Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Botanizing Weverton Cliffs

I am very fortunate to live close to the Appalachian Trail.  One of the nearby highlights is Weverton cliffs.  At  about 850 ft elevation they stand over 500 ft above the Potomac River and provide beautiful views toward Short Hill Mountain in Virginia to the south and west.  I took the easy way and parked at the trailhead in Weverton so the climb was only about 400 ft.  The hill side was heavily forested and there were not many long views until you make it to the actual cliffs so I focused on trying to recognize the variety of plants along the trail.
View from Weverton cliffs to the southwest overlooking the Potomac river.  At the far right is the Shenandoah river.

Most of the lower slopes are moist with rich soil. As you climb the soil gets rockier and drier.  This is reflected in the type of vegetation you see along the zig-zag trail.  Being mid-July there were not a lot of flowers in bloom.  On the way up I passed by patches of bellwort, Jack-in-the-pulpit, and false Solomon's seal.  There were also a surprising variety of ferns, a few I figured out and some that remain a mystery to me.

There were many clumps of lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina) along the way.  One of the first ferns I need to look up was a Massachusetts fern (Thelypteris simulata).  One ID clue is that the blade is broadest in the center and slightly taperd at the base.  The other fern here was harder to ID.  I think it is mountain woodsia (Woodia scopulina).    
A Massachusetts fern (right) and possibly mountain woodsia (left) growing next to the trail.
Here is the back side of what I believe to be a Woodsia.
I would need to go back with a fern ID book in hand to be more certain about this one.  (I would appreciate any help on figuring this one out.)

In some of the sunnier openings there were large masses of a coarse leafy plant.  It looked like an invasive species the way it monopolized the space.  Each large leaf was divided into 5 coarse lobes and the flowers  had no petals to speak of, though there were 5 green sepals around each one.  I was able to key this out as Small-flowered leafcup, Polymnia canadensis, a woodland native found in much of the East and Mid-West.
The small-flowered leaf cup appear to have no petals on the flowers.
It may have been a little early as the buds were just opening up.

 As I approached the top of the ridge the soil became thinner and rockier.  The plant population began to change in response.  I noticed some ericaceous plants like low bush blueberries and mountain laurel.  At the top of cliffs the dominant tree is the Table Mountain Pine (Pinus pungens).  This is a two-needle pine with short, slightly twisty needles.  This Appalachian native is a beautiful, sculptural tree.  Its twisted form is enhanced by the weather at the top of the ridge.  Although, I have seen one in a protected location that shared some of this sculptural character.

Table Mountain Pine is adapted for growing in thin, rocky acidic soils.

One of my favorite plants is the native annual false pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides).  I was pleased to find some growing up at the top of the cliffs.  It is often found in disturbed areas, such as along paths, where you can pick out its intense sharply minty scent when it is disturbed.
False pennyroyal, a member of the mint family,
has opposite leaves and an intense smell when touched.

I didn't think I would find anything new on the way back down, but I was wrong.  The change in perspective revealed almost as many new plants as on the way up.  The first one I noticed was narrow-leaved Houstonia (Houstonia tenuifolia).  What I noticed were the bright little flowers seemingly floating in space.  The leaves are so narrow you could easily miss seeing them.
Narrow-leaved Houstonia has white to pale lavender flowers.
The broad leaves on the ground belong to a different plant.

Another plant that revealed itself on the way down was fringed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata). The most noticeable flowers were on a long panicle held above the foliage.  
Each of the yellow flowers were nodding, defying an easy photo op.

Back at the trail head I continued on toward the river to see what was growing in this more 'civilized' environment.  There were many more non-native and invasive species like Japanese stilt grass, tree of heaven and rose of Sharon.  Mixed in were a some native species.  On a large rock near the US 340 underpass was a large patch of common polypody (Polypodium virginianum).
Common polypody is an evergreen fern commonly found growing on rocks,
particularly in shaded, north-facing areas.

Since my first vist there was so productive, I will make a point of going back in a couple of months to see how it has changed.  I'm pretty sure I saw a number of goldenrods and asters.  these are hard to distinguish when not in bloom.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Green Milkweed

I've been planting more milkweeds (Asclepias sp,) around our property with mixed success.  Butterfly milkweed, A. tuberosa, has done well and looks great with its showy orange flowers.  Swamp or rose milkweed, A. incarnata, has had trouble.  My deer, for some reason, seen to like to eat up the young plants I put in.  I've resorted to putting wire cages around them so the have a change to get established.  On the wild side we have a small patch of common milkweed, A. syriaca, which are ignored by the deer and doing quite well.

