Archive for category Invasive Exotic Species
One minute, summer sun kisses green leaves, flowers abound, birds sing. Then you blink, and color happens.
For some plants, color comes in patches at first.
Or this ornamental spirea:
Fall fruits droop heavy on branches, then tumble to earth.
The native Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) has finally dropped all its nuts. For a few weeks, walking beneath it required a hard hat.
This past Tuesday, a strong cold front approached. Thick clouds darkened the sky, winds blew in gusts, twirling falling leaves into eddies of gold and red. Later that day, the rains came — almost two inches. The trees that always abandon their leaves first took the winds, rain, and ensuing cold air as their cue.
The first native trees to bare their branches for winter in my yard are always the Ashes. Ash trees dominate the active portion of our floodplain — about an acre or so. I think they’re probably Green Ashes (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), but local experts tell me this species often interbreeds with other native Ash species, so I’m not certain.
Their fall color is subtle, but they do cast a distinctive yellow-green glow over the canopy just before they discard their summer clothes.
Ashes are not the first trees most folks notice when walking through their native moist habitats, but they are key components. Their numerous seeds are devoured by many bird species, including Wood Ducks. The larvae of several of our more colorful southeastern US butterflies eat Ash leaves, including the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, Orange Sulfur, and one of my favorites, Mourning Cloak. This beauty has dark wings edged in deep gold; I count myself lucky when I spot one or two floating through my floodplain, usually on warm late-winter days, when the over-wintered adults begin seeking mates.
Ashes are easy to identify. They have compound leaves. Botanists define a compound leaf as consisting of a set of leaflets. For example, Poison Ivy has a compound leaf. Those “leaves of three” we all look for actually comprise one leaf. Look for a longer leaf stem (a petiole) that attaches the multi-leaflet leaf to a branch.
A casual observer might confuse the compound leaves of Ash trees with those of another Piedmont forest regular — Hickory, but a closer look is all you need to tell the difference. Ash leaves are attached to branches directly opposite each other. This opposite-leaved arrangement is less common in our native trees and shrubs. A single-leaved tree with opposite leaves that we all know is our native Dogwood. Hickory leaves alternate on the branch, plus most have fewer leaflets per leaf than Ash leaves.
After the rains blasted through, the next day, most of the Ashes on my floodplain were bare. In the blink of an eye, their subtle color was gone.
This year as the Ashes performed their vanishing act, I got a knot in my stomach. I couldn’t help but wonder if this will be the last year I am able to enjoy their subtle drama. Why?
The Emerald Ash Borer, a non-native, devastating tiny insect, has a confirmed presence in a few NC Piedmont counties just north of mine. This insect has already killed every native Ash tree in many of our northern states. Every single one. They do it in one year. Experts have no idea how to stop them. Here’s the latest information from the NC Forest Service on this Ash-killing bug. Follow the links on that site to learn more.
A key take-away message about preventing the spread of Emerald Ash Borer and several other devastating non-native insects is about firewood. It is critical that any firewood you buy be from local, uninfected trees. Unfortunately, the firewood industry is not closely regulated. Recently dead trees look like a prime source of money to firewood purveyors. More than half the states in the US, including all of the Southeast, have imposed some firewood movement restrictions. Click on your state on this map to see what restrictions apply for you.
Ignorance is our greatest enemy in the fight to save our Ash trees. If you buy firewood, I urge you to learn what counties in your state are still considered safe sources of uncontaminated firewood. Be wary of pre-packaged firewood sitting outside grocery and hardware stores. Odds are it was shipped in from somewhere else. Ask the store manager where the firewood came from, and if he or she doesn’t know, tell them why you won’t be buying from them.
In my area during every impending cold spell, I’ll see folks selling pick-up trucks full of firewood in parking lots. Firewood sales are a supplemental source of income for most of these folks; many of them probably have no knowledge of the restrictions on where they should be collecting their firewood. In North Carolina, no one should be buying or selling firewood from Granville, Vance, or Person counties outside the boundaries of these counties. They are quarantined due to the confirmed presence of the Emerald Ash Borer. Here are the areas in the US with currently imposed Emerald Ash Borer quarantines.
Unless the experts devise a way to kill this insect in the next few months, it is just a matter of a year, perhaps two, before every Ash tree on my property — about a dozen 75-foot trees — will be dead. Their absence in the landscape will be visible to even the most casual observer. What will be less obvious is the disruption in the Piedmont ecosystem where these trees occur. Birds and insects that evolved to rely on Ash trees as a food source will go hungry. If they cannot adapt to other food sources, they will die trying to find Ash trees elsewhere.
No one knows how many components of an ecosystem can disappear before the viability of the entire ecosystem is destroyed, so that the remaining components die. Think of it as an ecosystem-scale game of Jenga. Sooner or later, the wrong piece is removed, and the entire structure fails.
