A few highlights from last week’s annual meeting of the Friends of Plant Conservation

The “poster child” for North American plant extinction: Franklinia alatamaha

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.

A close view of a flower of Franklinia alatamaha

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.

Fall color of Franklinia alatamaha

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.

Bigleaf Magnolias (Magnolia macrophylla) are protected in the Redlair Preserve managed by the NC Plant Conservation Program.

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!

Bigleaf Magnolia flower bud beginning to open

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.

Flower bud of Magnolia macrophylla

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Sweet Poison

My neighbor’s honeybees

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.

Honeybee visiting a squash blossom

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.

Honeybees dive deeply into flowers like this Anise Hyssop.

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.

Honeybee on a cherry blossom

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.

Honeybee on chive blossom

 

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Garden choices that serve Mother Earth

Female Monarch on swamp milkweed

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.

A recently emerged Cope’s Gray Treefrog resting on an Ironweed stem

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.

Juniper Hairstreak on Green-head Coneflower

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?

A recently molted Black Swallowtail caterpillar on Bronze Fennel — a non-native, non-invasive food source for this species.

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.

Caterpillars of Viceroy Butterfly enjoying leaves of a willow in the adjacent wetland

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.

Honey bee enjoying a native Purple Coneflower

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.

Southern Leopard frog enjoying our front water feature

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?

Eastern Tiger Swallowtails enjoy many native flowers, like this Joe Pye Weed, but their caterpillars eat leaves of a number of our native canopy trees, especially Tulip Poplar and Black Cherry.

 

 

 

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Reliable Autumn Native Showstoppers

Enthusiastic berry display of volunteer deciduous holly

Decades ago, Wonder Spouse and I planted two species of native deciduous holly on our floodplain — a location where all have flourished. These wonderful natives consistently produce abundant quantities of berries that are usually eaten by local birds and passing flocks of Cedar Waxwings by some time in January — sooner if winter weather is more severe. I think the berries probably don’t taste as good as, say, those of native spicebushes (Lindera benzoin), which vanish in late summer as soon as they ripen into scarlet beads that contrast with vibrantly green leaves.

Ripe Spicebush berries always make me think of ornaments on a Christmas tree as they contrast against the native’s green leaves.

Both spicebushes and hollies are dioecious, which is a fancy term used by botanists that means the flowers of each sex occur on different plants. Thus, if you want your female plants to produce lots of showy berries, you must ensure that a male of the same species is nearby, so that pollen from flowers on male shrubs is deposited by visiting pollinators onto the flowers of female shrubs. I am fortunate to have a neighbor who keeps honeybees, so in addition to the many native pollinators that visit my blooming plants, in spring when the hollies bloom, they are also covered by busy swarms of honeybees from dawn to dusk, thereby ensuring abundant fruit set.

The two species of native holly that I grow are Winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and Possumhaw (Ilex decidua). The latter species is not to be confused with another native shrub often called Possumhaw — Viburnum prunifolium — which is why I always try to insert a plant’s Latin botanical name in my posts. Both holly species can grow to heights of 15-20 feet at maturity, maybe even a bit taller. They both tolerate flooding, routinely moist soils, and even dry soils; they are tough native shrubs. I think Winterberry usually grows taller than Possumhaw, but on my rich alluvial soils, both species have achieved significant sizes. When I planted them, I had imagined shrubs wide at the base continuing to the top, but deer consistently ate the lower branches after we removed the wire cages that protected them during their first few years of growth. Thus, my floodplain hollies look like trees, with trunk bases devoid of branches. Either form is aesthetically pleasing to my eyes.

Every year as the canopy trees on my floodplain discard their autumn foliage, the deciduous hollies growing beneath them take center stage. During early autumn, their red berries mingle with the still-green leaves of the shrubs. But by late November, those leaves have fallen, revealing branches adorned by bright red clusters of berries. I think the visual effect is wonderful. Naked branches permit longer views of my floodplain, creek, and adjacent wetland, while the red berries provide bright pops of continuing color — and, eventually, food for winter-hungry birds.

I am delighted by the diverse number of native birds that visit our five acres of green chaos, and their presence has yielded continuing surprises. One of those is bird-deposited volunteer plants. Seeds are designed to survive travel through birds’ digestive systems; some even require it for germination. In my yard, I discover all sorts of “bird-planted” species growing beneath large trees — often evergreens — where the birds shelter at night and during rough weather. Such areas are prime locations for the appearance of non-native invasive exotic species, such as Asian Bittersweet, Mahonia, and several species of Ligustrum and Elaeagnus.

