Native plants are food sources for native wildlife. As urbanization continues to eradicate our region’s native forests and fields, planted natives in home landscapes, parks, etc. help to keep our native wildlife alive.
  • Native wildflowers especially are key to maintaining our native pollinators. Now that honeybees (not native) are under attack by diseases and other issues, native pollinators are becoming increasingly critical to farmers who need their crops pollinated. Nobody eats if the food crops don’t get pollinated.
  • Native plants in our landscapes remind us of where we are, affirming our sense of place. Certain trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns evolved here; they belong here, as do the insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds that evolved along with their native food sources.

The berries of this native Viburnum are devoured by birds as soon as they ripen in mid-summer.

We are all in this together, whether we realize it or not. Going native is your easiest gardening choice, and it’s your wisest. This fall, please consider adding some native plants to your landscape.

And if you live anywhere near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, plan to visit the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. All proceeds support this wonderful public garden, so every purchase is a win for all who love the natives of this region.

Our native deciduous azaleas are usually overlooked by deer, and offer bloom colors that the evergreen non-natives cannot match.

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