Archive for category Native Wildlife

A Hard Fall

I know I’m not the only person out there who had a rough summer. Trials and hiccups aplenty came at me for many months. I could not wait for the autumnal equinox in September, thinking the season change would bring relief. Instead, it brought the worst drought experienced by my five acres in twenty or so years. Unrelenting heat and the absence of rain left the creek bordering our property completely dry, except for deeper pools, where great blue herons happily devoured fish trapped therein.

The contrast between this September and last year’s relentless hurricane rain flooding could not have been more stark. Climate change smacked me and my land hard two years running.

Substantial Damage to Our Protected North Slope

In June, the antique septic field associated with our 50-year-old house was replaced with a new one. The devastation to my deer-fence-enclosed north acre full of native rhododendrons, magnolias, viburnums, vacciniums, and shade-loving choice wildflowers threw me into a tailspin of depression. Wonder Spouse and I planted these beauties as tiny things – all we could afford – 20-30 years ago. As previous posts here can attest, they have flourished, blooming more wonderfully every year.

Even though we marked off our botanical treasures with flagging tape, even though Wonder Spouse took off two days of work to oversee the trenching, that once-beautiful area was significantly damaged after he returned to his office and I was away at an appointment. On top of that, we were forced to remove a mature water oak before the work began, because it had early signs of heart rot. We couldn’t risk having the tree topple and rip up the newly installed septic field.

That enclosed acre is on a slope, which is great for siting rhododendrons, but when earth is scraped, then compacted, erosion from rare-but-heavy rains quickly created myriad little gullies. Soil washed from hilltop to hill bottom, depositing more than an inch of silty mud. I am not ashamed to admit that I cried for two weeks, mourning the loss of trees and shrubs ripped away by machines, the much-missed shade of the venerable water oak, and the wildflowers obliterated by careless men oblivious to the vibrant beauty before them.

One of the wildflower species destroyed by septic field installers. They were not growing where a line was installed.

Eradication of Surrounding Forest by Bulldozers

Most of the areas near us that were forest thirty years ago have either already been erased and replaced with monotonous subdivisions, or that devastation is ongoing as I type. Every day, more displaced wildlife from those areas arrives on our land, as evidenced by what our wildlife camera beside the creek captures weekly. A considerable beaver population has been forced on top of the wetland adjacent to our property. Up to now, they had been content to maintain their growing pond on our neighbor’s land, but yet another new subdivision (housing prices starting in the mid-$600s!) has pushed them to expand their dam so that our bottomland is rapidly going under water.

Ongoing Radical Transformation of Our Two-Acre Floodplain/Wetland

That was the third strike against our floodplain this year. The first came in April when deadly Emerald Ash Borers were confirmed to be invading the 37 mature (70+ feet tall) green ash trees that dominate the canopy in that area. The second came in late summer when a plant I had never seen before that had spread over most of the floodplain finally bloomed and I was able to identify it as a non-native invasive plant from Asia that, I’m told, has already overgrown all the floodplains of the NC coast and is now moving rapidly into my Piedmont region. It is called Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), and it is a nightmare. I never thought I’d type this sentence, but Marsh Dayflower dominance makes me long for the days when Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) was my biggest problem. Strike three – the beavers – are actually using Marsh Dayflower to their advantage. They rip it up, mix it with mud, and pack it between the logs they cut down to build their dams, making the dams even more impervious to the force of moving water than before. This is a mutually beneficial relationship, because when stem segments of Marsh Dayflower are broken, as for example, when ripped up by beavers, every segment grows roots, thereby multiplying this invader even faster.

Struggling Ecosystems

After two years of epic landscape destruction/alteration, any illusions I ever had about being able to control what happens on my land are entirely dispelled. I always understood that, at best, I was a design collaborator as I tried to work with the native ecosystems on our land. However, the last two years have convinced me that the native ecosystems are almost as ineffectual as I am at managing changes we were never designed to handle. Wholesale eradication of habitats by bulldozers in combination with a growing number of non-native invasive species of animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria and the overwhelming introduction of herbicides and pesticides killing wildlife by the millions if not billions, are completely disrupting the natural processes native ecosystems evolved to handle change. We can’t keep up. Species are dying at record rates. It is enough to make a lifelong gardener want to surrender – almost.

