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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Making a Mountain out of a Mole Hill

All this warm weather seems to be getting life busy and into the fast lane. One of the creatures that is now beginning to show signs of activity is the eastern mole (Scalopus aquaticus) and the tell tale signs, hills and tunnels, are beginning to appear on the landscape.  I am curious of people's fascination with moles and how the minimal damage they do can create such hubris.  I mean really, people go crazy, putting chewing gum, razor blades, broken glass, diesel fuel, lye, Drano, pickle juice, red pepper, bleach, moth balls, rose branches, human hair balls, soil vibrators, ultrasonic contraptions,  gasoline and explosives down holes to drive them away.  Just as crazy is using poison peanuts or trying to fumigate an entire burrow system.  I understand people wanting a nice lawn, but the reason a mole lives in that lawn is because it has an abundant food supply, either insect grubs (not a good thing) or earthworms (a good thing) and the soil texture and moisture is to their liking.  Moles are quite beneficial in that they aerate soil and they break-up and condition soil through their burrowing activities.  One thing is for certain, there have been no advances in mole control for about 80 years and the old standby of trapping is still the best control method available.  Oh you can put down one of those castor oil based repellents and it may work for a month but you will then need to reapply and this can be expensive over the long run.  You can also control the grubs in the lawn so check out this great publication for help:
Perhaps you can get a dog that loves to dig and burrow and go after them when they are active early morning or late afternoon.  Or you can hire a professional to take care of the problem. But in the end you will come to the conclusion that trapping is the most effective, long term solution.  So why don't people trap moles?  Mostly because it takes skill and patience to be successful and most humans want a quick fix.  Before I go further into discussing why trapping often fails, I recommend you read and re-read the mole control publication from the University of Kentucky:
Now why does mole trapping often fail?  Biggest reason: not locating the active runs which are long and straight (see photo below of long, straight run).  Reason two: not enough traps.  If you have three active runs in a lawn, use three traps. Reason three: traps are not placed deep enough so the mole can squeeze past the trigger. Reason four: lack of patience.  If you haven't captured a critter in a couple of days, move the trap.  A few other pointers not covered in the mole publication.  When attempting to control moles keep the turf mowed close so you can see new mole burrowing activity and place traps in the appropriate position.  If a trap has been triggered, dig on either side to see if you have captured the animal because sometimes you think you haven't captured the suspect when in fact you have. Trap tunnels not holes (i.e. mounds of dirt) and when trapping tunnels don't trap the ends, trap the center section. While the new mole earthworm baits have been promoted as being effective, there is little independent research to verify these claims but it makes sense that to be successful the key to their success would be to getting those baits into the same tunnels you would trap.  Good luck because in all likelihood, you will need it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Plant of the Week: Gaywings or Fringed Polygala (Polygala paucifolia)

This is an easy woodland wildflower to overlook but it is a delight whenever you stumble across it because of its brightly-colored flowers and diminutive size.  It is often mistaken for an orchid but in reality it is a member of the milkwort family which, when eaten by mammals supposedly stimulates milk production.  Hence the name polygala is derived from the Latin "poly" meaning many and "gala" meaning milk. The species normally occurs throughout the eastern United States in coniferous forests, typically on moist acidic sites. Emerging from creeping slightly underground stems, a smallish 2 - 3" tall plant arises with 3/4" long unique flowers that resemble an airplane with two wings and a propeller The actual flowers are made up of five sepals and three petals. There are three smaller sepals and two larger expanded sepals that appear like the wings on the plane. Two of the three petals are fused to form a tubular structure that resembles the fuselage of the plane and the third petal forms a koosh ball type structure and when a bug lands on this it pushes the other petals down and allows for the flower to be pollinated. This plant also has underground flowers that self-fertilize without opening.  In the appropriate habitat, this species can form large colonies and with the deep magenta colored flowers can be quite showy in the garden, if used appropriately.  This is a worthy garden species but it takes considerable time to build up a population as it is slow to reproduce.   Try this soil mixture for growing it in the garden: 1/3 topsoil or organic humus (leaf litter), 1/3 peat, 1/3 sand and if you can find it throw in some good ground pine needles or mulch.  Throw in a bit of mycorrhizal fungi inoculation for good measure.  Be sure it is a shady site as well. Good companion plants would include false rue anenome, Canada mayflower, wintergreen, and maybe a wood lily for some height.  There is only one nursery I know of that sells this species and it is Enchanter's Garden in Hinton, WV.  This species may need to be pampered, but it is well worth the effort when those beautiful flowers show up in April!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Plant of the Week: Dutchman's Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)

