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Posts Tagged ‘Native Plants’

The mountains beckoned. I had to get high. My daughter in Virginia lives on the west side of the Blue Ridge. The trip there usually takes me two days, but I had to get away from the low country’s heat and humidity and mosquitoes, so instead of my usual route I took US 441, which tracks further to the west. I spent the night in a national forest campground and the next day I was in the mountains. I consulted my roadmaps and my GPS for a good route to my daughter’s and could have driven there in one day, but I couldn’t resist. When the highway intersected with the Blue Ridge Parkway, my heart soared and I turned right and drove all day.

(Disclaimer: You who are familiar with the Rocky Mountains and other lofty ranges may wonder why I find the Appalachians so spectacular. They may appear modest by comparison, but these are old mountains with ancient stories you can feel in your bones.)

This part of the Parkway snakes through the Smokey Mountains, with more ups and downs, twists and turns, than any other part of the road. Heading north, I found the afternoon sun on my right. What? Wasn’t it supposed to be in the west? That was the west! At the moment, the winding road had me going south. The speed limit is 45 mph, but a flatlander like me isn’t going to take hairpin curves at that speed. Fortunately, there are scenic overlooks every quarter mile, it seems, so I could pull off to let more mountain-savvy drivers get by.

Whenever traveling, I try to stop every hour or so to stretch my legs. I reached Waterrock Knob Visitor Center late that afternoon. A good place to stop, I thought, where I could get a new map and inquire about camping. But once I stepped out of my van, I was assaulted by a magnificent view, wildflowers, and mile-high air. On my way to the Visitor’s Center, I was waylaid by a trail. Why not? I’d been driving too long. A long walk would do me good.

 

The sign at the beginning showed options: a two mile trail and a shorter one, only a half mile. The sign didn’t mention that it was half a mile straight up.

I took the asphalt-paved path. Before I reached the first bench, I was out of breath and had to rest. I forced myself to breathe deeply, filling my lungs with the rarified air, and once my heart stopped pounding, I pressed on. The paved path gave way to stone steps which twisted up the side of the mountain. Some had been placed there by mankind, but most appeared to have been graciously set forth by the mountain itself, inviting me to a higher realm.

I made use of every bench beside the path and finally came to a round lookout area enclosed by a low stone wall just the right height for sitting. Had I reached my destination?

A group of young women came down the path. Foolishly, I asked them how far it was to the top. “Oh, it’s a ways, not really that far. It seems farther than it is. We had to stop and rest a lot.” Did I look doubtful? “But it’s really worth it. You’ll be glad you went up.”

I thanked them. They were sweating and out of breath, but they had me—I couldn’t lose face. One was a heavy girl. If she could make this climb, so could I. Struggling to my feet, I resumed my ascent.

Beauty surrounded me—mountains, trees, wildflowers, rocks. I took pictures. Some of the wildflowers were familiar, a few I could guess at, and many I couldn’t identify as they were not found in Florida. The rhododendrons were in bloom. Their southern relatives, my wild azaleas, had blossomed in March. Was the season so late at these heights?

I met two more groups coming down the trail. Each time I asked how much further to the top. The second was a trio who answered as vaguely as the girls had. “Are you just going to the top or are you making the loop?” No! Not the two mile loop! “Oh, it’s a ways, but not too far.”

The third was a fit-looking middle aged couple with backpacks and gear. “You’re just going to the top? You’re almost there. When you get to a wooden bench, take the path to the right and you’ll come to a big rock.” At least they told the truth.

I reached the bench too eager to sit down. The short path to the rock yielded its promised view of more and more mountains. Way down below, in the parking lot, was my van. Yup—a half mile straight up. But the air! I don’t know when I’ve breathed sweeter air. My lungs had blown out all of Florida’s humidity and discovered Oxygen on Steroids.

As I took pictures, the mist rolled up and thunder growled in the distance. Time to go down. I took my time. As I descended, I found more spectacular things to photograph. How did I miss them before? Once I reached the parking lot, my fatigue was gone. I felt good, ready to drive on.

 

But the mountains weren’t done with me. More overlooks, wildflowers, and the approaching sunset. I was higher than the clouds which crept among peaks and valleys below. Finally, I came to Highest Elevation on the Parkway, at 6053 feet, more than a mile high.