This native tree frog was in my garden because it found abundant insect food there.

A month or so ago, I attended a lecture by a pair of enthusiastic master gardeners from an adjacent county. They described how they transformed their half-acre home lot into a flowering paradise, bragging that 50% of the plants they have added are native to the southeastern US. To justify planting 50% non-native plants, they quoted an “expert” gardener who states that “just because a plant is native, that does not make it better… Choose the right plant for the spot, no matter its origin.” In an exercise of enormous self-control, I did not argue with them. It was their talk, their intentions were good, and it was not the appropriate setting to object.

But I do object, and the last two years on my land are ample reason why. In North Carolina, master gardeners are trained by employees of land grant universities, mostly North Carolina State University. These are good folks with good intentions, but they serve the agriculture and horticulture businesses in the state. Their top goal is to help these businesses be successful. One way to do that is to help the horticulture industry sell plants. Pretty non-native ornamental plants not eaten by native wildlife because they don’t recognize them as food make a lot of money for the horticulture industry.

[NOTE: One of the finest agricultural extension agents I know has pointed out to me that when they work with home gardeners, their goal is only to make those home owners successful gardeners, not help the horticulture business sell plants, regardless of origin. I did not mean to imply otherwise; I think that may, however, often be an unintended consequence of not providing an ecological framework for gardeners. As I responded to her, when agents keep pushing old thinking (right plant for right place regardless of origin) about how to approach home landscapes, they are not helping to save native ecosystems. In my conversations with agents and master gardeners from other counties, it is clear that most don’t understand the role of native plants in ecosystems. They categorize natives as “thugs,” for example, if they multiply assertively, without understanding the ecological role of such plants in nature. In my opinion, such non-contextualized statements do more harm than good. ]

Fifty years ago, this may not have been a terrible thing. But oh how much our world has changed here in North Carolina in the last 50 years. Expanses of forests and fields that once provided buffers and havens for native wildlife and plants are nearly gone in much of the state. Wildlife species are disappearing. Pollinators are dying from poisons; the birds that eat them are also disappearing. Humans need those ecosystems to moderate air pollution, control erosion, pollinate and protect our crops, etc.

We also have hard data from scientists now that demonstrate that landscapes must contain 70% native plant species to adequately feed nests of baby songbirds. That’s seventy percent, not fifty.

This is not a Drill!

We need every patch of native plants we can introduce on public and private lands not covered by concrete and buildings. We no longer can afford the luxury of filling our landscapes with non-native plants that provide no ecosystem services. We can no longer indulge in 50-year-old thinking. This is not a drill, people. Native plants are our only hope of saving what’s left of our native ecosystems, especially the rapidly disappearing wildlife species.

Only a radical shift in the way we think about our public and private landscapes will serve the future now. It is past time to discard old thinking and focus on saving as much as we can. I pray every day it is not already too late. And I’m not just sitting at my computer wringing my hands in frustration. After my initial depression dissipated, I got busy. With the help of Wonder Spouse and my amazing garden helper, Beth, we have planted many new species and introduced existing natives to new sites opened up by the uninvited changes to our land. Our land had a tough summer and a hard fall, but I’m determined to do everything within my power to make next spring a much better season. I’ll describe some of what we’ve been doing in another post I hope to write soon.

In the meantime, if you care about the future of our planet, especially the rapidly urbanizing area of the southeastern US where I and most of my readers live, if you have children and/or grandchildren, I beg you to empty your brain of the old ways of tending your landscape and join me in the radical changes required to salvage as much as we can of our native ecosystems. It will be different, but more beautiful than ever. Most important, it just might help us all hold on to a healthy, balanced, vibrant world – a fitting legacy for those who follow us.

