Archive for category Conservation Corner

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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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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Wetland Wonderland

Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.

Atamasco lily with an admirer (click on the photo to see a larger version).

We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.

They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.

The beaver pond continues to expand in width and length, engulfing canopy trees.

My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.

Canada geese noisily enjoy the beaver pond.

Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.

These are small fry, but Wonder Spouse is routinely spotting sizable brim and bass loitering in deeper spots in the creek.

Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.

A freshly excavated woodpecker hole in a maple in the middle of the beaver pond.

Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.

Caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly appreciate our wetland habitat.

This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.

Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?

All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role  of the natural world they so blithely ignore.

I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine.  Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.

Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.

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Writing about my favorite subjects

What lies within the fold of this spicebush leaf?

What lies within the fold of this spicebush leaf?

After writing this blog for over 5.5 years, my obsession should be apparent to everyone: I am endlessly fascinated by the natural world, especially the inhabitants of my five acres of green chaos in the piedmont region of North Carolina. Case in point? I’ve been unfolding folded leaves like the one above for years and years. Until a week or so ago, every time I unfolded the leaf, it was empty inside. But I persevered, stopping at every spicebush growing in my yard (a dozen or so), searching for curled leaves, and uncoiling them in the hopes of finding treasure within. Finally, last week, I scored.

Rear end of a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Rear end of a Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillar

Isn’t it amazing? I think it’s so clever of Mother Nature to have had this caterpillar evolve large spots on its hind end. Most entomologists believe the coloration is supposed to make hungry birds think “Snake!” when they find it, and fly away. The caterpillars hide within coiled leaves by day and emerge to feed at night. I knew the caterpillars were there, because I’ve seen many Spicebush Swallowtail butterflies in my yard this year — and many eaten spicebush leaves. But the caterpillars eluded me until now.

When I wasn’t hunting elusive caterpillars or admiring and photographing the numerous pollinators in my garden this summer, I’ve been writing a couple of articles for publication. The editor of the NC Native Plant Society Newsletter asked me to write a piece on native deciduous azaleas for the fall edition. I was happy to oblige.

First page of my article in the NCNPS fall newsletter

First page of my article in the NCNPS fall newsletter

And the editor of the NC Botanical Garden’s magazine, Conservation Gardener, invited me to write an article for its second edition.  The magazine is a benefit of membership, and I think the second edition is even better than the first one.

Cover of the second edition of Conservation Gardener

Cover of the second edition of Conservation Gardener

This time, I was asked to write about winterizing our yards and gardens sustainably. I really enjoyed putting this one together, especially because I was able to interview several staff members at the NC Botanical Garden so I could share their ideas.

First two pages of my article in Conservation Gardener

First two pages of my article in Conservation Gardener

If you click on the photos in this entry, you’ll get a larger version that will show a few more details. But I hope this may encourage gardeners in the southeastern US who are not yet members of the NC Botanical Garden to join. The new magazine is relevant to gardeners in the Southeast, even if you aren’t close enough to visit often. And membership rates include discounts for seniors, students, and volunteers.

If you are close enough to visit, I hope I’ll see you this Friday, September 23, for Members’ Night of the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. If you click on this link, you’ll see a link to a printable list of all the plants that will be for sale that evening. I’ll be stationed at a table handing out lists of suggested natives for various situations/growing conditions. All the plants on these lists will be for sale that evening. And don’t forget that as a member, you get a 10% discount on all your purchases.

If you come to the sale, please stop by and say hello.

I hope I'll see you there!

I hope I’ll see you there!

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Contextualizing Our Native Environment

What is it? Will it grow in your yard?

What is it? Will it grow in your yard?

I know that many of my readers are, like me, dedicated long-time gardeners. We speak fair botanical Latin. We know what we mean when we say “part sun,” or “drought-resistant.”

But we also see plenty of neighborhoods full of houses landscaped with lots of fescue lawns, perhaps a sad little tree or two stuck in the middle of the green expanse, and some evergreen shrubs planted along house foundations, often pruned into geometric shapes not found in nature. Many of you old-pro gardeners may not realize it, but living in many of those regimented-looking, nearly biologically sterile neighborhoods are folks who would like to do more with their yards. They want butterflies and birds, but they haven’t got any idea how to attract them. And they don’t know where to start.

