Two weeks ago, Wonder Spouse and I vacationed on Oak Island, NC — a very southern NC beach that is still relatively undeveloped. As a child, I enjoyed family vacations here, so the area holds a special place in my heart.
Thirty-eight summers ago, I spent two wonderful months studying coastal ecology at Duke’s Marine Lab facility in Beaufort, NC, which is a good bit further north of Oak Island. During that summer, I learned the names of numerous coastal ecological communities, and I could identify the plants comprising those varied communities.
Until this recent vacation, beach trips have not given me reason to recall what I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab. But this year, we rented an extraordinary cottage that, while technically ocean-front, had a freshwater wetland pond between the house and the dunes. Native vegetation and wildlife abounded beyond my wildest dreams of what a beach cottage could offer. In short, Wonder Spouse and I were beyond delighted to spend numerous hours on the wooden walkway that crossed over the pond to the dunes watching and photographing some of the wildlife living there.
I learned long ago at the Duke Marine Lab that coastal ecology is fire-dependent. The various plant communities are healthiest when relatively frequent fires — originally caused by lightning, mostly — burned through the various communities, encouraging seeds of fire-adapted plants to germinate and re-exposing overgrown areas to more sunlight.
The dense mix of low-growing trees and shrubs entangled by myriad vines that grew between the beach house and the pond wetland contained a number of coastal plant species that I recognized, but the composition didn’t quite match the community descriptions I remembered. This may be, in part, due to the fact that I doubt these plants have experienced a fire in many years. Regardless, the low-growing trees and shrubs seemed healthy, and included familiar species such as Redbay (Persea borbonia), Sweet Bay (Magnolia virginiana), Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), Pond pine (Pinus serotina), and Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera) among others.
Growing over, around, and between these woody plants were numerous vines, including Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quinqefolia) covered in flower buds, a grape I didn’t identify, Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans), and Dune Greenbrier (Smilax auriculata) ornamented with myriad clusters of green berries.
Between the scrub forest and the pond, the ground was variably marshy. The dominant vegetation was a reed that I think was probably the invasive form of Phragmites australis. Closer to the scrub forest, the Phragmites was interspersed with ferns, especially Royal Fern (Osmunda regalis), and a few patches of cattails (Typha latifolia), and mats of low-growing plants that I couldn’t get close enough to photograph.
Why didn’t I go charging into the underbrush and into the edge of the marsh, you ask?
We weren’t the only species that appreciated the diverse array of frogs, turtles, insects, and birds that abounded in this small wetland. We didn’t see the alligators the first few days we were there, but we did later. More on that shortly.
Before the alligators showed up late in the week, turtles of all sizes floated and basked in and around the pond. Great Blue Herons, White Ibis, and Great Egrets stalked the shallows and flew in groups overhead. An Osprey routinely hunted in the pond in front of a nearby beach house. Gulls, sandpipers, and long lines of Brown Pelicans flew overhead during daylight hours. Familiar songbirds from home foraged and nested in the scrub forest, including Blue Jays, Northern Cardinals, Carolina Wrens, and Brown Thrashers. Red-winged Blackbirds dominated the reeds in the marsh. Feisty males flashed their scarlet shoulder pads at us as they tried to hurry us along the walk and away from their harems of females nesting in the thick reeds. At night, numerous species of frogs croaked and trilled, drowning out the wave sounds of a calm ocean.
In the middle of the week, the turtles seemed to disappear, as did the wading birds. We spotted a large — at least seven-feet-long alligator cruising around the pond. As we stood on the walkway talking excitedly about it, it silently coasted into a position just beneath us. Only its massive head was visible above the water line. It seemed to dare us to dip a leg over the walkway. I got the heebie jeebies and went back to the house while Wonder Spouse took photos. He hasn’t processed them yet, so I can’t show them to you. Trust me, that creature was creepy. The young ones we spotted the next day were a tad less intimidating.
This younger alligator seemed content to float in the shallow end of the pond among the reeds. It allowed us to photograph it for quite a while.
We thought it was barely awake, until suddenly a large, long black snake leapt into the air, reaching for the top of the reeds. We hadn’t seen it, but this young alligator did. I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this snake put three feet of air between its tail and the alligator’s mouth in a matter of seconds. We had no idea a black snake could make a vertical leap of that magnitude. It is a lesson I will not soon forget. And yes, the snake escaped; alligators are evidently not great leapers.
