Archive for category piedmont gardening
Now that I’m not on Facebook, I don’t have an easy way to update folks about upcoming events they may find helpful or of interest — unless I do it here. Today’s post will list some upcoming events sponsored by various organizations in my area. All of these events are free and virtual. I see this as an advantage, because if you live anywhere in the southeastern US, most of the talks described below will be relevant. And even if you’re from a distant land, you may well enjoy some of these. I can’t think of a better way to pass the time until the weather improves enough for serious gardening again.
My local chapter of this national non-profit that is, literally, for the birds is a top-notch group of folks. Their Web site is chock full of useful information on native birds, and the section on what they do to promote bird-friendly landscapes is worth a careful read. The blog link covers an array of useful topics, and, yes, you’ll find a couple written by me. I love their monthly meetings that always feature programs by fascinating speakers. Before the pandemic, these meetings (open to all free of charge) were held at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. The virtual meetings are almost as good (virtual mingling is just not the same as the in-person version). This past Thursday, we heard from Bo Howes, of the Triangle Land Conservancy and past president of New Hope Audubon, who explained the vital importance of conservation land not only to native wildlife, but also for preserving water quality and provide socially distant recreation for stir-crazy humans. Go here to find recordings of all the virtual meetings since last October. I especially recommend that you check out the presentations by Nick Harper and Lesley Starke. You can listen to these recordings any time.
February 25, 2021, 12:00 – 1:00 p.m. — An NC Botanical Garden Virtual Lunchbox Talk in partnership with New Hope Audubon Society
This talk by NC State University Master of Science student Lauren Pharr will describe the effects of urban noise and light pollution on birds. Spoiler alert — the impacts are significant, and not in a good way. All the NC Botanical Garden Lunchbox talks are free, but you need to register at the link above so they can send you a link to the presentation.
Like the New Hope Audubon Society, this garden, which focuses entirely on the native vegetation of the southeastern US, has been offering virtual lectures on an array of topics since last year. Numerous excellent past presentations can be viewed free of charge merely by visiting this link. The Garden is also offering an assortment of classes at reasonable prices, and two more free lunchbox talks are on the horizon:
- Mike Kunz, NCBG Conservation Ecologist, will talk about rare wildflowers of North Carolina on February 11 at noon. Register here.
- On March 11, Misty Buchanan, Director of the NC Natural Heritage Program, will talk about mitigating climate change through NC’s natural and working lands. Register here for that one.
The Garden has two more special free lectures coming up that may be of interest:
- This year’s Darwin Day Lecture will be at noon on February 12: Dr. Senay Yitbarek’s lecture is titled, Spatial Structure as a Mechanism for Diversity: Co-existence, Co-infection, and Pathogen Invasion. For more details and to register, go here.
- I’m looking forward to this year’s annual Evelyn McNeill Sims Native Plant Lecture on April 11 from 2:30-4:00 p.m. Dr. Drew Lanham will discuss “what it means to embrace the full breadth of his African-American heritage and his deep kinship to nature and adoration of birds.” Register here for that one.
The Southern Piedmont Chapter of this organization is teaming with the UNCC Botanical Gardens to provide a free virtual presentation on Feb. 14 at 2:00 p.m.: How to Help Your Tree Live a Long and Healthy Life.
This wonderful non-profit is offering an array of virtual lectures, including their Winter in the Refuges Webinar Series. We missed the first one, but here are your options for the rest of this free virtual series (links take you to relevant registration pages):
- Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 6:00 p.m.
- Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 6:00 p.m.
- Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, Wednesday, 24 at 6:00 p.m.
Regional chapters of the NC Wildlife Federation are also offering free virtual talks:
- Insects and the Environment, Tuesday, Feb. 9 at 6:30 p.m.
- Colonial Nesting Birds of the Lower Cape Fear, Wednesday, Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m.
With Wonder Spouse’s invaluable assistance, I planted 8 new small bare-root trees yesterday — three each of two native species new to our five acres and two of a species we’ve added in the last few years. I hope to share more details about all recent native species additions soon. Meanwhile, please go check out the upcoming talks at the links above.