But those locations also yield volunteers of native plants, likely from fruits eaten off of plants in my yard. Thus, I now have an abundance of spicebush growing on my property; there were none until I planted three over twenty years ago. I’m also starting to see quite a few native Beautyberries now. The biggest volunteer surprise, however, was the appearance of two bird-planted deciduous hollies at the top of our hill just outside the fence that protects our vegetable garden from marauding deer. The two shrubs are growing quite close to each other, their branches intertwining. And most wonderful of all, one is male, and the other is female. I was so stunned when I realized the identity of these plants that I decided to leave them where they appeared. Now, a few years later, they are about 12 feet tall, and the female is so laden with ripe red berries right now that everyone who encounters her gasps in surprised delight.

I suspect her fruit set is especially impressive for two reasons. First, her branches are intertwined with those of the adjacent male plant, so proximity to pollen is maximized. On top of that, my neighbor’s bee hives are less than 100 feet from these plants. These shrubs literally buzz with honeybee activity when they are blooming.

I suspect these volunteers are Winterberries, but I have not tried to verify this. Frankly, I don’t care. I know they are native, beautiful, and beloved by birds — especially a Mockingbird that defends the female shrub against all comers as soon as the berries begin to show color. Every morning, he perches on one of the top branches of the berry-adorned female shrub and demonstrates the versatility of his vocal repertoire for all to hear. He tolerates my proximity as I work in the vegetable garden — as long as I am careful to greet him with respect and avoid lingering too long in front of his winter pantry. It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement.

Soon her leaves will drop, and this volunteer Ilex’s display will be even more spectacular.

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Please go vote for a great horticultural therapy cause

Attention my garden peeps: I need a favor. The National Garden Bureau is offering a grant to horticultural therapy programs that submitted videos. They have narrowed it down to three options and want folks to vote for the video they like best. The folks running the horticultural therapy program at the NC Botanical Garden submitted one for the work they do with The Farm at Penny Lane. It is a great program that is chronically under-funded.

I just went to the NGB site and voted for them, and when the results page came up, they are way behind compared to the other two programs. This is the only finalist from the southeast region, and I would appreciate it if you folks would go visit the link and vote for The Farm at Penny Lane.

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Why I Grow Food

I grew my first tomatoes when I was fifteen. I dug up a long, skinny bed beside the family carport, the only spot that got enough sun to give fruit development half a chance. I don’t remember where I got the plants. I do remember being amazed by how tall they grew. I was not prepared for that, improvising stakes from fallen sticks that littered our wooded lot. I didn’t get many tomatoes out of that effort. I’m not sure the pollinators knew where to find my pitiful plants among the massive oaks and hickories that towered around the house. But even with all those challenges, I was hooked on growing my own food.

Herb and vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

I didn’t have a chance to try it again until I was in graduate school. Some friends were renting an old farmhouse. They had turned part of an adjacent fallow field into a vegetable garden and invited me to start my own garden beside theirs. So I did. Graduate students are not often known for their healthy diets, but I ate fresh carrots, zingy peppers, and orb after orb of juicy red tomato. I even bought a pressure cooker and taught myself how to can. This was in the ancient days before youtube — no how-to videos for me. I actually read books to figure out how to grow and preserve my garden bounty.

Transplanted vegetable seedlings in greenhouse on March 29.

The biggest lessons I recall from that summer were about canning. First, canning in humid North Carolina in the tiny kitchen of an apartment without air conditioning is a great way to lose weight from perspiring excessively. Second, it is possible to can squash, but you really don’t want to eat canned squash; the texture is way too slimy. Canning blackberry preserves, on the other hand – totally worth the sweat equity.

Onions, chives, and covered zucchini on May 1.

I’ve grown a garden every year since then. First, in the yards of rental houses, then on the properties I’ve owned with the amazingly energetic Wonder Spouse. This year marks our 27th anniversary of growing vegetables in the same garden space. Every year, we have added compost and organic mulches to the raised beds we built. What had been pretty good soil to start with is now Vegetable Nirvana – chocolate cake soil, my sister used to call it – dark, aromatic, moist, and unlike cake – full of earthworms.

Young beans and other vegetables on May 8.

Once you are smitten with a love of growing your own food, soon you are not satisfied with buying plants grown by others. You spend your winters studying seed catalogs, drawing diagrams of where you will plant various crops, choosing old favorite varieties you know to be reliable, but always trying something new, something too intriguing to pass up.

Recently transplanted tomatoes on May 1.

Wonder Spouse built me a small greenhouse from a kit 22 years ago, and it is a testimony to his meticulousness that it functions as well today as it did when it was shiny and new. Before the greenhouse, we started seeds indoors, but trying to ensure that plants received adequate light was a perpetual struggle. My beautiful greenhouse solved that issue and the issue of adequately watering without overwatering – or ending up with water and soil on the living room floor.