In the blink of an eye, our native Ashes may disappear. How many more blinks before our native forests are gone too?
A good friend of mine and her significant other recently purchased and moved into a lovely new home in an adjacent county. They invited me out earlier this week to help them understand what’s growing on their 3-acre patch of Piedmont. I confess, I was a bit envious.
Their home backs onto state park land that protects a scenic river. This land has been covered in Piedmont forest for probably about 100 years now. Most likely before that it was farms and forests, and the forests were certainly regularly logged. That’s pretty much the story of land use for all of the southeastern Piedmont.
Unlike my home, which is on an increasingly busy road (a country by-way when we first moved here), theirs is quite a ways from the nearest main thoroughfare, accessed via a maze of well-established roads filled with nothing but mostly older houses. Frequent speed bumps likely discourage any non-residents from using these roads.
The result? My friend’s new home environment is noticeably quieter than mine. And the vegetation growing on her land and the adjoining protected forest made me long for my childhood days, when all the forests around here looked like that one — mostly anyway.
Her home sits atop a Piedmont ridge. Steep slopes on two sides fall down toward intermittent drainage ways that feed the river below. Large white oaks dominate the landscape; this year’s crop of acorns littered the ground. Mixed among the oaks were tulip poplars, red maples, sweet gums, sourwoods, dogwoods, redbuds, elms, viburnums, and a few mature loblolly pines — in short, all the native species I expect in such an environment.
But in addition to this mix of obviously healthy native plants, what struck me most was what wasn’t there: invasive non-native plants. I only saw two species, and both are likely still controllable if my friends take aggressive action immediately: Japanese Stiltgrass, and Privet.
Just for comparison, in my five-acre yard, I’m fighting those two species and:
We started battling a new invader this year: Oriental Bittersweet. As is true of most of our most pernicious invaders, this non-native vine was planted in the southeastern US for the ornamental value of its abundant, colorful berries. Alas, these berries are beloved by birds. They have “deposited” the seeds all over our southeastern forests. I was horrified when I visited the North Carolina mountains a year or so ago and discovered this invasive vine was snarling vast acreages of once lovely mountain forest.
This evil vine established a beachhead on my property beneath a native dogwood adjacent to my busy road. This mature dogwood produces abundant crimson berries every autumn, and I am certain that birds dining on the dogwood berries excreted the Oriental Bittersweet seeds that took root beneath the tree. It disguised itself among a bed of poison ivy that I was ignoring, which is how it became well-established. Wonder Spouse sprayed it with herbicide last spring, which knocked it back considerably. But it’s still there, biding its time until I forget about it. But I am determined that this latest invader will not gain permanent residence on our land.
I’m also watching for what is likely the inevitable incursion of kudzu. It dominates the property directly across the street from me. It would have crossed the road to my land years ago if the state didn’t mow it off the road every growing season. I can feel it plotting its invasion, perhaps via the drainage pipes beneath the bridge on my road that permits access for the creek that adjoins our property.
I know I’m not the only Piedmont homeowner battling invasive non-native plants. My blog has recently been visited by a number of viewers searching for information on controlling invasive plants. I have reluctantly concluded that unless your invader is just establishing itself in your yard, trying to pull it up manually will not control it. Herbicides seem to be the only option that will work in most cases. In my yard, deer will nibble on English Ivy in the dead of winter, but they never touch the Japanese Stiltgrass. I’ve read that even goats — known for happily devouring ivy, kudzu, and most any other plant in their paths — will not eat Japanese Stiltgrass.
Japanese Stiltgrass is creeping up the slopes of my friend’s new yard, working its way up from the intermittent drainage way below. That’s its favorite mode of transportation — water, which is why my floodplain is so plagued by it. I’ve resisted herbicides for fear of what they will do to my abundant frogs and salamanders, and the few fish still inhabiting my creek. But the literature states that the key is to use herbicides that do not contain an ingredient called a surfactant, because this is what causes the poison to stick to wildlife and hurt it. This link suggests herbicides that will kill this grass and are supposed to be safe in wetlands.
Wonder Spouse and I are planning on trying this weapon against our increasing infestation of Japanese Stiltgrass. I felt better about trying this weapon after talking with the curator of the Habitat Gardens at the NC Botanical Garden. She told me that she’s using it in her yard to battle this invader. She said the secret is to apply the herbicide consistently for five years — the amount of time the seeds of this grass remain viable in the soil.