I ordered my seeds — well, most of them anyway — before Christmas. I sowed the first of them in the germination container in my greenhouse on January 21, because some plants require a longish period of growth before they are ready to bloom, or in the case of herbs, to reach a transplantable size. I blame pandemic isolation for the relatively large number of seeds I ordered this year. Also, Seeds ‘n Such, from which I ordered most of my seeds, charges a lower price per packet when you order more packets — a deal too tempting to ignore for this plant-lover. This company also provides fewer seeds per packet for most of their seeds, which allows them to reduce their per-packet cost, and limits the number of seeds that don’t get planted for lack of space.
Most years, I try a few new annual flower varieties. These non-native, showy summer blooms line a front walkway to my house, fill a hanging basket by the front door, and mingle with the vegetables to attract pollinators and provide fresh flowers for bouquets. For the hanging basket, I decided to try a petunia from the Hybrid Wave Series. You’ve probably seen these prolific bloomers in nursery centers. I could not resist trying a variety called Carmine Velour, which is described as being “stunning, non-fading, intense and bright, even when cloudy.” I’m hoping that the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit a feeder just across from the flower basket will approve of these deep red beauties. My packet only contained five pelleted petunia seeds, because this fancy hybrid is quite particular about its germination requirements. The instructions told me to allow a lot of time for germination and for the plants to grow to transplantable size. Finally today, 8 days after planting, one tiny seedling has emerged. Eight days isn’t really that long for a number of species to germinate, but because I’ve never tried this variety before, I confess I was getting a tad nervous. I’m hopeful that the other four seedlings will pop up any minute, especially because the next few days are supposed to be sunny, and these seeds require bright light to germinate well. I’ve got my fingers crossed that these prima donnas fulfill my expectations.
First to germinate for me was another new flower — a Gazania hybrid mix called New Day. These bright annuals should add some nice color to my front walk. They are purported to bloom well through summer heat and drought. Time will tell. Fourteen of the fifteen seeds in the packet germinated in 3-4 days. I approve of their enthusiasm!
I also decided to try growing some perennial herbs from seed. North Carolina summer humidity and heat are very hard on thymes and other Mediterranean herbs. I don’t usually manage to keep most of them alive for more than a couple of years. I rationalized that seeds are cheaper than plants, so I could try again. Plus, I’ve got a nice, hot, well-drained spot where the thyme, oregano, and marjoram can dangle over the rock border of the Furlough Wall of the bed Wonder Spouse built a few years ago. Tiny Sweet Marjoram and German Winter Thyme seedlings began popping up 5 days after planting. The flat-leaf parsley — a notoriously slow germinator — is still meditating on germination. The Cleopatra oregano is also still a no-show. Both could easily take another week or more before germinating, especially with the rounds of cold, wintry weather visiting my area every few days.
Maybe it is tonight’s full moon. Perhaps it is the fact that the sun has begun to set later in the afternoon again, or that I heard the familiar shriek of a female Wood Duck earlier this week for the first time this year. Maybe it’s because my witch hazel ‘Amethyst’ is beginning to push out magenta petals and the Prunus mume trees are opening their first fragrant flowers, providing aroma therapy of the highest quality, but I have the distinct feeling that spring will arrive early this year. Just this week, the Northern Cardinals have begun singing. And for about a half hour on the one day this week that afternoon temperatures reached the upper 50s, a few Southern Chorus Frogs celebrated the break in the cold weather.
OK, technically speaking, it snowed overnight last night, but it was such a pitiful effort that all evidence of it had disappeared by noon. And yes, the weather seers are threatening my area with freezing rain in a few days, but they are promising it will turn over to mere rain before the ice can create problems. It’s as if Winter’s heart just isn’t in the game anymore — at least not in central North Carolina where I live. I’ve lived in this state for all but the first year and a half of my life, and I’m old enough to remember March snows and springs that didn’t really begin until April. But climate change has erased those days for the foreseeable future. I have mixed feelings about Winter’s shortened duration, but I know the native wildlife that share our five acres would appreciate an early spring.