Native plant gardens full of life are critical to the welfare of future generations.

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For Earth Day: Invite Your Neighbors In

Critter camera capture on January 9, 2019

Wonder Spouse and I have been privileged to live on the same five acres of North Carolina Piedmont for 30 years. When I first saw the land covered in melting snow on a January day in 1989, I knew enough to recognize its potential. A diverse array of mature trees offered clues about soils and microclimates. In my mind’s eye, I could imagine the native species that should be present, and others that would do well if I added them.

A raccoon caught by the critter cam on February 27, 2019

Still, my little green haven exceeds my expectations nearly every time I walk it. Something — or someone — new is always appearing, and I believe it is because Wonder Spouse and I have deliberately chosen plants that have filled in some of the missing pieces of native ecosystems that I detected three decades ago. As a friend recently wrote to me, “If you plant it, they will come.”

Probable fish crow caught by the critter cam on the afternoon of March 6

When some birder friends of ours stopped by last fall and walked our land with us, they said they observed/heard about 60 bird species during the course of our walk. The high number is in part due to the growing beaver-built pond and wetland off our property on the other side of the creek. The raised water levels have attracted all manner of aquatic species of birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians. Many of those species occasionally wander over to our side of the creek to explore. I know this for a fact now, thanks to the critter camera that Wonder Spouse gifted me with this past January. We attached it to a tree and aimed it at a path along the creek, where we often see deer tracks. Thanks to the camera, we now know that many species besides deer routinely travel that path.

I realize that most folks aren’t lucky enough to live beside a healthy wetland, but even a quarter-acre lot possesses microclimates created by directional exposure and topographic variations. You can instantly serve more native wildlife guests by providing a small water feature, such as an ornamental pond. We have such a feature at our front entrance. Every year, frogs from the wetland find it, chorus lustily, then deposit gelatinous eggs that become tadpoles that eventually morph into new frogs. Amphibians are always on the lookout for such ponds, because they are usually protected from at least some of their predators, raising the odds of success for tadpoles to become frogs.

I partially immerse pots of water-loving native plants in my water feature to add visual interest and to provide cover for amphibian visitors.

On this Earth Day 2019, I encourage all my plant-loving readers to revisit your landscape designs for additional opportunities to provide habitat for native wildlife. Rapid urbanization of the southeastern US Piedmont region is destroying many areas that once sheltered our wildlife. Ecological degradation caused by environmental pollution, invasive non-native species intrusion, and climate change-related weather shifts is causing dramatic reductions in our native wildlife from insects to birds to larger animals. Every human home landscape can make a critical difference to the continuing survival of our native wildlife.

You may not see quite the diversity of species my critter camera has captured on my five acres, but you will notice an uptick in beautiful songbirds if you plant native shrubs that provide food and cover and perhaps add a few nesting boxes and a bird bath or two. Those same shrubs will provide habitat for the caterpillars songbirds use to feed their nestlings. But they won’t eat them all, meaning you’ll see an uptick in butterflies and moths.

A pollinator garden is a beautiful way to invite native wildlife into your yard.

Your yard will come to life before your eyes. Your landscape will be vibrantly beautiful and healthy. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are doing your small but vital part to keep the blue-green jewel we call Mother Earth alive and healthy.

 

 

 

 

 

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Preparing for the inevitable — Emerald Ash Borer

Green ash tree with seeds on my floodplain a few years ago.

Those of you who have read this blog for a while may remember when I first wrote about the invasive non-native insect called Emerald Ash Borer here. This insect species is killing almost (maybe all) ash tree species in North America — no joke. It started in areas like Canada and Michigan, and has been marching steadily southward ever since. Its occurrence is widespread in North Carolina. Dr. Kelly Oten, Forest Health Monitoring Coordinator for the North Carolina Forest Service, told me that confirmed sitings are reported for every county around me. The closest infestation she knows of is about 10 miles north of my five acres.

