Welcome to the Kentucky Native Plant and Wildlife Blog.

Welcome to the Kentucky Native Plant and Wildlife Blog.
The purpose of this blog is to provide information on using native plants in the landscape, issues related to invasive exotic plants, urban wildlife management, and wildlife damage management. It is my intention that this information will assist you in deciphering the multitude of information circulating around the web and condense in some meaningful method as it relates to Kentucky. In addition, I hope to highlight a native plant that can be used in the landscape.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Books for the Holiday

Okay, the holidays are quickly approaching and here is a gift idea for the gardening or nature enthusiast in the household.  These are copies of my books, which make excellent gifts.  This will be the only shameless commerce you will see on this site.  All are available at all the major internet book providers as well as your local bookstore.  If you would like an autographed copy you can contact me or just stop by my office in Lexington and I would be happy to sign it for you.  Until next year, I hope you have a great holiday season.

Plant of the Week: Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)

Back in late 1800's Victorian era in this country it was fashionable to decorate the house with a wreath made with ferns and since this species is evergreen it was the most desirable plant to use. The story goes that John Robinson of Salem, MA coined it the Christmas Fern for this reason.  Other potential reasons it was named Christmas fern was that it was the only fern green this time of year and if you look at the individual pinnae since ferns don't have leaves they are arranged in alternate pairs along the central stem (called a rachis) and at the broad end of each pinnae near the stem is an ear-lobe like protrusion and when viewed it looks like a Christmas stocking.  The name actually comes from Greek for many (poly) rows (stichos) and refers to the rows of small reproductive structures, called sorus, covering the undersides of the fertile leaflets. The species name, acrostichoides, means "like Acrostichum," which is a genera of tropical ferns where the sori are very dense and cover the lower parts of the frond. The Christmas fern is in the wood fern family. The fronds on individual plants can reach about 2' tall and the fertile fronds remain evergreen.  There are 20 - 40 leaflets on each frond and sori are found in the upper third of the frond.  Christmas ferns are easy to grow in the shade garden as long as they have well drained soil.  They absolutely do not like wet or waterlogged soils but they can tolerate a good bit of sunlight.  In the early spring, usually in April, the new fronds sprout and these "fiddleheads" can be eaten fresh or fried.  Very few animals eat this plant so if you have high deer numbers it is a great plant for the shade garden.  Once you have some established the best method of propagation is from root division as they do not seem to reproduce well from spores in a garden setting.  This is a very adaptable species and can be grown in either acidic or neutral soils.  Finally, there are no serious pests that use this species.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Plant of the week, Heartleaf or Arrowleaf Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia)

Pondering about what to write for this week's post yesterday, I was in the eastern Kentucky Mountains (yes the true mountains at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park - Stone Mountain) photographing Shillalah falls, and I thought about what provides color in the garden this time of year.  It was a beautiful, overcast day, just perfect for photographing waterfalls and there was really no color except for greens of the large leaf rhododendrons, Christmas fern, some still standing wood ferns, and Heartleaf Ginger. So the inspiration for this week's plant was quite natural for me as I sat and photographed the rushing water, heartleaf ginger (Christmas fern will be next week since it will be so close to Christmas).  I love this plant as a native, evergreen ground cover because this time of the year it stands out against the browns of the fallen tree leaves and has such a distinctive shape and mottled green color.  This lovely plant belongs to the birthwort family and like many members of this family, the roots can be used as a flavoring agent with a ginger like taste although not as strong as the cultivated varieties.  The plant grows a few inches tall and the brown urn shaped flowers appear from March through May at ground level or slightly below ground level and are pollinated by wasps, flies, and thrips with the seeds are dispersed by ants.  Hence, when found it is often found in clusters because the size of any population will be delineated by the home range of the dispersing ant species. This southeastern US species is quite common all throughout its range and occurs in acidic forest soils that range from moist to dry. You can grow this in the shade gardens throughout the state, even in limestone areas, as long as you provide it with highly organic, leaf mold soil (hence don't get rid of the leaves from the trees, let them fall and compost naturally).  I used to give my plants a shot of hollytone or miracid in the spring to perk it up. This species is very slow to reproduce from seed and when planting in the garden use large numbers to provide a colorful show in the fall, winter, and early spring. A really good companion plant to provide color and contrast in the spring is dwarf crested iris.

this is upper shillalah falls which I was photographing yesterday.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Providing Food for our Fine Feathered Friends During the Winter

Marketing and advertising are wonderful things getting us to purchase things we need, we may need, or we may not need.  Marketing is largely responsible for many "urban myths" about great landscape plants for birds.  The best example I can provide here is the use of winterberry (Ilex verticillata) as a winter food source for birds.  Winterberry, like other hollies, are not all that great in terms of food value for birds until late in the winter and multiple research studies show these berries are relatively low in nutrient content because they contain a variety of secondary plant chemicals.  They are more important as a late winter emergency food or for early spring migrating species.  Now before everyone gets all upset and writes that the berries on my shrubs are gone in December or January, you have to remember that there is tremendous individual plant variation.  The best use of winterberry is to add color and interest to the winter landscape (hence the bright red berries stay on the plant most of the winter!!  think about it).  Most of the absolutely best birds trees/shrubs typically have high quality fruit that is available in the fall and early winter (or summer as is the case for mulberries and serviceberry).  These species include viburnums, hawthorns, shrubby dogwoods, grape vines, and hackberry.  Other species like small-fruited flowering crabapples, American holly, and sumac are better suited for late winter emergency food sources. So how do birds survive the winter with respect to food resources?  One nifty survival mechanism is the caching of high quality fruits, seeds, and berries. The birds can actually remember where they stored these seeds for an extended period of time. While providing seeds at a feeder can help birds survive bouts of cold weather, it isn't necessary as the birds utilize a wide variety of native foods in addition to visiting multiple feeder sites.  It is much too risky for a bird to only utilize seed in a feeder if it plans to make it to another spring.  Some other methods for keeping warm (and reducing food requirements) is to tuck their feet and legs into their breast feathers, fluffing their feathers to trap air which acts like insulation, roosting in groups or with other birds, lowering their metabolism, shivering and finding adequate shelter (particularly dense thickets or conifers).   A few final thoughts about getting birds through the winter.  Provide some water, but not warm or hot water, for preening (sometimes birds snow preen) to keep their feathers clean so they can fluff them up.  Warm or hot water will freeze on the feathers and will prohibit the birds from flying.  Small birds generally need more food than larger birds and they typically eat more, yet smaller seeds.  The survival of say a Carolina chickadee may be dependent upon how well it can conserve energy and the number of seeds it can eat.  In summary, the point of all of this is to state that don't always believe everything you hear, are told, or read about wildlife and if you are serious about attracting birds to the backyard you will have plants that produce berries and seeds that are available pretty much throughout the fall/winter/ and early spring.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Plant of the Week: Mistletoe, Phoradendron serotinum