Yesterday I was in Hart County on an adventure to photograph one of the most photogenic waterfalls in Kentucky.  As we wandered below the sandstone cliffline getting every closer to the portion of the gorge where the waterfall occurs I noticed the leaves of Dutchman's breeches.  First just a few leaves coming out but as I looked further, there were large masses of leaves, fully open, dew covered, and with some warm weather, ready to burst out into flower.  This is one of springs early bloomers and it typically flowers in March to early April, so late January is a bit on the early side.  I love this beautiful, dainty member of the Fumitory family (relatives like squirrel corn and corydalis) not only for the unique pantaloon style flowers, but also for the fine textured leaves that seem to collect dew quite easily.  This species grows in rich, moist, organic woodlands and reaches heights of 4 - 8" tall. The leaves are triple compounded with 3 primary leaflets and 3 secondary leaflets on each primary leaflet.  The stems are often a brownish to reddish color.  Sitting atop the smooth leaves the flowering stalk supports 2 -8 upside down hanging flowers with two white outer petals and two yellow inner flowers.  The two outer petals fuse and form a nectar spur which provides the sweet elixir for long-tongued bees mostly bumblebees, Mason bees, Miner bees, Anthophorid bees and Giant Bee Fly. The seeds are covered with an oily substance and are therefore dispersed by ants.  The foliage is toxic to mammals.  This is a very easy to grow species in the garden as long as you have dappled shade and rich, organic soil. It can tolerate some clay soils but can't tolerate wet soils in the winter. Because the plants go dormant in late spring to early summer, you must interplant with later flowering species or woodland ferns unless you want a big brown dirt patch in the garden.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Plant of the Week: Carolina Wild Pink (Silene caroliniana)

It is often confused with phlox because it superficially resembles one, but sticky catchfly or wild pink (like other pinks such as firepink or roundleaf catchfly, two other Kentucky natives) has the petals separate, not fused like members of the phlox family.  There are three known varieties of this plant and for the most part, varieties do not mean much to a gardener, except in this case.  S. carolinana var. wherryi is the sub species that likes extremely well-drained limestone or shale soils.  The variety pennsylvanica is a more northern or high elevation Appalachian species that likes rocky, limestone derived soils.  The variety carolinana likes acidic, well drained sandy soils of the coastal plain.  All the plants found in Kentucky are the variety wherryi and are typically somewhat short-lived unless they are given room to send out rhizomes where they spread prolifically.  They can be produced by division or seed.  I have seen them scattered along the palisades cliffs of Central Kentucky in small patches but have found the largest patches along road cuts where the dominate soil is shale (Eastern Knobs), where the photos above were taken.  These make excellent rock garden plants and they can take a great deal of sun although they do best with some shade very late in the day during the hottest periods of the summer.  These colorful charmers rarely grow more than a foot tall and have semi-evergreen 4" long lance-shaped leaves.  There is a cultivar called 'short and sweet' which is common in the nursery trade.  The key to successfully growing this species is to have extremely well-drained soil, absolutely no clay allowed!  Good companion plants might include branched draba (Draba ramosissima, available only from Enchanter's garden), white-haired leather flower (Clematis albicoma),  hairy woodmint (Blephilia hirsutus), bird-foot violet (Viola pedata), and gray beard-tongue (Penstemon canescens).  When a large mass planting is achieved like those found growing in nature above, it can be quite a show stopper when in flower in April and early May.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

You got your dead skunk in the middle of the road

Set the scene, springtime in Paris, 1945 and a young male French skunk named Pepe' LePew strolls around looking for "l'amour" or love.  Many of us grew up with this fictional Warner Brothers character that was created by Chuck Jones.  Of course, the skunk of his desire, Penelope (Pussycat) is not really a skunk at all, but a pure black cat, who of course wants nothing to do with malodorous, overly assertive skunk.  Fast forward to 1972 with a song written and performed by Loudon Wainwright III which goes something like this:
Crossin' the highway late last night
He shoulda looked left and he shoulda looked right
He didn't see the station wagon car
The skunk got squashed and there you are!