I had read about an experimental program Dr. Oten’s office is using to combat the Emerald Ash Borer (EAB) — the release of a parasitic wasp species native to the same part of Asia where EAB evolved. I believe the wasps used in NC parasitize EAB eggs by laying their own eggs inside EAB eggs. A couple of wasp species that parasitize EAB larvae also exist, as described in a US Forest Service publication on EAB biocontrols here.

I assumed that my little five-acre patch of Piedmont would be too small for this experimental wasp release program, but a forester friend of mine encouraged me to give Dr. Oten a call, so I did. I was delighted to discover that Dr. Oten was interested in the stand of 37 mature Green Ash trees growing on the floodplain portion of my land. However, she cannot release wasps unless she is certain the EAB is present on my land, because the wasps will die without a food source.

I have seen no evidence of EAB damage in my ashes <knock wood>, such as crown dieback and a yellowing of leaves (Here’s a link to a PDF from the Canadian Forest Service containing everything you need to know about detecting EAB damage.), so Dr. Oten suggested that we set up a couple of EAB traps at the appropriate time. That time is early April, because that’s when EAB egg-laying occurs, and it is EAB eggs that the experimental wasps look for to parasitize.

Dr. Oten begins preparing a trap by folding it into shape.

On the morning of April 11, Dr. Oten arrived with two traps to hang on  a couple of my ash trees. The traps are shipped flat in pairs that are stuck together by the sticky fly-paper like glue used to snag passing EABs. In the above photo, she has successfully pulled the two purple traps apart and has begun to fold the one she is holding so that the sticky glue is on the outside of the three-sided trap. The traps are purple, she told me, because research shows this color attracts EABs most effectively, perhaps, it is theorized, because young ash leaves often possess a purplish hue.

Dr. Oten holds a bag containing the scent lure used to attract EABs to the trap.

Besides the EAB-preferred purple color, traps also contain a bag of scent lure that is hung inside the trap. Dr. Oten is holding one of those bags in the above photo (click on any photo to see a larger version). The scent emulates the smell of an ash tree in distress. Many studies have confirmed that plants engage in sophisticated chemical warfare with their insect enemies. In many plants, when a plant is under attack, it emits a scent signifying its distress, which in turn stimulates nearby plants of the same species to begin producing chemicals that may help them repel invading insects. This doesn’t work for the ash trees with EAB, because North American ash trees did not evolve with this insect; thus, they have not developed any defenses against EAB attacks.

A folded EAB trap loaded with lure bag.

After she attached lure bags to the center of the EAB traps, Dr. Oten used the long extension pole in the photo to attach the traps to sturdy horizontal branches on two ash trees at opposite ends of my floodplain. This turned out to be trickier than you might think, because my canopy-size ash trees don’t possess many horizontal branches within reach of the pole. Dr. Oten’s first attempt to hang the trap was unsuccessful; the sticky trap fell into a stand of bladdernut shrubs, thus becoming adorned with bits of bladdernut leaves and flowers. Her second attempt with a different tree was successful.

In the second photo above, you can see bits of bladdernut leaf and flower stuck to the trap. Dr. Oten said this will not interfere with the trap’s effectiveness in luring EABs.

Next, we slogged through the mud to the far side of my floodplain, where Dr. Oten selected a second ash tree suitable for trap-hanging. This operation went more smoothly than the first, and the trap was soon hung.

Dr. Oten explained that EABs are actively flying and egg-laying in my area from early April until about June. She plans to return to my floodplain in about four weeks to inspect the traps for EABs. If she doesn’t see any, she will add fresh lure bags and return in another four weeks. If no EABs are found on the traps during that time period, it is less likely — but not impossible — that EABs have found my ash trees — yet. If she does find EABs stuck to the sticky glue on the purple traps, she will release parasitic wasps into that area.