A hungry Red-shouldered hawk has taken to parking itself atop my bird feeders, no doubt hoping a songbird will walk into its talons. The white-tailed deer linger under the feeders at dusk vacuuming up any seeds dropped by the birds. The wildlife cameras are routinely capturing videos of a thin coyote patrolling deer trails along the creek. All would welcome Spring’s abundance I am sure.
For now, I must quell my spring fever, content myself with cheerleading new seedlings in my greenhouse, and appreciating winter sunrises on recently rare clear-skied mornings. Soon enough, the deep quiet of Winter will give way to Spring symphonies.
I’ve got a more comprehensive post planned for later today, but I thought I’d share with my readers what Wonder Spouse did for me yesterday. It was a vacation day, and he wanted to do outside chores. My sinuses were not up to dealing with yesterday’s cold wind, but our wonderful garden helper, Beth, came out to try to ensure Wonder Spouse didn’t kill himself. Thank you, Beth.
Wonder Spouse decapitated a non-native Lagerstroemia fauriei yesterday. We acquired it decades ago after seeing some growing at the arboretum in the link. We really loved the bark. As you can see in the link, it is supposed to top out at 30 feet. Ours was at least 40 feet tall and still growing. Without question, the bark was/is beautiful. We decided to cut it down yesterday for two reasons. First and foremost, it was seeding itself widely, becoming nearly invasive. Experts on invasive non-native species will tell you this is something they worry about more with all crape myrtles these days. Second, because it grew taller and wider than we anticipated, it was shading out nearby desirable natives and also obscuring them from view.
Wonder Spouse did not cut the tree down to the ground. If it lives and sprouts strangely, it is welcome to do so. But I will not let the flowers grow taller than my reach, because I intend to remove spent flowers before they can go to seed from now on.
Before I realized what he was doing, Wonder Spouse had tied an extension ladder to the tree, carried his chainsaw with him up the ladder, and began cutting! When I realized what he was doing, I pitched a wifely fit and explained he didn’t need to cut the branches so high up. He was doing it to try to retain some of the tree’s aesthetic value. I hollered, because Wonder Spouse is far too valuable to risk on aesthetics.
The tree stump looks quite sad, but that causes me not a twinge of guilt. We are losing native biodiversity so quickly now that I feel obliged to make sure every plant on our five acres is serving the local ecosystem in as many ways as possible. The only species I ever observed using this tree were non-native honeybees, which seemed to find its fragrant white flowers every blooming season. I never saw any native pollinators on the flowers. Birds didn’t nest in the narrow branches. It wasn’t pulling its ecological weight.
Wonder Spouse is closing in on his seventh decade, and while he is in good shape for a man of his years, he groaned fairly loudly when we woke up this morning. I asked him how he was feeling.
“My lips don’t hurt,” he replied, implying, of course, that everything else did hurt. Thanks to Beth and my hollering, he’ll be his spry self by tomorrow I’m sure. One more task off the infinite to-do list, with, thankfully, no fatalities. Thanks to Beth for the photos in this post.
I’ll share more about that to-do list in another post very soon. Hint: the growing season is closing in on us fast.
Tonight the moon is new. The night sky is dark, save for starlight glimmering between growing clouds brought by warmer south winds. Outside my window, two barred owls — likely mates — call to each other. It is their nesting season, or about to be.
I wonder, do they call to check in with each other? Has one found dinner and now calls the other to share in the feast? One voice is deep, like the lower register of a pipe organ. The other is higher, but still resonant, echoing through the new moon darkness. I love their voices, and rejoice in the fact that their species has shared our land with us through the 3+ decades we’ve been here. I pray their kind will always be able to live here beside a beaver-built wetland full of tasty owl meals and other, much larger, wildlife.
