Posts Tagged Piedmont wetland natives

The Payoff

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

A hybrid of native deciduous azaleas

Anyone who tells you gardening is easy is lying to you — at least if you garden with any seriousness. It is hard work to plan, plant, water, feed, weed, mulch, prune, harvest, etc. And when you do it on five acres as I do, it is very hard work.

A close-up of the same azalea's flowers

A close-up of the same azalea’s flowers

Ah, but then spring comes, the yard greens, rainbow flower colors burst forth from every corner of the yard as birds and frogs sing love songs — and that’s the payoff. Best of all, when I do things right and the weather gods are kind, my sweat equity pays off bigger every year. Blooming azaleas grow larger and more spectacular, deciduous magnolias hold fragrant blooms aloft to scent the air and lure pollinators. The beauty is almost overwhelming. Seriously, sometimes I just have to sit down and mutter “Wow!”

A view of the north slope garden.

A view of the north slope garden.

I knew that prolonged heavy rains were arriving mid-day here today, so I spent an hour or so this morning wandering around my yard taking photos and paying compliments to all my green charges who repay my efforts so enthusiastically every year.

Frasier magnolia flower buds

Fraser magnolia flower buds

The shots so far are all from the acre of north slope we’ve enclosed within a deer fence. Here my blooming woody beauties grow unmolested.

Rhododendron alabamensis is just beginning to open its flowers.

Rhododendron alabamense is just beginning to open its flowers.

All of my deciduous magnolias are unfurling their leaves and revealing their flower buds. I think the Fraser magnolia may just beat the Ashe magnolia in the first-to-bloom contest.

Magnolia ashei flower bud

Magnolia ashei flower bud

My latest big-leaf magnolia species addition is Magnolia pyramidata. I planted it last March. It is tiny, but so were the others when I planted them some years ago. When I see the small new magnolia just unfurling its leaves, I can look to its magnolia cousins for the payoff a few years of patience will bring.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

The key to keeping this new addition happy will be weeding out intruders.

I can’t resist offering a few more views from the north slope garden.

Pinxterbloom azalea

Alabama azalea in foreground; pinxterbloom azalea down slope

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum 'Shasta' in back

Ashe magnolia in foreground; Viburnum ‘Shasta’ in back

New leaves are also lovely in their own right.

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of the deciduous Dawn Redwood

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

New leaves of deciduous False Larch

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

The greening of the floodplain forest across our creek.

Although I can’t take credit for planting the myriad, multiplying wildflowers that grace the wetland on and adjacent to our five acres, I can take credit for appreciating it, encouraging it, and lavishing it with compliments when it begins its spring display.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to their swamp brethren.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Cinnamon ferns tower over Atamasco lilies just beginning to bloom.

Lizard's tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

Lizard’s tails emerge over more muddy territory every year. When they bloom, plumes of white dance across the floodplain.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

The Mayapple mob is abloom while the Bladdernuts above drop spent flowers on their lobed leaves.

One of my additions to this breathtakingly healthy wetland is a Red Buckeye.

The entire Red Buckeye tree

The entire Red Buckeye tree

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

A flower-laden branch of the Red Buckeye

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence  shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

This close-up of a Red Buckeye inflorescence shows the tubular flowers that draw hummingbirds every spring.

I took 171 pictures today. Not all of them were great, but even so, I think this is enough for one post. Soon I must update you on the vegetable garden. Much is happening there. And other parts of the yard are also in full, glorious flower. Truly, I am blessed with an embarrassment of botanical riches. But as I count my blessings, I remind myself that I had a lot to do with the beauty that now surrounds me. All the sore muscles, the sweat, the dirt, and yes, the bug bites are all worth this annual payoff — a payoff that grows larger and more wonderful every year.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

Eastern Columbines have staged a takeover of the bed beside my greenhouse.