Evergreen leaves, not a favorite of deer, beautiful, long-lasting flowers. Do you know this one?

Evergreen leaves, not a favorite of deer, beautiful, long-lasting flowers. Do you know this one?

That’s actually why I started writing this blog back in January 2011. And it’s why I volunteer at the plant help desk at the NC Botanical Garden. I enjoy sharing what I know, trying to make that information accessible to folks new to the southeast (They are legion.), or just new to gardening.

This native pollinator magnet is new to my garden this year.

This native pollinator magnet is new to my garden this year.

I’ve been telling my readers about the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale for several weeks now. It’s the weekend after this coming one, by the way. That sale can be a bit overwhelming to some folks, because an enormous array of native species is offered for sale — table after table of pots of various sizes, all organized alphabetically by their Latin names. There are signs for every species with photos of mature plants and their flowers, information on how big they will grow, what growing conditions they need. But, still, it can be hard to know where to begin.

Another native new addition to my garden this year.

Another native new addition to my garden this year.

Thus, I am delighted to share with you that, this year, the folks at the NC Botanical Garden will be making it a bit easier for less experienced gardeners to pick out plants suitable for their yards with two new features. First, I am working with the staff to develop lists of suggested plants for certain situations. For example, at a table on Members’ Night, you’ll be able to pick up a list of suggested natives — all for sale that evening — suited for a sunny pollinator garden to provide blooms throughout the growing season. This list won’t contain all the possible options; we intend these lists to be starting points. With the pollinator garden list in hand, you can find a plant on the list, read more about it on the sign on the table, and decide if it is something you want to add to your garden. There will be lists of plants that like moisture (as for rain gardens or pond or stream banks) and ones for dry areas too. Again, these lists won’t be exhaustive, but they will give you a place to start.

This native pollinator magnet can handle sun and shade, as long as it doesn't go too long between rains.

This native pollinator magnet can handle sun and shade, as long as it doesn’t go too long between rains.

The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has come up with one other new feature that any gardener trying to add native food sources for our pollinator and other insects will appreciate. As Douglas Tallamy wrote in his now-classic Bringing Nature Home, without the native trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses that insects eat during their larval stages, their adult stages will not be available to pollinate our crops, and birds and other animals will die if they don’t have these immature and/or adult insects to eat. An entomologist by profession, Dr. Tallamy compiled lists of which native insects rely on which native plant species. Many insects only eat one species of plant. If it disappears, so do they.

A new feature for this year's NCBG plant sale

A new feature for this year’s NCBG plant sale

That’s why I think it’s wonderful that the staff of the NC Botanical Garden has created the sign above to inform customers about how many insect species rely on particular plant species. These numbers come from Dr. Tallamy’s research, so you won’t see these signs for every plant at the sale. But when you do see one, you’ll know that the plant in question plays a key role in our local native food chain.  When you buy a native blueberry plant, you’ll get a beautiful addition to your landscape that will produce berries and lovely fall color; but you’ll also be increasing available food sources for native insects, birds, and other wildlife — a win-win all around!

Feed a caterpillar; feed our native world.

Feed a caterpillar; feed our native world.

I hope I’ll see many of you at the plant sale on Sept. 23-24. The staff at the NC Botanical Garden has worked hard to contextualize their offerings to make it easy for you to figure out what will work best for your landscape. Please come out and pick up some plants to feed your local natives — and to support the only public garden in piedmont North Carolina with the central mission of educating folks about the beauty and importance of native plants.

The future of our pollinators will depend on the choices you make about your landscape.

The future of our pollinators depends on the choices you make about your landscape.

 

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A Perfect Opportunity to Fill a Landscape Gap – or Two: The NC Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Festival on May 21

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

Native Rhododendron flammeum in full bloom.

If you’ve lived in the southeastern piedmont region of the United States for long, you’ve probably heard the oft-repeated phrase, “fall is for planting.” And it is a guideline worth taking seriously. But every spring, many gardeners get itchy planting fingers. I know that after my vegetables and ornamental annuals are planted, my eye begins to spot those places in my landscape that would benefit from a new plant or two. Or three – self-control is a challenge for me, I confess, when it comes to new plant acquisitions.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

Sensitive Fern is so named for its sensitivity to frost.