I hate using herbicides, but there is no way Wonder Spouse and I can manually remove the invaders fast enough to prevent their spread on my land. I’m going to encourage my friend to begin using them now to prevent her from having my kind of problems. Right now, her land — the property that afflicted me with temporary forest envy — is about 20 years behind mine in invasive plant incursions. It’s been protected by the large stretch of contiguous forest it adjoins and its distance from major roads. But they must remove all the privet hedges planted by the previous owner immediately. And they must start applying wetland-safe herbicides to their Japanese Stiltgrass now — before their yard starts looking like mine.
For those of you wondering why I am so passionate on this issue, I refer you to my previous posts on this topic here and here and here. I truly believe that this is a battle we cannot afford to lose, folks.
Some days, I confess, I weep for our Earth. Perhaps I am a sentimental tree-hugger, but I know that my sentiment is based on science; I mourn for what mankind is losing. Among the degrees I’ve earned (I have three), is a master’s in environmental management from Duke University. My study focus was southeastern ecology and environmental resource management.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to take my words seriously on this day when we celebrate our home planet.
Humanity’s time on the Earth has often been marked by turmoil and destruction. And throughout history, mankind has taken whatever it could from our planet – minerals, oil, diamonds, and now, more than ever, trees.
People who do not understand ecology, who do not know the difference between an oak and a maple, a loblolly and a red cedar, think vegetation is infinite and completely replaceable. Here in the southeastern US where I live, until the last couple of decades, when you cut down a forest, it grew back pretty much the same. This is no longer true.
Let me repeat that: Today in the southeastern US when you cut down a forest, what grows back will only superficially resemble what you removed. This new reality is primarily the result of an alarming increase in invasive exotic species – insects, diseases, animals, and plants that are not native to the southeast and therefore have no natural enemies here. The invaders now have the edge over natives largely because deforestation due to urbanization has reduced remaining woodlands to small, scattered, highly fragmented tracts – easy pickings for non-native invaders.
Small woodlots that once were havens for the Southeast’s abundant native species of plants and animals are now overrun by invaders the natives are not evolved to fight. The species diversity in our dwindling native forests is declining faster every year. For hard data backing me up, try here or here or here.
Why should you care? Because an absence of species diversity creates a biological desert – a place where almost no creature can thrive, a place where our songbirds, our pollinators, our frogs and toads, our dogwoods and ash trees cannot survive.
Parking lots, shopping malls, and city centers full of skyscrapers are obvious biological deserts in my region. They don’t have to be. If you try an Internet search on sustainable urban landscapes, you’ll find exciting developments going on all over the world, even in a few places in the United States. Not so much in the Southeast. Green roofs on buildings — even green walls on sides of buildings – are successfully providing food for people and animals, ameliorating the heat island effect known to afflict urban areas, and elevating the moods of the people who live in such areas. Humans crave green; we evolved with it; on a deeply visceral level, it makes us happy.
Suburban deserts are less obvious to the average person, but they are entirely real. Start with the archetypical symbol of suburban life: the grass lawn. Somewhere back in time – probably about the time fertilizer companies commercialized chemical fertilizers – someone in the real estate industry decreed that “curb appeal” depends on how startlingly green your grass lawn is. Only certain species of grass – all non-native to the Southeast – are allowed, the height of the lawn must not exceed a few inches, and it must be kept artificially green at any cost. Chemical fertilizers and weed suppressors must be religiously applied, and hundreds of thousands of gallons of water must be poured onto the sacred green plot to preserve its holy color. (Imagine what better uses for their money suburbanites could find if they weren’t squandering it on maintaining their lawn deserts.)
The consequences of failure to conform in suburbia are dire. Your Home Owners Association (HOA) will first try to shame you into complying with the rules regarding Sacred Lawn Maintenance, and if that doesn’t work, they will fine you. Some HOA rules might even allow the HOA to foreclose on your home for noncompliance.
Anyone who lives in a typical suburb with an HOA has heard stories about unfortunate neighbors who fell victim to the wrath of HOA despots. My neighbor recently told me that her daughter, who lives in a nearby town of rigidly regulated suburban deserts, was recently castigated by her HOA for the crime of allowing clover to grow in her lawn. It might interest the despots to know that before the commercialization of chemical fertilizers, grass lawns were deliberately interplanted with Dutch white clover, because the clover’s nitrogen-fixing roots added this nutrient to the soil, thereby helping to keep the grass green.
Does any real estate expert really think that clover in a lawn will bring down the value of the entire neighborhood? Really? My neighbor’s daughter also got in trouble last year when her child grew sunflowers for a school science project. The sunflowers were deemed to be unsightly by the HOA despots. Apparently, any attempt to increase species diversity in a suburban desert is against the rules of most HOAs.
The population of my part of North Carolina has grown immensely in the last twenty years. Former large tracts of forest that once separated towns are almost all gone now, replaced by suburban sprawl – thousands upon thousands of housing developments, many full of nearly identical houses surrounded by manicured lawns perhaps punctuated by a lone tree struggling to survive outside the context in which it evolved. Southeastern trees don’t naturally occur in the middle of chemically altered non-native mowed lawns, folks. And what you do to maintain that green desert is slowly killing any tree you insert into that unnatural environment.