This smaller alligator was more colorful, which I read is characteristic of this reptile species when it is young. We could almost imagine how someone might think such a creature would be an interesting pet. Almost. The memory of its fully grown relative we had seen the previous day was still much too fresh in my mind to give such a thought even semi-serious consideration.
No, we didn’t spend our entire vacation watching the pond creatures. We made it onto the beach for long walks at sunrise and sunset, when the light was most interesting for photographs. The beach was littered with the bodies of jellyfish, which I was told was normal at this time of year. Intact shells were hard to find, except for tiny perfect ones, mostly overlooked by other beachcombers. I tried to photograph the Brown Pelicans as they arrowed into the ocean after fish.
We found a few young hermit crabs inhabiting tiny shells, like this one inhabiting an auger shell held by Wonder Spouse.
The most wonderful surprise came during a midweek sunrise walk on the beach. We spotted two women in a small vehicle; they were volunteers with the Oak Island Sea Turtle Protection Program, and they had just located and marked a new nest deposited by a female a few hours earlier. The tracks of the mother turtle as she laboriously pulled herself up above the high tide line and then returned to the sea were still visible, unmarred by pedestrian foot traffic. And most fortunate of all, I was carrying my camera.
The jellyfish that littered the beach are a favorite food of sea turtles, I’m told; Mother Nature’s timing was once again impeccable. All in all, it was a perfect week filled with natural wonders that this Piedmonter has either not seen often or never seen at all.
I missed my Piedmont gardens while I was away. But there is something deeply restorative about breathing salt air and meditating upon a tranquil sea at sunrise. The re-centering has come in handy now that I’m back in the Piedmont. My return week has been full of weeds, groundhog damage, and amorous black rat snakes. I’ll fill you in on all of that next time.
I have been watching the natural world closely since I was around three years old. My earliest memories involve skinks and chipmunks (at different times) that I watched for hours as they conducted their lives in my yard. I planted my first wildflower garden when I was ten, grew my first tomatoes around age fourteen, and gloried in my first full-fledged vegetable garden at age twenty-three. I’ve grown a vegetable garden every year since then, and as soon as Wonder Spouse and I bought our first house, we’ve also been adding as many native plants as we could.
With more than five decades of gardening experience behind me, you would think I would have cultivated more patience. But every year, I find myself wondering if the shiny green globes on the tomato plants will ever morph into red juicy delights, if the bean vines scaling the top of their trellis will ever produce the long green flavorful pods we adore, and if the expanding buds of my native perennials will ever open so the pollinator party can get fully underway.
I found myself doing it again earlier this week. I was standing in front of the purple milkweeds in the pollinator garden exhorting them to hurry up and open. They still haven’t, by the way, but at least I can now see hints of color in some of the buds. I added Fire Pinks (Silene virginica) to that garden last fall. In the last few weeks, they’ve been sending up many flower stalks laden with promising buds. But the recent cool, cloudy spell of weather put them into suspended animation. Finally, just yesterday, a single flower on one of the plants managed to open. It took it all day, but late-afternoon sun finally coaxed this single crimson flower into fully opening.
I confess I visited this flower several times during the day, photographing it at every stage of its unfolding. That’s when a little epiphany went off in my brain – Nature unfolds at its own pace. Impatience is a human weakness, not a failing of the flower. The point, I belatedly realized, is to celebrate the unfolding, observe and appreciate every moment of the lives around me – and my own!
I know – duh, right? Like most folks, I juggle a fair number of projects, interact with a number of different people, and it is very easy for me to get lost in the machinery of my brain as it attempts to find a way to finish everything on my infinite to-do list. Duh, again – infinite to-do list? Who am I kidding?
From this point forward, I am going to do my best to stay in the moment as often as I can. Instead of tapping my toes impatiently at tightly closed flower buds, I will breathe deeply beside them and try to tune into the tempo of their lives. I will try to relish every stage of Nature’s unfolding, chill out my runaway-freight-train brain, and seek peace in every beautiful moment of every day.
