Perhaps you’ve heard by now that central North Carolina got quite a bit of snow the other day? Maybe not, because the Weather Channel puts its on-the-spot reporter in Raleigh, which received much less snow and vastly more attention from NCDOT. I live about 30 miles west of Raleigh, where as of yesterday afternoon, NCDOT had only plowed the two interstate highways that cross through my 710-square mile county. Not that I expect any better. I’ve lived here for almost three decades, and despite the exponential population growth of my county, NC government and even local TV stations still treat my home county like the proverbial red-headed stepchild; we are largely invisible, forgotten.
Because this has so long been the case, folks where I live prepare for big weather events. We know we will be on our own for at least a week, longer if the Raleigh folks also get hit — they are always top priority. Wonder Spouse and I endured a relatively brief power outage (only 8.5 hours), during which we followed our long-established protocols for coping without water (no electricity, no well), light, and heat. As the snow fell, and before the power outage, I found myself glued to the windows watching the white stuff pile up far higher than predicted by any of the weather seers. [Memo to self: If the forecast calls for light to moderate snow, assume a blizzard — and vice versa.]
After the snow stopped, Wonder Spouse and I began trying to clear paths from doors to essential areas like the garage and the basement. We love our house, and in the summer we love the nearly 2000 square feet of wooden decks and walkways. But now that our hair is as white as the snow blanketing our landscape, we’re finding clearing those walks after big-snow events to be a tad more challenging than it once was. No gym required around here to be sure.
The snow is still falling in dramatic showers from the trees even this morning, so we haven’t walked around much. It’s no fun getting dumped on by a mini-avalanche. I’m hoping to walk around and get some more photos — views of something other than what I can see from my living room window. For now, these will give you some idea of what things look like.
The good news, beyond the fact that we are safe and warm, is that the slow melting of a foot of snow will definitely help a very thirsty landscape. We’ve been in moderate drought for several months. The creek was a trickle, the ground dry and dusty. A slow snow melt will put water down into the root zone, and maybe some will make it to the creek — enough to get it flowing properly again.
Unlike most years by now, my ornamental flowering apricots haven’t cracked open a flower bud yet. Neither has the January jasmine, or the Royal Star magnolia, all of which often are blooming by now. A warm spell is promised for the rest of the month, so I’m hoping for a dramatic grand opening of the winter bloomers — a signal that the Earth does still turn, spring really is nearly here, and my itchy gardener’s fingers will soon be able to revel in rich loam as I plant the spring vegetable garden.
How many times do we hear it? “I hate winter,” they all say. It starts on the morning TV newscast when the meteorologist warns of an impending cold front that will drop temperatures below freezing – or worse yet – bring frozen precipitation. Immediately, everyone but the meteorologist begins whining about ice-related inconveniences, sudden imposed constrictions on their normal routines. The morning meteorologist tries to laugh off the comments, speaking softly about the wonders of snow, but she is inevitably shouted down.
To my mind, the complainers have all lost their natural rhythm; they are no longer tied to the earth that nurtures us all. The only person in sync with the cycles of sun and moon, the turning of the earth, the waxing and waning of seasons is the meteorologist. The nature of her job is to remain aligned with the rhythmic dance of air masses and atmospheric currents of moisture and temperature. She appreciates this complex interweaving of forces responsible for what she calls weather – what I call the pulsating rhythms of Mother Earth.
Ecologists and psychologists have a name for this disconnect between humans and the blue-green orb on which we all rely: Nature Deficit Disorder. Myriad studies confirm that stress levels are measurably reduced when people step deliberately back onto green spaces, soft earth, places where traffic noise is replaced by bird songs and the sounds of moving water.
Like meteorologists, gardeners still connect with earth’s rhythms. We celebrate and honor every season by embracing it, performing the tasks designed to maximize the benefits of spring, summer, fall, and yes, winter. We know that without winter, growing seasons would be much less productive, pests and diseases would overwhelm our gardens, bulbs and many seeds would not bloom or even germinate. Seasonal transformation is the music we all dance to, whether we feel those rhythms as we pull long carrots from rich earth or ignore them as we push relentlessly through daily routines in concrete and glass edifices that prevent sunlight from touching asphalt or the weary souls scurrying on shadowy sidewalks.