This situation could so easily be fixed. Europe is way ahead of the US in this area, but even in the US, if you search on “sustainable communities,” you’ll find some exciting examples of entire suburbs being constructed according to sustainable concepts.
Sustainability is more than energy-efficient building methods, green materials, and even adding food plants to your landscape. Your food plants won’t thrive if the native pollinators are gone, if the songbirds and frogs that eat insect pests are gone. These animals need the environments they evolved with. In my region, that means healthy, diverse native southeastern forests. This can be accomplished easily if suburbanites will throw off the shackles of archaic HOA rules based, not on ecology, but on some real estate expert’s notion of what looks good.
Lawns should be reserved for parks, soccer fields, and other large spaces where people like to play and run on short green surfaces. These lawns can remain healthy without regularly dumping chemicals on them. They should not contain one species of non-native grass. Clover should be welcomed. Occasional applications of animal manure or other organic nutrients is likely all they’ll need, especially if they are mowed less frequently and maintained at a slightly higher height.
Instead of deserts full of green lawns bereft of all other forms of life, homeowners should consider working together to rebuild a patchwork of native forest in their neighborhoods. In developments full of tiny lots, this might mean one homeowner plants one large canopy tree – an oak, a maple, a tulip poplar. As it grows, native understory trees and shrubs can be added for color and species diversity – dogwoods, red buds, sourwoods, persimmons, viburnums, blueberries, deciduous azaleas – all of these species provide food for native wildlife while contributing to the beautification of the area they occupy.
The traditional suburban aesthetic is killing our land by creating biological deserts where our songbirds, pollinators, and other wildlife cannot perpetuate themselves successfully much longer. This catastrophe can be avoided if homeowners in these deserts will stand up and defend our planet – and their homes – by working to change the HOA rules that prohibit the nurturing of native species diversity in their home landscapes.
Do it for your children and grandchildren who will suffer the consequences of current HOA scorched-earth policies. Do it for the migratory warblers seeking safe nesting sites, the insect-and-slug-eating toads who need non-poisoned waters to reproduce in.
Do it for the Earth.
Do it today.
If you’ve read this blog much, you’ve read about my feelings regarding invasive exotic species. These plants/animals/diseases are not native to the region, which means they have no natural predators. They move in, spread aggressively, and permanently alter the composition and health of our native forests.
The problem is world-wide. Ecologists everywhere consider invasive species to be the second biggest threat to the remaining biodiversity on our planet. Only outright habitat destruction due to urbanization poses a greater threat to the health of our ecosystems.
Of the alien plant invaders I hate the most on my five acres of North Carolina piedmont, I think the Most Evil prize must go to Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). This invading grass has transformed creeks and wetlands throughout my region into big ugly messes, and the wildflowers and ferns that once flourished there are disappearing rapidly.
Number Two on my alien invader hate list is Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica). Except during the coldest of winters, this evil vine remains green all year. Like Chinese Wisteria, Japanese Honeysuckle spreads from tree to tree in our forests, creating a dense tangle of vegetation that impairs the health of trees and provides access highways for predators of our native birds attempting to nest in the trees.
A lot of folks don’t realize that English Ivy is also invading our native forests. Like Japanese Honeysuckle, English Ivy produces berries beloved by birds. They spread the seeds through our forests, and the evergreen ivy starts its takeover. The weight of these non-native vines on our native trees causes them to be more easily pulled down by strong winds and ice storms. And from a purely aesthetic point of view, vines strangling forests are quite ugly.
My yard is also plagued by one of the invading species of Elaeagnus. More of a problem in piedmont uplands than floodplains, I’m finding it all over my yard now, thanks to bird-aided seed deposition.
Much scarier to me are invading evergreen privet shrubs on my floodplain. I see near-solid coverage of this shrub in wet woodlands throughout my region. They outcompete every native plant on the forest floor.
The newest invader on my “I hate it!” list is Asiatic Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). This astonishingly aggressive low-growing plant is outcompeting even the crabgrass in my lawn! Wonder Spouse is planning an attack with a propane-powered weeder that burns the aggressors into cinders. I don’t want to think about what happens if that plan doesn’t work.
Under the “misery loves company” heading, I’m not alone in my battle against invading exotic species. Every government agency charged with protecting our native wild lands and animals is involved in this fight. Anyone caring for a park, farming, growing timber, or any other related activity is battling invasive species perpetually.