The reason we mostly plant trees, shrubs, and perennials in the fall around here is because the heat and often drought of our summer season can be very hard on newly added plants. So if you see a spot in your landscape that is crying out for a few choice additions this spring, follow two simple rules:

  1. Give the new plants extra attention throughout the summer and fall. Of course, mulch them well, and if we go into a drought, these new plants will need extra water, because their root systems will not have had a chance to grow deeply before the heat hits. If we get an exceptionally prolonged heat wave, consider shading the new additions if they appear to be adversely impacted by the searing sun.
  2. Add plants that are native to the southeastern United States. The reasons for planting natives are myriad. I’ve enumerated some in a previous post here. But from a purely practical perspective, native plants are best adapted to our growing conditions, so you can expect them to weather our summers better than non-native choices – as long as you site them correctly, of course.
Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

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

It’s not too late to even build a whole new bed or two. Do you have a sunny spot you could turn into a pollinator garden? How about a spot where all the water drains in your yard? Such areas are ideal for rain gardens that can contain flowers, shrubs, and trees that benefit from extra water and can tolerate occasionally flooded root systems. Is your yard one big shade garden? There’s always room for a new fern or two, a new shade-loving wildflower, or one of the many great native shrubs that will provide four-season interest for you, and food and cover for native wildlife.

The Perfect Place to Score Some Choice Native Plants

Next Saturday, May 21, the North Carolina Botanical Garden (NCBG) is making it easy for us to find all the special natives we might need in one convenient location. The Garden is hosting their first ever Native Plant Festival from 4:00-8:00 p.m. Of course, the Garden will have many of its wonderful native plants for sale. But to make the event irresistible, they have invited several local nurseries that specialize in growing choice native plants to also sell their wares at this event. Several of these growers are not open to the public, so this is a unique chance to see and purchase native lovelies that you’ll never see at your local big box store’s “garden center.” Specifically, these nurseries (in alphabetical order) will be selling at this event:

My planting fingers are getting itchy just from typing that! These are all wonderful local growers, and I believe I am growing plants from all of them, except S&J, and that’s only because I just don’t grow that many carnivorous plants. These growers will be offering locally grown natives, and much of their stock comes from local sources. Yup, they often gather seeds and cuttings from natives growing in our region to ensure the plants will be best adapted to our local conditions. That is never the case at the big box stores.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

The Purple Milkweeds I recently acquired from Growing Wild Nursery are just starting to open for business.

But wait, there’s more!

This event isn’t just for gardeners. Bring your spouses, your kids, and your grandkids. There will be live music, food trucks, tree-climbing and giant bubble making, a sale of gently used gardening books, a raffle, and eleven local conservation organizations will have tables staffed with volunteers who can answer your questions about their groups. So while we gardeners are fondling our native options, our families can be enjoying all these other activities.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

For the best selection of popular natives like this milkweed, come early.

The event lasts until 8:00 p.m., but if you want the best selection of plants, I suggest you get there when the doors open at 4:00 p.m. You can grab what you want, then enjoy the music and food, and mingle with your fellow native plant lovers.

Matt Gocke, Greenhouse and Nursery Manager extraordinaire at the NCBG, was kind enough to share with me the list of goodies he’ll be offering for sale from his greenhouse at this event. Here are a few highlights.

  • If you want to begin or add to your milkweed collection for your Monarch butterfly habitat garden, he’ll have five different species for sale: Clasping Milkweed, Swamp Milkweed, Longleaf Milkweed, Common Milkweed, and Butterfly Milkweed. Growing conditions vary for these species, so you should be able to find at least one that will do well in your landscape.
Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

Monarch caterpillars dining on Common Milkweed.

  • He’ll be offering several interesting native vines, including Climbing Carolina Aster (Ampleaster carolinanus), Potato Bean (Apios americana), Leather flower (Clematis viorna), Large-leaved Dutchman’s Pipevine (Isotrema macrophylla), and Purple Passionflower (Passiflora incarnata).
  • He’ll have a really nice selection of native ferns, grasses, and sedges, gazillions of great native wildflower options, and some choice native shrubs and small trees ideally suited for tucking into empty spots around your yard.
The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtails, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

The main food source of Spicebush Swallowtail caterpillars, native Spicebushes provide gorgeous fall color for shady spots in your landscape.