I’m told that new moons are ideal times to set intentions, to articulate immediate goals, and perhaps some that will take more than one moon cycle to attain. For me, tonight’s new moon is about seeking ways to embrace change, rather than resist it. I like to think I’ve been getting better at this, rolling with the punches, so to speak. But recent events challenge good intentions.
Current events are undeniably difficult to face. Sickness, death, violence, profound anger, and alarmingly bitter hatred hold many hearts hostage. Surrounded by pain, the reflex to go backwards is hard to resist — back in time, to a moment before events started weighing us down, stone upon stone, until even breathing becomes impossible for hundreds of thousands of us. But I know — we know — only one direction is an option: forward.
My guidepost to embracing change is the Green World. Snakes, like the beautiful ring-necked snake above, shed their skins to reveal their new, better selves. Caterpillars spin cocoons to shelter their transformation into butterflies. Just this past week, Nature sent me a reminder, when my friend and garden helper, Beth, discovered a bright green chrysalis of a Black Swallowtail butterfly suddenly exposed as lingering scarlet leaves on a blueberry bush finally began to drop in deference to winter temperatures.
Gardeners know all about embracing change. In fact, we actively encourage it. In my greenhouse right now are flats full of seedlings. I had set them outside in a sheltered spot to stratify — the process of prolonged cold exposure that some seeds require before germinating. Late fall warm spells that arrived after early cold caused some seeds to awaken early. So, embracing the change, I hustled these flats into the greenhouse to shelter them from returning cold. Now, tiny new plants greet me when I step into that warm, humid space on a winter’s morning.
Perhaps we gardeners can help others struggling to embrace change by sharing our green worlds with them. Do you know a neighbor or a friend who is too much alone these days? Perhaps you could help them plan a small garden to plant this spring. Maybe you know someone who loves to cook and would love potted herbs for her kitchen. Is there someone you could invite on a socially distant walk through a botanical garden or a park on one of the warm winter days we enjoy in the southeastern US?
Many non-gardeners walk through the outdoors unaware of their surroundings. Persuade them to caress tree bark and note the textures, listen to chattering finches and chickadees, admire emerald green moss and soft gray lichens adorning boulders. Nature heals by pulling us out of ourselves, reminding us of the beautiful, vibrant life that surrounds us.
For me, a key to embracing change is remembering to seek out beauty every day. Weather permitting, I am outside even on the coldest winter days to fill bird feeders, check on the greenhouse, admire the ivory bark of sycamores against a backdrop of deep blue winter skies. And every winter morning, I rise early, in the hope that the eastern horizon will be painted by a vivid sunrise. I keep my camera handy, because the color fades almost as fast as it appears.
Standing on my back deck in the frosty air, I wait for creek water to catch sky fire, then try to capture the color in my camera as the rattling call of pileated woodpeckers blends with the muttering of mallards on the beaver pond, and Canada geese rise into the air honking loud enough to out-shout the woodpeckers.
On this new moon night, I hope many of my readers will set new intentions that will help guide them forward through whatever comes. Let your love of gardening and the natural world help lead you. And please consider sharing the beauty with someone whose heart needs lifting. Working together, we can transform all lives.
I’ve lately begun to think of January 1 as the onset of Human New Year, because we are the only occupants of this planet who feel this day demarcates a new beginning. Plants and animals don’t count days at all, but they are affected by daylight length. It drives their reproductive cycles and migration times. Moon cycles are also important to the other occupants of our planet. The wildlife cameras posted along our creek consistently capture an uptick in number and species diversity during full moons, regardless of temperature. Gardening folklore has long documented the efficacy of using moon cycles to guide planting times.
During this long pandemic-induced isolation from my fellow humans, I find myself increasingly attuned to moon and sun cycles, rains, and temperature swings. On winter mornings, I rise eagerly in hopes of a memorable sunrise. It’s the only time of year our eastern vista opens up, thanks to a sleeping tree canopy.