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August Monkeys on my Floodplain

Mimulus alatus

Mimulus alatus

Well, Monkeyflowers, anyway. To be precise, Winged Monkeyflowers (Mimulus alatus). This native perennial wildflower has been showing up here and there on my active floodplain ever since we started tending this yard in 1989. But this year’s uncharacteristically wet summer resulted in a veritable explosion of violet blossoms. The yellow and white throat patch gives the flowers an orchid-like appearance. Very showy, in my opinion, for a wildflower.

The winged aspect refers to the small wings on the petioles (leaf stems), bits of tissue that flare out on either side of the stems, a bit like wings — at least to the eyes of the botanist who named this flower.

If you zoom in on the photo by clicking on it, you can just make out the wings on the petioles.

If you zoom in on the photo by clicking on it, you can just make out the wings on the petioles.

The common name apparently arose because someone decided the flower shape and coloring resembled the face of a monkey. Personally, I don’t see it. What I see is a lovely 1-3-foot bright green opposite-leaved plant covered in showy pale violet flowers.

You’ll find this relatively common wildflower in consistently wet areas throughout most of the eastern United States. It has a relatively lengthy bloom period, from mid-summer to early fall. My monkeys finished blooming by mid-September.

I didn’t plant them. I assume floodwaters deposited seeds some years ago. They can spread a bit by rhizomes as well, and certainly in my yard, I have distinct patches of these beauties, as well as odd singles popping up here and there, often near Cardinal Flowers. The two species look fabulous together, especially when backed by early-blooming goldenrods.

The distinctive opposite-leaved structure of this wildflower makes it easy to identify.

The distinctive opposite-leaved structure of this wildflower makes it easy to identify.

To be happy, Winged Monkeyflowers require wet to consistently moist conditions and rich soil with abundant organic matter. They will thrive in full sun and light shade. If they look small and yellowish, they probably are getting too dry and hot. Mine were greenly lush this year, and astonishingly floriferous.

Winged Monkeyflowers prefer undisturbed wetlands, but mine are doing just fine despite significant disturbance from several floods this year. I suspect they would do very well as rain garden plants, and you can find commercial sources for this species, though it takes a bit of research.

If you’ve got a consistently moist spot in a bit of light shade, I would encourage you to try these long-blooming, showy wildflowers. They don’t have any fragrance, but bumblebees and other pollinators adore them anyway. They must not taste good, because mine are wholly unprotected and often surrounded by fresh deer tracks, yet remain uneaten.

And who can resist being able to brag about growing Winged Monkeys? At least that’s always where my admittedly strange mind goes — to Oz — when I spot one of these lovelies.

Fly, my pretties, fly!

Fly, my pretties, fly!

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For Earth Day: Love the natives; hate the invaders.

A new (for us) extraordinary native find on our floodplain yesterday.

A new (for us) and extraordinary native find on our floodplain yesterday.

I’m reasonably certain that’s a Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica). This early-blooming spring ephemeral wildflower usually starts blooming just a day or two before the American trout-lilies in a moist woodland at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. I’ve always thought them to be exquisitely delicate and lovely, and they were on my “Add Someday” list for our five acres of Piedmont chaos. No longer.

Yesterday, Wonder Spouse and I stumbled across two tiny blooming specimens in the middle of our currently moist floodplain. We haven’t mowed there yet, because we’re still picking up fallen limbs from winter storms, which is probably why it managed to push out flowers in time for us to notice. The Spring Beauties at the NC Botanical Garden grow in what becomes deep shade as the floodplain canopy trees above them leaf out. Our volunteers are in a sunnier locale, near a large pine, perhaps enough to give them afternoon summer shade. From this difference, I conclude that Spring Beauties require moisture more than shade.

Our volunteers likely found their way via floodwaters from our little creek, which is only about ten feet from their growing site, in an area that overflows whenever the creek waters escape their banks. We could not be happier to have this native join us: another native to love.

Wonder Spouse and I spent several hours wandering the floodplain/wetland habitats of our yard yesterday, because this is the time of year when their health is demonstrated by the ecological diversity of the beautiful native plants that thrive in the muck. Indeed, there is much to love in a healthy native wetland. There’s also much to worry about: invaders. Non-native, alien species remain the number two threat to healthy native environments world-wide (after outright destruction), and in my yard, we battle invaders constantly.

