Summer Blooms

Despite (or because of) the heat and intense thunderstorms our plants are making some beautiful blooms:


Cedarglade St. John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum) is a favorite of the bees, and you can see why: pollen for everyone!


Widow’s Frill (Silene stellata) is indeed frilly, and as the species name suggests, star-like.


Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is always gorgeous, and a favorite of the hummingbirds.


Speaking of hummingbirds, this is the result of their work pollinating another plant, Coral Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens).  This is the first time I’ve ever seen a seed pod form on one of these and wouldn’t you know it’s bright red just like the flower.


Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) providing both food and shelter from afternoon showers for this bumblebee.


And finally, Blazing Star (Liatris spicata).  Keep these beauties in mind when planning you fall plantings.


Top Ten Native Plants for a Diverse and Beautiful Yard

This article originally appeared in the Wylde Center Fall 2015 Newsletter.

A short list cannot begin to describe the immense diversity and variation in the plant species and communities that evolved in what is now Georgia, USA. This list is just an attempt to get you to think about the plants that are in your yard and garden, where they came from, and what purpose(s) they serve. Landscaping can be beautiful AND provide food and shelter for wildlife.

In selecting these plants my criteria included: Native to Georgia, Number of caterpillar species hosted, Production of fruits/nuts for birds (and humans), Abundant flowers for pollinators (and humans), and cover/shelter for birds. The number of caterpillar species hosted is doubly important: Some lucky caterpillars get to grow up to be butterflies and moths that help pollinate flowers, but the vast majority of them are destined to be eaten by birds and other animals. Baby birds need large amounts of fat and protein to develop their brains and bodies just like baby humans, but unlike humans, birds cannot deliver these nutrients via milk. It takes lots and lots of caterpillars to raise a healthy bird to maturity. Each selection starts with a whole Genus of plants, and then narrows to one or two species that are endemic to the Piedmont. There are two reasons for this structure: The numbers for caterpillar species hosted* are expressed by genus, and if conditions in your yard will not support my selections then you can research the other members of the genus. The wide diversity of plants in the Southeast almost guarantees that there are other species in the genus that will find your yard delightful. Mindful selection of native plants for your yard helps to reunite a fragmented landscape into a larger community, and gives us all a sense of place in the land that we call home.

*All numbers cited for caterpillar species hosted come from Dr. Douglas Tallamy’s invaluable research that can be found on his website at

Wild Cherry – Prunus spp. Prunus_angustifolium_01
Wild Cherry, Chokecherry, Wild Plum, Black Cherry and Laurel Cherry are some of the common names given to the native members of this genus. It also includes the cultivars that give us our plums, cherries, almonds, apricots, and peaches. The native Prunus species host a whopping 429 different species of caterpillars! In addition to the caterpillar smorgasbord, the fruits are also an important food source for birds. Chickasaw Plum (Prunus angustifolia) is a small tree (15 to 25 feet at maturity) that has glossy dark green leaves and reddish-brown bark. Clusters of small white flowers bloom in early spring, which provides much-needed nectar for emerging native bees. The small ½” reddish-orange fruits ripen in the late summer. The fruits are usually a bit tart to our modern tastes, but have a long history as a food source for Native Americans, and were later used to make jams, jellies, and wine by colonists. If you have the space Black Cherry (Prunus serotina) is a full size tree (up to 100 feet) with the same early blooming white flowers. The fruits are small, but abundant, and also have a long history of use in jams and pies, and as a flavoring in many foods and beverages.

Blueberry – Vaccinium spp.

Blueberries should be very familiar to anyone that has spent even a single summer in Georgia. The Vaccinium genus also contains the species commonly known as: Bilberry, Huckleberry, Cranberry, Whortleberry, and Lignonberry. Its members host 286 species of caterpillar in addition to making those delicious berries. The creamy white bell-shaped flowers bloom early in the season providing nectar for bees, and have their own native specialist pollinator, the Southeastern Blueberry Bee, that utilizes “buzz pollination” to efficiently transfer pollen and increase berry production. The Southern ‘Rabbiteye’ Blueberry (Vaccinium virgatum or V. ashei) has numerous named cultivars selected to produce tasty berries if you can beat the birds. It does better in the Southeastern climate than the Highbush Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum), which is a more northerly native, and also has numerous named cultivars. Cultivars are all essentially clones, so make sure to plant at least two different ones for good cross pollination and berry set. If you want a true native try the amusingly named Farkleberry (Vaccinium arborescens), for a large shrub with evergreen leaves and smaller, tart berries that birds will still readily eat.

Joe Pye Weed – Eutrochium/Eupatorium spp.**
Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) is already a popular garden plant, especially with butterfly enthusiasts. It grows up to ten feet tall in ideal conditions (part shade, moist soils) and produces large rounded clusters of hundreds of tiny pink flowers. Every shape and size of pollinator will be on this plant at the height of its bloom in late summer. Another member of this genus that also attracts numerous and diverse pollinators is Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). It has a long history of medicinal use by Native Americans and later by colonists. Boneset is easily recognized by its large, fuzzy perfoliate leaves. The opposite pairs are joined at the bases, and the stem appears to perforate them. Rounded clusters of white to pinkish blooms top the stalks in late summer. Eupatorium hosts 40 species of caterpillars, provide abundant nectar for adult butterflies, and follow through with lots of seeds for songbirds.