On what have so far been rare sunny winter days, I walk our five acres in search of revelations. When I slog through the mud that perpetually covers our floodplain-becoming-wetland, the red-shouldered hawks and pileated woodpeckers nesting in disintegrating trees killed by beaver-built ponds greet me with raucous calls. They remind me that I’m treading on their territory. I promise not to linger too long. This part of our property continues to teach me much about natural processes, the power of water, and humility.
Decades ago in my callous youth after reading countless gardening books and magazines, I was confident of my ability to control landscaping outcomes. My facility at assessing site conditions and my knowledge of the growing requirements of many plant species made me cocky. No longer. Thirty-one years (and counting) on our five acres continue to teach me how much I don’t know. I also continue to learn from an inspirational group of younger folks who approach the landscape as an ally, not an adversary. Elsewhere, I wrote about Nick Harper, who pointed out to me that because humans are responsible for most, if not all, changes to native environments around the globe, it is up to us to integrate ourselves into this human-modified world we now all live in.
For example, non-native invasive plant species cannot be blamed for doing what they are adapted to do. Instead of attempting to eradicate them with ecosystem-damaging poisons, Nick believes we need to devise ways to live with the invaders. As I wrote in the link above, Nick aggressively pollarded non-native invasive trees on the cattle farm he managed and fed the cuttings to the cattle, thereby simultaneously preventing the trees from flowering and providing his cattle with free, high-quality summer fodder. When I asked him if he had any familiarity with the invasive plant currently overwhelming my creek and wetland, Marsh Dayflower (Murdannia keisak), he said no. But when I told him this is a weed of Asian rice paddies brought to North America by South Carolina rice plantation growers, he advised me to search Asian literature sources on ways they manage it there. It’s a good idea. The plant is a weed there, but clearly isn’t destroying rice crops. Some mechanism must be at play that balances the ecological scales. I just need to find it – another item for my infinite to-do list.
As this new human year begins, I am recognizing how my perspective on gardening and ecology continues to evolve. In the long-ago days, I thought these were two different subjects. Now I realize that gardening without regard to native ecological contexts serves no one.
These days, every plant I put in the ground must feed someone. In the vegetable garden, I feed humans and the abundant native insects, arthropods, soil organisms, birds, and other animals that utilize the organically grown mix of veggies, flowers, and herbs nurtured there.
Elsewhere in our yard, my top priority is serving the native wildlife that lives here. Our “garden” does not look like the images in standard gardening magazines, but to my eyes it is beautiful, lush, and vibrantly alive.
My prayer for a new human year is that this moment marks a transition from humanity’s role as conquering destroyer to an ecologically integrated partner. We are the disease. We must become the cure. Earth’s fate lies in our hands.
The word solstice comes to us originally from Latin and translates as stopped (or stationary) sun, because to humans watching the bright star that powers life here, it seemed that twice a year at the onset of astronomical winter and summer, our star ceased its travels across the sky, pausing as if to collect itself before continuing its annual journey. Following Old Sol’s example seems a wise course to me, and so at these times of stillness, I also try to pause and collect myself.
As I review my time on this planet to date, I recall moments of great personal hardship as well as times of profound joy. For me, the thread that runs through all of it is the Green World. I cannot remember a time when I lost that connection, and I attribute that tie to any semblance of sanity I retain.
As Sol pauses today to welcome Winter and Summer to their respective earthly hemispheres, I will make my Winter Wish, the same prayer I’ve made for decades. I pray that human hearts everywhere open themselves more fully to Light’s return, welcoming with love every soul they encounter, be it human, fauna, or flora.
I invite you, my readers, to still yourselves today, at least long enough to visualize your Winter Wish. Dream big, my friends; these visions will power our future.
My offering to you this Winter Solstice is a small poem that fell out of my fingers when I prepared this post.
Growing Toward Light
As suffering surrounds us,
as isolation limits us to tenuous electronic connections,
it is easy to believe that Darkness is winning.
I promise you, it is not.
Darkness is not the enemy,
merely the other side of Light.
the dance between them powers everything.
Step outside of yourself.
Walk barefoot on cold ground,
inhale pine-scented, rain-chilled air.