With the holiday season quickly approaching we are reminded of all those wonderful Christmas traditions like chestnuts roasting on an open fire (unfortunately American chestnuts have been mostly destroyed by the blight), boughs of holly and ivy (which were used to wisp away ghosts and demons and holly that sprouted from the footsteps of Christ with the pointed leaves representing the crown of thorns and the red berries representing his blood), and my favorite, mistletoe.  How this parasitic evergreen shrub became associated with Christmas is quite interesting.  The legend suggests it is associated with the Goddess of Love, Frigga and her son, the God of summer sun, Balder.  It just so happened that Frigga considered mistletoe to be sacred and that her son had a dream of death that disturbed Frigga.  So she went to air, fire, water, earth, and every animal and plant seeking a promise to cause no harm to her son and thus she assured her son everything would be okay.  Well, it just so happened that Balder's enemy, Loki, the God of evil, knew of one plant, the mistletoe, that Frigga forgot and hence he made an arrow of it and gave it to Hoder, God of the blind winter, who shot Balder dead. As soon as Balder died the world became dark and every living thing mourned his death.  But Frigga found some way to bring him back and began to weep tears which turned into the white berries on the plant and out of elation she kissed everyone that passed under the tree so that anyone who was kissed under the mistletoe would be blessed by love and no harm could come to them. The ancient Greeks, pagans, and Scandinavians had beliefs that this plant had life giving powers and would bring peace.  It wasn't until the late 18th century that the mistletoe ball came into fashion and a young lady standing under the mistletoe ball trimmed with festive decorations, could not refuse to be kissed.  And thus the tradition continues today.  What is the mistletoe plant really?  In the eastern United States there is only one species, Phoradendron serotinum, with at least three recognized subspecies.  There are at least 1,000 different species of this parasitic plant found worldwide and it gets its name from the Anglo-saxon "a twig with bird droppings" because it was thought to be propagated by bird droppings.  This eastern species is a hemi-parasite on the branches of its host plant and what this means is that it gets moisture and associated nutrients to grow in the water from its host plant but can manufacture, or photosynthesize, its own food.  It is known to occur on more than 200 species of trees although in Kentucky it seems to like walnut, American and red elm, and black cherry. The only connection of this plant to its host is through a structure called the haustorium which begins developing when a seed reaches a tree branch.  Each white berry has one seed, but multiple embryos, and as the embryo's develop in the first year, they develop root like structures that penetrate the branch of the host plant and ultimately form a lump or gall.  At this point, the plant then begins to grow and act as a hemi-parasite.  The bright green leaves range up to 1" in length and 1/2" wide and are covered with a thick, waxy cuticle to prevent water loss.  The plant can reach two to three feet in size and it is a perennial.  Given enough time, mistletoe can cause deformities and harm individual host plants.  This is a dioecious species meaning that males and females occur on different plants.  The white berries on the female plants begin occurring when they reach maturity at 3 - 5 years of age.  This is definitely a southeastern species which ranges from Texas and Oklahoma to very southern Ohio and Pennsylvania. The neatest thing about this species is that it is the sole host plant for the great purple hairstreak butterfly, which is a rare species in Kentucky with one population known from the Lexington area and another known from the Paducah area.

  For a thorough treatment of the biology and natural history of this species, look for the publication: American Mistletoe (Phoradendron serotinum var. serotinum) Infection In Trees published by the University of Georgia at

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Plant of the Week: Native Poinsettia, Euphorbia heterophylla

National Poinsettia Day, December 12,  is rapidly approaching and was so designated by an Act of Congress in commemoration of amateur botanist and 1st Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Poinsett.  He introduced the horticultural species to the Americas in 1828. Of course this is the time of year when we purchase those beautiful horticultural plants for holiday decorations.  But did you know we actually have a native species that is sometimes called Fire on the Mountain, Mexican Fire Plant, Wild Poinsettia, or painted leaf.  Some folks call this a wildflower whereas others, particularly peanut farmers in the south, consider it a weed.  It is considered rare in Kentucky and it was thought to be introduced from the tropics although it is considered native according to the USDA Plants and National Wildflower Websites. This plant, a member of the spurge family, has highly variable leaf shapes from linear to lance-shaped to egg-shaped to lyre shaped and pointed at the tip.  The flowers are quite inconspicuous and are green surrounded by the colorful reddish bracts.  It is an annual that grows from 1 to 3' tall and has a stiff stem that contains a milky, white sap.  The plants can irritate the skin but are not lethal if ingested, although you will get mighty sick with an upset stomach if you choose to nibble on one, something I never recommend for any member of this plant family since so many of them are toxic.  Like most annuals it has an extended flowering period from May through September and is often found in moist, well drained soils in full sun.  This is not a species that would be available in the trade and it certainly could become invasive in certain locations like Florida.  For those that are outdoors in the summer, when you discover this plant you can think of Christmas in July, which is when the photo above was taken.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Planning a woodland wildflower garden

