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 16, 2013

Plant of the week: False Solomon's Seal (Maianthemum racemosum)

This plant is not all that showy unless you look at the individual flowers close up and see the wonderful bright yellow stamens against the white tepals and sepals which make up the 1/6" long individual flowers.  Like other members of the lily family, the flower parts occur in multiples of three and it has parallel veins in the 4" long by 2" wide mostly smooth leaves that alternate up a zig zag stem. The plant is much showier in late summer and early fall when the tiny white flowers turn into clusters of beautiful red berries.  It flowers in late summer and likes mostly shade but will flower better in partial shade (morning sun) and it is tolerant of a wide range of soil types but does best in rich organic soils. The flowers are slightly fragrant and are pollinated by small bees and beetles. The flowers in the cluster give the appearance of a plume and hence another common name for this plant is Solomon's plume. The entire plant stands about 2.5' tall and it will form a nice cluster that forms from a perennial rhizome. I like this plant because in a colony it has a great textural appeal in the shade garden and gives rise to interesting leaf patterns.  The berries are eaten by some woodland birds and white-footed mice and white-tailed deer will occasionally browse the foliage, but it is generally avoided by this and other herbivores.  Native Americans did use the leaves and brewed them to make a concoction that treated colds and constipation.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Plant of the Week: American Holly (Ilex opaca)

The popular holiday song says to "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly" during this holiday season and the American Holly is the tree species they are referencing. It has been reported that Christianity has embraced this during the Christmas season because the thorny leaves represent the "crown of thorns" on Jesus' head and the bright red berries represent his blood. It is a magnificent evergreen tree that is pyramidal is shape and typically reaches heights of 15 to 30' tall. The reason this is such a great urban tree is that it tolerates clay soils, air pollution, and deer.  Deer do not like this species because of the thick, leathery, and spiny leaves.  This species is dioecious which means the male and female flowers occur on separate trees.  Hence to get the wonderful red berries, that birds typically love in late winter after numerous frosts have broken down the tannins and other compounds in the fruit, you must have a female tree.  To obtain good fruit set, you should plant one male tree per three female trees and they should not be located any further than 200' apart.  One of the problems of planting this in heavy limestone areas is that the leaves may be chlorotic because the pH is too high.  If this is the case, use a little sulfur to make the soil a bit more acidic. If you wish to keep this as a more shrubby species, you can do that by cutting it back every year to the height you wish to maintain it. There are many, many cultivars of this species in the nursery trade and one of the most prolific fruit producers is 'Jersey Princess.'  The bark is generally smooth and green and is often hidden from view by the dense thicket of leaves in the cultivated varieties.  This is such a popular tree that there is even a society devoted to all things holly and it can be viewed at http://www.hollysocam.org/

Monday, December 2, 2013

Plant of the Week: Spoonleaf Sundew (Drosera intermedia)

This is probably the most eye-catching of the temperate sundews that are cold tolerant. Adult plants get up to 5 inches tall and 5 inches in diameter although they rarely get this large growing in the wild. Its uniform shape gives it the appearance of a miniature tree and when the sun shines on the plant it becomes almost translucent. It is only known from one location in Kentucky, but the native range is all along the east coast up into Canada over to Minnesota and down to Texas. Of all the sundews that can be grown in the garden, this one requires substantially more moister than the others and it is often found growing in standing water. If you have a bog garden, this is one area where you might mix the peat to coarse sand in a 1:1 mixture and keep it wet (near the source of water). While this plant can go dormant throughout much of its range, sometimes up to 9 months, there are two forms available in the trade 'Cuba' and 'Mt. Romaima, Venezuela' that do not go dormant and would be showy right now.  Like other carnivorous plants, this little gem traps insects on the sticky hairs of their leaves, then digest them for nutrients and is usually grown under low nutrient conditions. In Kentucky, try growing it in a bog or create a small bog in a half whiskey barrel or other large pot with the appropriate peat moss and sand mixture.  Remember to keep in the full sun and never let it dry out.  Other species that can be grown with this that are available in the trade include various other sundews like filiformis, capillaris, rotundifolia, and anglica; pitcher plants including white-topped, yellow, hooded, purple and many new exciting hybrids, some orchids like grass pinks and rose pogonia, and some other interesting species.  Creating native bog gardens and habitats is another fascinating way of exploring native plants in the landscape and I know when I grew them, all the neighborhood kids were fascinated by the plants that turned the table on the animal world.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Plant of the Week: Smooth Phlox (Phlox glaberrima)

This may be my favorite spring blooming phlox of all the various species found in this state. It flowers later than the very early blooming species like woodland phlox, starry cleft phlox, etc. and it usually flowers more in the May period.  It also requires a different type of habitat, light shade usually in moist soils (often at the edge of wet woods, moist prairies, etc.).  It typically gets about a foot to two feet tall and is generally unbranched.  However, you can get lateral branches, and hence more flowers, if the central stem is cut early in the spring. It generally has sessile leaves and a taproot, but it appears to make somewhat of a small cluster through seed drop by the parent plant if it is given the appropriate growing conditions.  The clusters of 1/4 to 1/2" wide flowers range in size from a handful to twenty or more.  Flower color can vary from pink to lavender and they are quite fragrant.  This is not that easy of a plant to grow and it is definitely not drought tolerant and will die during periods of extreme drought.  It likes moist, high organic soils with lots of compost.  It prefers light shade but grows in full sun although moisture becomes more important for the plant under these growing conditions.  The flowers are visited by butterflies (typically skippers, swallowtails, and monarchs) and some other small flies.  It is very susceptible to powdery mildew in some cases and the vegetation will readily be eaten by deer, rabbits, and other herbivores.  This plant makes an excellent cut flower.  Great combinations of blue flag, Louisiana, and copper iris would make for some excellent showy displays in the garden for that wet spot as long as there isn't too much clay in the soil.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Plant of the Week: Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis)

