Sunday, December 07, 2014

A "New" Plant Discovery: Woody Goldenrod

In walking through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area last week, I found a plant I'd never seen before - a goldenrod that was relatively short, staying about 18-24" tall, and that grew at the edge of the forest.  I'd seen this plant blooming profusely along all the roadsides about 3 weeks earlier when I was visiting in early November, but I didn't recognize the species and I wanted to find out what it was. It was gorgeous!  The size was perfect for a garden setting.

As I started walking down the old, sandy road and got past the first flush of berries and goldenrod seedheads, I started noticing a different, shorter, past-prime goldenrod flower that seemed to be associated with a small, woody shrub.  Looking more closely, I realized that the spent blooms were actually a PART of the small woody shrubs I was seeing.

Those blooms seriously looked like goldenrod.  Could there possibly be a woody species of goldenrod?!  I took some photos so that I could investigate a little more later....

Lo and behold, when I got back and started looking, there was a plant whose common name was woody goldenrod!  When I looked at the photos, there was little question that this was the plant I had been noticing.  What were the chances that I'd be able to identify a new plant that quickly, especially in an area that I hadn't been actively gardening in for 8 years?!

What was my mystery plant, a.k.a. woody goldenrod?   It's Chrysoma pauciflosculosa, previously known as Solidago pauciflosculosa.  It is exactly what I thought it was:  a woody goldenrod shrub that maxes out about 2' tall.  It's the only woody goldenrod, so it has been assigned to its own genus, although it's still occasionally called by its old moniker, Solidago.  Once established, woody goldenrod grows in pure sand soils and handles drought without issue.  Because it needs deep and widespread roots to handle drought in sandy soil, it is almost impossible to transplant and thus it is hard to find in the horticulture trade.


If you look along the left edge of this road in this photo, much of the low vegetation here is woody goldenrod, beginning to go to seed.  Even in this natural setting, without any supplemental water or fertilizer,  woody goldenrod is compact and low.  It makes a great border plant.



I gathered some seed, which I scattered in Jess's garden.  Hopefully some of the seed will sprout, since finding this plant in the horticultural trade is generally difficult.  Remembering the roadsides lined with this beautiful fall gold, though, I'm seriously hoping to have it crop up in her garden.  I'll be sure to let you know if it makes its presence known.

Reindeer Moss - But There Were No Reindeer in Sight!

'Tis the season to talk about reindeer, so it seems appropriate to share about the reindeer moss I saw in the Florida panhandle last week.

Talk about something you're not likely to see in Kansas - take a look at this cool groundcover!

Called reindeer moss, this is actually a type of lichen classified in the genus Cladonia.  Lichen, if you don't remember your high school or college biology course, is actually a sort of conjoined organism, made up of an algae and a fungus with a symbiotic relationship.  They act in concert, seemingly a single organism.  They have no roots, but instead get their nutrition from their environment - the sunlight, water, minerals and air around them.

Lichens grow slowly - generally about 1-2 tenths of an inch/year.  Because they are so slow-growing, they don't take disturbance well.  In fact, if there is much disturbance, they will disappear quickly.  It can take them decades to reappear, if they ever do.

So when I see reindeer moss, I get pretty excited.  It means that the area doesn't get much foot traffic and is generally undisturbed.

On our walk through the Eglin Air Force Base Recreational Area, I not only saw one species of reindeer moss, I saw TWO species!!!

This puffy species I've been able to tentatively identify as Powder Puff Lichen Moss (Cladonia evansii)....

but this species I haven't found a specific identification for.  So, for now, I'll just call it reindeer moss (Cladonia sp.). 

There were several areas with large carpets of these two species - and I must admit that I get a little thrill every time I see any type of reindeer moss, so I was doubly excited to see so much of it in this recreational area!

Kudos to the Air Force for being able to take such good care of their natural areas.

"We're Not in Kansas Any More!"

There's little like a vacation to stir up the blood and help you see new perspectives.  We've just returned from a 10 day trip to the Florida panhandle, where we celebrated Thanksgiving with our kids and began to get a picture of what the coming years might hold for us.  One of the many enjoyable activities while we were there was a relaxing walk through a recreational area on Eglin Air Force Base.  As winter really starts to descend here in Kansas and throughout much of the country, I thought it might be fun to share some of the plants I saw just a week ago, in a warmer clime....

While Greg, Jess, Sean, and "the girls" walked on ahead, intent on true exercise, I lingered behind to take photos along the old roadway.  Truthfully I was surprised by the variety of plants I saw.  Even more truthfully, I was surprised by how many species I remembered from my gardening days in Mobile!