Now is the time for gardeners withdrawl. No more planting, weeding, trimming, or even enjoying the wildlife and flowers that showcase their beauty during the growing season.  But now is the time for gardeners dreaming.  Ah yes, dreaming of next year and what can be.  This is the time of the year when the plant catalogs come in the mail (yes I have already begun receiving them and am drooling at the thought of fresh tomatoes once again).  Now is the time to get the laptop out and start Googling native plant nurseries and thinking about what will be the next gardening project.   As you look through the catalogs and websites, your mind wanders and you think of what can be, what are the possibilities?  Now is the time to begin thinking about the spring ephemeral woodland garden that begins flowering in March and ends in May.  That short period between the end of winter and when the trees fully leaf out and darken the woodland understory.  Here are few things to consider when dreaming about the woodland wildflower garden:
1. No clay soils.  Absolutely, positively not!  So what is the solution for most gardeners?  Well think like Mother Nature and where these plants grow in the wild, the first three inches in the composted leaf litter over the years.  Hence, all you need to do is to design a garden and dump three to four inches of pure composted leaves or other organic matter on top of the clay.  Now is a good time to do that so it will have time to settle.  Don't use topsoil or cow manure or composted topsoil, use pure leaf/tree compost like the type you can get here in Lexington from the city (one load a year for free).
2.  Realize that native woodland wildflowers do not have gigantic showy flowers like many other garden plants, they are much more refined and delicate. So plant in large masses, not just two or three but twenty or thirty and realize for the most part, they will not spread (Virginia bluebells and wood poppies not withstanding).  Notice in the image above that the golden saxifrage, which looks somewhat weedy and not all that showy, shines in the garden when planted en masse.
3. Think about exciting color combinations that you like and plants that look good together which flower at the same time and are about the same height.  For example, I like Virginia bluebells and wood poppies together and I like it in an area where they have room to spread.  For more refined combinations try foam flower and wild blue phlox or Jacob's ladder.  Perhaps you want a little pink then go with bleeding heart mixed in with those two colors of blue and white.
4.  Use unusual species for accents and create smaller gardens inside the bigger garden.  For instance, yellow lady slipper orchids are expensive and require special care when growing in the garden.  Perhaps put them in the middle of a group of lady ferns surrounded by lower growing yellow species like green and gold or I like using dwarf crested iris with the green and gold and even some wild blue phlox or Jacob's ladder.  Perhaps you can bring in some rocks with deep crevices that could be filled with soil and then planted to sedums and other very delicate species that can showcase against the texture of the rock.
5.  Think about what will be growing after the spring ephemerals are done blooming.  This usually means ferns but there are other options such as later blooming woodland species like cohosh or fall asters.
S0.... dig out the catalogs and websites, sit with a hot toddy in front of the fireplace, and dream of things of springtime.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Plant of the week: Sharp-lobed hepatica (Hepatica acutiloba)

Brrrr!  How many wonderful native plants can tolerate the early spring cold like our native hepatica? Depending on the year and weather, this species can begin blooming in late February and early March and I can't tell you how many times I have seen the dainty flowers tinged with brown where ol man winter nipped them.  But as March progresses and gets warmer, this exquisite woodland plant will still be in flower and oft times will still be in flower in late April.  One of the great adaptations for flowering so early is the thick, leathery liver-like leaves (hence the name hepatica) and the thick hairy flower caudex (they really don't have flower stems rather a thickened, underground stem from which the flowers and leaves arise - a similar type of structure is the trunk of a palm tree).  Being in the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae), this species lacks petals and the bracts which support the showy sepals (which range in color from white to pink to blue) are also quite hairy.  The flowers appear before the leaves and the brownish, liver looking three-lobed leaves that appear with the flowers are from the previous growing season.  The taxonomy of this species is pretty interesting as botanists noticed that H. americana grew in more acid conditions whereas H. acutiloba grew in more neutral soils. Hence some use the taxonomy of H. nobilis var. acuta and H. nobilis var. obtusa for H. americana.  I suspect in the nursery trade you are most likely going to see it as H. acutiloba or sharp-lobed hepatica because H. americana is more restricted and less common in Kentucky and elsewhere, it is a smaller, less showy species, and the leaves are rounded at the end instead of pointed. This is a great garden plant and can put on quite a show as the individual flowers can reach up to 1" wide and in mature plants there can be a dozen or more on a single plant.  After flowering, it still has interest with the glossy mottled liver like green leaves which fade to brown and provide winter interest as well.  To get maximum effect in the garden, this species should be grown in groups of 5 to dozens or hundreds.  It is mostly disease resistant and will grow in most any soil as long as it gets shade and a fair amount of organic matter in the soil (no clay).  It is also a long-lived perennial but it does not reproduce easily from seed and most plants come from division.  There are numerous reported home medicinal uses of the plant ranging from being a mild diuretic and laxative to a wash for sore breasts.  In Europe it was touted to be the "cure-all" for ailments, even for eliminating freckles and in this country in the mid-1800's is was the prime ingredient in "Dr. Roder's Liverwort and Tar Sirup" which was used for kidney problems.  In large doses it can be poisonous and with the use of any herbal medicine, I do not condone its use and you should always check with your physician before using any herbal medication.  Besides, why harvest those wonderful leaves when they add such interest to the winter and spring garden.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