If you live in North Carolina and you have the time and discretionary funds to do so, you might want to attend the North Carolina Invasive Plant Council’s (NCICP) upcoming meeting on Feb. 11-12. They hold the meetings in different parts of the state each year. This year, the meeting is in Asheboro, NC at the NC Zoo. This year’s presentation topics include:
- Invasive plant control in Mecklenburg County parks
- Monitoring and mapping invasive insects and pathogens
- Weed bio-control within a regulatory agency
- Birds and invasive plant dispersal
- Invasive plant challenges facing the Uwharries
- Invasive aquatic vegetation and arteriovenous malformation disease
- Invasive plants knocking at our door
- Weed identification workshop
A field trip on the second afternoon will feature the NC Zoo’s greenhouse and composting operations, as well as demonstrations of how they handle invasive species on their grounds.
I’ve been to a number of these meetings, and I always learn much. For example, it was at one of these meetings that I learned about the Weed Wrench, still Wonder Spouse’s favorite weed eradication weapon.
I’m planning to attend this year, and I’ll report the highlights here. If you live in another southeastern state, consider contacting and joining that state’s chapter of the Southeast Exotic Pest Plant Council. I checked the links to each state, and it looks like the Alabama, Florida, and North Carolina chapters are the most active, holding annual meetings. If you live in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, or South Carolina, I would encourage you to contact those chapters through the above link and ask them why their site is inactive. I can promise you it is not because they aren’t fighting invasive alien species in those states too.
If we stand any chance at all of preserving healthy native ecosystems in our parks, national forests, not to mention our own back yards, we all need to know as much as we can about invasive alien species. Forget about invaders from outer space. The invaders we need to worry about are already here.
2014 is the Year of the Lepidoptera!
To end on a happier note, I thought I’d let my fellow North Carolinians know that our state park system has decided to highlight our native butterflies and moths this year. All of our NC parks will be offering walks and family-focused events throughout the year that will educate folks about these important insects. To find a list of events near you, go here.
I apologize for my silence, gardening friends. But I suspect most of you can guess the reasons for the absence of fresh posts. First, to my gardening friends in Australia, you have my prayers for a speedy end to your heat wave and accompanying problems. My blog has received many views from Australian readers seeking information on how to keep their gardens alive during heat waves — a topic I’ve written on more than once.
But I will readily admit that your current heat wave is probably worse than those I’ve experienced. Again, you have my sympathies. However, those of us almost anywhere in the US have been having our own problems with the weather.
In the Southeast where I live, our December was extremely wet, wetter than I can remember for multiple decades. But I count myself lucky, because while I was slogging through mud, folks to my north and west were skidding on ice and snow. Fortunately for me, every time the precipitation arrived here, our temperatures were warm enough to keep it in liquid form. Then the skies would clear, and the temperatures plunged. The most spectacular example of that, of course, was the cold air delivered by the Polar Vortex.
The plants in my yard mostly did just fine, as I’d predicted in my previous post. The Florida Anise-trees did better than I feared they might. Only the most tender growing tips of the most exposed plants were damaged.
Temperatures on my hill bottomed out at 7 degrees Fahrenheit, staying there for about 3 hours. Temperatures did not go above freezing for 40 hours straight. That’s highly unusual for my area, especially with no snow cover on the ground.
I won’t bother to prune the damaged areas until I’m sure winter is long gone. At this point, the damaged areas may actually protect the plants from deeper damage if we receive another visit from the Polar Vortex.
This tree grows beneath the shade of a large loblolly pine. The pine seems to have prevented any damage to the Florida Anise-tree it sheltered.
I attempted some pictures of my 15-foot tall Loropetalum chinensis shrubs, but none of my tries captured the damage well. Basically, the top halves of the shrubs — about 7 or so feet — have brown instead of purple or green leaves now. I doubt the branches are actually dead, and I will wait until spring to see if new leaves appear before we attempt any pruning.
I did see some entirely unexpected damage. The Polar Vortex was ushered in by very high winds, and somewhere not far from my house, a power line or pole was damaged. My house was without power during the deepest cold — from 3:00 – 7:00 a.m. Wonder Spouse and I were fine in the house, but my little greenhouse full of houseplants and cuttings had no heat. I watched the remote temperature sensor for the greenhouse in my house drop all the way down to 18 degrees Fahrenheit. Ouch.
I was afraid to even open the door of the greenhouse to inspect the damage for several days. I waited until the deep cold had returned north. An initial inspection showed pretty much what I had expected.
Wonder Spouse loves amaryllis plants, so the greenhouse was full of pots full of shiny green leaves with flower buds just peeking out. I was surprised that only some of the leaves had clearly frozen.
Damage was most severe to the amaryllises in pots on the bench. Those resting on the floor of the greenhouse fared better. Bulbs didn’t seem to have frozen. I think they may all recover and probably even bloom as usual.