As I started off down the trail, my first impression was of food.  Lots and lots of food...for birds and other animals.  Food seemed to be available everywhere I looked.

There were vividly red yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) berries crowding each other in the sunlight.

Along with the crimson yaupon berries were other berries, such as these deep blue, greenbrier (Smilax sp.) berries, and lots and lots of seeds.  Goldenrod (Solidago sp.) seedheads were particularly full of feathery goodness.

This feathery goldenrod plant joined with beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) berries to offer the local wildlife a feast.

As I walked and looked and took photos, the old phrase, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!" kept echoing through my head.  No, it for sure wasn't Kansas.  Sometimes it amazes me how few plant species are found both along the Florida/Alabama coastline and up here in the prairie land.  Certainly there are genuses that are in both areas, but the species are quite separate.

Between Kansas and the Gulf Coast, the feel of the plant communities is very different too - which is hardly surprising.  Sporting a covering of pine needles and a diversity of moss and lichen on a heavily sandy soil, this view of the woodland floor is typical for the area we were visiting.

Towering over the rest of the vegetation were the longleaf pines (Pinus palustris).  Historically, these keystone plants formed massive open forests which predominated all along the southern coastal plains, from Virginia around the corner to Texas, until about 100-150 years ago.  First the majestic longleafs were tapped to make turpentine and cut to make ship masts, then later they were cut down to burn in steam engines as the country expanded.  Of course, their wood was also used in building as well.  The land that was cleared was either put into agriculture or replanted with faster growing slash or loblolly pines.  Within just a few decades, almost all of the longleaf forests were gone.  Nationwide, a University of Florida study done in 1997 found only 15 sites with virgin longleaf pine forest left, totalling about 1600 acres.

A typical understory plant throughout much of the area, saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), gives a vaguely tropical feel to the woodlands.  It is a true native (unlike most of the others palms and palm-like plants you see along the Gulf Coast) and it is very valuable for wildlife.

Here is a remnant of the "stem" of one of the big fan leaves found on saw palmetto.  You can see where the name "saw" comes from!   It makes me think of fossil dinosaur jaws whenever I see it.

Usually not considered a beneficial plant, there was a lot of greenbrier (Smilax sp.) in the understory along the path, too.  I actually like greenbrier for its wildlife versatility - the berries are great food for birds and other animals, while (as is typical for native plants) the leaves are larval food for caterpillars of several different moth species such as the turbulent phosphila and the ruby quaker.  Note:  the names are cool, but the adult moths are pretty cryptic, a.k.a. drab.   Still, they too are food for numerous other animals.  Many greenbrier vines are bristling with thorns and can serve as excellent shelter and nest protection for birds and other small animals.

This essentially thornless greenbrier had a few healthy berries to share, and you can see the parallel leaf veins that help identify it as a Smilax.

One find that surprised me was what I think was a nicely sized American holly (Ilex opaca).  While they are native to the area, I didn't see them very often when we lived in Mobile.

Scattered in small clusters amongst the broad leaves, the holly berries were bright red and looked great, but they didn't put on as much of a show for the camera as the yaupon berries did.  With its yellowish green leaves, American holly is widely used in crosses with other species, but isn't commonly found as a straight species in the nursery trade. 

Walking back along the trail, though, and thus seeing from a different direction with a different angle of light, the leaves of the holly do look much darker.

To eyes accustomed to fall further north, the woodlands still look very green, but signs of fall were everywhere.  While I've talked about the colorful berries and fluffy seedheads, there was also some fall color.  An excellent source of fall color in longleaf territory is sparkleberry, Vaccinium arboreum.  In the blueberry genus, sparkleberry has tiny blue berries that are snatched up by birds as soon as they ripen, which is earlier in the year, but their shiny leaves color beautifully and remain on the plant for a long time.  This individual was a beautiful maroon...

while across the path and down the way a bit, another sparkleberry went in for oranger and golder tones.

Speaking of orange and gold, there were a few yellow-gold blooms still gallantly blazing, although I don't know what they were, ...

and a male monarch was traveling the path with me, too.  He rested on a yaupon long enough to give me a "photographic opportunity" before continuing on his journey.  I wonder if he'll make it to Mexico or not?

There are 2 other plants that I want to highlight from this walk, but I think I'll separate them out into another post or two. 

Meanwhile, Greg, Sean, Jess, Gabby and Dahlia got done walking and have come looking for me - so I'll end this ramble.  Hope you enjoyed my glimpse of the south land in your chilly December!



Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Arrival of Winter - A Sign of the Season to Come?

Well, winter suddenly descended last week with a blast of strong wind that was followed a few days later by a thin blanket of snow.  This was enough of a shock to my system - I'm very thankful I don't live in south Buffalo, New York, right now!

While nothing too exciting has happened with this seasonal change, above and beyond earlier-than-usual cold weather with a couple inches of snow, it still seems like I ought to celebrate the arrival of winter with a brief post.  So here goes.

Since there was little transition between the relatively warm fall weather and a cold snap more typical of January than mid-November, quite a few trees and shrubs were caught with leaves in place.  Thankfully, we didn't get ice, so the leaves simply freeze-dried in place.  Some species, like cottonwood, have gone ahead and shed the remainder of their leaves.  Others, like the oaks, are still sporting a green coat.

This is the young Shumard oak that we planted shortly after we moved in.  I wonder how long the leaves will stay green this winter?

My aromatic asters were also still blooming when the cold hit.  Despite their late bloom cycle, this is the first year I've noticed any of their blooms getting caught by winter weather.  The purple is still obvious, 10 days after the cold originally hit.  How long will I have purple "blossoms" coloring the winter landscape?

After snapping a few pictures of the asters, I noted this grayish "growth" on the side of a basket sitting on the front porch.

Recognize it up close?  A praying mantis's egg case.  I'm actually rather surprised that I haven't found more of them, as I had many, many praying mantises in my gardens this year.  I feel rather lucky that all of the mantises I've seen have been the native Carolina mantis, rather than the interloper, the Chinese mantis.

In the back yard, I managed to catch a photo of a white-crowned sparrow hiding on the far side of a rose bush.  I was quite close, but evidently this little beauty felt safely hidden, because it made no move to flush while I stood there.





The most unusual sighting was the set of little tracks going across the driveway, between the redcedar hedge on the south side and the Rose of Sharon on the north side of the driveway.


With the obvious marks of the tail dragging, I'm quite sure it's a rodent of some sort.  Perhaps a hispid cotton rat.  I really don't know how to tell different rodent tracks apart, but I do know that I've got plenty of cotton rats around!

I didn't get out to take photos until 2 days after the snow fell, so I have no glorious shots of snow, quietly sifting out of the sky, or sitting heavily on the branches of the trees, but there was still enough snow around to document the start of winter.

Each year is so unique - I wonder what THIS winter will bring?  Is this early snow the sign of much more to come?  Or is this the only snow we'll get all season?  There's no way to know so, as always, we'll take the new season, day by day, week by week, month by month.  Suspense - natural style.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

"Where is Your Wild?"

A meme on Facebook this morning showed a backpacker overlooking a beautiful vista of mountains while standing alone in an alpine meadow.  The caption read, "Where is your wild?"

Well, here is MY wild!

Our front tallgrass....

a patch of smooth milkweed in our yard....


one of the front gardens, needing some "manicuring," when we got back from vacation this summer...

and the draw, with the path into the back, last winter.



All of MY favorite "wild" is within the 10 acres that we live on.

All of us can nurture the wild locally in our cities and neighborhoods and yards.  We don't have to drive halfway across the country to some national park to experience "the wild";  we just have to cherish and value "the wild" that occurs right under our noses.


Where is YOUR wild?

Friday, November 07, 2014

Aromatic Asters - Summer's Last Blast

I love many, many plants, but if pressed to name my favorite, I think it would be aromatic aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium.  Since these are the last perennials to start blooming every year, these plants look like nothing more than small green shrubs for much of the summer.  Additionally, in my garden they tend to suffer from lace bug damage, so their leaves often look light green and somewhat mottled when the summer gets hot and dry.  I grit my teeth and ignore it.  It won't hurt the plants and I'm darned if I'm going to spray.  Sometimes I start questioning how many I have in my gardens, but...

...then they burst into bloom.

They bloom and they bloom and they bloom.

Talk about the garden going out with a splash each year!

Insects love these flowers.  As I walk down the front path while the aromatic asters are in bloom, I'm usually surrounded by a happy hum of bees and by clouds of butterflies and skippers rising and then settling back to feed.

The predatory insects are well aware of how many pollinators are visiting.  It's easy to find wheel bugs, praying mantids, and ambush bugs hidden...often with an insect in their grasp.

One of these days, I'll try to collate a list of all the insects I've noted on aromatic asters.  Until then, I'll leave you with one simple question - have you added any to your garden yet?!


