Posts Tagged Piedmont wetland natives
When Wonder Spouse and I moved to these five acres just over 31 years ago, about 1.5 acres were a floodplain. The area was dominated by a mature canopy of green ash trees; grasses and wildflowers grew beneath the trees. The creek that bordered our property was healthy, deeply incised, clear-flowing, full of crayfish, freshwater mussels, and fish. Intervals of years would pass without the creek overflowing onto the floodplain, which we mowed a few times during the growing season to minimize our chances of stepping on a snake. We planted native understory shrubs that should have been there: Spicebush, deciduous hollies, Virginia Sweetspire, Bladdernut, Beautyberry, Viburnum, and more. Growing in their ideal habitats, all flourished beneath the 70-foot ash forest.
Then the bulldozers came. Lots of bulldozers. The healthy second-growth forests that had surrounded us disappeared tract by tract as long-time landowners sold their family heritage to men eager to strip the land bare, replacing trees with subdivisions indistinguishable from each other. Silt deposits filled the creek — the consequences of sloppy construction techniques. Forests disappeared. Native wildlife that once had hundreds of acres to roam were squeezed into smaller and smaller patches of forest. One of the largest of those patches — probably the largest — is our land and the forest on the other side of the creek that, we hope, is too much of a wetland to attract the interest of the bulldozer clan.
Beavers that had lived a few miles from us along quieter streams were displaced by houses surrounded by fescue lawn deserts. They found refuge downstream from our land. A dam system longer than a football field has captured enough water to make a sizable, mostly shallow pond where Black Willows, sedges, and cattails dominate. The wetland raised the water level beneath our floodplain; its transformation to wetland is well underway. The ash trees doomed to death by the arrival of non-native, invasive Emerald Ash Borers will be replaced by rapidly expanding stands of Black Willow. Some of the shrubs we planted are hanging on; some couldn’t handle the rising water. Significant floods now happen somewhere between six and twelve times a year, depending on the hurricane season and cut-off low pressure systems like the one about to dump four or more inches of rain on us over the next two days.
The floodplain is no longer flat. Multiple channels of flowing creek water now cover it. You must wear boots to wade across them if you want to walk to the end of the property. Massive silt deposits line the edges of the channels, sediment dropped by flood waters that lose speed as they leave the original creek channel. Topography and vegetation are nearly unrecognizable when compared to where we started three decades ago.
The dynamic nature of this area has been my great teacher. I have learned humility — no longer do I think I am the decider of what plant grows where. Nor do I know from one day to the next what plant or animal I might meet in this ever-growing wetland. The area definitely keeps me on my toes — safely dry within my muck boots, of course.
My strategy now is to plant as many well-adapted native plants as I can afford into this wetland area to increase species diversity and, I hope, to provide food and shelter for the ever-growing wildlife population sharing our land with us. We think our attempts are proving successful, if what we see captured on our wildlife cameras is any indication.
We have two wildlife cameras strategically placed on our floodplain near the creek along an obvious wildlife path. The less expensive one we got first contains one camera that tries to take both day and night shots. Image quality is sub-optimal, which is why we invested in a more expensive model with two cameras — one for day shots, the other for nighttime photo captures. We download both cameras once a week to see what animals wandered by. Species numbers and diversity vary widely from week to week and month to month. Last week’s download produced a nice array of species, and included an action sequence of a fight between species. Another sequence prompted me to learn a new term — gang brood. Photos and explanations follow.
As you might guess, deer are frequently caught by the cameras, but they are definitely more active during some parts of the year. Bucks, for example, had not been seen much until this past week. My theory is they don’t like to show themselves until their new antlers make an appearance. Several showed up this week sporting velvet-covered antler nubs:
The does are extremely pregnant. We haven’t seen them on the cameras or in our yard much lately. We assume they are laying low while gestating. One of the does caught on the camera is very, very pregnant. I suspect she will — or may have by now — produced twin fawns.
And now for the fight. This is a first for our wildlife cameras — a tangle between a possum and a raccoon. These are nighttime shots and the animals were moving so there is motion-blur. The whole sequence occurred within one minute. We think perhaps the raccoon thought it might try possum for dinner, but the possum declined.
After the raccoon left, the possum lingered long enough to be sure the raccoon wasn’t returning, then disappeared into the tall grass — taking the opposite direction from that chosen by the raccoon:
The raccoon shows up in photos later in the week, but the possum does not. We suspect the possum simply decided to avoid the area.
The cameras caught four different bird species during daylight hours this week. The older camera caught a fuzzy shot of a black vulture. A group of them likes to hang around the creek and bathe in a shallow area. It’s not unusual to see crows caught occasionally by the cameras. They seem to be everywhere, perpetually curious. The camera catches shots of Red-shouldered Hawks fairly often. Wetlands are their habitat. This one was doing what we often see them doing — grabbing juicy earthworms from the fertile, wet floodplain soil.
Another bird species concludes this edition of Wetland Wildlife. Canada geese have been loudly present on the beaver pond since late winter. In past years, the pond was the nesting site of one pair of geese. As their goslings matured, the family would swim up the creek to an area near our backyard, then wander up the hill toward the greenhouse, nibbling vegetation as they strolled. We’ve been waiting for the cameras to capture this behavior, but were very surprised when last week’s footage revealed three adult Canada geese and goslings of two distinct ages, all hanging around together. That’s when I went online and learned about gang broods. Read about this behavior here in the section on behavior. It appears that some Canada geese parents band together with other parents and goslings, likely as a form of mutual protection from predators. This is just another example of what the growing wetland on our property is teaching us about the natural world.
In the Canada geese sequence that follows, you can see watchful parents scoping out the area before goslings appear. The final photo in this sequence was the last one of these birds on the camera. I am guessing that parents lost patience with offspring and rushed them off before the camera had another chance at a shot.
I predict that in the next few weeks the cameras will be capturing many photos of does with fawns frolicking around them. It also should soon be time for the wild turkeys to make an appearance. We’ve spotted the toms in an adjacent field by themselves. We know they separate from nesting hens to draw off predators. Last year after the chicks had grown a bit, a group of about a dozen hens, chicks, and toms were caught by the cameras on numerous occasions. Here’s hoping we get a repeat. Stay tuned…
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.
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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
I can’t resist offering a few more views from the north slope garden.
New leaves are also lovely in their own right.
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.
One of my additions to this breathtakingly healthy wetland is a Red Buckeye.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 one:
This was a larger one that put up considerable resistance before Wonder Spouse prevailed:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
And the purple-striped form. Note the deep purple stem on this 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.
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:
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.
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.
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.