**Thanks to DNA sequencing all of the plants that used to be in the Eupatorium genus are constantly being shuffled around a few genera, so I am treating these two interchangeably.

Sedges – Carex spp.
Sedges are very similar to grasses, and are in fact close cousins of the grass family. They tend to be shorter at maturity, have broader leaves, and prefer partly shady moist areas, whereas grasses tend to prefer drier, sunnier habitats. Sedges are very well suited for border plantings at the edges of walkways, flower beds, and around the bases of trees. Anywhere that one might consider planting the dreaded invasive Monkeygrass (Liriope spp.) is a spot that would be much better off with a group of sedges. Broadleaf Sedge (Carex platyphylla) has attractive silvery green leaves that form dense clumps 8-10” tall and put up spiky flower heads that develop into seeds for songbirds. Blue Wood Sedge (Carex flaccosperma) has blue-green leaves, is semi-evergreen, and blooms in early spring. Carex hosts 36 caterpillar species in stark contrast to Liriope’s zero.

(NATIVE) Honeysuckle – Lonicera spp.

Lonicera sempervirens
The sweet smelling and tasting Honeysuckle with the creamy white flowers that is most often associated with that word is actually highly invasive and originally native to Asia. Lonicera japonica was spread all over the world in the 19th century and is now on every continent except Antarctica. Please do not propagate this plant, despite the fact that many nurseries continue to sell it. Scarlet Honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is native to this country, and is a tree-safe vine that produces clusters of brilliant red tubular flowers in mid-spring. These flowers are an important nectar source for our resident and migratory hummingbirds. The foliage is semi-evergreen, and the plant roots easily at the nodes making it easy to grow and multiply. It can be trained onto a trellis or fence into a very attractive, cascading mass of dark green leaves and bright red blooms. Yellow Honeysuckle (Lonicera flava) is another US Native that is essentially the same as Scarlet Honeysuckle in all respects except flower color. Its yellow tubular flowers are also attractive to hummingbirds. The native Lonicera plants host 33 species of caterpillars.

Goldenrod – Solidago spp.

Goldenrod often gets a bad reputation by association. It blooms the same time as Ragweed, and frequently gets blamed by allergy sufferers as the cause of their congestion. Goldenrods are pollinated by insects, and as such do not release clouds of pollen into the air like Ragweed. The beautiful yellow flowers are a favorite of many pollinators when they bloom in late summer as most other flowers have faded. In addition to beautiful, nectar bearing flowers goldenrods host 112 species of caterpillars. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago erecta) is a low-growing set of leaves for most of the year until it sprouts a 3-4 foot tall stem in late summer that is covered in hundreds of tiny yellow flowers. The small seeds that follow the blooms are readily consumed by birds. Wrinkleleaf Goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) is a slowly spreading, rhizomatous, colony-forming plant that has deep green leaves with toothed margins. The low-growing rosettes of leaves put up stalks lined with small yellow flowers in late summer that are followed by abundant seeds.

Hawthorn – Crataegus spp.

Hawthorns are large, thicket forming, woody shrubs in the Rose family. As with roses, they have beautiful flowers and large thorns. A thorny hedge is a great way to deter a nosy neighbor, and it makes ideal cover for nesting birds. Hawthorns flower in early spring, which makes them another important nectar and pollen source for native bees, they produce edible fruits, and host an impressive 150 different species of caterpillars. Yellow Hawthorn (Crataegus flava) is a drought tolerant small tree/ large shrub with clusters of bright white flowers in early Spring, yellow fruits in Summer, and beautiful foliage in Autumn. Parsley Leaf Hawthorn (Crataegus marshalii) is a multi-stemmed upright shrub with small, deeply incised leaves that resemble parsley leaves. Small white flowers are followed by bright red fruits that persist on the plant to become winter bird forage. It does well in average to dry soils and part shade.

Arrowwood – Viburnum spp.
Viburnums are very popular with landscapers and developers. Low water needs, tolerant of many soils, attractive glossy foliage, beautiful flowers, autumn colors: They knock it out of the park. Unfortunately, many of the varieties that are in the nursery trade are either from Asia, or have been hybridized with Asian species. This has made for some very interesting looking cultivars, but there is scant research on whether or not the 97 species of caterpillars that feed on native Viburnum leaves can fully utilize these non-native plants. Best to err on the side of caution on behalf of the caterpillars and plant a native that will also produce viable seeds for the birds to spread around. Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerfolium) is a great shrub to grow in the filtered shade of a large tree. It spouts multiple 3-5 foot tall stems lined with large opposite pairs of deep green leaves that are easily mistaken for Maple leaves. Rounded clusters of small white flowers bloom through the spring, and are followed by pea-sized blue-black fruits that birds will devour just as quickly as blueberries. The leaves put on a spectacular color show in autumn shifting through yellow, orange, red and then purplish hues before they drop for the winter. A larger specimen is Rusty Blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum) which is a thicket forming large shrub/small tree that grows 10-20 feet tall. The young leaves are covered in fine red hairs that give them a “rusty” appearance, and they also turn brilliant colors in the fall. It does best in average to dry soils and full sun to part shade.

Asters – Symphyotrichium spp.