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Another Worry for Cicadas: Cedar Beetles

Kermit the Frog always said, "It's not easy being green."  Well, I've decided that it's not easy being a cicada either.

My dogs absolutely love to munch cicadas and have been known to catch them in mid-air.  If they find one on the ground, they'll often hold it in their mouth for a little bit to get it to buzz before they chomp down and eat it.  A canine "Fizzy", I guess.

Then there are more "normal" predators like birds and, especially, the huge wasps known as cicada killers.  Female cicada killers hunt down a cicada, sting it to paralyze it (but keep it alive), drag it back to their nest in the ground, carry it below ground, lay an egg on it and seal the brood cell off.  When the egg hatches, the larval wasp eats out the paralyzed, living cicada, pupates, and emerges the next year to repeat the cycle.  An effective population control mechanism for cicadas, although it's extremely unsettling to think about.

I suspect that moles eat a fair number of cicada nymphs, too, as the nymphs feed and mature underground.

Now, I've learned about another animal that feasts on cicadas, specifically on the nymphs while they are still underground - the cedar beetle, Sandalus niger, also descriptively known as the cicada parasite beetle.  I've been observing these large beetles all around the yard over the last few days.  Most often, I'm seeing them on honeylocust trees.


These are fairly large beetles - many are close to an inch in length.  I first noticed one when I saw a big brown beetle being eating by 2 wheelbugs.  I've never seen TWO wheelbugs eating the same beetle before!  I took photos and tried to identify the beetle, but I couldn't quite make it out.  It looked somewhat like a longhorn beetle, but I didn't see long "horns" (antennae) on it.

While I was photographing this interesting vignette, Greg called me over to a nearby lacebark elm, saying that he'd just seen a big black beetle fly into it.  He showed me where she had landed and I took several photos of her;  she appeared to be laying eggs on the underside of a dead limb.

I started to go back to taking photos of pollinators on asters, when I felt something on my shoulder.  Looking down, it was a large black beetle with one of the elytra (thickened wing covers) missing.  I brushed her to the ground, where I photographed her, wondering how she had lost her elytra.  Then I picked her up and put her in the elm tree, thinking she probably got interrupted during egg laying.

Only when I edited the photographs this evening did I notice that all the white "innards" showing were actually larvae(?) or pupae(?) of some other insect that were massed inside her.  I have no idea what they are...but I'm submitting the photo to BugGuide to see if anyone there can help identify what was going on with her.  (Parasites eating parasites.  Sometimes the natural world is really complex in its creepiness.)  Did the larvae have anything to do with how she lost her wing cover?  I have no idea.

Next, I noticed another, similar looking beetle being eaten by a wheelbug on a nearby honeylocust trunk.  As I stood and took photos, I heard and felt yet another big beetle - the 5th one - fly by my head.  It was a male, judging by its smaller size and more slender body, and it landed on the tree trunk right in front of me and starting searching all around.  Its antennae were really interesting, especially when the beetle fanned them all the way out.

While all of these beetles were grabbing my attention, I was also hearing a clicking noise that sounded very much like the rhythmic pattern of a field sparrow, which is often likened to the sound of a bouncing ball.  This noise, however, was more "insect-like" than a bird call, if there is such a thing.  I never did find out what was creating the sound, but I don't recall having heard it before and I wonder if it was some sort of mating call between the cedar beetles.

Before I went in for the evening, I took several more photos of each of the different beetles I'd observed, and  I also found a 6th beetle on the underside of a honeylocust branch. This was another female, based on the size and shape, but I didn't get any clear photos of her.

Looking through Insects in Kansas, by Glenn A. Salsbury and Stephan C. White, I found the tentative identification of my beetles, which I confirmed on BugGuide.net.   They were all the same species, Sandalus nigerInsects in Kansas had noted that males often had blackish-brown wing-covers, rather than black, and on BugGuide, I saw the difference in antennae between the males and females.  There wasn't a lot of information given about the species on its information page at BugGuide, but it was noted that the adult beetles are very short-lived.

I've gone back and picked up the "empty" beetles discarded by the wheelbugs after they were through eating them so that I could examine them more closely, plus I've been able to find a couple more dead specimens.  Sunday, October 19th, was the only day that I saw so many living individuals, although I've seen one or two more each day since then.  I have not heard the clicking noise again.

I have seen one more instance where two wheelbugs were eating the same cedar beetle.  Do wheelbugs do this with any large insect, or is it only with cedar beetles?  I'll be keeping my eyes open to see what I observe in the future.

Isn't the complexity of life fascinating?!