What to feed our fine feathered friends this winter

The leaves have dropped and thanksgiving is almost upon us, a time to give thanks for the bountiful food we are blessed to have access to.  This is the time of year when food is abundant for wild creatures, particularly birds.  The sunflower seed is ripe and dry, the flowers and grasses are done flowering and have set seed and those seeds are ready for consumption.  The fruits and berries of viburnums, hawthorns, dogwoods, and other species are abundant are ready for the bird feeding table.  Soon these sources of food will dwindle and the time of plenty will become a time of scarcity (particularly in late February and March).  For those that feed birds, and lots of people do feed birds (about a million of us in Kentucky), now is the beginning of the feeding season. For most folks, feeding involves nothing more than going down to the local hardware or general merchandise store and purchasing a bag of wild bird food. There is certainly nothing wrong with this, but the buyer should be aware of what they are getting in the bag of food.  Look at the seed tag and you will discover, quite often, lots of "filler" seeds - wheat, oats, corn, and milo.  While not inherently bad, some birds do like this type of seed, you will find you get more bang for your buck by mixing your own, or by simply feeding one or two of the best or preferred seeds.  The number one seed eaten and preferred by more birds than any other is the small black oil type sunflower.  There really is no reason to feed anything else because finches, even gold finches, will eat it and ground feeders like mourning doves, juncos, and sparrows relish it as well.  Cardinals will eat it as do titmice, chickadees, and nuthatches.  Even woodpeckers will eat these seeds.  If you are making a mix, the best mix would be black oil sunflower and white proso millet.  Nothing else would be required as these two seeds would attract pretty much any species to a backyard feeder. If you want to get fancy, you can add the larger striped sunflower seed and safflower (more expensive).  Finally, you can put out some suet for the woodpeckers and niger (some folks call it thistle but it really is not a thistle) for the finches.  Once you have selected the food, where do you put it to keep it dry?  There are more different designs for feeders than you can even dream up but it doesn't need to be fancy and a tray on the ground or placed on a post will do just fine.  If you have certain fuzzy tailed rodents that climb trees, and yes you know what I am talking about, then you can get fancy but I can tell you this, at some point in time, the squirrel will outwit you even with a squirrel proof feeder.  But that is a whole different subject to be tackled later.  So for now, run down the your local feed store and buy 50 lbs. of black oil sunflower and let the birds have a thanksgiving feast as well.
Note the sparrow is picking out the black oil sunflower.  In addition there is some milo filler seed in this mix, which was thrown on the ground.
This red-bellied woodpecker is getting some sunflower seed that has been stuffed into small holes in the trunk of this osage orange tree.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Plant of the Week: Copper or Red Iris, Iris fulva

Of all our native iris species that grow in full sunlight, this may very well be the easiest of all to grow.  While it is normally found in far southwestern Kentucky, and is on our official threatened and endangered species list in Kentucky, it grows in gardens all over the state.  It's normal habitat is wetland soils that are permanently or semi-permanently saturated with water but this delicate species does very well in average garden soil.  It is so easy to grow and easy to propagate from division.  This species has lovely terra-cotta reddish flowers (occasionally found with bright yellow flowers 'Lois Yellow') that are highly attractive to hummingbirds when in bloom in early to mid-May.  The dark green sword like leaves reach a height of 2' and the flowers are a bit smaller than many of the other native or horticultural irises.  This species belongs to a large group called Louisiana Iris and there are at least 43 named cultivars and it is grouped as a beardless, crestless iris (Louisiana group) which has been hybridized with other species in the group including I. brevicaulis, I. hexagona, I. vinicolor, and I. giganticaerulea.  It has no major disease or insect problems but is susceptible to Iris fulva mosaic potyvirus.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Plant of the Week: Bloodroot (Sanguinara canadensis)

Now is the perfect time to be planting our native woodland wildflowers, particularly those that are early spring bloomers, like bloodroot.  The reason for planting now is that you will be greeted with flowers next spring instead of waiting a whole year before they flower again.  This woodland beauty can begin flowering in March in Kentucky and some individuals can extend their flowering into April.  The 1 1/2" wide pure white flowers with bright yellow stamens rarely last more than a day or two and for this reason it should be planted in large masses for an extended flowering period.  Once done flowering it has wonderful palmate type leaves and can be 8" wide or larger.  Like most woodland species, this delicate beauty likes filtered shade (not on the north side of the house in dense shade) and highly organic soil.  No clay.  You can create a bed for this by putting three to four inches of compost on top of the soil and planting the dormant rhizomes directly into the compost (heck that is the way they grow in the woods, leaf compost).  This plant gets its name from the red sap in its roots that was used as paint by Native Americans and as a dye by early settlers.  Today it has a wide range of medicinal properties, too many to list here but a publication by the southern US Forest Research Station in Asheville, NC has an excellent publication that covers all aspects of this plant.  It can be located at http://www.sfp.forprod.vt.edu/pubs/sfpdoc8.pdf Excellent companion plants include twinleaf, squirrel corn  Dutchman's breeches, trout lilies, blue phlox, and yellow corydalis.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Love is in the air: it’s rutting time again!

Ah the smell of does in heat.  Nothing like it to get a male deer in the mood for love and this results in bucks and does moving about the landscape more than ever. This means, there is an increased possibility of hitting a deer with your automobile about this time of year when love is in the air. People hitting deer on the roads happens over a million times a year in this country and last year, more than 3,000 individuals reported hitting a deer in Kentucky. How do you avoid hitting a deer and causing thousands of dollars of damage to your vehicle? One of the great inventions of the past 30 years has been the “deer whistle.”  This device, when attached to an automobile, emits an audible sound that scares deer away or at least that is the theory.  The real question is: Should I purchase one to avoid hitting a deer?  The short answer is to please send me the $10 -15 you would spend on the deer whistle for my European vacation fund because the results will be the same as if you purchased one and placed it on your auto.  Just kidding, don’t send me money. But the real answer is they do not work so save yourself some money.  These were tried in Europe over 25 years ago and several good studies from Finland and Switzerland show no efficacy.  In the United States a number of state agencies have tried them in Utah, Georgia, and Wisconsin and found them to be ineffective.  A final study in Connecticut, using physics and sound principles, indicated their effectiveness was questionable.  The one study that did show they worked and for which several companies tout for their efficacy from research done by “an independent research” agency was never published and it was nothing more than mounting the devices on snowmobilea and driving through the woods and seeing if the deer ran away.  Guess what, they did, but probably not from the sound of the deer whistle, more likely from the sound of the noisy snowmobile.  At any rate, the best method of protecting you and your vehicle from hitting a deer is to be vigilant and slow down when driving at dusk or night this time of year, pay attention to the deer crossing signs (they are there for a reason),  if you see one deer along the road, there are bound to be others so be alert, if you do see one “caught in the headlights” apply the brakes but do not try to swerve away as you could lose control of the vehicle and hit another vehicle, go off the road and hit an obstacle, or something worse.  If you do hit a deer, contact law enforcement immediately to report the collision.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Plant of the Week: Kentucky Yellowwood, Cladrastris kentukea