Japanese eggplant on June 22.

I wish every child had the chance to grow her own food, preferably with coaching from a parent or grandparent eager to welcome a new member into the Green Thumb Clan. Too many children today don’t know where vegetables come from, and I believe the reason so many children think they hate vegetables is because they’ve never had the opportunity to taste a carrot just pulled from loamy soil, or a ripe pepper right off the bush. They don’t know what dill is, or that you can munch it like a stalk of celery.

Beans, zucchinis, herbs and flowers on June 11

I find it heartening to see a growing number of community gardens. Some are on city lots, some on school or church properties. Folks who have had limited access to fresh vegetables and fruits are getting chances to improve their diets and get a bit of exercise in the sunshine.

Beans and friends on June 22.

I am also heartened by the interest of millennials in growing their own food, even adding chicken coops and honeybee hives in record numbers to urban and suburban lots. They are growing food instead of ecologically inert lawns – in their front yards! This movement is nation-wide. I am encouraged every time I peruse the Front Yardener Facebook page, where these energetic folks are figuring out how to maximize food production in their yards while making their gardens aesthetically appealing.

Early Blue Ribbon tomatoes on June 22.

Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, these kids (sorry, you all look like children to me) are progressing far more rapidly than I did. If they see a bug they don’t recognize, they go online and quickly determine whether it is a friend or enemy to their garden. They proudly post many photos of their gardens, their harvests, and their preserved bounty.

Zucchinis and friends on June 18.

I know of one local neighborhood that engages in a sunflower-growing contest every summer. The household that grows the tallest flower wins accolades and admiration from all. And there’s a party, of course, to celebrate the occasion. I hope all the Front Yardeners have harvest parties where they share produce, growing tricks, and the companionship that derives from shared passions.

Unripe Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes on June 22.

I’m guessing they grow food for the same reasons I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. Yes, it saves money and gives me access to foods I might not get otherwise. But as important, it keeps me outside, my hands in rich earth, my ears tuned to bird song and cicada thrumming, my eyes alert for new pollinators or potential pests. It gives me an excuse to stand at the fence to chat with my neighbor and share garden bounty. It keeps me connected to Mother Earth, the source of everything upon which we all rely.

The Solanaceae quadrant: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants interplanted with basils on June 22.

For me, that will always be the bottom line – that connection to the Green World, the anchor that prevents me from being sucked into the vortex of electronic media full of talking and shouting heads and images of such cruelty that I can’t get through most newscasts these days without shedding a few tears.

Italian peppers and basils on June 25.

I grow food to remind myself of what is important, to prevent my heart from breaking, to hold on to hope. Growing food is my daily prayer for Earth and humanity. May we all find ways to nurture our hearts, our souls, and our connectedness.

Queen Sophia reigns over the vegetable garden.

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A Piedmonter Re-visits the NC Coast

Two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse and I vacationed on Oak Island, NC — a very southern NC beach that is still relatively undeveloped. As a child, I enjoyed family vacations here, so the area holds a special place in my heart.

Wonder Spouse took this photo. These orange sky dragons dominated the sky around the pond.

Thirty-eight summers ago, I spent two wonderful months studying coastal ecology at Duke’s Marine Lab facility in Beaufort, NC, which is a good bit further north of Oak Island. During that summer, I learned the names of numerous coastal ecological communities, and I could identify the plants comprising those varied communities.

I think this is a yaupon.

Until this recent vacation, beach trips have not given me reason to recall what I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab. But this year, we rented an extraordinary cottage that, while technically ocean-front, had a freshwater wetland pond between the house and the dunes. Native vegetation and wildlife abounded beyond my wildest dreams of what a beach cottage could offer. In short, Wonder Spouse and I were beyond delighted to spend numerous hours on the wooden walkway that crossed over the pond to the dunes watching and photographing some of the wildlife living there.

A Monet-worthy morning on the pond.

I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab that coastal ecology is fire-dependent. The various plant communities are healthiest when relatively frequent fires — originally caused by lightning, mostly — burned through the various communities, encouraging seeds of fire-adapted plants to germinate and re-exposing overgrown areas to more sunlight.

Turtles abounded in and around the pond, especially the first few days we were there.

The dense mix of low-growing trees and shrubs entangled by myriad vines that grew between the beach house and the pond wetland contained a number of coastal plant species that I recognized, but the composition didn’t quite match the community descriptions I remembered. This may be, in part, due to the fact that I doubt these plants have experienced a fire in many years. Regardless, the low-growing trees and shrubs seemed healthy, and included familiar species such as Redbay (Persea borbonia), Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Pond pine (Pinus serotina), and Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) among others.

