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.

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.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Plant of the Week: Grass of Parnassus: Parnssia spp.

I have no earthly idea how this plant got its name because neither the leaves nor flowers look anything like a grass.  One source indicated that early botanists thought this was the species in Greece that was described as the grass on Mount Parnassus in Materia Medica by the famed botanist Dioscorides.  It also goes by the name of bog star and that is perhaps a better common name. However it got its name, it is one showy member of the saxifrage family that brightens up the fall bog garden or wet seeps.  Several species, P. glauca and P. grandifolia like calcareous sites whereas P. asarifolia likes acidic sites. These are the three primary species found in the eastern United States and as you might expect since they are bog plants, the other species found in North America occur much further north.  The two species that occur in Kentucky, P. grandifolia and P. asarifolia are both quite rare and these species are not typically found in the nursery trade.  However, P. glauca, is widely available and will do very well in Kentucky because it is found close to Kentucky's northern and eastern borders. The reason it is not uncommon in the trade is because it is easily propagated from division shortly after the flowers have died and it transplants well.  This lovely species likes partial shade, not full sun or dense shade, and of course continuously wet or moist soil, usually growing out of sphagnum moss.  Calcareous soils are a must for this species and it sprouts a 1" wide flower on top of a 12" tall stem, so it is a rather short growing species in the garden. It has stiff, leathery leaves that occur at the base of the plant and are somewhat heart shaped. In Kentucky it flowers in mid-September through October and a great companion plant is the greater fringed gentian (Gentianopsis crinita) which flowers at the same time and is about the same height. Another option would be Elliott's gentian (Gentiana catesbaei) which has more individual flowers and is a lighter blue color instead of the deep blue of the fringed gentian.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Plant of the week: Southern Monkshood, Aconitum uncinatum

Flowering in the woods and garden right now, this beautiful twinning, almost vine like woodland wildflower adds grace and elegance to any setting. While it is found mostly in rich or fertile deciduous woods frequently along streams, this species flowers best in the garden if it gets morning sun and afternoon shade.  It will grow in full, dense shade but does not flower as profusely when placed where it gets some sunlight Perhaps the most interesting feature of this plant is the unique 1-inch deep purple or purplish blue flowers clustered at the end of stems that have five sepals and the .upper sepal forms a rounded hood, concealing part of two claw-like petals. The natural range for this species is most of the eastern United States from Pennsylvania down to Georgia and Alabama. It is considered rare, threatened, or endangered in much of its range but is pretty widely available in the nursery trade.  This showy member of the buttercup family has large, palm shaped lower leaves and smaller lance shaped leaves near the flowers.  This species has co-evolved to be pollinated by bumble bees.  The stamens mature more quickly and the female flowers are typically lower so the bees enter the flower and get nectar in the lower female flowers which produce more nectar and then move upwards to the lesser nectar producing flowers higher in the bloom.  When the bees move upwards to the lower nectar producing flowers, they cross over the stamens and get pollen on them and because they have to spend more time nectaring in the upper flowers of which some do not get pollenated and then the bees move to another bloom and enter with the female flowers on the bottom, ensuring cross pollination. Like many members of the genus Aconitum, this species has some toxicity, although it appears it is not as toxic as other members of the genus and most of the toxicity is in the roots and seeds.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Plant of the week, Purple Rattlesnake Root

Known from only several locations in Kentucky, this outstanding plant provides color in late September and October in Kentucky. The name Prenanthese is derived from the Greek "prenes" and "anthe" flower and racemosa is Latin for "having a raceme" or a cluster of flowers each on its own stem along a single central stem. This is a northern species and Kentucky is at the southern edge of its range which covers the southern Canadian Provinces and the states east of Wyoming down to Colorado over to New Jersey and Pennsylvania.  It is a species of calcareous moist prairies, streambanks,  and wet meadows or fens. It grows from 2 - 5' tall but generally reaches about 3' tall and makes an excellent companion plant with southern blazingstar (Liatris squarrulosa) which has similar growing conditions and flowers about the same time.  This is definitely a sun loving member of the Aster family. This is a species you are most likely going to have to propagate from seed and you should purchase the seed in the fall and then give it a long cold moist stratification period of 150 days.  Several nurseries in Minnesota sell seed and one wholesale nursery sells plants www.morningskygreenery.com.