Now that fall is winding down it is the perfect time to begin planting trees in the landscape.  The really good thing is, at this time of the year, nurseries are having tremendous sales on trees so they do not have to carry them over during the winter months.  What this means is that you might not find the common species like red or sugar maples that everyone seems to plant, but you can find some unique species like the Kentucky Yellowwood.  I will never forget the first time I saw this growing in the wild near the boat landing at Shakertown at the base of the palisades.  It was in full flower and fragrant, oh my, what a sweet smell.  The long, white, wisteria like clusters of flowers in late spring is something to behold.  Typical legume or pea like flowers in a cluster that can reach 1 to 2' in length. While it takes this species about 10 years to begin flowering, and it is slow growing, once it does begin flowering it produces a bummer crop every two to four years with lesser periods of flowering in between time.  While spring is the obvious showy time, check out this brilliant yellow foliage in the fall!  I also like the smooth bark which contrasts so nicely with either the flowering or fall color periods during the year.  This is a species that is pretty uncommon in the wild, and equally as uncommon in people's yards and landscapes.  The native range is mostly Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, and North Carolina. I assume it isn't used in the landscape so much because it is slow growing and the one drawback is that the trunk can divide close to the ground.  It can be trained, when young to develop a longer trunk, but only prune this species in fall or early winter because it bleeds profusely when pruned at other times. The best place to grow this species is in the full sun, where it does best, with well drained calcareous soils although it will also grow in part sun, just not as fast and will not flower as profusely.  Yellowwood reaches a height of about 30' at maturity and has a nice wide spread making it a wonderful mid-sized landscape tree. This species has a long taproot so digging and transplanting from the wild is not recommended. The species gets its name from the brilliant yellow wood that is very hard and used for specialty furniture and gunstocks.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Capturing Field Mice in the Home

Usually I try not to turn the heat on in the house until November 1.  Didn't quite make it this year due to that one cold snap in Mid-October.  Warmth is something most mammals seek out during the winter and we humans are not the only creatures seeking a dry warm place to hang out during the next few months.  Now is the season when the "field mice" and other rodents come into structures to get in out of the cold.  What prompted me to write about rodents coming in from the cold was a situation one of the interns at the Pine Mountain Settlement School told me about at the fall color weekend.  Evidently they had a wood rat that came inside the house and was keeping them up at all hours of the night.  They tried everything it seems to capture this little critter, even though I think wood rats or pack rats as they are sometimes called, are quite cute with their "mickey mouse ears, cute pointy nose, and loveable nature." They were at their wits end as they had tried everything under the sun to capture and kill this little rodent. When I asked about the trapping they told me they were unsuccessful and it had sprung the trap several times and had escaped with the bait.  Being the good Extension Wildlife Specialist, I then explained an alternative trapping approach and instead of using a single trap, use two traps.  Instead of placing the trap parallel to the wall, place the two traps side by side, perpendicular to the wall because you then get three chances to capture it compared to a single change with one trap.  They then baited the trap and used a snickers bar (heck that would have worked for me and a whole lot of other people who have a sweet tooth) for bait.  The next morning at breakfast there was excitement in the air; the perpetrator had been captured and disposed of.  Yes it tripped the first trap but got caught with the second trap and the problem was solved.  So if you are averse to putting out poison bait for those pesky rodents this time of the year, go out and get some snap traps and place them two by two, perpendicular to the wall and let the rodent capturing festival begin in earnest.
The correct method for using snap traps to capture small rodents.  Place them perpendicular to the wall in pairs.  Bait can be anything they like such as peanut butter and oatmeal, candy with nuts, but probably not cheese.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Plant of the Week: Fragrant Ladies' Tresses Orchid

Most people are fascinated by orchids because they are often showy, have complicated life histories, and are not that common in nature.  While most of the native orchids can't survive in the garden setting, this particular species is fairly easy to grow.  The fragrant ladies' tresses orchid (Spiranthese cernua var. odorata) 'Chadds Ford' was introduced into the nursery trade in 1973 and gets its name from the vanilla smelling flowers (odorata) and Spiranthese which derives from the Greek words denoting spiral and flower (spiral flowers around the stalk).  This particular species has been tissue cultured for years and is widely available in the nursery trade.  It naturally occurs throughout much of the eastern United States although in Kentucky the variety odorata is very rare.  This is a great garden plant because it really has no disease or insect problems and flowers late in the growing season, just finishing up its flowering period now.  It likes partial shade and grows best when receiving morning sun and afternoon shade although it will grow in full shade.  It definitely likes rich, organic soil and it can be grown in a rain garden or other situations where the soil is moist but not water logged. The plants typically grow from 1 to 2' tall and can have a spread of about 12" and given enough time, it will form a nice cluster. This is a species that should be carefully placed in the garden because it does not like to be moved once it is established.  However, once fully established these stems work very well in cut flower arrangements and their pure white flowers can even be used in wedding bouquets and arrangements.  If you are putting this with a group of species that like moist to wet conditions, cardinal flower and great blue lobelia make great companion plants.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Requirements for the Control of Roosting Blackbirds, Starlings, and Crows Using Pyrotechnics