As I went to work cutting off all the dead and damaged leaves in the greenhouse, I was astonished to see new green growth at the bases of the tender annuals. I guess the soil in the pots didn’t have time to freeze, which would certainly have killed the plants. I think perhaps they may actually re-sprout and re-bloom. Amazing!
All in all, it could have been much worse. I’m pleased to report that all three of my Prunus mume trees are now in full, fragrant, spectacular bloom, despite the prolonged cold and completely frozen ground. Only the flowers that were actually open were killed by the cold. All those rosy buds that I thought would certainly be killed have now opened into beautiful flowers. Stunning! Ditto for the January Jasmine. The yellow blooms fully open turned brown, but remaining flower buds survived and are now opening.
The winter parade of deluges followed by deep freezes has thrown my normal schedule of winter gardening tasks into chaos. It’s been either too wet or too frozen to work most of the time. I am a gardening Goldilocks in search of elusive in-between weather to clean up my gardens and yard.
As my itchy gardening fingers crave the chance to scratch in the dirt, I take solace from an article I read recently in my local paper. The experts predict that the uncharacteristically prolonged deep cold will slow down some of the invasive exotic species threatening to overwhelm our native forests. This likely applies more to invading insects than noxious weeds like Japanese Stiltgrass, alas. But if next summer brought fewer Kudzu Bugs to my garden, I would consider that a win.
For now, I will content myself with the fresh crop of seed and nursery catalogs, pondering my myriad options while I wait for spring’s return to warm the air. Stay warm and dry, everyone!
Humanity world-wide loses a piece of itself every time we lose more of the natural world that nurtures and protects us. When we destroy the natural world, we lose pieces of our soul, the part of us that thrives on the beauty of a cool mountain breeze kissing our faces, the melodic chatter of a clear-running stream, and the exquisite call of a Wood Thrush echoing through a healthy forest. Our hearts are so much smaller without our connection to the beauty of the natural world.
In the southeastern Piedmont region of NC where I live, the natural world is under assault every hour of every day. The population of my region is soaring, mostly due to the arrival of many new residents from other parts of the US and the world. As people move in, the forests I grew up with are disappearing. The dwindling patches left are degrading rapidly, due in large part to the invasion of an increasing number of non-native invasive exotic species of plants, animals — especially devastatingly damaging insects — and diseases.
One casualty of this urbanizing landscape — throughout the US — is the Monarch butterfly. My generation grew up knowing this beautiful creature — one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. In school, we learned about their life cycle, admired their emerald green chrysalises, and marveled at their annual migrations to Mexico. Every gardener who plants with butterflies in mind knows that species of milkweed are the only plants that Monarch caterpillars will eat, so we tuck them into our yards to ensure Monarch visits.
However, in recent years — and most especially this year — our milkweeds have been uneaten by the colorful Monarch caterpillars. In my yard, I’ve only seen two adult Monarch butterflies during the entire growing season. Wonder Spouse took the photos of the one in this post last week. We were so excited when we spotted it in our front garden that we dropped what we were doing and ran for our cameras.
Many experts believe that Monarch butterflies are in serious trouble. Much of the reason is probably habitat destruction, both in North America and in their winter homes in Mexico. You can read an article about their decline here.
Monarch butterflies are well known and loved, and still they are in trouble. Multiply their peril a thousand-fold for a delicately exquisite, extremely rare wildflower: Oconee Bells.
Oconee Bells live in just a couple of spots along a geographic region known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. This part of the Blue Ridge Mountains rises abruptly up from the piedmont regions of South and North Carolina, creating a remarkable rise in land elevation over a short distance. The region is also characterized by very narrow gorges; at their bottoms, sunlight never penetrates, and temperature and moisture levels remain remarkably steady.
Such areas possess unique microclimates that an astonishing array of species of plants and animals have exploited. So much so, in fact, that this region holds more than three times the number of plant and animal species than undisturbed rainforests in Central and South America. The diversity of life is astounding, and tightly adapted to the unique geography and microclimates of this region.
The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is beginning to be degraded by the intrusion of concrete and asphalt, consequently destroying the delicate ecology of gorge bottoms, where Oconee Bells live. Deforestation on the ridge tops leads to massive erosion down the sides of the steep gorges. In some cases, the Oconee Bells living at the bottom have been scoured from their homes by water cascading down eroded ridge tops.
Oconee Bells were never plentiful, and now their increasing rarity makes them coveted by gardeners who want to possess every rare and beautiful plant they can. Oconee Bells are almost impossible to propagate; growing conditions cannot vary for them at all. Thus, plants sell for very high prices, making them a target of plant poachers.