I welcome the Winter Solstice. For me, it is the true onset of the new year, not January 1. That’s an artificial construct disconnected from earth’s rhythms. Today is a day to stop what you are doing, step out into chilly air, and acknowledge the essential and sacred rhythms of our planet, the music every bird and bug, spider and snake, and human being dances to, whether or not they choose to acknowledge it.
I only learned about Camphorweed (Pluchea odorata) a couple of years ago when one of the horticulturalists at the North Carolina Botanical Garden offered me a plant she had “edited out” of a walkway. The medicinal smell of the leaves intrigued me, and the just-expanding inflorescence looked interesting, so I took it home and planted it on the active floodplain beside the perennial creek that borders our property. It is not a knock-your-socks-off plant; it doesn’t have the wow-power of a blooming ironweed covered in butterflies or the landscape-dominating form of Joe-Pye Weed. But I like that about this plant. A landscape full of nothing but “glam-plants” is overwhelming to my eye, and the discovery of the understated beauty of a plant like Camphorweed delivers its own special magic.
This annual has other common names. Stinkweed, like the name Camphorweed, refers to the smell of the leaves. When bruised, they emit a distinctly medicinal odor, to my nose, not unlike the ointment my mother spread on my chest before bedtime when I was sick with a childhood cold. As you probably guessed, that pungency protects the plant from deer predation.
The other common name for this plant is Saltmarsh Fleabane, which refers to this annual’s tolerance of soil in or near brackish water, and the “fleabane” portion likely refers to the plant’s use as a deterrent for fleas and other pest insects. Although the plant prefers moist habitats, I have found it to be resilient in much drier soils than I expected, and it tolerates light conditions from shade to full sun.
I know all this because that one plant given to me bloomed prolifically and then set seed. Individual flowers in the pink-lavender inflorescence morphed into fluffy light-brown-to-tan seeds that wafted all over my yard on autumn breezes. The following spring, I discovered Camphorweed plants popping up in a number of spots. On the floodplain, plants intermingled with a growing population of Cardinal Flowers, and in the wetter spots, Lizard-tails and Jewelweeds. But some seeds managed to float up the hill to my pollinator garden beds, where they bloomed as happily as they did on the floodplain.
In my yard, mature plants averaged heights between one and two feet. As you might expect, a plant with leaves that smell like medicine has been used that way by a number of cultures. Solutions using the leaves have been used as antiseptics; a tea of leaves and stems has been used to treat menstrual cramps, stomachaches, headaches, inflamed gums, and even to dispel “bad air” brought on via witchcraft. Recent studies show that compounds in the plant appear to disrupt cancer cell growth and may also speed up wound healing. As is true of all plant-based home remedies, you should always proceed with great caution when trying them out, because you can never know the concentration of curative compounds in a given plant. I can tell you from personal experience that simply crushing a leaf and inhaling the scent deeply is a great way to clear a stuffy nose.
I am delighted that this annual native has made itself at home in my landscape. It is not aggressive, and because it is an annual, simply removing/relocating it is all the control you need to exert to prevent overenthusiastic spreading. Most of the pollinators I saw on its flowers were tiny flies and a number of ants, but given the amount of fluffy seeds the plants produced this fall, the flowers were definitely being pollinated.
I will admit to having an active imagination. When you combine that with a life-long obsession with the natural world and gardening, I occasionally am struck by big ideas – some might even say wild ideas – pun intended. I am currently deeply immersed in my biggest dream yet. My co-dreamers and I are calling it the Piedmont Patch Project.
If you’ve read my blog much – especially posts I do for Earth Day, you know that I worry about the future of native flora and fauna – world-wide and most definitely where I live in the Piedmont region of the southeastern US. Ecologists note increasing world-wide threats to biodiversity – the broad array of plant and animal species that comprise diverse ecosystems that feed our planet and impact our climate among other critical functions. To read more about my concerns, search my blog using the term “Earth Day.” However, today I don’t want to focus on my concerns; today I wish to thank my friends, both old and new.
