Posts Tagged Oconee Bells

Gardening Gifts

Black gum leaves a few short weeks ago.

Black gum leaves a few short weeks ago.

Where does the time go? Time and wind have stripped most of the trees bare. Only the stubborn oaks still cling to about half their leaves, biding their time, waiting for me to rake what’s fallen before they drop the rest on newly cleaned lawn. Some days I’m pretty sure I can hear them snickering at me.

Most of the winter birds are here now. I saw my first Dark-eyed Junco yesterday afternoon. It stopped by the bird bath attached to my back deck railing for a quick sip after a trip to the feeder. Soon the flocks of noisy American Robins still greedily stripping the Southern Magnolia cones of their fruits, will move on to warmer climes. Not a minute too soon from the looks of the forecast. Highs in the low 40s by Sunday, lows in the teens likely on my patch of Piedmont.

Long gone to southern climes.

Long gone to southern climes.

Tis the season to contemplate gardening gifts. First, of course, come the thanks for all the garden beauty and plenty that adorned our yards and filled our tables. Then it’s time to contemplate how we can share our love of gardening with others.

In past years, I’ve listed suggestions for publications and products you might want to consider as gifts for the gardeners on your list. This year, I’d like to suggest a few other options.

As my joints have grown creakier with time, I’ve come to realize how much older gardeners (ahem) appreciate the gift of help with their treasured plantings. Senior gardeners may still manage to plant new plants and pull weeds, but repetitive physical tasks like spreading fresh mulch or pruning large branches may be more than they can safely handle. The senior gardeners on your list would treasure a gift of able-bodied assistance, say, once a month, so that they can live with their beloved landscapes as long as possible.

If you are a senior gardener yourself, consider giving the gift of your gardening wisdom to others. Offer a younger family member your guidance and expertise as they plant their first shrubs, venture into tomato cultivation, or try growing fresh herbs indoors. Your years of experience are far more valuable than you may realize.

Don’t have any novice gardeners on your list? Give a gift to your community by volunteering at your favorite public garden or offering your expertise at a community garden. At the public garden where I volunteer, you don’t need to be an expert gardener to help. You merely need to appreciate the benefits of such places, and lend your enthusiasm to the nearly infinite tasks that such operations require.

Gardeners of any age can share the beauty of their gardens with those far away by giving photographs of their charges, or paintings or other forms of artistic expression, if you are so inclined.

Franklinia alatamaha; photo by Wonder Spouse

Franklinia alatamaha; photo by Wonder Spouse

The great thing about garden giving is that you receive far more than you give. Every time I help a novice gardener overcome her frustration with a challenge, or celebrate with her when she picks her first bean crop, or rose, her joy is my joy too.

Finally, consider giving gifts to preserve our dwindling natural gardens — the forests and fields filled with vegetation native to our region. In this age of rapid urbanization, these natural gardens need tending every bit as much as our backyard landscapes, if we want any wild lands, any natural beauty, to remain for future generations.

Pink Lady's Slipper Orchid

Pink Lady’s Slipper Orchid

Consider giving donations to land conservation organizations in honor of those on your gift list. If you know someone on your list, for example, is an avid supporter of The Nature Conservancy, donate money in his name to that organization. Worthy organizations abound, and all are increasingly challenged to continue their good work on dwindling budgets.

Even if you don’t have a person in whose honor you’d like to donate, consider giving Mother Nature a gift by making a year-end donation to one or more of the many organizations working to preserve what’s left of our natural world, and to educate everyone on why this work is critical.

Personally, Wonder Spouse and I just made a year-end donation to the NC group trying to preserve one of the few remaining healthy stands of a mountain wildflower in danger of disappearing forever. I told you about their efforts to raise enough money to save a stand of Oconee Bells here.

I checked with the person spearheading this effort. They still need more than $100K to buy this unique piece of land from the current owners. Even if I never see this place with my own eyes, if we can save it, I will always know those wildflowers are still here on the planet, where botanists can study them, and future generations of visitors can be gobsmacked by their delicate splendor.

Garden gifts are gifts of life and beauty, investments for our children, treasures for all the world to cherish.

Persian Ironwood glows in the late autumn landscape.

Happy garden giving to all.



When beauty dies …

3 Monarch on Lantana

Humanity world-wide loses a piece of itself every time we lose more of the natural world that nurtures and protects us. When we destroy the natural world, we lose pieces of our soul, the part of us that thrives on the beauty of a cool mountain breeze kissing our faces, the melodic chatter of a clear-running stream, and the exquisite call of a Wood Thrush echoing through a healthy forest. Our hearts are so much smaller without our connection to the beauty of the natural world.

In the southeastern Piedmont region of NC where I live, the natural world is under assault every hour of every day. The population of my region is soaring, mostly due to the arrival of many new residents from other parts of the US and the world. As people move in, the forests I grew up with are disappearing. The dwindling patches left are degrading rapidly, due in large part to the invasion of an increasing number of non-native invasive exotic species of plants, animals — especially devastatingly damaging insects — and diseases.

Almost everyone knows the name of this beauty.

Almost everyone knows the name of this beauty.