Asters are one of the largest plant families encompassing over 1600 genera of closely related plants with very similar looking flowers including Sunflowers, Daisies, Coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and many, many more. The members of the Symphyotrichium genus tend to be named “(Person/Place/Adjective) Aster.” Georgia Aster (Symphyotrichium georgianum) should be our state flower. It is a drought tolerant rosette of low-growing leaves for most of the year, but starting in September a 3-4 foot tall branching stalk of blooms emerges. The abundant 2” flowers have deep purple petals with purplish-white centers that often continue to bloom through October into November making it a great source of late season nectar and pollen. Another late bloomer that is also inconspicuous until it flowers is Calico Aster (Symphyotrichium lateriflorum). Its 2-4 foot tall bloom stalk is covered with hundreds of small white flowers with yellow centers that fade to brown as they age. The blooms continue to emerge through November or until they are killed back by frost.

Best Pics of 2015

As an ode to the ‘manual’ mode on my camera I thought I’d share my favorite plant-related pictures that I took in the past year.

‘Monarch Oviposit’

This image finally explained to me how their eggs get on the underside of the leaf as they are perched on top of it.

‘Ladybug Larva Devouring an Oleander Aphid’


‘Black Swallowtail Oviposit’ (Look closely and you can see other eggs)


‘…and the ensuing Black Swallowtail caterpillar swarm….’


‘Micheaux Lily bulbs’


‘Chrysoganum close up’


‘Tiny native bee coming in for a landing on Columbine’


‘Hoverfly lined up with Sisyrinchium petals’


‘Marshallia blooms at sunset’


‘Tiny Caterpillar using Rudbeckia flower parts as cover’


Miniature Worlds: Milkweed Edition

Every plant is a microcosm of the larger world if you look closely. Creatures go about their lives, feeding, mating and reproducing in their little corner of existence unaware of the larger world just beyond the edge of the leaf. Most plants have co-evolved with their insect predators, and with each new defensive adaptation comes a new insect feeding strategy. Specialized plant defenses lead to specialized insect plant eaters and then specialized insect predators that feed upon them. Unique, interdependent communities of plants and animals slowly take shape over the eons. Plants are the foundation upon which these communities are built, the necessary stage on which all the characters will play out their roles.

Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) are host to a number of insects that are well adapted to feed on this otherwise toxic plant. The most famous is the Monarch Butterfly caterpillar, which like all caterpillars starts out tiny:

Those lines in the background are my fingerprints. Caterpillars grow quickly because they eat, and eat, and eat. That’s really all they do is eat and grow through stages called instars as they covert leaf matter into body mass. In the final stages they are much larger:

The bright colors are to warn would be predators (i.e. birds) that their bodies are full of foul tasting, potentially poisonous compounds from the milkweed leaves.

Monarch caterpillars aren’t the only ones to eat milkweed, or to have those black and yellow stripes. The Milkweed Tussock Moth caterpillars (Euchaetes egle) also display the black and yellow warning signs:
They also have long stiff hairs to deter birds from trying to eat them. Unlike Monarchs, these caterpillars are gregarious and will congregate in large groups. This swarm defoliated 6 plants before I isolated them. The plants have evolved with this, and respond with a new burst of leaf growth a week or two later once the ravenous caterpillars have starved or pupated.

Another denizen of the milkweed patch is the aptly named Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus). It also sports bright colors to warn of the toxins it has ingested.
Seen here are the smaller, wingless nymph stage at left and the winged adult on the right. They are reluctant to stay still long enough for a good picture because I am more often hunting them down with a can of soapy water than a camera. These insects have specialized mouth parts to pierce milkweed seed pods and devour the seeds inside. I am trying quite hard to get fertile milkweed seeds even without them eating the pods, so a watery grave is all I have for them.

Oleander aphids (Aphis nerii) also present problems for those who grow and sell milkweed plants. They are an invasive insect in the US, as they evolved feeding on Oleander plants in the Mediterranean region. Oleander plants just happen to produce the same defensive chemicals, cardiac glycosides, that Milkweed plants do. When Oleander was introduced to the US as a garden plant the aphids came with it and soon began to feed on the native milkweeds as well.
They are now pretty much synonymous with milkweed, and can rob the plant of its energy by sucking out the juices from leaves and stems. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the aphids secrete a sugary substance called honeydew from their backsides, and this often nurtures the growth of fungi on the plant that can further weaken it and lead to the death of the plant. Controlling the spread of these nasty aphids can be tough. The simplest method is to blast them off the plants with a jet of water. It doesn’t necessarily kill them, but gives the plant a respite until they find their way back. Soapy water is another favorite, and it will actually kill them.
Soapy water also kills caterpillars and the eggs they hatch from though, so I’ve pretty much given up on spraying the plants with it. I usually just spot treat the larger infestations by knocking the aphids into my trusty can of soapy water. Spraying Neem Oil or soapy water will reduce the aphid numbers, but it will also kill off numerous unrelated insects (like caterpillars) and aphid predators as well. One positive sign I have noticed since discontinuing spraying is the presence of more Ladybug (Coccinella spp.) larvae. The little crocodile-looking larva are predators that love to eat aphids and numerous other plant-feeding insects.
After eating lots of aphids they pupate into the cheery red and black beetles that continue to feed on many of the insects that we call “crop pests.” Yet another reason to plant milkweed, as the ladybugs and their larvae do not distinguish between the green native aphids and the yellow invasive ones. It’s just another food source that will keep them around to guard your other plants.

Those are just a few of the insects that call Milkweed home. You can invite them into your community simply by planting any of the multiple Asclepias species and they will find it. Of that you can be sure.