From Beauties to Bullies

Some battles are nearly hopeless. Japanese Honeysuckle and Japanese Stiltgrass are so aggressively pervasive in our North Carolina woodlands and backyards that the best most of us can do is to try to keep them out of selected areas — a favorite flowerbed perhaps, or a beloved tree, in the case of Japanese Honeysuckle.

Battles Still Worth Fighting

In my wetland/floodplain areas, the invader we are still fighting — so far, successfully <knock wood> is Chinese privet. This evergreen, common hedge shrub of older homes produces blue-purple berries that birds adore. They distribute seeds everywhere, but the privets are most dangerous to floodplain/wetland environments. In some areas in eastern North Carolina, the understory composition of vast acres of wetlands has been completely overtaken by invading privet. Because these non-natives are evergreen, they outcompete wildflowers, shrubs, and tree seedlings for light and other resources. Eastern North Carolina wetlands are becoming biological deserts, consisting of nothing but privet beneath canopy trees. When those trees die, no seedling trees will replace them, because they can’t compete successfully with privet. Eventually, our eastern wetland landscape will consist of miles and miles of nothing but privet.

Plant invaders are overlooked by most folks, because their progress is slower than, say, invading Emerald Ash Borers or Sudden Oak Death. To the untrained eye, green is green. But native animals and plants know how critical the differences are. If you love your southeastern Piedmont landscape, you should know too.

Whenever Wonder Spouse and I walk around our yard, we keep a sharp eye out for Chinese privets (Ligustrum sinense). Seedlings appear constantly, typically beneath trees, where birds deposit the seeds after feasting on privet fruits elsewhere. Yesterday, we spotted several larger shrubs that we had somehow overlooked previously. Greens blend together, and in crowded thicket areas (left for animal nesting habitat), a privet sometimes escapes our notice — for a while.  I am especially vigilant in my hunt for this species in my wetland and along the edges of my creek. These areas are most vulnerable to this devastating invader.

While hunting privet yesterday, I was disturbed to discover that some of the Autumn Olives (Elaeagnus umbellata) invading the top of our hill have made it to the floodplain and wetlands. This pernicious invader has taken over many acres of upland environments, such as ridge tops, in my part of the southeastern Piedmont. This species and its close cousins (E. angustifolia and E. pungens) are all non-native shrub species. All are very bad news for the local environment, despite the berries that birds eat with gusto.

Wonder Spouse grabbed his trusty Weed Wrench and went to work on the invading Elaeagnus shrubs, pulling out long-rooted invaders from mucky ground, accompanied by a rather satisfying sucking sound.

Note the flowers just opening on this newly wrenched specimen.

Newly wrenched.

Note the flowers just opening on this one:

Their perfume is cloyingly sweet -- nausea-inducing, if you ask me.

Their perfume is cloyingly sweet — nausea-inducing, if you ask me.

This was a larger one that put up considerable resistance before Wonder Spouse prevailed:

Die, monster, die!

Die, monster, die!

A New Enemy

And, there’s more bad news for my little patch of Piedmont: Asiatic Hawksbeard (Youngia japonica). This relatively recent annual invader was introduced by the nursery trade. It was probably inevitable, given the number of plants from nurseries that I’ve added over the decades, that this horrifyingly aggressive invader would appear on our property.

It may not look like much, but...

It may not look like much, but…

To the casual eye, the basal rosette of jagged leaves of Youngia looks quite like that of a Dandelion. But if you look a little more closely, the dangerous differences become evident. It sends up clusters of small yellow flowers on bloom stalks. Dandelions only produce one, much larger yellow flower per stalk. Seeds of Asiatic Hawksbeard look somewhat like those of a Dandelion; they are both attached to white tufts that allow them to float far on breezes. But Hawskbeard seed tufts, like its flowers, are much smaller — and uglier — than those of Dandelions.

Compare this relatively polite Dandelion ...

Compare this relatively polite Dandelion …

With the Hawksbeards on either side of this Dandelion. Yes, they are even crowding out the Dandelions!