One casualty of this urbanizing landscape — throughout the US — is the Monarch butterfly. My generation grew up knowing this beautiful creature — one of the most recognizable species of butterflies in North America. In school, we learned about their life cycle, admired their emerald green chrysalises, and marveled at their annual migrations to Mexico. Every gardener who plants with butterflies in mind knows that species of milkweed are the only plants that Monarch caterpillars will eat, so we tuck them into our yards to ensure Monarch visits.

However, in recent years — and most especially this year — our milkweeds have been uneaten by the colorful Monarch caterpillars. In my yard, I’ve only seen two adult Monarch butterflies during the entire growing season. Wonder Spouse took the photos of the one in this post last week. We were so excited when we spotted it in our front garden that we dropped what we were doing and ran for our cameras.

Many experts believe that Monarch butterflies are in serious trouble. Much of the reason is probably habitat destruction, both in North America and in their winter homes in Mexico. You can read an article about their decline here.

Monarch butterflies are well known and loved, and still they are in trouble. Multiply their peril a thousand-fold for a delicately exquisite, extremely rare wildflower: Oconee Bells.

Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla

Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla

Oconee Bells live in just a couple of spots along a geographic region known as the Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment. This part of the Blue Ridge Mountains rises abruptly up from the piedmont regions of South and North Carolina, creating a remarkable rise in land elevation over a short distance. The region is also characterized by very narrow gorges; at their bottoms, sunlight never penetrates, and temperature and moisture levels remain remarkably steady.

Such areas possess unique microclimates that an astonishing array of species of plants and animals have exploited. So much so, in fact, that this region holds more than three times the number of plant and animal species than undisturbed rainforests in Central and South America. The diversity of life is astounding, and tightly adapted to the unique geography and microclimates of this region.

The Southern Blue Ridge Escarpment is beginning to be degraded by the intrusion of concrete and asphalt, consequently destroying the delicate ecology of gorge bottoms, where Oconee Bells live. Deforestation on the ridge tops leads to massive erosion down the sides of the steep gorges. In some cases, the Oconee Bells living at the bottom have been scoured from their homes by water cascading down eroded ridge tops.

Oconee Bells were never plentiful, and now their increasing rarity makes them coveted by gardeners who want to possess every rare and beautiful plant they can. Oconee Bells are almost impossible to propagate; growing conditions cannot vary for them at all. Thus, plants sell for very high prices, making them a target of plant poachers.

In North Carolina, we have plant poacher problems at both ends of our state. On the coast, they steal into our preserves at night to dig up Venus Fly Traps. This species, native only to a 75-mile area around Wilmington, NC, is successfully propagated in the horticulture trade. Even so, plant poachers steal thousands, degrading their habitats at the same time.

In our mountains, plant poaching is worse. Folks illegally collect our native ginseng, goldenseal, and other wildflowers known for their medicinal properties. They steal Oconee Bells for covetous gardeners. They do not care that they may eliminate a plant population from a site. They see dollar signs, not irreplaceable beauty.

In North Carolina, we are fortunate to have a group in our government with an important mission:

The Mission of the Plant Conservation Program is to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats, now and for future generations.

Three individuals comprise this department. They are working to identify and protect the rarest and most threatened plant species in the state. They’ve identified plant populations all over the state. That’s a big job for three people. Fortunately, they have help.

The Friends of Plant Conservation is a non-profit organization founded explicitly to support the work of the NC Plant Conservation Program. Members volunteer to help manage and protect the preserves created by the Plant Conservation Program by participating in activities such as work days devoted to clearing out competing vegetation. They also provide essential financial support, since, like every governmental department in NC, the Plant Conservation Program’s budget does not begin to pay for the work that needs doing.

Right now, the Friends of Plant Conservation are frantically trying to raise enough money to pay for the purchase of land holding the last healthy population of Oconee Bells in North Carolina — the last natural population of Shortia galacifolia var. brevistyla in the world. The owners of this property love and appreciate this unique wildflower, and they’ve agreed to sell it, at cost, to NC to create a preserve. The owner who has protected this population from poachers and who cherished his land recently died after a long illness. His heirs wish to honor his memory by fulfilling his dream of creating this preserve for Oconee Bells. Time is critical. Funds are short.

An anonymous lover of natural beauty has recently stepped forward and is offering to match all donations — four dollars for every dollar donated. Imagine — a donation of $100 will become $500. For once, perhaps beauty can be saved.

To learn more about this wildflower and how to send your donation to save beauty, please go here. Even small donations will make a difference, thanks to the anonymous matching donor.

Of course, saving rare species like Oconee Bells, and suddenly declining species, like the Monarch Butterfly, is about much more than saving beauty. Scientists compare these imperiled species to canaries in coal mines. Before the days of oxygen sensors, miners carried caged canaries. The canaries were more sensitive to drops in oxygen levels than humans. When the canaries keeled over, the miners knew they had only minutes to escape the same fate.

No animal or plant exists in a vacuum. They are parts of ecosystems, intricate groupings of species that evolved together and depend on each other in ways that are still not fully understood. Scientists do know that every time another species disappears from the delicate dance of an ecosystem, remaining species are also imperiled. No one knows how many species can disappear before the dance stops.

The natural world feeds us, body and soul. Please follow the link provided above, and if you can help save this uniquely special place, know that you will become an invaluable contributor to saving Oconee Bells, and a piece of our souls as well.

Please help protect a piece of our souls if you can.

Please help protect a piece of our souls if you can.

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