The other day while mowing I was surprised to find a different species of milkweed.  Not as tall as common milkweed and with drooping green flower clusters, I was sure this was something new (to me).

Green milkweed is noted for it's thick oval leaves and
green nodding flower clusters that hang from the leaf axils.

I checked a couple of guide books and am pretty sure what I found is Green Milkweed, A. viridiflora.  This is a fairly common species, usually found in dry lightly shaded locations, including roadsides, prairies and clearings.  My plant is near the edge of a wooded are, mostly in the open with average moisture soil.

While not showy for us, it does attract pollinators, particularly bees to its sweetly scented flowers and it does provide food for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.  So far I've only seen this one, but I'm watching for more.

Friday, June 26, 2015

A Surprise Bug

A few weeks ago a deer broke off a branch from one of the smooth sumac that I have been trying to establish on my property.  Rather than tossing it out I put it in some water to see if it would root.  After two weeks, I inspected it closely for any growth and found none.  This is no surprise, stem cuttings are not recommended for propagating smooth sumac.  What I did find was what looked like a new bud, but it was facing the wrong way.  On closer examination I saw that it was a small insect.

If this bug were turned around on the branch, I may not have distinguished it from the sumac's leaf bud.

The general shape of this insect brought leafhoppers to mind.  Looking at similar insects on the web brought me to conclude that this was the nymph of a two-striped planthopper, Acanalonia bivittata.  

The white plume coming from the rear of this insect is a waxy compound that helps prevent desiccation
 and may protect it from predators.
While I really love my plants, there are some pretty amazing looking insects out there.  All them with a role to play in a healthy ecosystem.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Wildflowers on the Potomac

Way back in late April I set aside some time to see some of the nearby native species on a guided walk with the Maryland Native Plant Society (MNPS).  We visited the limestone cliffs along the Potomac river near Sharpsburg, MD.  In this area are a number of plants rare to Maryland, such as northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and bulbet fern (Cystopteris bulbifera).  Our leader that day was Christol Fleming (co-author of Finding Wildflowers in the Washington-Baltimore area), who really knew the area inside and out.

Following are some of the many photos I took that day (roughly in the order seen moving downstream from Snyder's landing):

Coarse foliage of Virginia waterleaf is spotted with white.
Its blooming period is a little later in May.

It's difficult to tell Dutchman's breeches and Squirrel corn (Dicentra cucullaria and  D. canadense)
apart when not in bloom.  Here, side-by-side, you can see that Squirrel corm has a blue-green cast.

These blue cohosh were not in bloom yet, but the layered foliage of this mass
created the effect of a green mist coming down the hillside. 

Up on a limestone cliff  we saw this lyre-leaf arabis (Arabis lyrata) and
 wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) on a rock outcrop.
These two species are well adapted to growing in thin soiled habitats.

Shooting star is a species found in rich calcareous soils
prevalent in this area along the Potomac.
Many Virginia bluebells were in bloom at this time throughout the region.  
Mixed in here are some of the rarer white ones.

In some places the floor of shady woods were covered with the white flowers of meadow rue.
It was formally of the genus Anemonella.

There were two kinds of trillium in bloom at this time. The red trillium (T. erectum),
shown here, and toadshade (T. sessile).

When I think of violets, shades of blue and purple come to mind.
This downy yellow violet, though common, really caught my eye.

There were many more species growing there than I've shown here, some like the hepatica had already bloomed out, and others like the dwarf larkspur and mayapples had not yet popped.

I would like to pay a visit to this area in early summer to see the massive banks of the native smooth hydrangea (Hydrangea arborescens) in bloom; however Cristol warns in her book that this area has been overrun with garlic mustard and Japanese honeysuckle at that time of year.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

A Busy Spring

It's been awhile since I have taken some time out for blogging.  Besides getting the vegetable garden cleaned up and planted and pulling out garlic mustard, a major distraction this spring has been dealing with 'our' groundhog.

'Our' groundhog climbing a 3" diameter hackberry tree in one of our gardens.  
Last year I tried compromise, but that has been pointless, since we never actually entered into dialog. I tolerated it nipping down the New England aster and black-eyed susan seedlings and the occasional visits to the vegetable garden.  The tipping point was when it ate my newly planted Liatris and Amsonia plants.