Caterpillars Are Eating My Plants…..and I’m OK With That.

As Summer is upon us, and with a wet spring for encouragement, all of our plants are making verdant new growth. I add fertilizer to the equation to coax even larger, more luscious foliage and flowers from them. This is a common practice in most forms of agriculture and gardening, so most people should have learned by now that all that new growth is a nutrient-dense, tender, food source. As such, we shouldn’t be surprised when insects show up to fill their bellies and feed their offspring. Some insects can be devastating to plants: devouring the foliage, spreading fungal or bacterial diseases, eating the roots, or, something we especially despise here at BHF, eating the seed pods before they can develop. Milkweed Bugs, Leafcutters, Grasshoppers, Lacewings, and Mealybugs all have challenged my patience and devotion to organic practices on more than one occasion. As much as the previous insects fill me with consternation, there is one group of leaf munching insects that I greet with amusement and curiosity: Caterpillars.

Lerema accius
Like this one that was hiding in the base of a rolled up leaf of River Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). Many caterpillars feed at night and then spend the day hiding in a rolled up leaf, or clinging to plant’s stem hoping to avoid detection by birds and the numerous other predators that would eat them. Part of the fun of finding them is that they are trying very hard not to be found, so it’s usually a surprise. The other fun part is trying to identify the species and see what sort of butterfly or moth it will become. I’m pretty sure this one is a Clouded Skipper which feeds on various broad leaf grasses.

This one is going to grow up to be a moth: a Gray Half Spot to be exact. It is a more specialized species in that it only feeds on St John’s Wort (Hypericum spp.), and has developed adaptations to blend in with those plants. The bark of St John’s Wort has a dark reddish/burgundy coloring, and so does this caterpillar hiding in plain sight on a stem of Cedarglade St John’s Wort (Hypericum frondosum) seedling. I especially like finding specialists like this one because they are so exacting in their food requirements that they are almost by definition less common than their generalist cousins.

Speaking of specialist caterpillars, here is their charismatic poster child: The Monarch. Their food source is Milkweed (Asclepias spp.), a plant that is toxic to most other creatures. Compounds in the sap called cardiac glycosides will disrupt the heartbeat and possibly stop the heart altogether if too much of the plant is consumed. Monarch caterpillars and butterflies have evolved immunity to the effects of the plant’s defenses, and also incorporate the toxic compounds into their bodies which discourages predation by birds. This evolutionary strategy of eating toxic plants and utilizing their chemical defenses is shared by several other species of caterpillars including Pipevine Swallowtails, Ornate Moths, and Cinnabar Moths.

Here’s a few that are eating a non-toxic plant: the apple tree in my front yard. This is where the “I’m OK with it” can be put to the test. No one tends to care if caterpillars are eating the toxic weeds on the wayside, but when they start moving in on plants we wanted to eat, well, they might have to go. I am OK though because I know that they aren’t going to do any long term damage to the tree, especially since they are most likely going to get picked off by birds before they get a chance to spin cocoons. Each caterpillar only needs a few leaves from the plant to reach adulthood, and in this specific instance I don’t even want the leaves; I want apples. Also, this tree is not even old enough to make apples yet, so for the time being it’s just making caterpillar food. Apple and Crabapple trees (Malus spp.) host over 300 species of caterpillars, so it’s doing a great job of that, and still has plenty of leaves and continues to shoot upward.

This one isn’t a caterpillar at all. It just looks and acts like one. It is a Sawfly larva of the genus Macrophya. It took me a good bit of searching to figure that out because I was operating under the assumption that it was a caterpillar. Sawflies, like butterflies, lay their eggs on specific host plants, and this one uses Elderberry (Sambucus spp.). Interesting to note that Elderberry leaves and stems are toxic, so it looks like these sawflies have similarly adapted an immunity and utilization strategy like the Monarchs.

Caterpillars are critical links in the food web. They facilitate the last leg of the transformation of the sun’s energy into protein. Protein that is a critical food source for many other animals, especially when they are young and growing rapidly. A few tattered leaves on our ornamental plants are a small price to pay to ensure the proper development and survival of a clutch of baby birds. The lucky caterpillars that do escape predation and become butterflies or moths will pollinate the same plants that sustained them as larvae (and many others!), thus ensuring a new generation of plants to keep the circle rolling right along just as it has for millions of years.

Bartram, the First Family of American Botany

When we at Beech Hollow describe our operation as a ‘Native Plant Nursery’ it often prompts the question “How do you know/determine what is native?”  The full answer is a long-winded description of the plants and animals of a given habitat co-evolving over the millennia to form complex interdependent ecosystems, but a quick way to say it is “Natives are the plants that were growing on this continent before Europeans showed up.” That is a bit of an oversimplification, as there is archaeological evidence and some historical accounts of Native Americans having vast trade networks across the continent that facilitated the movement of goods and food plants such as maize and sunflowers as far back as 1000 B.C.

The ‘discovery’ of the Americas and subsequent exploration, colonization and modernization of the past 500 years has had dramatic effects on the landscape to say the least.  Plants from Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America are now commonly found all over North America.  Some require great care to sustain here like the tropical orchids blooming in the hothouse at the Atlanta Botanical Gardens on a cold February day, and some, like Chinese Privet, are running wild throughout the land.  By studying historical sources from the beginnings of this era of intercontinental plant exchange we can get an idea of the plant communities that were here before this land was named ‘America.’