Greet the birds by name.
Caress tight-coiled buds of trees
deep in winter meditation.
Feel the centering stillness,
the slowed rhythms of life.
All dwell in Winter’s Darkness
while growing toward Spring’s Light.
Greetings, faithful blog followers! I apologize for my lapse in communication. I am busily writing these days for organizations I support. Just published today is a piece I wrote for the blog of the New Hope Audubon Society about a cattle farm in an adjacent county that is being managed to maintain biodiversity. I was lucky enough to tour this farm last month. I found it inspirational on many levels. It was also quite beautiful. If you have the time, please visit the link above and read about the great work done by the farm’s manager, Nick Harper.
In a moment of perhaps excessive enthusiasm, I agreed to write several articles for the spring edition of Conservation Gardener, the magazine of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. That magazine is a benefit of membership, so if you’d like to read it and you aren’t a member, please consider joining. Articles in the upcoming edition will all address various aspects and issues concerning biodiversity, including a piece I’m writing on ways to increase biodiversity in your home landscape — and why that’s a good idea. Those articles are still in process, so I may not be writing here as much as I’d like until I crank out what I’ve promised.
Finally, in a nod to what I hope will be a post-COVID world by late spring of next year, I am considering ways I can share my years of experience with small groups. A younger friend of mine recently pointed out that my greatest asset is my breadth of knowledge about the southeastern Piedmont landscape. I am considering offering small classes to be held on my five acres of green chaos. Topics would reflect the interests of attendees, but I could offer tips on vegetable gardening, how to recognize and enhance microenvironments in a landscape, favorite shrubs, favorite trees, pollinator gardens, plant propagation, native plant identification, invasive species, and so on. If there’s interest, I could also offer tips on writing about the natural world and nature journaling. These classes would be held entirely outdoors.
I’m thinking attendees could compensate me in one of two ways. Either they could pay me whatever fee we settle on, or if attendees are able and willing, I’m toying with offering a class in exchange for a hour or two of weeding time by attendees. Certain parts of my yard are being overwhelmed by invasive, non-native Asian Hawksbeard. My aging joints cannot pull these weeds as fast as they are appearing. I would welcome help in exchange for some teaching time from me.
If you live within an easy drive of the Chapel Hill, NC area and you think you might like to attend a small class, please write me at the e-mail address listed on the About page. If you do so, please mention the topics that would be of most interest to you. If there’s a topic you’re interested in that’s not listed above, please mention it in your e-mail.
I hope to offer a post on the occasion of the imminent winter solstice, but if I don’t make it, please know how much I appreciate you, my blog readers, and I wish you all a very safe and happy holiday season.
I recently took a great many photos of final fall highlights of my yard, and I hope to get them posted here soon. I’ve been distracted by the recent addition of two new wildlife cameras, which Wonder Spouse has strategically installed along the creek that borders our property. The quality of the videos captured by the new cameras is impressive, and the recent full moon seemed to stimulate nocturnal activity. I am hoping to create a PiedmontGardener YouTube channel soon, so that I can post some of the more interesting videos we are capturing. For now, here are a few stills I extracted from some of the videos captured just last week. I’ve left the time/temperature information in the photos, because I think they give each shot a bit more context.
In the video from which I extracted the photo above, this buck slowly wades upstream. I love the way the water captures his reflection. I didn’t realize just how many deer are now wandering my area until I saw them in these videos. One night last week, eight does ran one after the other in a line away from the camera, their white tails flashing as they disappear deeper into the forest.
We have seen one eight-point buck in the cameras many times, but we had no idea we have at least two bucks that size. And they wander the night together at least part of the time. These two hung out here for quite a while, sniffing the air, probably because this shallow piece of water is a favorite creek-crossing area for the does.
A growing number of black vultures are spending a great deal of time along the creek, where they bathe in the shallows, then dry their great wings in the sun on the bare branches of still-standing trees killed by beaver-induced flooding. We now are capturing many daytime videos of these great birds bathing and arguing. It is fascinating to watch them wade into the shallow water, then dip their heads down into the water to push it up over their wings.