If you read my blog, you are likely a fellow plant-lover, and if you’ve been a member of that community for much time at all, I suspect you have already discovered the generosity of what I think of as Plant People – my people. We are easily identified. Our hands are rough and often dirty, our clothes are stained and perhaps punctured with holes made by brambles. We are known for stopping abruptly when we encounter a plant or animal we don’t immediately recognize. Many of us speak to each other in botanical Latin, because common names are too imprecise. Our hearts lighten and beat faster when we walk through a healthy ecosystem filled with bird song and blooms. Our cars are often dirty from hauling plants and tools. But above all these, one trait is universal among Plant People – their unfailing willingness to share their knowledge, their plants, and often, their help. Today as I dive into the Piedmont Patch Project, I am deeply grateful for these friends.
I have always considered Plant People to be people of deep faith. Whether they are members of an organized religion or not, they all possess an abiding faith in and love for the natural world. You don’t plant seeds in bare soil without faith. You don’t plant an oak sapling that won’t mature for 200 years without faith that that tree will serve diverse communities for future generations. Plant people are visionaries. I believe that this quality is responsible for the unanimous support I have received from everyone in this community who has heard about the Piedmont Patch Project. Like me, they can see the potential of this vision, this wild idea.
But without other people of faith, this vision might never have found a home. I am profoundly grateful for my friendship with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, NC. Without her enthusiasm and faith in this notion, the Piedmont Patch Project – which she named – would likely never have been conceptualized. Her faith and the faith of her congregation is even more impressive because I am not a member of this church, and, frankly, most of the members of this congregation are not Plant People – at least, not yet.
I’m foggy on the details, but somehow The Episcopal Church of the Advocate ended up acquiring 15 acres in the northern edge of the rapidly urbanizing town of Chapel Hill. The land was a piece of an old farm. An older brick home where the farmer lived serves as their parish house. A 19th century historic chapel relocated from a piedmont town west of Chapel Hill serves as their church building. A small farm pond sits behind the buildings, and an even-aged pine forest towers behind the pond; furrowed ground between the pines confirms the land is former farmland.
When the vicar of this tiny parish realized my obsession and experience with the botanical world, she asked me to walk the land with her and help her identify and understand the plants growing on the grounds and around the pond, which is contained by an earthen dam about 100 yards long. I immediately began to see possibilities. As I described a growing vision for the front five acres beside the road, the vicar caught my enthusiasm. We began to devise a plan for restoring this land to native ecosystems typical of the area.
I believe I was inspired by the church congregation’s vision for this land. They are working with Habitat for Humanity to build three tiny houses (called Pee Wee Homes) beside the pond that will provide homes for three older homeless men or women. Thus, they will soon provide sanctuary for homeless humans. It was a short leap from that notion to the idea that this church’s land could also serve as a sanctuary for native wildlife – a population being rapidly displaced and/or killed by the rapid urbanization occurring around the church.
In the North Carolina piedmont region, few large expanses of healthy native ecosystems (forests, fields, etc.) exist outside of conservation preserves due to the immense pressure of rampant urbanization. Even relatively small woodlots, which once bordered stretches of highways, are disappearing, replaced by strip malls, office complexes, and mile after mile of new suburbs. Most of these urbanized and suburbanized landscapes are denuded of their native ecosystems before the buildings go up. New “landscaping” is usually sparse, often non-native, and does not begin to support native wildlife (including especially insects).
In talking with the vicar of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate, I began to wonder: What if we could create patches of high-quality native vegetation in close enough proximity to each other to support native wildlife currently being threatened with displacement by urbanization? And what if we tried implementing this idea on the grounds of this church to serve as a demonstration of its viability?
Much to my delight, the vicar embraced this notion with enthusiasm, and Fortune smiled on us when we discovered that the National Episcopal Church was currently offering Stewardship of Creation grant funds to congregations with projects with positive environmental impacts and strong educational components. We wrote up our proposal and were overjoyed when we recently learned that this idea – the Piedmont Patch Project – was awarded funds!