Azaleas were highly sought after by European gardeners

Descriptions and plant specimens coming back from the New World excited Europeans and created a huge demand for new and interesting plants.  Explorers looking for gold were often disappointed in that pursuit, but found instead an entirely new set of crops being grown by the indigenous peoples and forests full of exotic trees and flowering shrubs.  There were no potatoes in Ireland, no tomatoes in Italy, no sunflowers in Russia, and no maize, vanilla, or tobacco in anywhere in Europe before transatlantic ships established regular trade routes in the 1600s.  Colonists began to populate the Eastern seaboard of North America in significant numbers through the late 1600s and in one of those colonies, Pennsylvania, resided a family named ‘Bartram.’ Through the travels, writings, plant specimen collections, and drawings produced by several generations of this family we have very rich descriptions of the plants and animals of Eastern North America as they were in their near primeval state.


Mountain Laurel is still a huge hit in Europe

John Bartram (1699-1777) was a third generation Pennsylvania Quaker who has been called the “Father of American Botany” and was one of the first practicing Linnaean botanists in North America.  Linnaeus himself said that Bartram was “greatest natural botanist in the world.”  He established the first proper botanical garden in North America just outside of Philadelphia, and you can still visit it to this day to learn about the plants he collected and propagated.  “Bartram Boxes” were crates he packed with hundreds of varieties of seeds that helped to establish his thriving plant export business and provided the British elite with novel plants to populate their gardens.  Bartram traveled extensively in search of new plants and through his notes and diaries we are able to get an idea of the diverse communities of plants that were thriving on the continent in the mid-eighteenth century.  John Bartram was also good friends with Benjamin Franklin, and may have planted the idea in his head for the American Philosophical Society. At the very least he was a founding member and helped shape the ideas of the burgeoning revolution.

William Bartram (1739-1823) was the third son of John, and went on to follow in his father’s footsteps by exploring the American Southeast and writing of its natural wonders while collecting and classifying the plants he encountered.  His writings about his journeys through what are now North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana from 1773-1777 were compiled by Francis Harper in “The Travels of William Bartram.”  Bartram’s often poetic descriptions and Harper’s detailed annotations with modern place and plant names that accompany them provide a vivid and verdant picture of the places he went and the plants, animals, and humans he encountered.

I’ve been reading his writings off and on for the past few years, and aside from the descriptions of 15 foot long alligators trying to sink his canoe in Lake George near what is now Orlando, there is one passage that really sticks with me.  It describes a forest northwest of Augusta, near the present day site of Beech Hollow Farm. First, a picture:IMG_5522

This is one of the biggest trees in the Beech grove here.  The tape is at 24″, so let’s call it 26 inches in diameter just for a reference while you read the following passage from William Bartram:

“…We entered an extensive fertile plain, bordering on the river and shaded by trees of vast growth, which at once spoke of its fertility.  Continuing some time through these shady groves, the scene opens, and discloses to view the most magnificent forest I had ever seen. We rise gradually a sloping bank of about twenty or thirty feet elevation and immediately entered this sublime forest; the ground is perfectly a level green plain, thinly planted by nature with the most stately forest trees, such as the gigantic Black Oak (Q. tinctora), Liriodendron, Juglans nigra, Planatus, Juglans exalta, Fagus sylvatica, Ulmus sylvatica, Liquid-amber styraciflua**, whose mighty trunks, seemingly of an equal height, appeared like superb columns.  To keep within the bounds of truth and reality, in describing the magnitude and grandeur of these trees, would I fear, fail of credibility; yet, I  think I can assert that many of the black oaks measured eight, nine, ten, and eleven feet diameter five feet above the ground, as we measured several that were thirty feet girt, and from hence they ascend perfectly straight, with a gradual taper, forty or fifty feet to the limbs…” (“Travels”, p.  24)

**(Black Oak, Tulip Poplar, Black Walnut, Sycamore, Shagbark Hickory, Beech, Elm, Sweet Gum)

So, his low estimate on the Oaks is 4 times the diameter of our biggest Beech.  In case you have trouble visualizing that I can help through the miracle of digital photo manipulation:









And he didn’t say he saw just one magnificent giant tree.  It’s an entire forest. And he even has to qualify his description and then basically says he’s low-balling it because you wouldn’t believe the actual truth.  Like I said, it sticks with me as an idealistic goal when thinking about conservation and restoration.

What did this land look like 240 years ago? What will it look like 240 years from now?bartram


Seeds, Up Close and Personal

Seeds. They’re everywhere.  Chances are you’ve probably eaten some today already.  I had a number of them on the outside of my bagel (which was made from ground up seeds) and ground up a bunch to make my coffee.  Most of the seeds we encounter as food have been bred to be bigger and tastier for our human appetites.  The seeds on non-domesticated plants, i.e. native wildflowers, have evolved their own special adaptations to appeal to the animals that consume and spread them.  They also have other interesting features that aid in their dispersal and germination so they can become new little plants.  The trouble is most of them are really small, and its hard to see those features.  Fortunately we have a microscope at the farm.  After many hours of the often mind-numbing task of removing the seeds from their capsules and screening out all the associated detritus I decided to take a break yesterday and look at some of my cleaned seeds a little closer.  Fortunately I was able to get my camera to focus through 2 extra lenses and was able to get a nice set of photos.