In North Carolina, we have plant poacher problems at both ends of our state. On the coast, they steal into our preserves at night to dig up Venus Fly Traps. This species, native only to a 75-mile area around Wilmington, NC, is successfully propagated in the horticulture trade. Even so, plant poachers steal thousands, degrading their habitats at the same time.
In our mountains, plant poaching is worse. Folks illegally collect our native ginseng, goldenseal, and other wildflowers known for their medicinal properties. They steal Oconee Bells for covetous gardeners. They do not care that they may eliminate a plant population from a site. They see dollar signs, not irreplaceable beauty.
In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a group in our government with an important mission:
The Mission of the Plant Conservation Program is to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.
Three individuals comprise this department. They are working to identify and protect the rarest and most threatened plant species in the state. They’ve identified plant populations all over the state. That’s a big job for three people. Fortunately, they have help.
The Friends of Plant Conservation is a non-profit organization founded explicitly to support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program. Members volunteer to help manage and protect the preserves created by the Plant Conservation Program by participating in activities such as work days devoted to clearing out competing vegetation. They also provide essential financial support, since, like every governmental department in NC, the Plant Conservation Program’s budget does not begin to pay for the work that needs doing.
Right now, the Friends of Plant Conservation are frantically trying to raise enough money to pay for the purchase of land holding the last healthy population of Oconee Bells in North Carolina — the last natural population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in the world. The owners of this property love and appreciate this unique wildflower, and they’ve agreed to sell it, at cost, to NC to create a preserve. The owner who has protected this population from poachers and who cherished his land recently died after a long illness. His heirs wish to honor his memory by fulfilling his dream of creating this preserve for Oconee Bells. Time is critical. Funds are short.
An anonymous lover of natural beauty has recently stepped forward and is offering to match all donations — four dollars for every dollar donated. Imagine — a donation of $100 will become $500. For once, perhaps beauty can be saved.
To learn more about this wildflower and how to send your donation to save beauty, please go here. Even small donations will make a difference, thanks to the anonymous matching donor.
Of course, saving rare species like Oconee Bells, and suddenly declining species, like the Monarch Butterfly, is about much more than saving beauty. Scientists compare these imperiled species to canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors, miners carried caged canaries. The canaries were more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than humans. When the canaries keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape the same fate.
No animal or plant exists in a vacuum. They are parts of ecosystems, intricate groupings of species that evolved together and depend on each other in ways that are still not fully understood. Scientists do know that every time another species disappears from the delicate dance of an ecosystem, remaining species are also imperiled. No one knows how many species can disappear before the dance stops.
The natural world feeds us, body and soul. Please follow the link provided above, and if you can help save this uniquely special place, know that you will become an invaluable contributor to saving Oconee Bells, and a piece of our souls as well.
I’m reasonably certain that’s a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This early-blooming spring ephemeral wildflower usually starts blooming just a day or two before the American trout-lilies in a moist woodland at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. I’ve always thought them to be exquisitely delicate and lovely, and they were on my “Add Someday” list for our five acres of Piedmont chaos. No longer.
Yesterday, Wonder Spouse and I stumbled across two tiny blooming specimens in the middle of our currently moist floodplain. We haven’t mowed there yet, because we’re still picking up fallen limbs from winter storms, which is probably why it managed to push out flowers in time for us to notice. The Spring Beauties at the NC Botanical Garden grow in what becomes deep shade as the floodplain canopy trees above them leaf out. Our volunteers are in a sunnier locale, near a large pine, perhaps enough to give them afternoon summer shade. From this difference, I conclude that Spring Beauties require moisture more than shade.
Our volunteers likely found their way via floodwaters from our little creek, which is only about ten feet from their growing site, in an area that overflows whenever the creek waters escape their banks. We could not be happier to have this native join us: another native to love.
Wonder Spouse and I spent several hours wandering the floodplain/wetland habitats of our yard yesterday, because this is the time of year when their health is demonstrated by the ecological diversity of the beautiful native plants that thrive in the muck. Indeed, there is much to love in a healthy native wetland. There’s also much to worry about: invaders. Non-native, alien species remain the number two threat to healthy native environments world-wide (after outright destruction), and in my yard, we battle invaders constantly.
From Beauties to Bullies
Some battles are nearly hopeless. Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass are so aggressively pervasive in our North Carolina woodlands and backyards that the best most of us can do is to try to keep them out of selected areas — a favorite flowerbed perhaps, or a beloved tree, in the case of Japanese Honeysuckle.
Battles Still Worth Fighting
In my wetland/floodplain areas, the invader we are still fighting — so far, successfully <knock wood> is Chinese privet. This evergreen, common hedge shrub of older homes produces blue-purple berries that birds adore. They distribute seeds everywhere, but the privets are most dangerous to floodplain/wetland environments. In some areas in eastern North Carolina, the understory composition of vast acres of wetlands has been completely overtaken by invading privet. Because these non-natives are evergreen, they outcompete wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings for light and other resources. Eastern North Carolina wetlands are becoming biological deserts, consisting of nothing but privet beneath canopy trees. When those trees die, no seedling trees will replace them, because they can’t compete successfully with privet. Eventually, our eastern wetland landscape will consist of miles and miles of nothing but privet.