Wonder Spouse and I have lived on our five acres of green chaos since 1989. We’re not in a subdivision. Our road was a country road to nowhere back then, with mostly small houses set back from the street a bit, adjacent to fields and forest. Subdivisions seem to multiply daily around us now; schools were built, water lines were laid, but our five acres remain — for now, at least — fairly secluded, thanks to the large creek that forms our eastern border. The land on the other side has been logged in the past, but likely because of its swampy nature, no one has tried to put houses on it.
We found our place in January, but I knew enough about piedmont forests and ecosystems to recognize that the snow-dusted landscape was special. Part of our land is an active floodplain; some years, the creek overflows across it up to a dozen times, turning our home into lake-front property for 12, sometimes 24 hours. One edge of our land shelters a remarkably healthy wetland, where Atamaso lilies, Jack-in-the-pulpits, Lizard’s Tails, Cinnamon ferns, Sweetbay magnolias, and other southeastern US wetland natives thrive.
They were here when we moved in, and I’m delighted to report they are still here, and still thriving. The wetland plants are having a spectacular spring this year, likely due in part to a mild winter, and I think the beavers that have claimed the land on the other side of the creek have much to do with the improved vibrancy of the wetland communities.
My area is in a moderate drought, which usually means our creek drops to a trickle. Not this year. This year, the creek is deep, sluggish, and brimming with wildlife. A family of Canada geese raucously argues over the best swimming spots, their calls echoing up the hill where I pull weeds in my vegetable garden.
Mallards complain, quacking their disapproval, and until recently, female Wood ducks shrieked when suitors pressed a tad too ardently. I’m not hearing them anymore; I suspect they are sitting on nests. Every time I walk down for a closer look, I disturb at least one Great Blue Heron stalking the shallow edges of the pond. They rise, croaking in raspy voices that don’t match their elegant forms. Kingfishers patrol the creek, which has more — and larger — fish in it than we’ve seen in many years.
Dragonflies zip through the trees; frogs are less boisterous, likely because tadpoles teem in the shallows. Life abounds. And we get to live next door to it.
Recently, we showed a plant-loving friend our wetland treasure, knowing he would appreciate what some might perceive as a nuisance. His sharp eyes spotted caterpillars devouring willow leaves at the edge of the pond. They turned out to be caterpillars of the Viceroy butterfly, a Monarch mimic that needs wetland food trees for its young.
This is my dream come true — living immersed in the natural world, where every day brings a new discovery, or the return of an old friend as another species pops up for the season. I feel deeply blessed to live in this place and this time while simultaneously worrying about how outnumbered my wild friends and I are these days.
Just a quarter mile away as the crow flies, a massive subdivision covering a thousand acres is nearly complete. Whole neighborhoods are getting group rates from insecticide companies that spray “safe” poisons throughout their yards to kill ticks, mosquitoes, and spiders on contact. On contact? Safe? Can anyone hope to touch, much less open, the minds of those so profoundly disconnected from the natural world that they think a dead, sterile landscape is an ideal?
All I know to do is to keep talking and writing about my green world, in the hopes that at least some of the plant blind — those who cannot distinguish, or can’t be bothered to distinguish, between a maple and a sweet gum, an ash and a walnut, a beneficial spider and a disease-carrying tick — will learn to see the beauty, wonder, and essential role of the natural world they so blithely ignore.
I’ll leave you with two final photos of small jewels native to my wetland and currently blooming there. Many of the photos in this post were taken by the amazing Wonder Spouse and his long lens. A number of the close-up shots are mine. Now that the wetland trees and shrubs are almost fully leafed out, we won’t be able to get many more good shots of the beaver pond, so I hope you enjoy these.
Maybe if every lover of the green world could crack open one plant-oblivious mind per month, maybe, just maybe, we could still salvage what is left.
Bloodroots pushing through the leafy forest floor.
Salamanders emerging from algae-covered gelatinous egg masses.
Freeze-killed Magnolia ‘Elizabeth’ flowers.
Emerging columbine blooms decapitated by hungry deer. I watched five very pregnant does scour the frosty floodplain this morning for anything tasty and green.
Splotchy Mayapple leaves just emerging, with fat, round flower buds centered between their two leaves.
A newly planted onion bed.
Fuzzy elm seeds and two-winged maple samaras floating on sluggish creek waters.