A silver car had kept pace with me, stopping to photograph wildflowers, pulling into or out of overlooks as I entered or left. They caught up with me here and the lady said, “We’ve been following you.”

They, too were from Florida. Although heading north on the Parkway, they were returning home from Ohio. The gentleman had never experienced the Parkway, so they’d taken a detour. Kindred spirits, we chatted. I took pictures of them with the magnificent view in the background and they returned the courtesy. “See you at the next overlook,” they said as we parted, but we didn’t connect again.

I camped at Mt. Pisgah and the next day exited the Parkway at Fancy Gap, ready to see my grandchildren, taking the exhilaration of the mile high drive with me.

(See: marieqrogers.com/2017/02/28/the-jewel-of-fancy-gap)

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Like some people, some plants don’t get the respect they deserve. One of these is Dog Fennel. The name suggests an inferior type of fennel, but it’s not at all related to fennel, which is a culinary herb imported from the Mediterranean. Dog Fennel is a native plant that grows mostly in the southeastern United States. You should not eat Dog Fennel because it contains a toxic chemical called pyrrolizidine. This won’t kill you right away but it can cause liver damage, and you don’t want that.

Dogfennel2

The plant I’m talking is Eupatorium capillifolium. The Latin name is important because there are three other plants called dog fennel that also are not related. If you google either name you will find scads of information on how to eradicate this plant. It’s considered a nuisance weed which will overtake pastures, hay fields, and cropland if not kept in check. If you don’t watch out, it will also invade your yard and garden.

However, I let a few plants grow in my yard and along my driveway. I’ve always liked Dog Fennel, in moderation. In spring, feathery green shoots emerge from last years’ roots or seeds. Over the summer they grow into graceful fountains, three or four feet high, or taller. Sometime in October, tiny white blossoms burst out, abuzz with bees, butterflies, and other insects. If you get close enough, you can detect the flowers’ delicate scent. When winter comes, Dog Fennel is reduced to brown skeletons that persist until you, or time, knock them down. I break off any stems that are in my way, but I leave a few to shelter beneficial insects and their larvae during the winter.

There is an old saying that when the Dog Fennel blooms we have six weeks until frost. Over the years I have observed this and found it to be generally true. The past two or three years I’ve recorded the time of blooming on my calendar and found it to be uncannily accurate. In fact, Dog Fennel blooms earlier in open areas than in more sheltered ones and the frost follows accordingly, within a few days of the six weeks’ date.

A few years ago, a dog fennel seed landed inconspicuously on one of the garden beds at the elementary school. That compost-rich soil nurtured it through the summer. By the time school started, it towered over all else in the garden beds. When we weeded the gardens in preparation for fall planting, I left it alone, for a time, because it looked nice and wasn’t in the way, yet. When I tried to pull it out, I found that the root system was as massive as the upper part. The time came to use extreme measures to get this weed out of the garden, but first I wanted to know if it had any redeeming qualities other than those I already mentioned.

Googling and following links, I came across a reference to the Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth. This colorful insect may look like a wasp but it’s really a moth and doesn’t sting. In fact, it is not known to cause any damage to nature or mankind. The larvae feed on wild hempvine, a plant with heart-shaped leaves and white blossoms.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Be on the lookout for this beauty if you live in Florida, along the Gulf Coast or in coastal Georgia or South Carolina.

Here’s where things get interesting. Adult butterflies and moths usually feed on nectar. That’s why they are considered pollinators. The adult male of this species feeds on Dog Fennel. He pierces the stems with his proboscis to obtain the toxic pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These chemicals do not poison our moth but make him distasteful to whatever would otherwise eat him. He also stores the chemical in little pouches under his abdomen.

The story gets more interesting. When he finds a lady friend, our gallant moth showers her with these compounds, which in turn protects her from predators. And even better, when she lays her eggs, they will contain these protective chemicals. The Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moth is the only insect known to transfer a chemical defense in this manner.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

The caterpillar is quite harmless.

So, if the male doesn’t have Dog Fennel to feed on, his mate and their eggs are more susceptible to being eaten. In other words, no Dog Fennel plants mean fewer Scarlet-bodied Wasp Moths. Doesn’t this earn Dog Fennel our respect? It earned mine, and that of the children at the school. With no other Dog Fennel in the vicinity, we decided to leave the plant alone for the time being.