We have had a couple of rare early morning sitings of river otters that we suspected are now living somewhere along the growing beaver-built wetland adjacent to our property. Our new cameras have now captured them several times. We know there are at least three of them that hang around together, and we’ve seen the area they head into at dawn, where we assume they have a den. But this past week, a camera caught the three of them emerging from the creek to forage on our property. I couldn’t get a clear still shot of all three, but I did get these two as they returned to the creek. One is just entering the water and the other is looking over its shoulder for their companion still lingering on the floodplain out of sight here. You should be able to click on these photos to see larger versions.
This final extracted still shot surprised us. We had no idea that Great Blue Herons hunted in the moonlight, even when the temperatures are quite chilly. What an extraordinary delight!
I love the magical moonlight reflections of these creatures with whom we share our land, and for whom we continue to try to stabilize and enrich their habitat — an increasing necessity as more and more nearby forest is replaced by monotonous suburbs devoid of native biological diversity.
We are deep into seed season here on our five acres of green (now mostly brown) chaos. Strong north winds from a recent cold front made that abundantly clear, depositing an array of leaves and seeds on our front deck (and our back deck, and everywhere else for that matter).
See all the tiny bits all over the deck? I learned today that they are aborted seeds of native sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). And thank goodness, I thought. If sweet gums produced fertile seeds that abundantly, here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina we would all be living amid sweet gum forests, likely to the exclusion of most other species.
In the photo above, I think I can see two or three fertile sweet gum seeds. Like many of our other native tree seeds, sweet gum seeds have “wings” that allow them to float far from mother trees on autumn breezes. I’m fairly certain that one fertile sweet gum seed in the picture is lying just above the pine needle bundle. Two others may or may not be in the upper right corner of the shot. It’s too fuzzy for me to be certain. A maple seed lies toward the bottom of the photo, and a seed from a tulip poplar lies above and to the right of the pine needle bundle. A discarded reddened sweet gum leaf lies among its tree’s progeny.
Sweet gums are noted for their abundance in the southeastern US. They are considered to be an early colonizer of abandoned fields and other open areas, joining loblolly pines as one of the tree species that overtops the grasses and wildflowers that first overtake open land. That process is called old field succession.
In my yard, autumn color of sweet gum leaves ranges from deep maroon to scarlet to shades of orange-yellow. I love the red ones. Folks new to the area who don’t know trees often confuse these leaves with those of maple trees, especially red maples. To my eye, they look nothing alike. To teach novices how to tell the difference, my advice is always the same: use your nose. Crunch up a leaf in your hand and inhale. If your nose fills with a refreshing spicy scent, you’re holding a sweet gum leaf. Maple leaves give off no such fragrance when crushed.
Sweet gum’s genus name, Liquidambar, translates roughly as liquid or fluid amber, referring to the fragrant juice or gum that exudes from this tree. Its species name, styraciflua, translates to “flowing with storax,” storax being an old term for plant resin.
The earliest published record of this species was written by a Spanish naturalist, who observed it growing in the New World. The tree’s range includes Mexico and parts of Central America, and the tree was utilized by Aztec tribes. Its Nahuatl name is Ocotzocuahuitl, which translates to tree (cuahuitl) that gives pine (ocotl) resin (tzotl). I would agree with these Native Americans that sweet gum resin does smell similar to that of pine trees. Another Spaniard described receiving as gifts hollow reeds filled with dried herbs (probably tobacco) and sweet-smelling liquid amber from Maya tribesmen. When lighted as demonstrated by these Native Americans, the reeds were reported to emit a pleasant scent.
Sweet gum wood has many commercial uses. It is a source of plywood, flooring, and crates, for example. And the light-colored wood is favored by certain Asian markets that use it to make chopsticks.