With the Hawksbeards on either side of this Dandelion. Yes, they are even crowding out the Dandelions!

I know you’re thinking this is just one more lawn weed, right? Not really. Unlike our common non-native weeds — Dandelion, Henbit, Chickweed, Lambs Quarters — Asiatic Hawksbeard spreads much, much more aggressively. Its basal rosettes are dangerously easy to overlook, and now the experts tell me that they are moving into our dwindling natural areas. In these diminishing patches of native forest, Asiastic Hawksbeard is joining Japanese Stiltgrass, Japanese Honeysuckle, and larger invaders in displacing native wildflowers and other small native plants. Every new invading plant means more competition for food, light, and water for our natives. With no natural predators to slow them down here, their eventual takeover seems a near certainty.

Asiatic Hawksbeard has a taproot similar to that of a Dandelion, and if you don’t get it all when you pull it, the plant will regenerate. Also, you can’t just toss pulled Hawksbeards onto your compost pile. Flowers and even nearly-open flower buds finish their cycle and release seeds into the environment even after they’re pulled. Knowing this, I spent many, many hours last year carefully digging out this new invader from my yard wherever I found it. Every plant went immediately into a trash bag, which I tied and left in the hot sun to fry before adding it to my trash can. Despite my efforts, the Youngia is much more pervasive now that it was last year. And I’m seeing it in all parts of my yard now, whereas, last year, it was confined to only certain areas. The basal rosettes have a distinctive yellow cast, and the leaves are slightly fuzzy. I’ve become quite adept at spotting them. Next winter, whenever we spot one, Wonder Spouse and I are planning to resort to treating them with Round-up. Wonder Spouse and I are ridiculously outnumbered, and this is a war we don’t want to lose.

Reasons to Keep Fighting

And there is so very much to lose. On this Earth Day, let me leave you with a few positive images from our still-healthy wetland, where the wildflowers and other plants are wakening to warming weather with enthusiasm for another growing season.

Our ever-widening stand of Mayapples is blooming profusely.

Our ever-widening stand of Mayapples is blooming profusely.

Cinnamon ferns sport spice-colored fruiting fronds while nearby Atamasco Lilies begin to flaunt flowers.

Cinnamon ferns sport spice-colored fruiting fronds while nearby Atamasco Lilies begin to flaunt flowers.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits are preaching to all who will listen about the importance of healthy wetlands.

Jack-in-the-Pulpits preach to all who will listen about the importance of healthy wetlands.

On this Earth Day — and every day — I will continue to love the diverse and beautiful native species that bless my property. And I will battle non-native invaders as long as I can breathe. Clean water and air can’t exist without the help of healthy native environments — especially wetlands. Do your part today and every day by eradicating invaders in your yard. To learn more about invaders in Southeastern North America, start here.

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Majestic Ironweed Reigns over Wetlands

Amethyst-colored Ironweed flowers glow in early morning sunlight.

The recent and uncharacteristic (at least for the last few years) August rains in my area have encouraged the local Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) population to new heights of enthusiasm. When we first moved to our patch of NC Piedmont over 20 years ago, I didn’t see any of this common wetland wildflower, so I actually bought a couple of plants to add to the back of a flowerbed, where the height of these late-summer bloomers would not overpower smaller flowers.

Ironweed is perfectly happy in a typical flowerbed, as long as it receives adequate moisture, but it flourishes best in its native habitat — creek edges and floodplains, where its purple flowers contrast beautifully with the many native composites and goldenrods that can make late summer a monotony of yellow.

Of course, after I planted my store-bought plants, I began to spot native volunteers all over the wetter areas of our yard. Clearly, they had been there all along; I had simply overlooked them in the early years.

During drought years, I sometimes see no blooming plants, or at best, one. This year — the dampest we’ve had in a while (though not wet at my house) — Ironweed is blossoming randomly all over the moister portions of the yard.

I like the way the longish lance-shaped leaves don’t overpower the beauty of the flower head (called a corymb by botanists).