I don’t mean you should let your garden or pasture become overrun with Dog Fennel. A few plants here and there, along the fence or driveway or roadside, should be enough. These are small moths. They don’t eat much. If you find hempvine on your property, let it grow. If you have none, plant some for their babies. Then be on the look out for this pretty moth. And when the Dog Fennel blooms this fall, make a note of the date and wait to see if it predicts the first frost.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

This homeowner understands the beauty of Dog Fennel. Unfortunately, this is not my yard.

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I see a flock of robins beside the road, pecking in the soil, and that reminds me.

One summer, when I visited my sister in southeastern Washington, I heard a mockingbird sing. I didn’t know mockingbirds lived that far north. In fact, I was sure they didn’t. “You don’t have mockingbirds here, do you?” I asked. No, of course not. Finally, I spotted the songster—a robin!

Every winter the robins come to Florida, a happy place to escape from cold and snow. I seldom notice when they arrive. They must meander though North Florida in small numbers, seeking the balmier south. Then come February, large flocks gather on the way back to their summer nesting grounds. That’s when I see them congregate on roadsides and fields, hopping about in search of dainties. The struggle for domination between winter and spring provides a balanced diet. As the sun warms the soil, worms and insects emerge among small green plants seeking a head start on summer growth. The robins feast. Then frost nips these hopes and drives the little creatures back into the ground. Undeterred, the robins dine on seeds left by last year’s weeds and wildflowers.

The birds also assemble in berry-laden trees and shrubs. They swallow the fruit whole, then fly over wooded areas, pooping out seeds which fall to fertile ground to complete the cycle of growth. That is why I have so many beauty-berry bushes in my woods. Unfortunately, robins also gobble up the fruit of camphor trees and pyracantha, both invasive species, and spread them far and wide, so be careful what you plant. No bird will appreciate these fancy foreigners when they crowd out our native plants.

As the robins pass through my neighborhood, the mockingbirds pick up their song and sing it through summer, long after the robins have abandoned us. That’s why I associate the “cheerily carol” with the mockingbird.

Last summer I visited my daughter in Virginia. Sitting on her front porch, enjoying the mountain air, I heard a familiar, “Cheery-up, cheery-o, cheery-up, cheery-o!” A mockingbird? I knew I was within their range this time, but no, again it was a robin.

What a happy place, I thought, to have the music of both mockingbirds and robins.

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When I was a teenager, we lived in Scrambletown, Florida, a small community in the Ocala National Forest. Scrambletown is a tale unto its self which I may tell one day. Living some twenty miles from the nearest city, there was little an adolescent without a car could do to earn money. Even the adults had to be creative to make a living. One Mr. Godwin, who lived a few miles from us, dealt in Deer Tongue, among other pursuits.

Deer Tongue, which goes by many names, including Vanilla Plant, is a wildflower. A rosette of basal leaves grows close to the ground. These are long and shaped, I suppose, like a deer’s tongue. In its second year, a tall stem shoots up and produces a spike of beautiful purple flowers. If you brush against the plant it emits a pleasant fragrance. In the past it was used as a tobacco additive and in some cosmetics.

Picking Deer Tongue was a way for us country kids to make spending money. My brothers and sisters and I would go out into the woods with burlap bags in search of the plants. We would collect the basal leaves and go home once the sack was full. My dad would take our harvest to Mr. Godwin, who would pay us by the pound. If you went to his house, you would see his front yard covered with Deer Tongue leaves drying in the sun. Once dry, he would sell them to tobacco companies.

Even as a kid, I was mindful of the need for these plants to reseed themselves, so I was careful not to disturb the flowering stalks, but I doubt that every picker was so vigilant. As the years went by, Deer Tongue became harder to find. But I grew up and went on to greater pursuits.

Deer Tongue grows in the woods where I now live. Occasionally I catch a whiff of its fragrance. One day I noticed some growing on the margin of my son’s yard, close to a stand of pine trees.

“When I was a kid…” I went on to tell him the story about picking Deer Tongue for money. He listened patiently as I related this bit of family lore.

Then he said, “When I was a kid, when I visited my grandparents, Grandpa would send me and my cousins out into the woods to pick Deer Tongue. Then he would pay us for it. He dried it and sold it somewhere.”

Well. What can I say?