IMG_5446A familiar looking seed from the Woodland Sunflower (Helianthus divaricatus) as it resembles the big fat sunflower seeds you see in the grocery store from it’s cousin Helianthus annus.  IMG_5449

Another familiar looking seed from the bean family (Fabaceae), these are from Wild White Indigo (Baptisia alba). You can see the tiny umbilicus on the one where it was attached to the seed pod.IMG_5454

This seed and pod are from American Ipecac (Gillenia stipulata). It looks like a tiny brain to me. IMG_5453

False Aloe (Manfreda virginica) seeds look very similar to the seeds of their cousin, Yucca, but just a bit smaller.IMG_5452

Swamp Hibiscus (Hibiscus grandiflorus) surprised me with these stripes. I was immediately reminded of clam shells and how they form by adding layer upon layer.IMG_5450

Blue Star (Amsonia tabernaemontana) is one of the few cylindrical seeds I’ve ever seen. They form stacked end to end in a tubular capsule.


By far the biggest seed I looked at, Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus)  might have broken the 1 cm barrier.  I have planted plenty of these seeds, but I had never noticed the tiny hairs.  They just look smooth to the naked eye.


Like a crazy toy troll, these Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginianum) seeds have some wild hair. The mass of seeds looks like a puff of cotton on the plant, but here you can see the individual wiry hairs that encase the seed and help it float away on the breeze.  IMG_5439

I accidentally crushed one of these Skullcap (Scutellaria nervosa) seeds while I was moving it with tweezers.  The previous seeds were small, but these are tiny. I zoomed in another quarter turn on the microscope to take this. They look like perfect little spheres to the naked eye, but zoom in and they are anything but smooth. IMG_5441

Another one with hair, but this one has a comb.  These Blue Mistflower (Conclinum coelestrum) seeds also have hairs that are meant to catch the breeze and pull them along like an upturned umbrella. I was confused as to what that blurry violet stuff was, but then I realized that it’s the flowers! Each of those tiny flowers has a tube going down to an ovary.  When pollen is transferred to the flower, it is transported down the tube and a seed forms. Every single one of those tiny little flowers was visited by a pollinator to make every single one of these tiny little seeds.


And speaking of pollinators, the ones who made all of these seeds possible, here is a bee.  I’m not sure how she died (possibly all that arctic air), but she was on the porch and I suppose can live on in a blog post.  All the little hairs coming out of the compound eye were very interesting to me.  You can really see how pollen would get stuck to all those hairs.

There are plenty of seed heads out there right now.  Break one open and look closely at what’s inside.  Get out your hand lens or a magnifying glass.  Thank a pollinator and then cast the seeds to the wind.

Pernicious Privet


If you are already sighing in disgust and seeing red in your peripheral vision then you have probably dealt with Privet.  Those of you that don’t know what Privet looks like aren’t paying enough attention to the plants you pass each day.  If you are in the Southeast US, then I guarantee you pass some on any trip that involves crossing a floodplain/drainage/creek/river.

Chinese Privet (Ligustrum sinense), Japanese Privet (Ligustrum japonicum) and European Privet (Ligustrum vulgare) are all woody, multi-stemmed, semi-evergreen deciduous shrubs or small trees.  They all look very similar and are all terribly invasive, so I will simply refer to them interchangeably as ‘privet’ from here on out.  Privet was introduced to North America in the early to mid-1800s, and continues to be propagated and sold today.  It forms dense colonies, retains its olive green leaves nearly year round, and can be evergreen near the coasts.  This makes it an “ideal” plant to form hedgerows for privacy, especially since the dense branching allows it to be trimmed in to all manner of shapes and sizes.


This is a perfect example of a healthy Privet hedgerow in need of a trim.  Note the trash cans for scale.


This one has a number of other invasive vines coming out of the top, but you get the idea.  It makes a good visual screen from those nosy neighbors.  The main reason privet makes such dense colonies is because it sprouts new stems from its lateral roots, commonly referred to as “root suckers.”  Damaging or severing the roots is thought to (and in my experience definitely does) cause new stems to grow.  Add this to the fact that privet is a prolific bloomer and berry producer and you can begin to see how birds and time have aided it in creeping into any semi-moist, partly shady area in the Southeast.  Away from the hedge shears and lawnmowers privet forms large, fast-growing colonies and can easily shade out most other plants.IMG_5353

This is terrible news for the native plants, insects, and birds that depend on shady areas as their environmental niche in order to play their roles in the overall ecosystem.  The diverse mix of understory plants and shrubs that inhabit the marginal areas of the Piedmont and other Southeastern forests bloom from early February (Trout Lilies, Trilliums) to Late November (Giant Sage and multiple Aster species) and are constantly making leafy new growth that hosts the caterpillars of pretty much every native butterfly and moth species.  Privet blooms almost all at once in late Spring and chemical compounds in the leaves make it toxic to most leaf eating insects.  Privet does make berries that some birds do eat, but in comparison to the millions of caterpillars (bird food) that would be munching away on the leaves of the native plants privet replaces, the nutritional value is severely lacking.

Removal and Restoration

Now that we have an idea of the costs of privet invasion, what can we do to about it?