The amount of planning and work to be done is, frankly, pretty overwhelming. That’s why I am so very grateful for all my Plant People friends who have stepped up already with advice, growing spaces, and plant materials. As word about this project continues to filter through this community, I continue to hear from more people. And I need the help of every one of them, especially with the acquisition of the many, many native plants we need to realize this vision. Most of the small grant award funds are designated for educational efforts. We hope to have the Web page up before the end of the year, and we are planning quarterly talks on relevant topics, work days, and the development of how-to videos and documents. The Web page will include a list of ways to help with the project, so if any of you blog readers out there are interested, check back here in a few weeks, when I should have a new post that includes the URL for the Piedmont Patch Project site.
I am also profoundly grateful for the faith of the congregation of The Episcopal Church of the Advocate. They are small in number but mighty in impact. They are already showing up for work days and presentations eager to learn more about the native environment of the piedmont region. I think more than a few of these people of faith may well also become Plant People, and I think the world can always use more of those.
The ultimate goal of this project is for the Church of the Advocate to be Project #1. With faith and much help and the continuing smiling face of Fortune, we hope the Piedmont Patch Project will evolve into a small nonprofit organization devoted to educating folks on how to turn their urban and suburban landscapes into piedmont patches, sanctuaries for wildlife, cures for plant blindness and nature-deficit disorder, refuges for battered souls.
On November 3, I attended the annual meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation. This small — but surprisingly effective — North Carolina nonprofit organization was formed to support a tiny program in NC state government’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services called the NC Plant Conservation Program. The mission of that state government program is “to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.”
That’s a tall order for a large, biologically diverse state like North Carolina, even if efforts were well-funded. As you might have guessed, they are not. Budgets are tight; staffing is equally tiny, which is why the Friends of Plant Conservation was founded to help support the efforts of the NC Plant Conservation Program any way it can.
Visit the links to their Web sites to learn all the details about what both organizations do. I have always been impressed by how much they continue to accomplish, and most especially by their unwavering enthusiasm for their work. These groups are attempting to create and maintain preserves that will protect healthy populations of plant species identified by experts as threatened or endangered. The locations of these preserves are not advertised, nor are they easily accessible by the public; these rare resources flourish best when undisturbed.
At their annual meetings, the Friends of Plant Conservation receive updates on the activities of their group and the NC Plant Conservation Program. This year, those updates were preceded by a lecture by Wesley Knapp, Western Region Ecologist/Botanist for the North Carolina Natural Heritage Program. This is the group in NC state government tasked with compiling and maintaining information on the status of rare species (flora and fauna) and natural communities in North Carolina. Their group identifies the most endangered plant species that the NC Plant Conservation Program then attempts to protect, with the help of the Friends of Plant Conservation.
Mr. Knapp gave a fascinating presentation on extinct plants. These were not tales — at least not mostly — of long-lost plants. Instead, he focused on the continent-wide collaboration he is coordinating with his fellow botanists to attempt to figure out what plants in North America north of Mexico are extinct today. Surprisingly — at least it was surprising to me — botanists don’t actually have a good handle on this important information, but they’ve realized that between climate change and rampant habitat destruction, species extinction rates are rapidly increasing. So botanists across North America are attempting to compile lists for their regions of expertise that represent the best information they have on which plant species are officially extinct. Most extinct plants are fairly obscure and possibly unimpressive — at least to the average citizen. An exception is Franklinia alatamaha; you can find my post on its story here.
Mr. Knapp used Florida to illustrate the urgency of the collaboration he is coordinating. This biologically diverse state contains a number of unique plant species that will likely be obliterated by sea level rise over the next 100 years. From that factor alone, the experts believe 29 plant species endemic to Florida will become extinct during the next 100 years. It behooves botanists to create reliable lists of which species are and are not still with us, so that we can better monitor the expected, likely dramatic, increase in extinction rates.
How does this relate to the work of the Friends of Plant Conservation? One of the strategies for battling rising extinction rates is the creation of preserves, conservation gardens, and seed banks where these species can be protected. It is true that in the first two cases, we are coming close to what Joni Mitchell described as “tree museums,” where these plants will continue to exist, but in the case of conservation gardens, not in the locations where they evolved. The preserves created and maintained by the NC Plant Conservation Program are protecting naturally occurring populations of threatened plant species, which is more optimal, but in, for example, Florida’s case, not always possible. Seed banks are another important tool, where seeds of a diverse array of species are stored; perhaps in the future, they can be used to re-introduce species to stabilized habitats. I found Mr. Knapp’s lecture to be heartening, because I now know that botanists across the continent are working hard to quantify what we have and what we are losing — and disheartening, because we are losing so much so quickly.