Red buckeye flower buds preparing to open in time to greet returning Ruby-throated hummingbirds.
Freeze-killed blueberry flowers.
A male Wood Duck paddling on the beaver pond, barely within range of my camera.
A freeze-killed cinnamon fern fiddlehead. Fortunately, the others appear to remain viable, tucked tightly in the center of the plants.
Pawpaw flower buds wisely waiting for more settled temperatures.
Spring salad greens and wildflower seedlings waiting for the final (we hope) big dip in temperatures predicted to arrive after tomorrow’s 80-degree heat ushers in another cold front.
Hot and cold, dry and rainy, vibrant and brown, life and death — Spring is here.
I’ve decided that Mother Nature — at least in my part of the world — is afflicted with the bipolar disease that appears to be plaguing much of humanity these days. Moments of wild mania — in Nature’s case, reflected by record heat in February that prompted insane blooming of flowers meant to slumber until mid-March — are followed by roller-coaster crashes of depression — and ice. I’ve found it difficult to maintain my equilibrium in the midst of this wildly cycling chaos.
But early this icy morning as a just-past-full moon began to set while dawn brightened the eastern horizon, I felt compelled to grab my camera and stroll — albeit briefly — in the 17-degree chill. I didn’t want to document the death all around me — frozen, browned flower buds so recently full of spring promise. Instead, I focused on the wetland on our eastern border that grows daily, thanks to industrious beavers.
You can click on any image in this blog to see a larger version, and it might help you interpret the one above more easily if you do so. The water in the left foreground is a tiny pond on our side of the creek that defines our eastern border; the ice in the top photo was on the shallow side of that pond this morning. It is difficult to make out the creek just behind the pond, but you can’t fail to notice the line of water farther back. That’s the beaver pond. I think it gleamed more brightly than usual, because its many shallow portions are frozen over like my tiny pond.
Now you can see the waters of the creek in the foreground, while the beaver pond behind it looms icily closer. When the light is favorable, from my living room that overlooks our back deck, I can use binoculars to watch ducks dabbling happily in this growing expanse of water. Usually they are wood ducks, but the last time I walked down there — about a week ago — in addition to a group of about a half dozen wood ducks, I spotted several pairs of mallards, and about a half dozen Canada geese. They glided silently across the pond until I got too close, prompting them to erupt noisily into the air, their bodies shedding miniature waterfalls.
The beaver pond is about 25-30 feet behind and parallel to the creek. Its length continues to stretch toward my house. In fact, its shallow, northernmost extent now reaches behind my house. When Nature’s mood crashes — as it feels to have done now — I struggle not to interpret the encroaching water as threatening. I struggle these days not to feel as if I’m drowning in terrifying news, as everything I have loved and worked for is being systematically dismantled by rule-makers who believe science is just another belief system they can ignore.
But before panic pulls me under, I head outside at dawn to watch the setting moon, breathe in deep lungfuls of icy air, and smile at the jungle-worthy call of a Pileated Woodpecker. “We are still here,” it reminds me, “and so are you.”
And then I enter my little greenhouse, my glasses instantly fogging up from its warm humidity, and smile at the lettuces and other greens waiting patiently for their move to spring vegetable beds. “We’re still here,” they tell me, “and so are you.”
When I turn back to the expanding wetland beside my home, I see beauty instead of danger, the promise of abundant life instead of its demise. I remember that change is life, that chaos is always present, and I am responsible for my response to it.
It’s my responsibility to find the beauty.
It’s my responsibility to find the light.
It’s my responsibility to remember that love always wins.
I know the folks in the Northeast are cold, snow-plagued, and miserable. I know the folks in the Pacific Northwest who prayed for rain for most of a decade are desperately looking for the emergency shut-off valve to Heaven. And I’m sorry for your troubles, truly I am, which is why I feel a tad guilty complaining about the temperatures dominating the southeastern Piedmont region of the US.
Sure, it got down to 25 degrees Fahrenheit at my house this morning. I had to remove ice from the bird baths. But according to the forecasts, I probably won’t need to do that again for at least ten days. And the way things are going, maybe not until next November. My neck of the woods is hurtling full-tilt-willy-nilly into spring.
We’ve already zoomed through crocus season, the snowdrops opened yesterday and will likely be done in a few days. I planted a variety of daffodils that are supposed to provide me with an extended seasonal bloom period, but I’m starting to think that may not happen this year.