When it’s truly happy, it can grow seven feet tall. My wildflower volunteers are more in the 4-5-foot range, which I deem quite respectable, especially given that two-week round of 100+-degree temperatures we endured in July.

The flowers are beloved by pollinators, and the seeds, which botanists call nutlets, are favored by a number of native bird species. I leave my plants wherever they pop up and let them complete their life cycles on their own terms. Inevitably, a few seeds escape the birds and sprout into new plants the next spring. You can also propagate this perennial from stem cuttings taken in June or July.

Even the native asters that come into their own a bit later in the season are not as deep and rich a purple as the flowers of Ironweed. I highly recommend this trouble-free native perennial wildflower for any spots in your yard that can accommodate its height and moderate moisture requirements. Your reward will be amethyst-colored flowers for over a month, abundant butterflies, and happy local seed-eating birds — a wildflower win-win for everyone.

Flower color is even more richly purple when the plant stands in shadows.

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Wetland Preacher: Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Wetland Congregation

The native wetland at the edge of our property gets more gorgeous every day. As you can see in the above photo, the Cinnamon Ferns and Atamasco Lilies are still magnificent. They serve as a fitting congregation for the latest additions: Jack-in-the-Pulpits (Arisaema triphyllum). The Jacks are in front in the above shot — their three-part leaves make them easy to spot. Someone decided that their unusual flower structure (a spadix), which is surrounded by a leaflike hood (a spathe) looks like a preacher sitting in his pulpit, hence, Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

Their other common name is Indian Turnip, because Native Americans ate the underground tubers. But don’t just dig one up and take a bite, please! Raw tubers are full of calcium oxalate crystals, which will burn your mouth like fire. Native Americans knew that cooking the tubers cancelled this effect, rendering them acceptable as vegetables.

My references tell me that Jack-in-the-Pulpits need constant moisture and at least medium shade to be happy. And, if you want them to set fruit (a festive cluster of red berries), the plants need to be well fed.

Periodic flooding of my wetland by the adjacent creek takes care of nutrient deposition for me, and my wetland remains at least damp except during the direst of droughts. A high canopy provides shade. My Jacks are responding by multiplying with enthusiasm.

I’ve got both forms — the green form:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, green form

And the purple-striped form. Note the deep purple stem on this form:

Jack-in-the-Pulpit, purple form

The split is just about even between the two forms in my little wetland. Both are nice, but I think the purple form is quite an eye-catcher. If I were going to move some to other moist areas in my yard, I’d probably move the purple form. Although it is easier to simply spread the seeds where I want them. I’ve done this in a few spots. I sprinkled red berries in the late summer/early fall when I noticed them (they’re hard to miss), and now I’ve got Jacks preaching in spots where I had no Jacks previously.

This native wildflower is common in wetlands up and down the eastern side of the United States, and I think it’s under-appreciated.  If you’ve got a consistently wet, shady spot in your yard, I encourage you to consider planting some Jack-in-the-Pulpits.  Preaching the gospel of wetland significance is their speciality, and I think it’s a message that can’t be heard often enough.

Cicada Update

I told you yesterday here about the emergence of the first wave of periodical cicadas. This morning, my backyard, which has a protected southern exposure, was teeming with hundreds of emerging cicadas. It’s hard not to think of the movie, Alien, when you spot one just beginning to push itself out of its larval shell, as in this photo:

Here they come

That’s what the cicada at the top of the photo is doing. The one below is dangling from the husk of its former self as it dries its wings. I’m expecting the eerie humming to commence very soon.

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Belle of the Wetland: Atamasco Lily

Atamasco Lilies

The picture speaks for itself, don’t you think? This native wildflower, commonly known as Atamasco Lily or Wild Easter Lily (Zephranthes atamasco) flourishes in my soggy wetland, and is nearing peak bloom as I type.

Ace photographer and Wonder Spouse took this shot for me, because my less-expensive camera just couldn’t do justice to these beauties.  If you take the time to click on the above photo to enlarge it, you’ll be better able to see the details that make this flower so gorgeous. Note the two flower buds swollen like balloons as they prepare to unfurl their petals. And see the smaller buds, pink-tinged, waiting their turns to shine?