It was thus a bit of a relief to listen to the next speaker — Ms. Lesley Starke, NC Plant Conservation Plant Ecologist — who updated attendees on the status of threatened North Carolina plant species and the preserves that protect them. She told us that her group has targeted 486 plant species in North Carolina as significantly rare. Fortunately, some of these species occur in the same habitats, so by preserving habitat, multiple rare species are preserved.
Right now, 24 preserves scattered across the state are being protected and maintained by Ms. Starke’s office, with help from the Friends of Plant Conservation. Two more preserves will be in operation very soon. The 24 current preserves comprise about 14,000 acres and protect 75 plant species. When the additional two preserves are operational, 83 plant species will be protected.
Ms. Starke’s group works tirelessly, but the math behind their problem is not on their side. She did share one exciting story about how they are successfully protecting increasingly rare populations of native wild ginseng (Panax quinquefolius). As you may know, prices for the roots of this species are so high that poachers are a significant threat to populations of this plant on public lands, where harvesting is against the law. You can read more about this issue here.
A scientist working with Ms. Starke has developed a chemical dye that is used to label ginseng roots without harm to the plants. The dye is invisible to the naked eye, but readily identifiable under ultraviolet light, and it persists forever. Most important, the dye is being tweaked so that distinct populations of ginseng each have their own distinct and readily identifiable dye label. For several years now, teams of volunteers have been marking populations of wild ginseng growing on public lands and preserves with unique dye formulations. Before wild ginseng can be sold, it must be assessed by government officials. Now, with a simple UV scan, they can detect whether the roots being assessed were illegally harvested. This innovative system is so foolproof that 100% of criminal prosecutions brought against illegal harvesters who tried to sell dye-marked roots have been successful — a big win for the good guys!
These first two presentations were quite lengthy, and when Ms. Starke finished, the time allotted for the entire meeting had been expended. I had other obligations that afternoon and was forced to leave before the meeting concluded with another speaker from the NC Plant Conservation Program, an update on the status and future direction of the Friends of Plant Conservation by its current president, and an award presentation — all of which I was sorry to miss. I hope that at least the president’s presentation will appear on the group’s Web site, so that I can learn about its future plans.
I encourage all lovers of native plants, especially those in North Carolina, to consider joining the Friends of Plant Conservation. This group has an impressive knack for stretching its nonprofit dollars in ways that maximize benefits for threatened plants. Volunteer opportunities abound; the group is always looking for local folks to keep watch over their preserves, assistance on work days for tasks like invasive species removal, and as a perk, members are given opportunities to tour these special, protected places — usually when the rare species are in bloom.
Those of us who care about the natural world, especially current assaults to it from all sides, have long been worried about the short- and long-term effects of pesticides and herbicides on native flora and fauna. And, of course, we also need to be worried about the effects of these chemicals on humans, especially more susceptible groups like children and women in their child-bearing years. A study released in the October 6 edition of the journal Science provides alarming evidence that agricultural practices throughout the world need to be re-examined. Immediately.
You’ll find a good description of this study in this recent article in Nature. In this new study, scientists collected 198 honey samples from around the world. They detected at least one of the five common neonicotinoids they tested for on every continent with honeybees, including remote islands with very little agriculture.
Neonicotinoids target the central nervous systems of crop-destroying insects, but — theoretically anyway — do not have the same effects on humans. However, an increasing number of studies are demonstrating how these pesticides are negatively impacting non-target insect species like honeybees — and wild bees. Increasing evidence shows that our well-documented decline in pollinator populations is associated with the massive increase in the use of these poisons by the agriculture industry.
It is true that in all samples, levels of these poisons were below the minimum levels established by experts to be safe for human consumption. However, I would argue — strenuously — that these determinations were not the result of rigorous science. Heck, I would argue that the presence of any amount of these poisons is dangerous to humans. Were cumulative effects considered, for example?