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“Treat people as if they were flowers and you will have a happy life.” I recently came across this quote by a man named Jacques Romano. Largely forgotten today, he was quite a sensation in his time, chemist, traveler, philosopher, and psychic, who maintained his down to earth personality even while hobnobbing in the salons of the rich and famous. He died 50 years ago at the age of 98. I believe he deserves lasting renown on the basis of that one quote alone.

“Treat people as if they were flowers.” How do we do this? There are so many  flowers and their lives are so very different. Some are beautiful, some smell nice, some are useful, some are unpleasant, and some are downright treacherous. But all have their place in the world.

Take the hybrid tea roses. They are cultivated for their beauty. Some have a romantic fragrance and some have no scent at all. But like the beautiful people in this world they have needs. They can easily be devastated by insects and disease and thus they require our care.

Some people are more like azaleas. They bloom their hearts out each spring, then they fade into the background for the rest of the year. They are quite hardy and require little care, but be wary of stunting their growth. I have seen azalea bushes pruned like ordinary shrubbery. They lose their form and grace. When spring comes, a few brave blossoms try to emerge from the squareness and they look sad, if not ridiculous. Leave them alone. Let them grow.

Some flowers of course need to be pruned. My Cherokee rose blooms in profusion for a few weeks in early spring then spends the rest of the year trying to take over the world. If I did not cut her back, she would. When I approach with pruning shears, she fights back with thorns that can deeply wound an ungloved hand. The runners seem actually to lash out at me, tearing at my face, arms, and clothing. I have to treat her with respect, but I keep her around because of her beauty.

Many flowers are not only showy but useful. Think of fruit trees. After the lovely petals drop, the blossoms are pregnant with new life – to sustain us and to perpetuate new generations. Other useful flowers are not as showy. Think of the many vegetables without whose flowers we would starve.

Speaking of starvation, think about our pollinators, the bees and butterflies. We have learned to plant flowers to attract these insects and hummingbirds to our yards. The canna lily is one. Not a true lily, it is so called because it looks like one. The native varieties have small, bright flowers rich in nectar. New varieties have been developed that have more showy flowers but our nectar loving neighbors are unable to get past the big petals to drink the life-sustaining fluid. Do not disdain the modest but useful. Nurture them.

Many plants that we call weeds have beautiful flowers. Some of these we now call wildflowers because we have learned to appreciate them, such as the Florida state wildflower, the coreopsis. We actually plant them on roadsides now, but once I saw a work crew mow down a bank of black-eyed Susans in full bloom. I’m sure the men were told to mow down those “weeds”. No flowers ever bloomed in that place again. Some other less showy weed replaced them. Do we sometimes treat people that way?

I have learned to appreciate a cursed weed called Bidens. It is also called Spanish needles because of the barbed seeds that will attach to every thread of your garment if you get too close. They don’t hurt, but the seeds are a devil to pull off because there are so many of them. But the Bidens has a small daisy like flower which is edible. So are the leaves. The plant’s most saving grace, however, is that it’s popular with the butterflies. I have seen Bidens bloom in winter when they were the only food available for the butterflies. Be sure to include them in your butterfly garden. Or just leave a patch along the edge of your driveway or in a corner of your vegetable garden. If you don’t want them to spread everywhere, just pinch off the spent flowers before they go to seed.

Bidens may deserve its bad reputation but goldenrod does not. These yellow spikes that brighten roadsides and waste spaces in the fall are blamed for people’s allergies. Do not prejudice yourself with rumors. The real culprit is ragweed which blooms invisibly at the same time. So enjoy the goldenrod.

But what about the ragweed? They are a nuisance in your garden and to your sinuses and they are not even pretty. Maybe the world would be better off without them. Do you know people like that? But wait – the larvae of several moths feed on ragweed and the seeds are an important winter food for many birds. So don’t obsess over your bird feeders. Leave some ragweed in your garden for the birds.

Sometimes as I walk around my yard I catch a whiff of something that causes me to check the soles of my shoes. No, nothing there. The smell is from a variety of viburnum whose blossoms smell like dog poop. Do you know people like that? But the viburnum is a native shrub. It belongs here. Other than its unpleasant odor, it is an attractive shrub which produces berries that are food for wildlife. Sometimes we just have to put up with a little unpleasantness.

Treat people like flowers. Each is unique. Treat each with love and respect. Appreciate them for their virtues, have patience with their shortcomings, and be wise in handling their vices. When we treat our flowers this way, they make us happy. How much more happiness would this world have if we would treat all people like flowers?

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