I started seeds of greens for my spring garden during the first few days of February; at the time, I wondered if I was overeager. Now I’m exhorting the seedlings to grow faster, fearing that if I don’t get them transplanted into their garden bed soon, summer temperatures arriving by early April will melt them before we’ve harvested more than a salad’s worth. This. Is. Not. Good.
I posted the above shot to my Facebook page the other day, and someone there asked me to list the varieties I’m growing, because she couldn’t read the scrawls on the labels in the photo. So for her — and anyone else who might be interested — here are the spring salad varieties growing in my greenhouse right now.
- Coastal Star — This is my go-to green romaine lettuce. It stands up to the early heat that hits my area in late April/early May. This is the third year I’m growing it.
- Outredgeous — I grew this red romaine for the first time last season, and we loved it. It faded in the heat a little faster, but it stayed alive and productive this whole past winter for me beneath a row cover. I love this lettuce.
- Cherokee — This is a red summer crisp lettuce that I’m trying for the first time, because Johnny’s Selected Seeds (the source of most of my veggie seeds) says it is more heat-tolerant (i.e., bolt-resistant) than most.
- Ovation Greens Mix — I’ve grown this mix several years now. I get a nice assortment of fast-germinating speciality greens that give a nice tang or slightly bitter note to sweeter lettuces. They bolt very quickly in my heat. I direct-sow a few more when I transplant the starts in my greenhouse; sometimes that pays off, sometimes it doesn’t.
- Seaside Spinach — This is a new smooth-leaf variety I’m trying this year, because it is touted as being bolt-resistant. I often have trouble persuading spinach to germinate for me in the greenhouse, but this variety is popping up and growing with enthusiasm — a promising start.
- Rosaine — I grew this red bibb lettuce for the first time last year. It produces really lovely thick, buttery leaves. It is supposed to be bolt-resistant, but did not impress me last season. However, like Outredgeous, it produced all winter for me under a row cover. I’m thinking red lettuces may be more cold-tolerant.
- Corvair Spinach — If Seaside remains as enthusiastic as it is starting, I won’t be growing Corvair again. This smooth-leaf variety is a downright temperamental germinator for me — and most everything germinates for me, so this is unusual. The plants that do show up, grow well enough, but I would rather grow a spinach that I can always count on.
- Sparx — This is a new green romaine I decided to try, because it is supposed to be heat-tolerant and high-yielding. It is back-ordered until March 1. At the time I ordered, I figured this would not be a deal-breaker, timing-wise. The crazy weather may preclude a proper test of this variety, but I’ll give it a try when it shows up.
That’s it for the greens. Believe it or not, I really tried to keep down the number of varieties I’m trying this year. I also tried to contain myself when it came to tomato varieties, but I compensated with a new pepper variety, and an eggplant that intrigued me. Seed catalogs in deep winter are very, very hard to resist.
The absurd warmth caused my flowering apricots to zip through their bloom cycles much more quickly than usual. Only Peggy Clarke Senior is still perfuming the air, albeit faintly, with the magical cinnamon-sweet scent of her rosy blooms.
Our Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Stars’ has opened flowers at the top of the tree. The forecasted heat this weekend will no doubt cause most of the rest to explode into bloom.
Both of my Cornelian cherries (Cornus mas) are in full bloom. I’m hoping the warmth will encourage pollinators to cross-pollinate them to produce fruits this year.
This member of the dogwood family doesn’t naturally occur in North America, but it doesn’t seem to be invasive, so I decided to give it a try. If I start seeing seedlings popping up, I will yank it out pronto.
My patch of Golden Ragwort grows larger every year. It does a great job of reducing erosion, and when it blooms, its bright yellow flowers make the ground glow.
The weekend is supposed to reach high temperatures in the mid-70s here, so Wonder Spouse and I will be outside preparing spring vegetable beds and hauling fallen branches knocked down by winter storm winds. I anticipate plenty of sore muscles and creaky joints. But it’s all worth it when we sit down to the first salad of the season.