Ya’ll come!

So, my fellow native plant gardening enthusiasts, spend some time this week pondering your home landscape. Now that everything has leafed out, it will be easier to spot any gaps where a native azalea might dazzle the eye, or a bed of ferns might soften a shady spot. Then tell your families about the great event you’ll all be going to on May 21. Food, music, and plants – it doesn’t get much better than that.

I’ll see you there!

 

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For Earth Day: Who Cares?

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

Close view of an Eastern Columbine

I admit it. I can be a bit of a curmudgeon. As I’ve grown older, I find it more challenging to have faith in humanity.

What keeps me going – what gets me out of bed every day – are the wild ones – the animals and plants that share my five acres of southeastern piedmont green chaos with me.

But as much as I love my green world, I am also deeply worried about its long-term survival. Climate change is undeniable and accelerating rapidly. Massive deforestation due to the invasion of concrete and asphalt throughout the world – and definitely in my region – grows every day, leaving the wild ones nowhere to live.

I am wondering how long my native wonderland will hang on when the world it evolved to inhabit disappears. As dramatic temperature swings become increasingly common, as record snowfalls are followed by record drought followed by record rainfall, how will the tulip poplars that prefer evenly moist ground and relatively cool – but not cold – sites survive? How will tadpoles that rely on ephemeral spring pools to shelter their metamorphoses become the frogs we rely on to devour summer’s abundant insects? What will the berry-loving bird species – that also dine on myriad insects – eat if the native food plants they rely on don’t set fruit because of late killing freezes? Where will the deep-rooted oaks, pines, hickories, and maples find water when prolonged 100-degree summers don’t deliver significant rain for months?

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

I am worried, because most of the people around me don’t seem to care. Most of the folks I meet at the grocery store, the doctor’s office, even at the public garden where I volunteer to answer plant-related questions from visitors are plant-blind. Most cannot distinguish an oak tree from a maple, much less determine if the species is native or non-native. And they see nothing wrong with that. They are oblivious to the environmental context in which they live – the context they share with native animals and plants that struggle to survive in a world made increasingly hostile by the utter indifference of the humans that have intruded upon their habitats.

Native or non-native?

Native or non-native?

Every day, I see examples of this profound indifference/ignorance. Recently, a woman on my neighborhood chatlist posted a recommendation for an exterminator company that she employs to spray insecticide all over her yard once a month, ostensibly, to kill ticks and mosquitoes.

Perhaps she recently relocated to my area from a part of the US where the summertime insects are less prevalent. Folks who grew up in my region understand that summer bugs are the price we pay for mild winters and lush forests. She wants, I imagine, to enjoy her outdoor patio in the summer while wearing her summer outfits, and she doesn’t want to get bitten. She thinks she’s being environmentally sensitive, because the exterminator says the poison used doesn’t kill bees.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

Survival of honeybees is considered critical by most agricultural experts.

I went to the exterminator’s Web site to learn the name of the pesticide they use, then researched it. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s pesticide database, the insecticide in question does not kill bees outright, but the poison does accumulate in their beeswax. I doubt that’s a good thing, but there was worse news. The insecticide in question – at any concentration – is known to be fatal to all aquatic life – that’s anything that lives in our creeks, ponds, rivers, ephemeral streams, etc. That’s a lot of frogs, dragonflies, salamanders, and fish that won’t be around to eat the insects this woman is apparently so worried about. In exchange for being able to sunbathe without being possibly bitten by a bug, this woman is absolutely willing to kill all aquatic life within range of the monthly poison being applied to her yard – which the exterminators spray 30 feet into the treetops, by the way, because, they say, that’s where the bugs hide. I doubt it’s great for the insect-eating nesting birds that are probably in those trees too, however. Or the squirrels, possums, bats – you get the idea.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple. Why would you risk spraying such nests?