1.) Obviously, don’t plant privet.  That seems like a no-brainer, but as I mentioned before it is still sold by nurseries as a “hardy, fast-growing hedgerow plant.” The first search hit I got claimed it was the “largest selling hedge plant in North America!”  So, I guess I have to say: Do Not Plant Privet. Tell anyone that mentions planting it that it’s a terrible idea.

2.) Remove Privet from any land that is under your care.  I consider it a civic duty.  Much like Kudzu or English Ivy, it will eventually spread across any property lines that we like to think parcel up the land into distinct units.  Privet actually thrives as the manifestation of these imaginary lines in the form of hedges.  It might not be feasible to take down a hedge like the one pictured above all at once, especially if it is straddling the fence line. Any unwanted colonies wholly on your property can be slowly and deliberately removed with the right tools and perseverance.

Removal: Tools      IMG_5360

The good news is that almost all Privet seeds germinate the first year that they are in the ground.  It’s good news because there is no residual seed bank that builds in the soil, so if you can remove all of the plants/roots they should stay gone.  It also means you have to stay on top of your weeding to keep those tiny seedlings from becoming established shrubs.  The top tool in the picture is your best ally against any privet with a stem smaller than a No. 2 pencil. The two prongs can be used to grab and pry up the roots so that the whole plant is removed.  The roots are extensive and will break (causing new stems to sprout from the fragments) so its best to pull them after a rain, or wet down the soil first.

Loppers and saws can be used in several ways to slow or prevent the spread of larger more established privet:IMG_5363

1.) Cut off the flowers/berries before they are able to fully develop viable seeds.  If you can’t fully remove the plants you have, you can at least prevent them from spreading more than a few feet by removing their highly transportable seeds. The seeds ripen in Late September/October, so right now is the time to do this!  It might take an hour or two but it’s much easier on your back than pulling seedlings.

2.) Cut down the entire tree/shrub.  This will cause the roots to resprout, which I will discuss below, but taking out the privet canopy will allow other plants a chance to compete for sunlight and start to recolonize the area.  A three foot tall pencil sized privet stalk is better than multiple fifteen foot tall fence-post size stalks.  It’s not oak, but it makes decent firewood.  There’s always hugelkultur as well, as long as you completely dry it out first!

Root Eradication

For any privet plants with a stem larger than a pencil the roots are going to require more than a tiny hand tool.  My favorite tool for the mechanical removal of large privet roots is called a Weed WrenchTM. It’s basically a giant clamp on a lever that gives you the mechanical advantage to tear the wide, shallow root systems out by the base of the stem.  It’s a fairly expensive, large tool that has basically one purpose, so borrowing or renting one is probably the best option for most people.

The other option is to use chemical controls in the form of systemic herbicides.  This is the least preferable option in my book, but if used in a careful and responsible manner chemical controls can kill privet roots with little or no collateral damage to other plants.  The herbicide glyphosate is sold under several brand names and is available at most hardware/garden supply stores.  In addition to the herbicide and your lopper/saw you will need one more tool for this method: a grout sealer brush/bottle.


You should be able to find an empty one for sale in the tile section of that same hardware store.  There’s a small hole in the middle of that brush on the tip to allow the liquid in the bottle to ooze out onto the brush.

So, once you have these tools assembled:

  1. Mix your glyphosate to the recommended dilution (if it isn’t pre-mixed). I once bought the syrup-like concentrate and figured “The stronger the better” and applied that directly onto a cut stump, but this actually makes it harder for the plant to transport the herbicide throughout the root system. Follow the label for the proper proportions.
  2. Carefully pour the glyphosate mixture into the grout sealer bottle and affix the brush cap.
  3. Cut all privet stems to be treated down to near ground level.
  4. As soon as possible come back by and carefully apply the herbicide by brushing it onto the cut stem surface. Several passes of the brush while waiting for the plant to absorb the liquid in between assures maximum damage.  Two people, one cutting, one brushing, make this go much faster.
  5. Continue to cut and brush resprouts as they emerge.

IMG_5354 This is on the fence line in my backyard. The large “old growth” privet stem on the left had grown completely through and engulfed the fence.  There was no way to remove it physically without destroying the fence, so I used the cut and brush method.  Before I cut the trunk it was a full grown, 25 foot tall tree-sized plant that cast a wide, deep shadow.  Now, as you can see in the foreground, the roots continue to resprout, but they are small little things that will be easy enough to lop and brush this fall as I slowly kill more sections of the root system.  The initial cut and swab of the large stem killed the root about 2 feet out in all directions.  As I said above, just keep at it and the plant will eventually succumb.  Right now (Fall) is the best time to do this as well while the plant is pulling energy down to its roots for winter storage.

The added benefit of direct, brush applications as opposed to spraying the herbicide is that you never know what native plants are hiding under the ground just waiting to pop back up once that dense shade is removed.  The herbicide-grout-brush method was taught to me by Ed and Sue of the Memorial Park Weed Warriors in Athens.  With the help of many volunteers they removed large quantities of privet from the park using this method a few years back.  Their care and diligence were rewarded the following spring with a hillside full of gorgeous Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) blooms. Follow the above link to their Facebook page to see the gorgeous photos! Had the entire area been soaked down with a sprayer full of herbicide the Bloodroot would have stood little chance of surviving.  I have peppers growing about 2 feet away from my fence line pictured above, and if I accidentally killed them with a cloud of herbicide that drifted over from the privet I would be sad and my homemade pepper jelly would suffer.  Caution and careful use of herbicides when they are needed will help you keep the plants you want and remove the ones you don’t.