I’ll leave you with one last photo. I posted this to my Facebook page, but I wanted to share it here for my non-Facebook followers. On February 10, we enjoyed a penumbral lunar eclipse. Just the left edge of the full moon in the photo below was obscured by the sun’s shadow, but it was discernible. The Amazing Wonder Spouse set up his tripod and took this shot. Enjoy!
Tomorrow, we’ll be done with January. For me, this has been simultaneously a very long and a very short month. I have been doing more writing for other venues this month, which has diverted me from efforts here. Despite the schedule uptick, I have found time to wander my yard long enough to photograph the new growing season’s opening acts. Natives like the witch hazel cultivar above are among the early bloomers, but the showier acts are mostly non-native ornamental trees and shrubs that I added precisely because of their early-flowering proclivities. More than ever, I am merciless in eradicating any non-natives that show signs of potential invasiveness, but the plants in this post have been with me for over a decade, and so far, so good.
I first met January Jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum) on the campus of Duke University, where its arching evergreen branches cascaded down a rock wall, its winter flowers a welcome surprise on a dull gray day. I never forgot it, and when we moved to our five-acre paradise, I found a spot for it in the first few years.
From a distance, the botanically unsophisticated mistake this beauty for forsythia. But forsythia is a much coarser, larger plant, and it usually blooms at least a month later than January Jasmine.
Before the January Jasmine got started, my pale pink-flowering Flowering Apricot (Prunus mume) opened for business. During a recent warm spell, it was covered in ecstatic honeybees from my neighbor’s hive.
A week later, my other two Flowering Apricots opened. Theoretically, both are the cultivar Peggy Clarke, but as I wrote here, the flowers are not the same, regardless of the name tags that came with them. As I wrote then, I think of them as Peggy Senior and Peggy Junior, because I acquired Junior later, after falling madly in love with the fragrance of Peggy Senior. I know my enthusiasm sounds extravagant, but trust me, on a cold — or warm — winter’s day no matter how blue you might be feeling, a few deep inhalations of Peggy Senior’s cinnamon-sweet perfume will lift your heart and hopes.
Peggy Senior is sited behind the south-facing wall of our garage, so she always begins to bloom about a week before Peggy Junior. For comparison, here are a couple of shots of Junior. The differences in their perfume are profound; although pleasantly sweet, Junior’s fragrance entirely lacks the cinnamon undertone that makes Senior so heavenly. Junior’s flowers are also a paler pink.
The Green World is my source of solace these days more than ever before. When faced with national and international events over which I have little control — at least until the next election cycle — I have chosen to devote my efforts to where I feel I can be most effective. That’s why I’m stepping up my writing efforts.
I’m writing a bi-monthly gardening column for a small paper in Virginia in the hopes that I can persuade new readers to more deeply appreciate their native environments. I also recently finished an article for the next edition of Conservation Gardener, the magazine of the NC Botanical Garden that I’m hoping will motivate folks to get serious about eradicating invasive non-native species from urban natural areas in their neighborhoods.
I’m also deeply involved in helping a local church create a wildlife sanctuary on their property by enhancing it with diverse, abundant native plants. My dream is that all such public places — now mostly “landscaped” with resource-hogging, environmentally sterile lawns and a few struggling, mostly non-native trees and shrubs — can become healthy native havens for struggling wildlife, including vital pollinators. I’m hoping this project will inspire other churches to start their own native sanctuaries, and that as adults and children become familiar with these plants, they will want to plant them in their home landscapes. It’s a big dream, I know, but with so much darkness in our world right now, I feel obliged to think big — and very green.
A couple of weeks ago before dawn, we got quite a show just as the moon began to make her descent. The bright light below and to the moon’s right is the planet Jupiter, shining brighter than most stars. If you look carefully toward the bottom of the shot, you can see a blurry bit of gray light. That’s Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo.
This conformation of heavenly lights was a lovely opening act for the sunrise that followed shortly thereafter, and reminded me that there’s more than one meaning to that term. Opening acts can be preludes to main shows, but they can also be behaviors. In this time when political darkness threatens to overwhelm us, I am looking to my early flowers and spectacular sunrises as reminders to keep my heart open despite the palpable fear in the air.
The only way to fight darkness is with light, and light comes from loving, open hearts. So I resolve to do my best to keep my heart open through the dark days ahead, drawing strength from the Green World, and praying that sharing it as widely as I can will inspire others to do the same.