Sweet gum fruits are the spiky balls that hang from branches in great abundance. At some point every autumn after the balls have ripened and turned brown and hard, tiny compartments inside them release thousands upon thousands of seeds, mostly infertile. On windless late autumn days, I often hear the seeds falling softly onto dry leaves on the ground, sounding like a gentle rain. A source I read notes that goldfinches, purple finches, and squirrels eat the seeds, which I’ve seen. But I’ve also watched migrating flocks of red-winged blackbirds swarm sweet gum trees to pry seeds from dangling balls.
I know that many homeowners despise those spiky sweet gum balls, often complaining that they clutter green lawns and damage unwary bare feet when walked on. I think the easy fix for these issues is to respect the species instead of arguing with it. Non-native lawns do not contribute to the environmental health of our struggling planet. Replace the lawn you’re trying to grow beneath sweet gums and other trees with what is supposed to be there — leaves and other organic matter — the materials you find when walking through a forest. As for unwary feet, I’ll admit that walking across a big deposit of sweet gum balls can be tricky. But they don’t stay hard and spiky forever. In my yard, they have usually softened by early summer, eventually breaking down into the soil.
Over a dozen canopy-sized sweet gums grace parts of our five acres. When the spiky balls drop in early spring, I try to avoid walking on them. When I must traverse a gum-ball-carpeted area, I use a walking stick to help me maintain my balance. It’s a simple compromise that I’m happy to make in exchange for this great source of food for native wildlife, prolonged spectacular fall color for human appreciation, and a quick inhalation of spicy leaf juice during the growing season when I grab and crush one as I traverse the landscape.
I know it is truly autumn when I can’t walk more than a few steps in my yard without getting a face full of spider web. The eight-legged ones are everywhere. Females grow fatter daily, full of growing eggs. As the hunger of the females grows, so does the size of their webs. I managed to see this beauty before I walked into the web she was rebuilding. A shaft of early morning sunlight had caught her, accentuating her lovely colors. Marbled Orb Weavers are shy; they spend most of their time hiding in leaves at the edge of their webs, appearing only when a victim is ensnared. But every morning, they dismantle the web from the previous day and spin a fresh one. She was so intent on her weaving that I was able to photograph her.
This mother wolf spider was also on the move that morning. She was not interested in posing for photos, but I managed this shot. I listened to a great presentation on North Carolina spiders this week by Dr. Matt Bertone, an entomologist from North Carolina State University. Dr. Bertone’s enthusiasm for his subject was apparent, and I was touched by his gentle pleas — several times — to appreciate spiders, respect their work, and view them as the allies they are. “Spiders are very good mothers, ” he said. They defend their egg sacs and their new-born spiderlings with their lives.
I named this green lynx spider Lana, because she lives on a massive blooming lantana that grows beside my front door. I’ve been watching her and two other of her kind for two months. Rudi lived in the Rudbeckia lacianata, guarding her egg sac as Lana is doing above, until one day she and her eggs disappeared. Verna is still alive and well and guarding her egg sac in a Vernonia. Both Verna and Lana grow smaller daily. Dr. Bertone mentioned that they don’t eat after they produce their eggs, because they will not leave them unguarded for even a moment. It is a little hard for me to watch these once vibrantly green, plump spiders visibly shrinking in size, paler in color. Every day, I exhort Lana’s egg sac to open, hoping that if the spiderlings emerge, Lana might take time to eat.
This writing spider also lives in the lantana by the door. It is a very large lantana, and there is plenty of room for these predators to share numerous pollinators attracted to its brightly colored abundant blooms. I have named this spider Agatha. I occasionally feed her a milkweed bug, if I find one sucking the life out of a ripening swamp milkweed pod. She allows me to sit beside her in the sun while I rattle on about writing (she is a writing spider after all), and life, and death.
I find myself struggling these days to find words that adequately describe the roller coaster ride of emotions pulling at me. But when I start to flail, I step out my front door, take a seat beside the lantana where Agatha and Lana dwell, and practice breathing deeply. Agatha and Lana remind me to live in the moment, not the what-ifs, to live to ensure future lives by being a good mother to all my green children, to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me.