Courtesy University Missouri Extension

As fall wanes and winter approaches the sounds of hundreds to thousands of blackbirds roosting in residential trees and along tree lined boulevards will increase.  In the old days, cities, counties, or other entities that were willing to pay for USDA Wildlife Services to control these roosts with avicides, could count on excellent control and dispersal of the birds.  USDA no longer offers this service as the chemical they used, DRC 1339, is no longer available and with recent budget cuts, they simply do not have the budget or personnel any longer to assist with these activities.  Adding to this dilemma, one other chemical, a scare agent called Avitrol, is no longer available and Starlicide Complete is labeled for agricultural use in this state.  What are municipalities and home owners going to do to disperse these birds?  The first and most obvious solution, and a starting point, is to trim up to 30% of the tree canopy branches that the birds are roosting in making sure to "open" the canopy up so the birds cannot congregate closely.  The next step, depending on the tree or trees, would be to use bird netting placed over the canopy and for very large trees this is difficult to do but it is possible if they birds have been using the trees for an extended period of time.  Finally, what we have recommended for years has been to use a combination of bird distress tape calls and pyrotechnics (bird bangers and screamers).  There is now a wrinkle in using this method to disperse the birds and that wrinkle is that the ATF, which has regulatory authority over the use of explosive devices, has determined that Explosive Pest Control Devices (EPCDs in their lingo or bird bangers) require the user to obtain a permit.  This permit costs $100 and you must reapply every 3 years.  In the application you will be required to fill out a 4 page  application form, be fingerprinted, include a 2 x 2 photograph, and include a check, money order, or credit card.  There are then very strict requirements for storage and record keeping.  Fortunately, not all pyrotechnics were included and one group, the bird screamer, which emits a siren like sound as it travels (but without the explosion at the end) does not require a permit to use.  The new protocol for dispersing these roosts is to go out at dusk as the birds begin congregating around the roost trees and play the bird distress tape CD (available for cost from the UK Department of Agricultural Communications) and shoot the screamers into the birds.  Continuing doing this until the birds settle in for the night and then shoot into the tree for a few minutes.  You will need to repeat this procedure for three to five evenings (as a minimum) until the birds leave that roosting area and settle into a new area. For those interested in learning more about nuisance wildlife control, a webinar will be held on November 29.  More information about this can be obtained at http://www.ca.uky.edu/forestryextension/fallwebinars.php

Monday, October 17, 2011

Plant of the Week: Aromatic Aster

Aromatic aster (Symphotricum oblongifolium) or fall aster is aptly named because it is a sure sign that fall is almost over and winter is just around the corner.  Only the frost aster (S. pilosum), the small white, weedy aster, appears on the landscape later.  This species is an easy one to identify because it has a more compact form due to its densely branched nature giving it a bushy appearance.  It also has larger flower heads, an inch or more wide, than most asters and anywhere from 20 to 35 bluish to purplish ray flowers in the head.  The disk flowers are typically yellow and turn lavender as the flowers mature. The 2" long leaves get progressively shorter as they ascend up the stems and are linear to oblong in shape, have short hairs, and attach directly to the stem.  Be aware that many of the cultivars or plants in the mainstream nursery industry are actually a hybrid of aromatic and New England aster (S. novae-angliae) and have a tendency to be larger plants with larger, more colorful flowers.  This is an easy to grow plant in full sun and prefers soils that are not rich, rather poor limestone soils, because it does not compete well against more aggressive species.  This species also likes it dry which makes it an excellent rock garden plant. The normal habitat for this species in Kentucky is along limestone cliffs and rock outcroppings and limestone glades.  The plant gets its name from the balsam like fragrance that is omitted when the leaves and flowers are crushed.  This is a great butterfly, bee, and insect attractor and on warm, sunny days the bugs will be all over the flowers as will the caterpillars of the silvery checkerspot.

Friday, October 14, 2011

It must be fall, the snake calls are coming in hot and heavy

Almost annually, without exception, spring and fall are snake season for homeowners.  Spring when they come out of the dens and in the fall when they travel to go back into the dens.  I swear, all snakes are copperheads to the folks that call and all have this paranoia about snakes.  Can't quite figure it out because there are only about 8,000 venomous snake bites a year in the United States and less than 12 deaths from them annually.  For some reason, this year was an excellent year for young milk and rat snakes, which have patterns that superficially appear like copperheads, and these really got people's attention.  In central Kentucky most homeowners should not worry about coming into contact with a venomous snake because the two species, copperhead and rattlesnake, only occur rarely in rugged habitat around the palisades of the Kentucky River.  The two most common snakes found in homeowners yards are the rat snake and garter snake, with the rat snake by far being the most common.  There are a number of different subspecies of the rat snake but the common and black are the most abundant in Kentucky.  These are very beneficial snakes to have around as their primary diet as adults is mice.  Young will eat baby birds, lizards, and an occasional frog. They can live just about anywhere, buildings, rock piles, gardens and are excellent climbers.  Typical size ranges from three to five feet although they can get larger under certain conditions.  When approached or sensing danger, the first response is usually to remain motionless.  However, when provoked, and it seems like humans like to provoke them, they can become aggressive and coil up, shake and vibrate their tails, and even strike. If you pick one up, the snake is likely to release a foul smelling musk.  Rat snakes are egg layers and in good years they can lay two clutches of eggs.  The young hatchlings are aggressive feeders and can double their size rather quickly.  There are no chemicals registered for controlling snakes in buildings or around homes.  The best advice is to remove any habitat, i.e. places where rodents hang out and places where they can hide such as wood piles, downed logs, tin or boards lying on the ground, and un-kept or un-mowed turf and gardens.  You can capture snakes indoors with the use of a glue type trap and there are snake repellents on the market although research shows limited efficacy in most situations.  The bottom line is to try to accept and live with them because they are quite beneficial and won't harm or attack you.  In fact, certain subspecies of rat snakes are quite common in the pet trade and tame easily.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Plant of the Week: Closed or bottle gentian, Gentiana andrewsii

As the flowering season progresses until the first hard frost, the number of excellent native plants suitable for show in the garden decreases. Oh sure, there are asters, goldenrods, and the native grasses, but few plants that are striking in color.  One of the best late fall plants in flower now is the closed or bottle gentian.  This species grows about 1 to 2' in height and arises from a single taproot, hence it is not prone to spreading because of the lack of an underground runner or rhizome.  It likes calcareous or limestone rich soils and flowers best in full sun to partial shade, with the shade coming at the end of the day.  The key to growing this long-lived perennial is to put it in suitable soil.  Since it is a wetland plant that is associated with prairies, forested wetlands, and fens; it does best in rich, moist soils.  There are some really neat things about this plant in that it has an extremely bitter taste and this means that deer might browse it early, which means you would get multiple flowering stems, but it is generally deer browse resistant.  Another interesting fact is that the primary pollinator is the bumblebee and they are big enough and aggressive enough to open up the end of the flower (or corolla) to pollinate it.  The tiny seeds are usually dispersed by the wind or occasionally water and germination is erratic with high seedling mortality; hence the best route to putting these in the ground is to use plants from a nursery and not seeds.  In addition, since it has one or a few stems arising from the taproot, it will take numerous plants to put on a show in the garden.  Using three probably won't cut it and it will take five or more plants clumped (and probably more) to get a really good show of color.  This would be an excellent choice for a rain garden. Another really positive feature of this plant is that it does not have much of a problem with foliar diseases or chewing insects. This is a more northern species and Kentucky is at the southern edge of its range which goes from Colorado over to the coast and up north into Canada. It is considered rare in Kentucky.  A strikingly similar plant is soapwort gentian, Gentiana saponaria, which also occurs in Kentucky and is infrequent. Most people would be hard pressed to tell the difference unless they actually key out the plants.  Why not try this in the garden to bring out a little blue during this time of the year when we mostly focus on the reds, yellows, and oranges in our trees, shrubs, and bushes.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Changing of the Guard: Fall Color and Trees