You got yer
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
Dead skunk in the middle of the road
You got yer dead skunk in the middle of the road
Stinkin' to high Heaven!
On to the present day and the topic for this blog post: it is approaching mating time for skunks in Kentucky and you are probably going to start seeing, or actually smelling them, along the highways and byways and maybe your backyard.  Skunks beginning their mating ritual in February and carry on into March and they begin wandering around in search for a mate and since they are polygamous, they will take multiple partners.  Then in late May to early June the four to eight little skunks are born.   They have hair by the second week of life and are weaned at two months of age.  Only females take care of the young.   Skunks are habitat generalists and can live just about anywhere, even in towns and cities living under porches, decks, homes, out buildings, etc.  They typically live in a burrow that has been created by another creature or they are capable of digging their own burrow with the sharp cat-like claws on the five toes (hint for identifying their tracks, cats typically have four toes and retractable claws).  They don't have to live underground and during the warmer months may live in a rotten log, brush pile, your deck, you get the picture. Skunks are also opportunistic feeders and will eat rodents, bird or snake eggs, small rabbits or squirrels, chipmunks, nestling birds, insects like grasshoppers (they are a favorite), beetles, crickets and insect larvae.  In the summer they can raid your garden and eat vegetables like corn, beans, fruit, and berries and yes they absolutely love cat or dog food left on the porch or in the garage that is accessible via the pet door (hint, hint).  And like all omnivores in the city, they will also eat garbage.  Skunks are primarily active at night or a dusk and are quite docile animals which makes them masters of conflict avoidance (man could we humans learn from them!). Of course these very virtues is why people purchase them for pets.  They come in a variety of colors ranging from pure black to pure white.  Domesticated skunks have had their scent glands removed when they are youngsters and there are a great many sites on the internet that offer skunks for sale.  Wild skunks never make for good pets for lots of reasons.  This is the time of year that homeowners complain about skunks under the deck or other buildings and skunks tearing up their yards in search of yummy, scrumptious grubs.  So what do you do if a skunk is tearing up your yard or taken up residence in your residence?  First do not panic, it is not the end of the world and they will not spray unless threatened.  In fact, they will give you ample notice of the impending doom by stamping their front feet and then raising their tail with the hairs fully extended.  If they don't feel threatened or intimidated, they typically do not spray (hint, hint for removal).  If you are in the line of fire, so to speak, remember that they can direct their spray for up to 10' with some traveling up to 20'.  So, if they are digging grubs in the yard the simple solution to this problem is to control the grub population (contact your local county extension agent for specific information on this topic).  Now make sure you don't entice them by making sure there is no food like cat or dog food out, garbage can lids securely fastened, mice, rat or other rodent populations are controlled, etc.  Make sure you close any access under porches, foundations, etc.  If you need to trap them and remove them, they will readily go into a live trap baited with tuna, sardines, honey, etc.  However, because we have such a problem with skunk rabies in Kentucky, it is highly recommended that you not release the animals.  If you do want to release them, cover the trap with heavy canvas making no quick motions to agitate the skunk and then very slowly move trap and all.  If the skunk doesn't feel threatened, it will not spray, trust me, I have done this in the past quite successfully but it requires a great deal of patience.  If you do not wish to release the skunk then simply dispatch it to skunk heaven following an AVMA approved technique.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Plant of the Week: Catawba Rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense)