This wildflower — growing without any help from me in a mucky wetland — mixes with the Cinnamon Ferns and Jack-in-the-Pulpits like they’re mingling at a party. Wow is an understatement.

The distinctive leaves of these lilies make them a snap to spot even when they’re not blooming. They are flat and very shiny — easy to distinguish from the abundant grasses and sedges that share the wetland. My references tell me the leaves and bulbs are highly poisonous, which would explain why the deer don’t graze on them — not even the flower buds.

Flowers are six-petaled and quite delicate. Here’s a close-up of a flower that Wonder Spouse took. If you click to enlarge it, you may spot the mosquito loitering on a lower right petal.

Atamasco Lily Close-up

Flower stems (called scapes) grow 8 to 10 inches tall and usually bear single flowers. Because they tend to bloom around Easter, residents of the southeastern Piedmont and Coastal Plain — where these lilies are native — have a tradition of picking the flowers to celebrate the holiday, proclaiming them to be Wild Easter Lilies.

My references say that these lilies will adapt to standard garden beds, as long as the soil is high in organic material, and even moisture levels are maintained. They need a few hours of sun to ensure good blossom production.

However, in my opinion, Atamasco Lilies belong in our naturally occuring swampy spots — and maybe rain gardens — places where they can achieve maximum vigor — and where they can take their rightful places as the belles of our late springtime wetlands.

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Wetland Wonder: Cinnamon Fern

Cinnamon Fern Fiddleheads

This is how Cinnamon Ferns (Osmunda cinnamomea) start. The furled leaves are tightly wrapped in shapes resembling the heads of fiddles — hence the term, fiddleheads, to describe just-emerging ferns. I took this photo on April 1, and I’ve been watching all month as the fiddleheads unfurled to reveal fronds.

I’ve always loved Cinnamon Ferns. These wetland beauties can be found in the Piedmont, and in areas east and west of that region. Give it moisture, and it will thrive. Give it moisture and sun, and it will grow enormous — four, even five feet!

The ferns in these photos were growing in my shady wetland when we moved here. They usually reach about three feet in height. Their fibrous root systems have created their own little hummock that stands just above the water line when the area floods.

Cinnamon Ferns are named for their fertile spore-bearing fronds. Unlike many other ferns, which produce spores on the backs of their fronds, Cinnamon Ferns put all of their spores on special fronds that turn a warm cinnamon brown when the spores mature. It really does look as if the frond is covered in cinnamon.

Here’s one of mine a couple of days ago:

Cinnamon Fern with spore-bearing fronds visible

The green fronds will continue to expand as summer progresses. The fruiting fronds will soon wither and disappear, the spores dispersing into the wetland. These tall ferns add quite a bit of drama  to any moist area; they don’t need to be in standing water to be happy.

My Cinnamon Ferns are the first of my native wetland plants to welcome springtime, but they aren’t alone. The Atamasco Lilies and Jack-in-the-Pulpits are starting to show early flowers, and the leaves of Lizard’s Tail and Jewelweed are popping up everywhere.  I’ll show you each one as it reaches its peak of wetland fabulosity.

I will never understand why people drain wetlands. A healthy wetland like mine is not only packed with gorgeous ferns and wildflowers, it provides habitat for frogs and other water-lovers, and it filters run-off before it reaches my creek, reducing the creek’s sediment and pollution load.

And one more bonus for summer nighttime lovers — the larval stage of fireflies (lightning bugs to us southern folk) require moist soil — the kind of moist soil wetlands offer in abundance. I cannot begin to describe adequately the wonder of watching thousands upon thousands of fireflies as they begin their summer nighttime dances in the shrubs, gradually rising to flicker among the branches of the tree canopy.

Who needs stars when you can watch the blinking lights of fireflies as they dance to the thrum of cicadas on sultry summer nights — all thanks to a healthy wetland presided over by statuesque Cinnamon Ferns?

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