During the past several weeks we have experienced almost ideal conditions for an outstanding fall color display.  The days have been warm and sunny and the nights have been cool to cold, but not freezing. It is under these conditions that sugars are produced in the leaf (these are important because they trigger the amount of anthocyanin pigments which produce red colors and because the carotenoids produce yellow and gold which remain fairly consistent) and during the night the gradual closing of the veins in the leaf don't allow the sugars to escape or move out of the leaf. So as the chlorophyll, which gives the leaves their green color, begins to slow down production and eventually stops as the length of night time increase, the other pigments show their colors after being masked by the chlorophyll.

Each group or species of tree typically exhibits a different palate of colors:

Oaks turn red, brown, or russet;

Hickories turn drab yellow to bronze;

Green ash turns yellow and white ash turns purplish;

Red maple turns scarlet red, sugar maples turn orange to red, and black maple turns brilliant yellow;

Sassafras turns orange to red;

Sourwood and black gum turn crimson red;

Flowering dogwood turns purplish-red;

and tulip poplar turns yellow.

Some species like the elms, don't turn color much at all and just shrivel up and drop their leaves.

One of the most fascinating things about using trees in the landscape for fall color is that some species, like red maple, are genetic clones and driving along US 60 from Versailles to Frankfort I noticed plantings of red maple and they all looked identical.  They all had a similar looking canopy. All had three primary limbs coming from the trunk and all were pointed in the same direction and had the same shape, and all were turning color, the same color, and the color was turning from the same direction and amount of coloration in the leaves was strikingly similar.  In short, they looked identical and most likely were clones that were selected for their fall color because they were beginning to turn a brilliant crimson red and in a week will be quite strikingly beautiful, especially when dropped against the bright green grass in the horse pasture.

If you are looking for great fall color in your  yard, look at the list of trees above and think about what species you might like to add just for color's sake.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Plant of the Week: Eastern Silvery Aster: Symphyotrichum concolor

This is one of my favorite fall blooming asters, along with the barrens silky aster (S. pratense) because these species are not aggressive in the least like many of our aster species.  Furthermore, they have outstanding fall color with the deep purple ray flowers and yellow disk flowers and wonderful silky, silvery leaves.  They do like different habitats though as the Eastern silvery aster likes dry, sandy, open woodlands (where the soil is mildly acidic) whereas the barrens silky aster likes dry limestone barrens and prairies.  The Eastern silvery aster ranges from New York down to Florida but skips areas in West Virginia and Pennsylvania because of a lack of the dry sandy open woodland habitat it requires. It is listed as endangered in Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and Massachusetts, and historical in Rhode Island.  In Kentucky it is known primarily from the southern Cumberland Plateau area.  This is a relatively short growing aster reaching heights of two to three feet tall and what is really nice is that the 3/4" wide deep purple flower heads line up on the stem and form beautiful delicate purple wands and when used in conjunction with erect, bicolor, or gray goldenrod en masse, wow a stunning display of purple and yellow that will blow your socks off.  All of these species mentioned are short growing and like well-drained soil on the dry side and somewhat acidic although gray goldenrod is more of a limestone species.  Give them lots of sun and do not fertilize them.  What a treat to have this explosion of color in late September and October.  The most reliable source of Eastern Silvery Aster is Niche Gardens based out of North Carolina.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What is a pesticide?

Kentucky has the dubious misfortune of being the worst state in the country in terms of illegal use of pesticides to kill wildlife. During the past decade we have had successful prosecutions for the illegal use of  Furadan to kill coyotes and birds of prey and the use of endrin to kill birds on perches. Unfortunately these are only the high profile type cases that the EPA and USFWS deal with and people in Kentucky continue to illegally use pesticides, probably daily or weekly, around the home and garden.  Why?  I suspect some of it has to do with ignorance concerning what is a pesticide and how it can be legally used.   A pesticide is any substance, either a commercial product or a home remedy, that's meant to prevent, destroy, or repel pests, or reduce their damage. The use of pesticides falls under the federal jurisdiction of FIFRA (Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act).  In the case of wildlife or vertebrate animals, there are also ramifications for illegal use under state and local animal cruelty laws and if a migratory bird is killed, the USFWS becomes involved.  I think another reason is that many "home remedies" are promoted by various sources and these become like "Gospel" in terms of their purported effectiveness, even though we all know humans have a tendency to embellish certain information.  How do you know if you can use a particular substance to repel or kill wildlife?  It is very simple. Read the label.  The label is the law and if the intended use is not listed on the label, then it is illegal to use.  I will clarify this with several examples the first being the use of mothballs to repel bats, snakes, and other animals from attics or structures.  Mothballs or napthalene does have a label for use as a pesticide, but the label is for moths in confined spaces, like a chest.  It is not labeled for use, in most cases, as a repellent and it is therefore illegal to use it in this manner.  Furthermore, this chemical is a known carcinogen, or a substance that is known to cause cancer.  Let's examine another use of a chemical, regular old household ammonia, to evict squirrels or raccoons or other critters from a chimney.  Household ammonia is not labeled for this use and is therefore illegal to use.  Breathing the fumes of this corrosive substance, from the vapors, can have human health effects.  Finally, let's look at vinegar to kill plants (used as a herbicide).  Yes, vinegar at higher concentrations of 20-25% can kill plants but it does not have a label for this use and the normal white distilled vinegar purchased at the store is about 6% acetic acid but pickling vinegar is about 18% acetic acid.  Since it is an acid, this chemical can cause chemical burns to the skin and particularly the eyes and if breathed, can irritate the lining of the nose, throat, etc.  The point of this discussion is that if a chemical has not gone through the regulatory process, vital information is lacking about its safety, how to use it safely, what concentration should be used (big difference between a 0.5% solution and a 5.0% solution), and you can't know or trust every single manufacturer to be honest or competent to knowingly or unknowingly add something that could be harmful to humans or the environment into the product.  Finally, just because something is sold over the counter or through the internet, does not necessarily mean it is legal to use in Kentucky.  For example, one garden store in Kentucky was selling a gopher bait with an active ingredient of strychnine,  a highly toxic substance, that is illegal to use in Kentucky because we do not have any gophers in the state and this chemical has been banned from being sold for a variety of reasons.  So the short, to the point purpose of this article is to inform you, always follow the label, it is the law and if a product, even a home remedy is not labeled for use as a wildlife pesticide, then do not use it.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Plant of the Week: False or American Bittersweet