Note that the wasps are not expected to stop the demise of my ash trees. My understanding is that the introduction of the wasps is part of a long-game biocontrol strategy that may, perhaps decades from now, yield benefits. It is an entomological shot in the dark, as it were.

For me, helping with this experiment is far better than the two alternatives available:

  • Doing nothing but watch the ashes decline as the woodpeckers feast on their dying remains full of EAB larvae, leaving behind a floodplain almost fully devoid of its canopy tree cover.
  • Having an arborist inject systemic poisons into the trees. Besides the exorbitant expense (37 60-70-foot tall ash trees), the poisons kill any insect that takes a bite out of treated trees. In his classic book, Bringing Nature Home, Douglas Tallamy notes the number of different insect species that rely on native trees for food. For ash species, his number is 150; that’s 150 different insect species that rely on ash trees as a food source. So if you poison your ash trees to prevent EAB invasion, you will also potentially poison at least 150 native species of insects that rely on ash trees. Further, those now-dead insects — mostly caterpillars — would have fed myriad species of nesting songbirds, which also will likely now die from starvation.

You cannot break one link in the chain of life without affecting every other link. I pray every day that humanity figures this out — and acts on that knowledge — before so many links are broken that the chain cannot be mended.

I will deeply miss my summer Green Ash floodplain forest, where wild turkeys forage for fallen seeds every early summer.

 

 

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Five Minutes of Magnificence

Sunrise color at 7:34 this morning.

The snow finally stopped falling last Monday afternoon – about 9 inches all told. This morning’s TV reporters chirped merrily about clear roads, and how all is returning to normal today. “But watch out for patches of black ice,” they cautioned.

A doe pauses near the creek at 7:37.

This is one of those times when I feel as if I live on a different planet. Our low temperature this morning bottomed out at 21 degrees Fahrenheit. Our long driveway remains buried in about 5 inches of snow, making walking to the garage an adventure. Snow has morphed into a solid block of ice; it will take Friday’s “warm” rains to eradicate it.

Clicking on the photo to enlarge it will reveal one doe in the water and another who has not yet begun crossing the creek.

But there are compensations for this icy inconvenience. Exhibit A: this morning’s sunrise. As if struggling against the cold, the sun only gradually warmed the sky, first painting it peach, then rose, and for a few brief seconds, deep red. Framed against a snow-covered landscape, the show was worth freezing on my back deck to snap photos as I listened to plaintive cries of yellow-bellied sapsuckers, rattling calls of kingfishers, melancholy songs of white-throated sparrows, and squeaky-toy chirps from brown-headed nuthatches high in the loblollies. Our overflowing creek chuckled softly — background to the bird bustle – then I spotted the does.

Looming behind the doe is the massive rootball of a tall sycamore felled by the floods of Hurricane Florence.

With obvious caution, they took their time placing each foot onto the cold-hardened snow, waiting for their weight to break through before moving the next foot. It was a slow trek across the ribbons of water criss-crossing the floodplain, now fire-painted by the rising sun. As each doe reached the edge of the creek, she paused, clearly reluctant to wade across a stream too wide to jump over. I could almost hear each one sigh as she delicately stepped into the rosy water, testing the creek bottom for solidity. Each left a ripple of fire water behind her as she waded in slow motion to the far side of the creek, then plodded on through the snowy wetland on the other side.

 

I am sure that local wildlife challenged by the snowy landscape would agree with me that life has not yet returned to “normal.” But while they perhaps didn’t appreciate it, I know I feel blessed to have witnessed this morning’s five minutes of magnificence.

By 7:39, sunrise color faded as the last ripples created by the doe’s crossing dissipated.