Plant invaders are overlooked by most folks, because their progress is slower than, say, invading Emerald Ash Borers or Sudden Oak Death. To the untrained eye, green is green. But native animals and plants know how critical the differences are. If you love your southeastern Piedmont landscape, you should know too.
Whenever Wonder Spouse and I walk around our yard, we keep a sharp eye out for Chinese privets (Ligustrum sinense). Seedlings appear constantly, typically beneath trees, where birds deposit the seeds after feasting on privet fruits elsewhere. Yesterday, we spotted several larger shrubs that we had somehow overlooked previously. Greens blend together, and in crowded thicket areas (left for animal nesting habitat), a privet sometimes escapes our notice — for a while. I am especially vigilant in my hunt for this species in my wetland and along the edges of my creek. These areas are most vulnerable to this devastating invader.
While hunting privet yesterday, I was disturbed to discover that some of the Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) invading the top of our hill have made it to the floodplain and wetlands. This pernicious invader has taken over many acres of upland environments, such as ridge tops, in my part of the southeastern Piedmont. This species and its close cousins (E. angustifolia and E. pungens) are all non-native shrub species. All are very bad news for the local environment, despite the berries that birds eat with gusto.
Wonder Spouse grabbed his trusty Weed Wrench and went to work on the invading Elaeagnus shrubs, pulling out long-rooted invaders from mucky ground, accompanied by a rather satisfying sucking sound.
Note the flowers just opening on this one:
This was a larger one that put up considerable resistance before Wonder Spouse prevailed:
A New Enemy
And, there’s more bad news for my little patch of Piedmont: Asiatic Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). This relatively recent annual invader was introduced by the nursery trade. It was probably inevitable, given the number of plants from nurseries that I’ve added over the decades, that this horrifyingly aggressive invader would appear on our property.
To the casual eye, the basal rosette of jagged leaves of Youngia looks quite like that of a Dandelion. But if you look a little more closely, the dangerous differences become evident. It sends up clusters of small yellow flowers on bloom stalks. Dandelions only produce one, much larger yellow flower per stalk. Seeds of Asiatic Hawksbeard look somewhat like those of a Dandelion; they are both attached to white tufts that allow them to float far on breezes. But Hawskbeard seed tufts, like its flowers, are much smaller — and uglier — than those of Dandelions.
I know you’re thinking this is just one more lawn weed, right? Not really. Unlike our common non-native weeds — Dandelion, Henbit, Chickweed, Lambs Quarters — Asiatic Hawksbeard spreads much, much more aggressively. Its basal rosettes are dangerously easy to overlook, and now the experts tell me that they are moving into our dwindling natural areas. In these diminishing patches of native forest, Asiastic Hawksbeard is joining Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle, and larger invaders in displacing native wildflowers and other small native plants. Every new invading plant means more competition for food, light, and water for our natives. With no natural predators to slow them down here, their eventual takeover seems a near certainty.
Asiatic Hawksbeard has a taproot similar to that of a Dandelion, and if you don’t get it all when you pull it, the plant will regenerate. Also, you can’t just toss pulled Hawksbeards onto your compost pile. Flowers and even nearly-open flower buds finish their cycle and release seeds into the environment even after they’re pulled. Knowing this, I spent many, many hours last year carefully digging out this new invader from my yard wherever I found it. Every plant went immediately into a trash bag, which I tied and left in the hot sun to fry before adding it to my trash can. Despite my efforts, the Youngia is much more pervasive now that it was last year. And I’m seeing it in all parts of my yard now, whereas, last year, it was confined to only certain areas. The basal rosettes have a distinctive yellow cast, and the leaves are slightly fuzzy. I’ve become quite adept at spotting them. Next winter, whenever we spot one, Wonder Spouse and I are planning to resort to treating them with Round-up. Wonder Spouse and I are ridiculously outnumbered, and this is a war we don’t want to lose.
Reasons to Keep Fighting
And there is so very much to lose. On this Earth Day, let me leave you with a few positive images from our still-healthy wetland, where the wildflowers and other plants are wakening to warming weather with enthusiasm for another growing season.
On this Earth Day — and every day — I will continue to love the diverse and beautiful native species that bless my property. And I will battle non-native invaders as long as I can breathe. Clean water and air can’t exist without the help of healthy native environments — especially wetlands. Do your part today and every day by eradicating invaders in your yard. To learn more about invaders in Southeastern North America, start here.