Birdwatchers appreciate this native vine for a source of emergency food late in the winter.  Arts and craftsmen appreciate it this time of the year for making wreaths and decorating, adding that brilliant orange color to the fall palate of reds and yellows of the turning leaves.  Landscapers, naturalists, and ecologists have come to hate it because they confuse the native vine with oriental bittersweet, which is invasive and a major pest species in this state and numerous others.  It is far more invasive than the native species because the berries are more red than orange and eaten more by birds, there are more of them on the vine than the native species, and the seeds have higher germination rates.  What this has led to is a decrease in the native species and an increase in the exotic species. The invasive will grow at the base of the tree and over time will eventually girdle the tree, killing it (just like English Ivy does) and in some extreme cases, the vines become so heavy with berries that they actually uproot smaller trees. Oriental bittersweet is now a problem in every single Kentucky county and the problem is getting worse.  On the flip side, I have noticed, although just through observation and not scientific research, that the native vine is decreasing and becoming harder to find in the wild.  To make matters worse, it appears that the oriental version can hybridize with the native species causing further ecological issues. So let's help nature out by planting this lovely native vine.
The true native vine is actually called false or American bittersweet, Celastrus scandens, and it can be difficult to identify when compared to the exotic, invasive oriental species (C. orbiculatus).  When you look at the leaves, typically the Asian variety are more rounded and less pointed with the native species having longer leaf tips.  The edges are typically more jagged than in the Asian species. While leaf shape is somewhat distinguishing, the best method of telling the two species apart is that the emerging leaves in the Asian species are folded whereas in the native species they are rolled like a scroll. If you have plants that are in flower, the best method is to examine pollen color (oriental white, American yellow).  In the fall, the best method is to note that fruit only occurs in a terminal cluster in the American species and oriental has fruit in the axils of the leaf along the stem.  The fruit in the oriental species is also typically larger and has more seeds in it.  Of course both spring and fall are excellent times to control Oriental bittersweet with herbicides.
This is a very adaptable, deciduous vine that will tolerate most any soil type, even clay and will grow in full sun to full shade, although to get maximum fruit production you would need to place it in full sun. The vine is dioecious with male flowers on one plant, female on another.  To get good fruit production you would need to place a male close to a female plant for pollination. The primary pollinators are bees which are attracted to the flowers in May and June.  The only maintenance required is to do a little pruning in early spring or late winter to keep the vines neat and tidy.  This is a fairly easy species to propagate from seed or cuttings.  The most reliable method of getting male or female plants is through cuttings of a known sex.  This species is widely available in the trade and make sure you get the native variety, which is prettier anyway, than that nasty Oriental species.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Greating a bog garden

Yellow Pitcher Plant and Flower
My last posting on grass of parnassus raises an obvious question if you are going to use this plant in the landscape, and that is: "How do I create a bog garden?"  It is not all that difficult and some attention to detail must be adhered to, such as:
1) never use tap water (contains minerals and chlorine harmful to the plants);
2) the soil medium must be kept continually moist to wet;
3) It is best to use live sphagnum moss (available from Carolina Biological Supply Company) if possible;
4) never fertilize the garden because bogs are naturally low in nutrients (hence that is why there are carnivorous plants living and thriving in them);
5) the bottom must be lined with heavy, unbroken mat of plastic or rubber such that there are no holes or seams for water to escape from;
6) there should be some form for drainage in the very upper reaches so that the crowns of the plants do not rot;
7) use a mixture of 50:50 or 75:25 of sphagnum moss to coarse (not child's play) sand that has been cleaned;
8) locate the garden so it gets full sunlight and it fits into your existing landscape design;
9) if you don't have space to put one in the ground, use a half-whiskey barrel or planter or even an old child's wading pool (it only needs to be about  2' deep).
While rain gardens are all the rage, why not put in a bog and use the rainwater to fill the bog and then have the excess run-off into a rain garden?  This would be a wonderful way of creating diversity in the landscape and allow for additional opportunities to use some other unique native plants.  Once a site has been selected you can begin the excavation process.  Bog gardens do not necessarily need to be deep and a minimum depth would be about 2 1/2 feet, and deeper is probably better.  If you have mole problems then I would recommend placing 1/2" hardware cloth down with some soil on top to prevent them from entering and destroying the bog. Next place the liner down and place a bit of soil or the created soil medium in several places to hold it down and let the liner settle.  Then fill the bog with the soil medium and trample it down as you go to make sure that the liner settles in well and fits the contours of the excavated hole.   Put your drainage pipes or holes in at this point.  Now fill the garden with water, distilled or rain, and make sure the entire surface of the garden is level and even.  Wait several weeks for the system to stabilize and add water as necessary.  Now you are ready to plant and some of the most interesting plants you can use in a bog garden are pitcher plants, sundews, some easy to propagate orchids (make sure they are nursery propagated not just nursery grown),  cranberry ( this will vine over the top), iris, cardinal flower and great blue lobelia, and any species that likes to keep its roots constantly moist.  Once established the only maintenance is weeding, keeping the bog from drying out, and mulching in the late fall with pine straw.