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A Most Welcome Visitor: Juniper Hairstreak

Juniper Hairstreak enjoying Swamp Milkweed

In my region of central North Carolina, it has been a very sparse year for butterflies and moths. The local lepidopterists (folks who study this group of insects) suspect that an especially severely cold winter followed by a wet early spring may be responsible for the dearth of this insect group. This is not just bad news for those of us who enjoy watching colorful butterflies drift in clouds from flower to flower. It is very bad news for the ecosystem, because myriad species of animals — most especially nesting birds — rely exclusively on the larvae of this group (caterpillars) to feed their young. Caterpillars are the perfect baby bird food — packed with protein and other key ingredients that insure that chicks grow quickly to fledgling stage, where they become less vulnerable to predators. In fact, caterpillars are the only food parent birds of familiar species such as Eastern Bluebird, Carolina Chickadee, and Carolina Wren can use; their chicks require the specific nutrients in those proportions to grow and fledge.

The well-known classic, Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson warned the world about what happens when insects disappear from ecosystems. The banning of DDT saved our birds that time. A more recent classic, Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy, details specifically which species of insect rely on which species of native plants. The list is long and alarming — at least to me — because many species of insects rely exclusively on only one species of plant to feed their larvae. If that plant species is unavailable, the insects that rely on it cannot complete their life cycles. If the host plant species becomes widely unavailable (as species of Ash trees are becoming now, due to devastation by the non-native Emerald Ash Borer), insects that rely on those species will disappear.

This head-on view of a Juniper Hairstreak illustrates the “hairs” for which it is named.

I was delighted to spot this fresh-looking Juniper Hairstreak dining on Swamp Milkweed in my pollinator garden yesterday. This small butterfly is often overlooked, because of its soft green color, but it is relatively common in the Piedmont region of North Carolina because its larval food plant — Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is also relatively common. On my five acres, we are lucky to have a number of 40-foot mature specimens. They provide shelter for birds and other creatures, their bluish “berries” (actually cones) are beloved by Cedar Waxwings and other birds, and their sturdy shade and deep green color make this evergreen species well-suited for any landscape. If sited where air flow can stagnate, a colorful fungus that uses this species as an alternate host can appear, but I solved this issue in my yard simply by limbing up the trees to permit better air circulation.

References tell me that male Juniper Hairstreaks linger on branch tips of their host tree until a female is attracted. Females lay single eggs on the tips of branches, which eventually hatch to become very well-camouflaged caterpillars similar to the one in this link.  I’ve never seen one on my trees, but then again, I’ve never gone looking for them either.

But the presence of this fresh-looking specimen on my Swamp Milkweed yesterday tells me that my Red Cedars have been playing host to green caterpillars that have likely been helping to feed the three broods of Eastern Bluebirds reared by the ambitious parents that nested on my property this year.

In a world so filled with darkness these days, the appearance of this petite green butterfly gives me at least small hope for my planet’s future.

Long may you and your kind reign, little one.

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Early June in the Garden

 

Scarlet bee balm (Monarda didyma) always looks like it’s wearing a party hat when in bloom.

I always carry my camera with me when I step outside this time of year, even if I’m just walking the 100 yards to the mailbox. If I don’t bring it, some butterfly, bee, bunny, or bird does something photo-worthy that I don’t catch if I’m unprepared. These shots are what I caught today.

I spent the morning working in the vegetable garden. I needed to work longer, but the sun is ferocious, the humidity unforgiving. Yesterday, I finally harvested our first squash and first two eggplants. We ate them last night and I can report that they were delicious. Today, I picked another eggplant, decided to give a couple of squash one more day to fill out, exhorted the tomato plants bent low with the weight of green orbs to hurry up and ripen, and rejoiced in sighting the first bean flowers on all three varieties I’m growing. A little photographic documentation follows. To enlarge a photo and see its caption more easily, click on it.

To get to the vegetable garden, I travel through the front yard and pollinator gardens. Here’s a sample of what I saw today.

In the center of my front yard, the Chinese Pearl-bloom tree commands full attention as it nears peak bloom.