Unless we all begin to understand that the battle cannot be Man versus Nature anymore, both sides are going to lose. Some experts I know believe we are already teetering on the edge of an avalanche of cascading impacts that – once begun – will be unstoppable. Some people may believe humanity can outwit Nature with technical innovations. But if the climate becomes unpredictably erratic and most ecosystems die, how will we produce food? What will pollinate crops? Where will the clean water come from? How will healthy soil chemistry be maintained when the life that controls those processes mostly dies?

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

If biological processes are disrupted, home gardens will become difficult to maintain.

So often these days, I meet people who distrust science. They seem to think it is a belief system, equivalent to religious ideology. They therefore feel entitled to reject uncomfortable scientific facts, such as what climate change is doing to our world. Or they think the natural world exists to serve as accessories to their outdoor “decor.” Not infrequently, I am asked questions like, “What tree can I grow in my yard that will only be 15-feet high, produce red – not pink – flowers in July, and have evergreen leaves?” They seem to think they can place an order for a plant in the same way they order a new outfit, or a refrigerator.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail on a native deciduous azalea hybrid

I believe that our last hope for a healthy Earth can only come in the form of a transformational paradigm shift – a fundamental change in the thinking of every man, woman, and child on the planet. It requires that we all accept the reality that we inhabit complex ecosystems that are not infinitely resilient. They require constant nurturing.

And there is one thing that any human who owns/controls a piece of land can start doing today. If you’re not growing crops or raising livestock (ideally, sustainably), populate your land with mostly (or all) native plant species. Even if you only own a quarter-acre lot, you can contribute to the health of our ailing planet by providing places for dwindling native insect, bird, reptile, amphibian, and plant species to survive.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters safe habitat in which to reproduce.

Protecting and nurturing native wetlands protects water quality and provides many of our best insect eaters with safe habitat in which to reproduce.

In my region of the southeastern US, eliminate or reduce your ecologically inert fescue lawns. Dig out the boxwoods, English ivy, Asian wisteria – all the non-natives – and replace them with some of the beautiful, well-adapted shrubs, trees, and wildflowers that evolved in our region. When your yard is a balanced system of native plants, insects will not overrun you, because the insect-eating animals will appear to devour them. Restoring balance to your home landscape by welcoming in native species will transform the environmental health of our region, and ultimately result in less work and lower costs for land- and homeowners.

Going native is not about being “politically correct,” or “green,” or “liberal,” or whatever pejorative term the defenders of the status quo use this week to characterize this strategy. Going native is now about ensuring the physical survival of plants and animals upon which we rely directly and indirectly. In my curmudgeonly opinion, it is time to paradigm-shift – or die.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

Monarch Caterpillar on Swamp Milkweed. Nurture the natives; save our Earth.

I know that the kind folks who read my ramblings here (and I appreciate you all), already understand how imperiled our world is. I know most of you are like me – lifelong gardeners and lovers of the natural world. What I don’t know is how we can persuade the plant-blind, the bug-phobic, and the rigid, traditional landscapers to see the need for this planetary transformation to a world that preserves and restores every sliver of green we have left into vibrant native ecosystems. I do know that if we don’t come up with paradigm-shifting solutions very soon, there won’t be much world left to care about.

Transform or die.

Transform or die.

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Thanksgiving at the NC Zoo

An endangered Bali Mynah

An endangered Bali Mynah

For many citizens of the US, Thanksgiving Day is about feasting with family, and perhaps counting up blessings. That’s great; it’s harder than ever for many to get multiple generations of kin in the same place for any length of time, and if food is the motivation that accomplishes this objective, so be it.

Unidentified Tropical Flower

Over the last 15 years or so, Wonder Spouse and I have observed a different Thanksgiving Day tradition: we visit the North Carolina Zoo. I know that some lovers of the animal kingdom despise zoos, and I understand those feelings. But the NC Zoo is one of the finest examples of what a zoo can be here in the US, and I would argue that its benefits outweigh any misgivings about maintaining wild animals in captivity. Plus, there are the plants. Let me explain.

Cacao pod growing in the aviary

Cacao pod growing in the aviary

In 2009, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes horticulture tour at the NC Zoo. I saw their greenhouses, learned about the extensive efforts the horticulture staff makes to find and propagate plants native to the regions of the animals, and learned about their ever-expanding programs to preserve and protect rare plant communities on the many acres of land they manage in North Carolina. I think they do an amazing job, and every area of the NC Zoo — from the sides of walkways, to exhibits, to play areas for children — is adorned with beautiful plants.