Since this is a calcareous soil loving plant, and since it grows in moist prairies and other wet areas, this should be a great plant for our limestone soils in Kentucky.  I doubt it likes heavy clay soils, few plants do, but I suspect it can tolerate a good bit of clay although it will thrive in typical average garden soil in a location that gets full sun.  The wonderful thing about this species is that along with the southern blazingstar it provides a source of nectar late into the season.  Because it is a slender plant, as is southern blazingstar, you will need to plant this in a large grouping to get a big show of color as the pinkish to white flower heads are on the small side.  However, en masse, this species is quite showy and compliments the lavender flower heads southern blazingstar.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why do squirrels strip bark and chew on small branches?

This time of the year is about when I start getting calls about gray squirrels stripping the bark off trees or chewing off small branches and letting them drop to the ground.  This seems to be particularly true in urban areas with pin oak trees and I usually see it as I pass by one large pin oak next to Haggin Hall on my way to work.   The question often asked is why?  No one knows for sure but there are some theories out there and my favorite one is because squirrels are neurotic little creatures and they simply like to do it.  Squirrels are kind a crazy animals and have lots of quirky behaviors such as making loud noises during sexual intercourse, which of course has nothing to do with reproduction or anything else, it just appears they like to do it and it could be that stripping bark and clipping small branches is fun and they like to do it or it could help keep those shiny bright teeth good and sharp.  Another theory is that since this occurs close to the time when females are giving birth (in the spring and fall), and giving birth is evidently no picnic and can be quite painful in squirrels, and because they exhibit different behaviors during pregnancy like not eating before giving birth, this behavior is a response to the pain associated with giving birth.  The final theory has to do with finding high quality food or material for nests and of course the cambium layer is rich in nutrients both in the spring and fall and by stripping bark they are getting essential nutrients, or perhaps, it just tastes good and the bark provides good building material for their nest.  In most cases the damage caused will not kill the tree but it could potentially damage it if some other pathogen found its way into the wound, although this generally doesn’t kill the tree either.  If you really feel like you must control this type of behavior, the best solution is to temporarily wrap the areas with flashing to prevent further damage or to use one of the many taste repellents, like hot sauce, to deter them long enough for the behavior to cease and desist. Or perhaps you can get some simply enjoyment by watching these large tree climbing rodents carrying out their crazy behavior.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Native Plant of the Week: Smooth Rock Skullcap

The smooth rock skullcap (Scutellaria saxitallis) is uncommon or rare throughout its entire range which goes from Pennsylvania west to Indiana, south to Arkansas and east to the coast, excluding Florida. It has a global and national ranking of 3 which indicates it is vulnerable to extirpation.  It is threatened in Kentucky and Tennessee and Endangered in Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Maryland. According to the U.S. Forest Service, about 60% of the entire population nationwide occurs on protected land. The primary threat to the species is from logging or loss of forest canopy in some areas, and invasive, exotic plants in others.  This species is generally considered a plant of rich, moist woodlands; however, it does occur in openings in the Great Smoky Mountains, along roadsides in West Virginia and in Ohio it can be found in open shade or semi-shady areas.  It generally appears to like sandstone but I have seen it growing in shale and limestone here in Kentucky and the sites are often quite rough and rocky.  The one thing it does not like is competition, hence it is an excellent candidate for the semi-shaded rock garden.

Unlike many of the other skullcaps, this species does not stand upright but is rather decumbent or lays on the ground.  This is also a species that has an extended flowering period and begins in June and those in Kentucky gardens are still in flower on September 1st.  This is not a large, robust plant but rather gets about 18" tall and more likely is about a foot tall and can be differentiated from other skullcaps by its decumbent nature and cordate leaves, flowers that occur in terminal or accessory lateral racemes, a corolla tube without the terminal ring of hairs, and a slightly glaborous stem.  It is most commonly confused with S. ovata but the later species has pubescent stems, does not recline, has longer leaves, and well differentiated racemes.

In the garden this plant can be used in semi-shade to shady habitats that are dry, rocky and well-drained with little to no competition.  Hence it should be promoted for use in a rock garden.  It would appear that the soil should be somewhat acidic but not strongly such that our limestone soils can be easily ammended.  Excellent garden companion plants might be Allegheny stonecrop (Sedum telephiodes), Nevius stonecrop (Sedum nevii), cliff stonecrop (Sedum glaucophyllum), Addison's clematis (Clematis addisonii), pussytoes (Anntenaria spp.) or branched whitlow-grass (Draba ramosissima). The only known nursery source I know of is Enchanters Garden located outside Hinton WV and run by Peter Heuss at www.enchantersgarden.com