The abundant berries on the Dune Greenbrier intertwined with the scrub forest will eventually ripen to a blue-purple color.

Growing over, around, and between these woody plants were numerous vines, including Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) covered in flower buds, a grape I didn’t identify, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Dune Greenbrier (Smilax auriculata) ornamented with myriad clusters of green berries.

Abundant Virginia Creeper vines were filled with flower buds.

Between the scrub forest and the pond, the ground was variably marshy. The dominant vegetation was a reed that I think was probably the invasive form of Phragmites australis. Closer to the scrub forest, the Phragmites was interspersed with ferns, especially Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and a few patches of cattails (Typha latifolia), and mats of low-growing plants that I couldn’t get close enough to photograph.

Why didn’t I go charging into the underbrush and into the edge of the marsh, you ask?

Not a joke.

We weren’t the only species that appreciated the diverse array of frogs, turtles, insects, and birds that abounded in this small wetland. We didn’t see the alligators the first few days we were there, but we did later. More on that shortly.

Before the alligators showed up late in the week, turtles of all sizes floated and basked in and around the pond. Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Great Egrets stalked the shallows and flew in groups overhead. An Osprey routinely hunted in the pond in front of a nearby beach house. Gulls, sandpipers, and long lines of Brown Pelicans flew overhead during daylight hours. Familiar songbirds from home foraged and nested in the scrub forest, including Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Brown Thrashers. Red-winged Blackbirds dominated the reeds in the marsh. Feisty males flashed their scarlet shoulder pads at us as they tried to hurry us along the walk and away from their harems of females nesting in the thick reeds. At night, numerous species of frogs croaked and trilled, drowning out the wave sounds of a calm ocean.

In the middle of the week, the turtles seemed to disappear, as did the wading birds. We spotted a large — at least seven-feet-long alligator cruising around the pond. As we stood on the walkway talking excitedly about it, it silently coasted into a position just beneath us. Only its massive head was visible above the water line. It seemed to dare us to dip a leg over the walkway. I got the heebie jeebies and went back to the house while Wonder Spouse took photos. He hasn’t processed them yet, so I can’t show them to you. Trust me, that creature was creepy. The young ones we spotted the next day were a tad less intimidating.

A young alligator, about 2.5 feet long.

This younger alligator seemed content to float in the shallow end of the pond among the reeds. It allowed us to photograph it for quite a while.

It seemed almost docile.

We thought it was barely awake, until suddenly a large, long black snake leapt into the air, reaching for the top of the reeds. We hadn’t seen it, but this young alligator did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this snake put three feet of air between its tail and the alligator’s mouth in a matter of seconds. We had no idea a black snake could make a vertical leap of that magnitude. It is a lesson I will not soon forget. And yes, the snake escaped; alligators are evidently not great leapers.

This smaller alligator was only about 1.5 feet long.

This smaller alligator was more colorful, which I read is characteristic of this reptile species when it is young. We could almost imagine how someone might think such a creature would be an interesting pet. Almost. The memory of its fully grown relative we had seen the previous day was still much too fresh in my mind to give such a thought even semi-serious consideration.

Wonder Spouse teasing gulls on the beach.

No, we didn’t spend our entire vacation watching the pond creatures. We made it onto the beach for long walks at sunrise and sunset, when the light was most interesting for photographs. The beach was littered with the bodies of jellyfish, which I was told was normal at this time of year. Intact shells were hard to find, except for tiny perfect ones, mostly overlooked by other beachcombers. I tried to photograph the Brown Pelicans as they arrowed into the ocean after fish.

We found a few young hermit crabs inhabiting tiny shells, like this one inhabiting an auger shell held by Wonder Spouse.

The most wonderful surprise came during a midweek sunrise walk on the beach. We spotted two women in a small vehicle; they were volunteers with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, and they had just located and marked a new nest deposited by a female a few hours earlier. The tracks of the mother turtle as she laboriously pulled herself up above the high tide line and then returned to the sea were still visible, unmarred by pedestrian foot traffic. And most fortunate of all, I was carrying my camera.

The jellyfish that littered the beach are a favorite food of sea turtles, I’m told; Mother Nature’s timing was once again impeccable. All in all, it was a perfect week filled with natural wonders that this Piedmonter has either not seen often or never seen at all.

I missed my Piedmont gardens while I was away. But there is something deeply restorative about breathing salt air and meditating upon a tranquil sea at sunrise. The re-centering has come in handy now that I’m back in the Piedmont. My return week has been full of weeds, groundhog damage, and amorous black rat snakes. I’ll fill you in on all of that next time.

Peace

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