R.J. Reynolds Forest Aviary

Every year with decent weather, Wonder Spouse and I rise early and drive to Asheboro, where the NC Zoo is located, timing our arrival for when the doors are just opening at 9:00 a.m. A short hike takes us to our objective — the aviary — just as it opens up around 9:30 a.m. Most years, we have this magnificent place to ourselves — except for the keeper — for at least an hour. This year, we were undisturbed for over two hours.

Paradise Tanager

Paradise Tanager

The chill late-November air disappeared as we stepped into the humid warmth of a tropical paradise. Imagine towering leafy trees, blooming bromeliads and orchids, the sound of water gently trickling through a constructed stream, where water birds dabble happily, appearing and disappearing as they move beneath tropical foliage. Everywhere there are birds — flying through the trees — calling raucously or melodically, depending on species. The aviary is their little corner of paradise, and they thrive here, as do the tropical plants.

Orchid

Wonder Spouse and I begin our NC Zoo visit at the aviary for two reasons. First, we love having the place to ourselves. Boisterous children inhibit bird behavior. The feathered ones are still relaxed when we arrive. Second, the keeper feeds the birds first thing every morning. This Thanksgiving Day, she was a little behind schedule. Wonder Spouse and I were already in the aviary and wandering around when she arrived with her many bowls and cages (for the live crickets) of bird goodies.

Blue-grey Tanager and Blue-crowned-hanging Parrot enjoying their breakfast.

Blue-grey Tanager and Blue-crowned-hanging Parrot enjoying their breakfast.

Because Wonder Spouse and I were the only humans wandering about, the hungry birds assumed we must have their breakfasts. I felt like Snow White in the Disney movie, when all the creatures of the forest surround her as she sings to them. I have never seen so many of these beautiful birds so closely in all my years of visits.

A pair of Crested Wood Partridges followed me everywhere, muttering softly in tiny voices.

A pair of Crested Wood Partridges followed me everywhere, muttering softly in tiny voices.

In case you’re wondering, Wonder Spouse took all these photographs of our NC Zoo visit. I shrank them some to minimize loading times, but you can click on any of the images to enlarge them. I recommend this, so you can appreciate Wonder Spouse’s skill with the camera — and the exquisite beauty of these birds.

I think the best time to visit the aviary is winter. The humid warmth of this glassed-in tropical paradise feels heavenly on a bitter January morning. The NC Zoo is usually far less crowded during the winter. Most school groups tour during warmer months. When the crowds are smaller, the knowledgeable keepers are happy to answer questions and share stories about their charges.

For example, the aviary keeper we chatted with on Thanksgiving showed us how she had taught this Crested Coua to emerge at a specific spot in return for special treats. This allows her to inspect the bird more closely without having to catch it.

After we’d had our fill of the aviary, we walked through the rest of the African continent display. Wonder Spouse took many great photographs. He has a soft spot for the lion family currently residing at the NC Zoo. The four cubs were born last year and have grown from adorable kittens to magnificent cats.

 

We have been avid supporters of the NC Zoo for decades. Their conservation and research work in the native lands of these animals is critical to the preservation of remaining populations. I believe that work, plus the educational opportunities provided by this institution among beautiful, multi-hundred-acres of rolling piedmont trail-crossed hills makes this institution worthy of every North Carolinian’s support. Tax-deductible contributions are critical to the well-being of this state treasure.

If you don’t live in NC but plan to visit, I encourage you to add the NC Zoo to your itinerary. If you do live in NC, but you haven’t visited, or you haven’t visited lately, I encourage you to rectify that oversight soon. Visit their Web site to learn more about their exhibits and conservation work.

Lend the NC Zoo a helping hand.

Female gorilla hand

Female gorilla hand

Consider donating to protect the future of wild ones everywhere.

Juvenile gorilla

Juvenile gorilla

2019 UPDATE: I have been informed that the NC Zoo will no longer be open on Thanksgiving Day, so that employees may spend the holiday with their families. They will still be open the day after Thanksgiving.

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