Once you have the privet knocked out there are plenty of native shrubs that will thrive in the same area.  Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), Spicebush (Lindera bezoin), and Sweetshrub (Calycanthus floridus) are just a few.  Replacing the privet with native shrubs is the final rewarding step in this long process.  You and all of the non-human residents of your yard will be much better off in the end.


Dog Day Blooms

It’s HOT.  We’ve had some good thundershowers recently, so it’s not a drought at least.  Next week’s forecast of mid-90’s highs every day with little chance of rain means you should probably water your shrubs a bit this weekend.  Our potted plants at the farm are being watered twice daily.

The spring bloomers are looking pretty ragged at this point as they seem to just shrivel under the weight of the hot air, but the summer and fall bloomers have put on some robust growth and beautiful flowers.  I hope you have a minute, there’s lots of pretty pictures:IMG_5229

 First, a Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) bloom in the greenhouse with an Agapostemon bee on it.  There are lots of species in that genus, but they are all commonly known as ‘sweat bees.’  One of our many native ground-nesting bees, there have been several in the greenhouse for the past week or two.  There is a lot of open, parched ground around the greenhouse’s compacted clay foundation and that just happens to be just what ground nesting bees look for in real estate. 

Out in the nursery another Lobelia is also blooming:IMG_5246

Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) is gorgeous as usual. IMG_5244

 A Phlox species that we think might be Phlox maculatum? 


Large Flowered Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora) blooming in pots! This plant looks like a marigold on steroids in the ground, but always did poorly in pots until I stuck them on the highest, driest, sunniest spot in the nursery.IMG_5237

 Family resemblance of the day: Joe Pye and Boneset.  These both used to be in the same genus (Eupatorium) until recently, but are both still in the family Asteraceae (subfamily Asteroideae, supertribe Helianthodae, tribe Eupatorieae……there are A LOT of Asters).  Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium fistulosum) on the left has pinkish flowers, and Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum)  on the right has white blooms.

IMG_5236Spotted Horse Mint (Monarda punctata) isn’t even technically blooming yet and is already eye-catching.  The flowers are those little green parts clustered around the stem, the seemingly painted-on colors are modified leaf-like bracts. 

All of the previous pictures are of flowers formed by plants in pots.  If you were to install them in your yard they would be twice as big (at least), more floriferous, and you’d get to walk past them every day.

IMG_5266  Out in the propagation beds you can see what I mean. Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) with hundreds of blooms as opposed to the ones in pots with only a dozen or so.


Blue Skullcap (Scutellaria incana) is also loving the heat.


 Passion Vine (Passiflora incarnata) does have some of the most unique blooms you’ll find this far away from the Equator, and it makes little edible fruits commonly known as Maypops. You can see one forming on the left.IMG_5162

Finally, Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  It really is a workhorse of a pollinator plant.  I tried to focus in on the tiny individual flowers in between the spikes.  Those little dark tubes with the yellow star-like stamens sticking out are the fertile flowers that the bees and butterflies want. IMG_5152

 It’s like a giant counter full of delicious smoothies, and you have a built in straw. Also, it’s guarded by massive spikes to keep those pesky mammals from just eating the whole thing.  Echino- is the Latin for “spiny; prickly.” Sea Urchins and Star Fish are “Echinoderms.”  IMG_5254

 Despite being larger than the whole flower head this Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (as well as most other butterflies) has a very long, thin, retractable, tube-like tongue which it methodically moves from each tiny flower to the next to extract the nectar.


 Trying to get these two guys in the same frame took a minute.  They don’t like sudden movements.


 I think that this is a female Tiger Swallowtail, so we should have plenty of caterpillars soon!

What’s Blooming Now, and Protecting a Rare Find

With the heat and humidity trading punches it’s very apparent that summer is upon us.  As usual, the plants are loving life, so here’s some pretty pictures of their blooms:

IMG_5036Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida)

IMG_5035Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera)


  Elderberry (Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis)

Those were all in pots in the nursery.  From there I wandered through our propagation beds….IMG_4991

 Evening Primrose (Oenethera fruticosa (ssp. subglosa)) in the East Pasture


 New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus) also likes the abundant sun and scarce water in the East Pasture.IMG_4990

 As does Goat Rue (Tephrosia virginiana). IMG_5005

Down in the Valley I found Anglepod or Milkvine (Matelea gonocarpos).  I love the pentagon in the center.  Compare to:IMG_5033

Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in our front bed. Flowers with parts of five.  Both make angular seed pods.  Both in the Dogbane Family (Apocynaceae).

The rare find came as I was wandering through the valley getting azalea cuttings.  I turned around and all of a sudden:

IMG_5006Fire Pink (Silene virginica) ! We have been trying to find someone with a legitimately local Piedmont genotype for a while, and all along it was right here at Beech Hollow.  We couldn’t see it because the deer are quite fond of eating anything with a flower stalk down to the ground. Long live coyotes, cougars and wolves.  Anyway, fertile seeds are hard to come by from this species, so we knew we had to protect the 6-8 flowering plants I found.  We returned to the valley with the appropriate fencing and tools.

IMG_5014Cages were 4

Wooden stakes will hopefully hold the cages down even if overzealous deer try to move them.IMG_5019

 Pointy (soon with rusty tips!) “discouragement.”IMG_5021

Fingers crossed for fertile seed!