Chinese Pearl-bloom tree (Poliothyrsis sinensis)

We especially enjoy this time of year because of the near-daily emergence of tiny new amphibians from the front water feature. A few days ago in the early morning after a night-time shower, Wonder Spouse and I counted 25 hiding on various plants growing nearby. I suspect that most are Cope’s Gray Treefrogs, but I’ve heard other amphibians singing lustily beside the pond at night too, especially Narrow-mouthed Toads. When they are this tiny, though, I have no idea how to tell them apart.

Every day brings new discoveries, fresh food, and hard work. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Gardeners are Time Travelers

Gardeners are time travelers. Our ties to good earth, green plants, and all the creatures that rely on them anchor our bodies while simultaneously transporting our minds through a river of time that flows both ways, forward and back. When we plant a seed or a young tree, we see in our minds what that plant will become. When we see a mature oak, its full green branches laden with acorns, our minds travel back to the time when the acorn that became the mighty oak was planted. As I plant and tend a garden, I slip into the timestream, seeing clearly the ripe tomatoes I will pick in a few weeks, ivory flowers that will perfume the air when a Bigleaf Magnolia attains blooming size, and the berry-eating birds that will flock to the holly and viburnum fruits produced by the shrubs I settle into the ground today.

Experienced gardeners and other adept readers of the land, such as ecologists, slip easily into the Green World timestream as we go about our lives. Visions of past and future landscapes unfold with our footsteps; trees and rocks whisper their stories to us.

The old tree lives at the far end of the pond near the loblolly pines.

Such was the case when I first encountered a gnarled tree with heart-shaped leaves standing stoically beside the pond of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site on the grounds of a small church in Chapel Hill, NC. The vicar of that church was eager to show me the tree because she was deeply attached to it, even though she didn’t know its identity. Her parishioners had wanted to cut it down, but she resisted the suggestion. To her, I think, it represents resiliency; despite its apparent suffering, as evidenced by gnarled branches sporting spindly green shoots and obvious dead branches, the tree had not died. The vicar showed it to me that day hoping that I would be able to give her beloved tree a name.

Heart-shaped leaves narrowed down identity options considerably, which helped. It wasn’t a redbud; leaves and branches were all wrong for those species. It wasn’t – thank heavens – an invasive non-native Princess Tree (Paulownia tomentosa).

By that time, the vicar had told me the story of the land her church occupied. It was a piece of an old farm; they use the old farmer’s home as their parish house. The small pond was part of the farm too, stocked with fish and regularly visited by local fishermen for generations. The church is committed to maintaining the pond for those fisherfolk, even supplying poles for those who care to stop by and try their luck.

As I listened to her describe the history of the pond, the puzzle resolved. I knew instantly that the gnarled old tree was a Southern Catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides). Technically native to slightly more southern states, these trees have naturalized in North Carolina, likely in part because humans have been planting them beside fishing holes for generations as bait trees.

Southern Catalpa is the host food plant for the caterpillar of a sphinx moth (Ceratomia catalpae) that is commonly called a catalpa worm. The outer skins of these caterpillars are tough enough to anchor a fish hook, and their insides emit a scent – even under water – that is catnip to catfish and other fish likely to inhabit farm ponds. Practical fisherfolk of earlier generations soon learned to plant Southern Catalpas beside their favorite fishing spots, so that bait would be handy when they got a hankering to toss out a line.

When I had my aha moment of identification, my mind carried me back to earlier times – probably at least 50 years in this case – when a time-traveling fisherman planted this Southern Catalpa because he could see that it would grow large beside the pond, be visited by moths that would lay eggs that would hatch into fat catalpa worms, providing irresistible bait for fish caught to feed hungry families.

One of the donated Southern Catalpas growing well in late May of this year.

I pointed out the tree to a fellow plantsman, who was intrigued by its story. He remembered it when he was acquiring plants at a local nursery and noticed in a corner two very pot-bound saplings of Southern Catalpa that the owners were planning to discard. He asked if he could have them, they happily said yes, and he brought them to me to plant beside the pond that has become the home of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Wonder Spouse helped me plant them last year, not far from the gnarled original. They are growing well, and the vicar was pleased that if her old gnarled friend succumbed to time’s travails, its tale would be carried forward by the two new trees.