I ask because of the results of another alarming study recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine led by Harvard scientists. This one notes a strong association between women struggling with fertility issues and their high consumption of fruits and vegetables laden with pesticides. These women are no doubt trying to improve their nutrition by consuming more fruits and vegetables that they are buying in their local supermarkets. But some of these crops (not organically grown, of course) are so coated in pesticides that when eaten frequently, show up in the bloodstreams of those consumers. I submit that it is only a matter of time before scientists produce evidence of similar effects specifically associated with so-called “safe” neonicotinoids.
What can we do? I think we need to make it a priority to increase the availability of organically grown produce to all of humanity. In the US, we must speak with our wallets and refuse to buy poison-laden produce. As the popularity of organically grown produce increases, prices for it will fall. Every other corner of every neighborhood — suburban or urban — should showcase a community garden where organically grown crops are produced by neighbors for their local consumption. Every able-bodied suburbanite with a yard dominated by a poison-laden, non-native lawn should convert that waste of space into small, beautiful gardens full of food and flowers — all grown without pesticides.
Organically grown produce and flowers do not look as pristine as poison-coated ones, but, my friends, you get out what you put in; you get what you pay for. And future costs to future generations must immediately become a significant factor in this calculation.
Last year, with help from some young folks with strong backs and arms, Wonder Spouse and I removed the overgrown loropetalums that had overwhelmed our front garden, and replaced them with a pollinator garden consisting almost entirely of native perennials. For a first-year garden, I think it turned out rather well aesthetically, but that is not why I felt compelled to transform an area that many folks would probably have considered to be perfectly fine.
My part of the southeastern US piedmont region is growing exponentially. Like so much of the southeastern US, this is resulting in suburban sprawl. Beautiful, healthy forests and fields are erased nearly daily, replaced by another strip mall with a gas station and fast food joint or another housing development filled with nearly identical new houses with stretches of non-native lawn and a couple of landscaper-standard foundation plantings.
I can see and feel the difference on my five acres of green chaos, where Wonder Spouse and I have lived and gardened since 1989. We are losing the battle with invasive exotic species, because our land is rapidly becoming an island of green in a sea of asphalt and concrete. We are under assault from all sides. Native wildlife is affected most dramatically. Habitats used for generations are obliterated overnight by bulldozers. It is especially brutal to watch the suffering during the spring and summer, when nests, dens, and families are destroyed in the name of human progress on what seems to be a daily basis.
In light of daily devastation of the wild lands that once surrounded me, I look at my landscape choices with new eyes now. Every choice I make is an answer to one question: How will this serve the native environment?
Many of what I think of as my “plant pals” — ecologists, botanists, avid gardeners, birders, lepidopterists, and others deeply attached to the value and beauty of all members of native ecosystems — are increasingly discouraged. Some have confided that they are going through the motions at this point, continuing to try to demonstrate and educate the millions of humans who are unaware of the consequences of their choices on the continuing viability of our planet, while in their hearts believing that the battle is already lost. I confess I have moments where I feel similarly, but then I see another miracle unfold on a flower or tree in my yard, and my spine straightens. I feel obliged to carry on the crusade. It feels to me to be the very least I can do.
The folks who read my little blog and/or follow me on Facebook are I am certain already aware of how close to the tipping point of ecological disaster humanity is teetering. We can’t control the choices of others, but we can control ours. That’s why those biologically inert loropetalums in my front yard are gone, replaced by an increasingly vibrant patch of wildflowers that has already attracted more species of butterflies, native and honey bees, parasitic wasps, praying mantises and other beneficial insects, not to mention insect-loving warblers and other birds than I have ever observed before so close to my front door.
I built it (with lots of help), and they have come, more with every passing year. My five acres is a sanctuary now, a haven for as many displaced native species as it can handle.
Even a tiny yard can be a sanctuary. During winter’s quiet, ask yourself what kind of beautiful, vibrant native sanctuary can you create by eradicating your biologically sterile, poison-filled, water-wasting non-native lawn with native trees, shrubs, and wildflowers? Before every new landscaping decision, ask yourself, “How will this serve the native environment?”