My first approach was to use used cat litter and sudsy ammonia to stink up the burrows.  I think this was only slightly annoying and after a short time the ground hog returned.  Right now I am trying a castor oil solution.  This seems to be longer lasting, but I will need to keep up the treatments for a while longer to encourage a permanent move away from my garden.  In addition to using repellents in and around its burrows, I did complete a buried fence around the vegetable garden.  Hopefully this will remove another attraction from the area.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Securing the Garden Perimeter

Now that all sorts of plants are springing back to life any number of outdoor chores are available, some fun and interesting, others, not so much.  One of the major challenges in last year's vegetable garden was near daily incursions by a plump groundhog.  While we can hope that our resident fox does his/her job, I decided to take steps to modify the perimeter fence to make it more difficult to dig under.

Of course I had read that a good garden fence needs to go below the surface to keep out rabbits and groundhogs, I took the easy way out and only buried  few inches of the chicken wire fence under the mulch.  This was actually partially effective the first year, but last year there were several shallow entrances all around.  One article I read, says to dig a trench 2 feet deep and a foot wide and line the bottom and side closest the fence line with chicken wire.That sounds pretty impressive.  I got started, but hand digging a trench that size was beyond my limits of fun.  I backed off a little and when with 12-16" deep and 6" wide.

Here's some photos of my project:

First, dig a trench.  I used a narrow trenching shovel
to make a narrow hole with pretty straight walls.
This trench was only 14" deep and about 6" wide.
Push in the chicken wire and bend it outwards at the bottom
 so that about 6" covers the bottom of the trench.  This way
if the critter tries to go deeper, it will be frustrated.

Fill in the trench and compact the soil.  Connect the buried chicken wire
with the above ground fencing.  I bent about 6" of the above ground portion
outward to create another digging barrier.
Cover the base of the above ground wire with soil and then
 mulch the area between the inner and outer fence.
So with the inner fence secured against the small mammals I'll need to tighten up the outer wire fence to deflect the deer.  

One of the features of my garden is a pollinator border consisting mostly of native plant species. Since many of these plants are vigorous seeders, I have an abundance of seedlings to move from the garden out to the border.  Before I got started with trench digging I took a close look at the plants I would be digging up to determine with they were keepers or 'weeds'.  Here are some photos of the ones I encountered:

This is an over-wintered rosette of Black-eyed Susan.
It can be recognized, in part, by the soft fuzzy leaves
Black-eyed Susans produce a lot of seed and each plant lives only 2-3 years.  To keep a good supply of these in the border I have been transplanting them out from the inner garden.
At first glance the rosette of the weedy English plantain is similar to the Black-eyed Susan.  

This English plantain has lance-shaped, deeply veined leaves

This clump of common yarrow was dug out of the path of the new trench.
Common yarrow, Achellia millefolium, is a cosmopolitan plant, meaning is occurs in similar habitats on a global basis, not just a single region.  Though not always considered a native species it is very good at attracting pollinators and beneficial insects.

These leaves did not break ground until the last week of March.
Wild columbine, Aquilegia canadensis, is another short lived native perennial and is dependent on reseeding for its long term presence in the garden.  The new leaves are a dark, purplish green and can be difficult to spot until they open up some.  Before the leaves develop they could be mistaken for red clover.

There are a  number of native Cardamine sp.
around but they do not resemble this one
Hairy winter cress, Cardamine hirsuta, is a introduced winter annual.  It develops its foliage in late winter or early spring and is in full bloom by April here.

There are many wild garlics, both native and introduced out in the garden.  Since these have a tendency to deter small mammals, I have not been targeting them for removal.  I planted nodding onion, Allium cernuum, in the garden border a year and a half ago.  I have seen several resprouting, some are already about 6 inches tall.

The foliage of nodding onion is a flattened blade.  The
 weedy field garlic, Allium vineale, found in many lawns
 has darker green tubular leaves
Sheep sorrel spreads rapidly by shallow runners.

The last weed I was tossing out was sheep sorrel, Rumex acetosella.  The leaves of this plant can be used as a tart, lemony flavoring in soups and salads.  The plant concentrates oxalic acid giving them a tart flavor; however, it can be toxic in high concentrations.  I should probably consider trying it in a salad, in moderation.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Planting Plans for spring 2015

Every year brings another opportunity to grow my native plant collection.  This year I'm focusing on 4 areas:  Clean up and replanting around the swimming pool, clean up and expansion of the meadow, replacing the vinca along the driveway and build up a privacy hedge with the neighbor.  After learning a bit about the current conditions, what is already here and what might be expected to grow here naturally, I've put together a shopping list of natives to get this year.