Fast-forward to late May of this year, when I was visiting the site to slip in some beautiful donated plants from another nursery, lovingly dug up and delivered to me by a wonderful plantswoman who works there. I had finished my work and was taking a few photos of what was blooming on this patch of piedmont that is transforming rapidly, thanks to the addition of over 1000 native plants added this year by volunteers who support this vision of creating a sanctuary of native plants to feed and shelter local wildlife being displaced by the rapid urbanization of the region.

Piedmont Patch hive with young Southern Catalpa directly behind it and the older tree in the distance further back.

I walked down to admire the young Southern Catalpas, which now stand near a honeybee hive added this past spring – a fortuitous location, given that flowers of these trees – when they are old enough to start blooming — are beneficial to these pollinators. That’s when I noticed that the elder Southern Catalpa had more fresh leaves growing on it than I had seen since I met it two years ago.

When I approached it for a closer look, I realized it was covered in gorgeous flowers! They reminded me a bit of orchids, hanging in pendulous clusters. My mouth gaped long enough that I was lucky one of the nearby honeybees didn’t fly right in.

Southern Catalpa flower cluster

Of course, I took photos – lots of photos. When I told the vicar, she was astonished. “That tree has never bloomed!” she exclaimed. “How is this possible?”

A carpenter bee robbing nectar from the base of a Southern Catalpa flower

I can only speculate, of course, but I do have a couple of theories. My first is that perhaps the tree felt valued again when we planted two more of its kind nearby. That is an entirely subjective explanation I realize, but if you want to put a scientific veneer on it, I could offer that perhaps increasing the plant diversity of the site as a result of the Piedmont Patch project somehow enlivened the plants already growing there.

Its wings aglow, a carpenter bee drills through the base of a bloom to harvest its nectar.

My second theory has no scientific basis, but as a time-traveling gardener, I have to wonder if perhaps this tree slipped into the Green World timestream back to a time when it was more vigorous. Maybe the work of Piedmont Patch volunteers on the site carried it back to more vibrant times, causing it to burst forth in an enthusiastic flower display more typical of past decades.

The pond just before volunteers arrived on Planting Day, April 14, 2018. Note the cleared area at the end of the pond to be planted and the beehive. The nearby Southern Catalpas had not yet leafed out.

Transformation is definitely the motif of the Piedmont Patch demonstration site. Already, every day brings new wildflower blooms, new birds, and a continuous stream of volunteers bearing plants and offering labor to further the creation of this native haven. Already, it is a place of peace, beauty, and above all, hope.

Late May, 2018 shows the establishing native grasses planted a month earlier, and the common milkweeds (Asclepias syriaca) just added by a volunteer who donated them.

As I travel forward in my mind to envision this site a few years from now, I see volunteers – the Piedmont Patch Stewardship Team – tending the site. As they pull out unwanted plants and add more native species, work to eradicate nearby stands of invasive non-native species, and document the site’s continuing transformation, I see this site serving as inspiration for new piedmont patches springing up in the region. Every patch will be different – as unique as the group creating it and the site upon which it is established. But all will be growing green havens of native beauty that shelter and feed wildlife, from pollinators to birds to lizards, frogs, and cottontail rabbits.

Annual Black-eyed Susans blooming yesterday on the Piedmont Patch site.

All will be symbols of hope, refuges also for souls of weary humans who too often lose touch with their connection to the Green World. Perhaps these havens will help more of those disconnected souls regain a knack for time travel, to see what a healthy future for the region – and the planet – looks like. As a time-traveling gardener, I hold on to that hope for transformation. How can I not, when I see a seemingly dying tree burst into spring bloom, and a pond-side full of random weeds become a vibrant assembly of native grasses and wildflowers?

Annual native Gaillardia pulchella blooming on the Piedmont Patch site.

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