The past few weeks I have been hiking around the forests of eastern Kentucky continuing the work on my waterfall book and invariably I come across large patches of rhododendron.  While most of the rhododendron in Kentucky is rosebay (R. maximum), which has white to pink flowers and blooms in June, we do have populations of the catawba rhododendron which has the pink to purple flowers which open in mid-May and primarily occurs in the true mountains of southeastern Kentucky.  So I figured now was a good time to talk about green in the winter garden that can be provided by rhododendrons.  I will group the two species together because they both have similar growing conditions in the garden.  Also, a big disclaimer here.  Do not ever eat rhododendron leaves as they will kill you very quickly.  It is one of the most toxic plants in nature.  In fact, the honey made from rhododendron flowers is also toxic and a few years ago some small children in Korea died from eating honey made from azaela flowers.  Because this is such a showy plant, the catawba rhododendron has a large number of cultivars and hybrids that are for sale.  Those recommended by the Department of Horticulture at UK include: America, Crimson Glory, Cunningham's White, English Roseum, Janet Blair, Lee's Dark Purple, Maxicat, Nova Zembla, Roseum Elegans, and Scintillation. The recommended cultivar for rosebay is Album.  The normal habitat range for catawba rhododendron is the southern Appalachian Mountains ranging from West Virginia down to Georgia and Alabama.  The rosebay has a similar but much larger range occuring all the way up to Maine.  This is a fairly easy plant to grow and is commonly found around homes, often as a foundation plant.  It requires light morning shade and moist, well drained soil.  In Kentucky, you typically find catawba growing near rock outcroppings but I have seen it growing in good, moist forest soils as well.  The rosebay requires similar habitat and it is quite common thoughout eastern Kentucky.  While in nature it appears to like the acidic soils, it does okay in the limestone soils as long as it is well drained and doesn't get too much sun and is protected from the wind.  It should also be given a good dose to sulfur and acid type fertilizer every year.  It has been described as slow growing but I had a rosebay in my yard that grew 6' tall in 3 years and flowered and it started as a 6" tall pip.  The plant can grow 6 to 8' tall and rosebay can get even taller than that.  The cultivars are much more compact growing than the wild species.  When temperatures drop in the winter, the large 6 to 8" leathery leaves have a tendency to droop and curl but it should be protected from the wind. You can encourage more prolific blooming by deadheading the flowers from the preceeding year.  This plant is susceptible to chlorosis in limestone soils and it should never be planted where it can get too hot and windy.  It definitely likes the well drained acidic soils and to encourage flowering it should be given a dose of fertilizer annually.  The two primary problems with the plants are root rot and black vine weevil.  One final note, if you are looking for the true wild species be careful of the various cultivars as many of them are undoubtedly hybrids.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Plant of the Week Southern Club Moss (Diphasiastrum digitatum)

Known locally as southern club moss or ground cedar, this perennial plant has its roots to before the time of Methuselah.  Its relatives were around at the time where insects were the dominant animals and when some of the club mosses were big tree like plants that occurred in the great carbon swamps that gave rise to the coal we now burn.  Botantists often refer to the club mosses as seedless vascular plants because the plants reproduce via spores and have two stages in their life history, the sexual and asexual stages.  In the asexual stage, which is tiny and inconspicuous and called the gametophyte (which probably exists below ground), the plant gathers nutrients and water with the assistance of micorrizhal fungi for up to 15 years underground.  It then develops into the sporophyte or "adult" or parent plant that produces the spores for reproduction and this is the plant we observe in nature.  Hence if you try to get this plant to reproduce from spores, it would take 15 to 20 years and you would have to have the correct microrrizhal fungus.  Because it can't be grown from spores and it has a specific soil micorrizhal association, it can't be grown for the nursery trade. Unfortunately for years and years this plant has been collected from the wild to be grown in the garden only to discover it does not survive transplant and some estimates are less than 1% of dug plants survive. This led to the protection of the species in several locations throughout its range, which is pretty much the entire eastern United States. This plant has to be enjoyed in the woods in its natural habitat.  Fortunately, this species is quite common in forested acid soils that are often rocky and usually nutrient poor in Kentucky.  They are typically associated with upland pine and oak forests. These evergreen plants grow up to 6" in height along horizontal stems that are above ground. Each upright shoot along this stem produces lateral stems that are horizontal to the ground and have a fan like appearance. Each fertile stem will produce one or two cone-like spore producing structures (called strobili). Since these plants produce toxic alkaloids, they are not eaten by mammals, including humans. At one time the spores of these plants were used as a dusting powder by the pharmaceutical industry to package pills.  There appears to be little other reference of using this species by people except collection for wreaths and other holiday greenery and mixing an elixir with a variety of other trees to produce a tonic to induce pregnancy.