This moss phlox is pretty happy growing along the pool deck,
A good portion of it is on the concrete slab.
The colors can be intense, so I use mostly one color at a time.
The area around the swimming pool is infested with common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).  While native, there is just too much of it and it is not that attractive close up.  The soil is mostly a fast draining fill with a moderately high pH (ca. 7.5).  Since this is far from native soil I put a greater focus on what would look good growing in this setting.  Since I had already started using this area for plants native to Texas (my wife's home state) I will be adding two of my favorites, Wine Cups (Callirhoe involucrata) and Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella).   I got some seed on a recent visit to the Wildflower Center.  These will be great for the full sun areas and they tolerate alkaline soils.  The moss phlox could use some bolstering up as well.  I am attempting to remove the English ivy from the enclosure and this phlox seems to be a good candidate to fill back in.

This species of wine cups grows close to the ground, filling gaps around taller plants.
Seed requires a hot water treatment and  30  days cold stratification for germination. 

This is the annual species of Indian blanket, Gaillardia pulchella.

Small's Penstemon is long blooming in shady locations.
The contrasting lavender and white blossoms show up at a distance.

In the shadier areas I will be trying out Greek Valerain (Polemonium reptans aka Jacob's Ladder) and Small's Penstemon (Penstemon smallii).  Despite its common name the valerain is actually a native to the of the US.  This had confused me for a while.  Looks like the name Greek valerain is used for a number of species in the Polemonium genus.  One of them with particularly showy flowers, P. caeruleum, is a European native.  P. reptans grows more like a ground cover

I've ordered some more Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) for an area in the pool enclosure with more moisture and organic soils.

This cottonwood seedling appeared in the vegetable garden.
I'll transplant it this spring to a moist part of the new meadow.

I have an area that has been overrun with invasives that I am trying to convert to a meadow.  I cleared half of it last year and hope to finish this spring.  After removing the bad guys I am backfilling with native species.  I realize that I'm making more work for myself by trying to kill off invasivies at the same time as introducing new plantings.  By planting mostly shrubs I think I can more easily manage the area with an annual mowing/whacking of the undesirable plants.  For the right way to convert a weedy area to a meadow or prairie check out this link.

Last year I planted an American plum (Prunus americana) and several elderberries (Sambucus canadensis).  This year I will add some chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) and smooth sumac (Rhus glabra).  I also have a Cottonwood (Populus deltoides) seedling to put on the edge.

The pawpaw blooms in early May,
just before the leaves open up.  

Way in the back I have a large grove of Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) trees.  I've been watching them for 2 years and I have yet to see any fruit.  Since pawpaws produce better with cross-pollination, I will be adding a couple of new individuals to the area,  It is possible that my entire grove is really just one clone.  We'll see if this helps, in a couple of years.

These goldenstar have more than doubled in size after a year in the ground.
I'll get some more to speed up coverage.

In the shady area around the driveway I have been ripping out the vinca and replacing it with shade tolerant natives.  I started with foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) and Heucheras and these are taking hold.  In addition to these I've seen some really good results with Goldenstar (Chrysogonum virginianum, aka Green and Gold) in open shade areas.  These are relatively easy to find in a regular nursery, sometimes marketed with the plants that you can walk on.  Another plant that I've used in dry shade is big-leaf aster (Eurybia macrophylla), It has dense foliage and spreads by rhizomes so it should do a good job competing with the vinca.

This shiny summer foliage pf aromatic sumac turns red and orange in the fall.
We'll see how it performs in a shadier location.

The boundary between our nearest neighbor is defined with a double row of white pines.  At 40+ years old they are now limbed up fairly high and not providing much screening.  We have already put in a juneberry (Amelanchier canadensis), hazelnut (Corylus americana) and Hoptree (Ptelea trilfoliata).  There was also a pawpaw already there, doing a pretty good job despite the drier conditions.  We are looking to add some additional shrubs to fill in this gap and obscure the view.  A local native plant nursery has listed maple-leaf viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium) for sale this year.  I've been told that this is a very difficult shrub to propagate.  It does well in shady woods so I'm looking forward to trying it here.  I should get two since they don't self pollinate.  I am also looking to get some aromatic sumac (Rhus aromatica).  The wild form grows 5-12 feet, just the right size for our area.  I already have some of the 'Gro-low' cultivar.  At about 3 feet it is a great ground cover shrub for many difficult locations.

Now with may list in hand, I can hardly wait until spring!