This native orchid is difficult to grow if you do not have the appropriate growing conditions in the woodland garden.  It can be planted this time of year, bare root, and needs moist, rich, thick humus soil that are well drained in mostly full shade.  Plants that are dug from the wild perform very poorly in the garden, but those purchased from nurseries do well as long as the plant IS NOT DISTURBED once it has been established and if the appropriate growing conditions are met.  The soil pH should be slightly acidic from 4.5 to 5.5.  Blooming in April, this can be a real show stopper in the garden.  The lavender and white flowers are fragrant and more mature plants have larger numbers of individual flowers on a short flowering stem. The plant reaches a height of about 6" tall and each of the broad oval, dark green and glossy leaves can be up to 6" long.  This species does not have any significant insect or disease problems.  The primary pollinator is the bumblebee which lands on the lower white "lip" of each individual flower, which is a lower petal.  The lavender "hood" is comprised of joined sepals and lateral petals.  The name for this plant comes from the Latin "galearis" which means hood and "spectabilis" which means showy or spectacular. These orchids are expensive in the nursery trade so it behooves you to create the appropriate growing conditions before purchasing and attempting to plant these little woodland gems.  Because this species does not like competition, it is best grown as a specimen plant and allowed to develop a colony over time.  Therefore, companion plants are not recommended.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Plant of the Week: Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus)

This is one of those native plants that kind of hides until it is time for it to strut its brilliance, which is now when the clusters of seed pods open and display the bright orange to red seeds in the four lobed seed capsules that are rough looking.  This feature has given this plant the common name of "Hearts-a-Bustin" .  This green stemmed plant is pretty common throughout the woodlands of Kentucky but you hardly ever see it get very big in the wild because it is a favorite deer food and in many places they have almost eliminated it.  However, in the garden, this 4 to 6' tall plant, makes a wonderful edition to the woodland or woodland edge garden.  It can form a thicket because it suckers and the light green leaves and 5 petaled flowers are not that showy, but this is unusual for a Euonymus because they usually have 4 petaled flowers.  Fall is definitely the season for this plant as the leaves can turn a scarlet red draped against the green stem complete with those wonderful seed capsules. When considering where to plant look for loamy soils that are slightly acidic as the eastern Wahoo (a native tree) likes the more heavy limestone soils (and is also an excellent native species as well).  All parts of this plant are poisonous and contain glycosides that cause severe diarrhea and potentially heart failure and cardiac arrest.  This is a much better native alternative to the invasive exotic burning bush and winter creeper so heavily planted in this state.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Plant of the Week: Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

This is one of my favorite trees to see in the fall as the leaf color can range from bright yellow to orange to red.  It is fond of our calcareous soils and is an easy to grow tree that provides wonderful shade and you can even tap it for maple syrup if you are so inclined. This is such a stately tree that it is the state tree of Wisconsin, Vermont, West Virginia, and New York. Some botanists consider the black and bigleaf maples (out west) to be varieties of subspecies of the sugar maple. This is a relatively slow growing species that likes full sun and well-drained, evenly moist soil.  It is predicted this species will decline in many areas of the country as a consequence of global climate change because it can not tolerate extended hot, dry periods and likes cooler, more moist habitats in the wild. This is one of the primary species that gives spectacular color in New England and is the primary species for which sugar maple syrup is extracted.  However, there are a variety of different cultivars on the market like Caddo, that is a more compact species which reaches heights of about 30' (rather than 60 to 70') and is more drought and heat tolerant.  Several other varieties that are heat and drought tolerant include Green Mountain and Legacy. Sometimes people confused sugar maple with red maple and there is a simple way to tell the difference between the two and that is to look at the U shaped connections between the 3 - 5 lobes versus the V shaped connections in the red maple. This species is largely disease free and appears to handle a fair amount of air pollution making it an excellent urban tree, better in my opinion than red, Norway, or silver maples that are more commonly planted.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

What will fall color 2013 be like in Kentucky.

The question is now upon us, will we have a color fall leaf changing season?  The answer is: yes, no, maybe.  The one thing that is fairly certain, it will be later than last year. This photo was taken October 14 on Pine Mountain and there was really good color at this time.  I was out and about last weekend and the color, well it just isn't developing yet.  Some of the sourwood and dogwood looked good, sumacs varied from outstanding to blah, and the black gum had pretty much dropped their leaves already.  Some of the tulip poplars and sycamores were just dropping leaves and some hickories were brown, not outstanding yellow.  So the prognosticators would say that fall color will arrive a bit later this year probably because it has been wet and warm.  But we can have some outstanding color although it might be spotty. So what conditions are necessary for outstanding fall color?  The best colors develop when you have had a warm, wet spring (which we had), a summer that isn't too hot or dry (which we had) and most importantly fall days that are warm with cool nights (which we haven't had until this week).  In general, when you get these conditions the reds are more brilliant (along with the purples and crimsons), the orange-reds of sugar maple can be stronger and more vibrant, and the yellows are pretty much a constant because they are not affected as much by the weather prior to leaf color change.  So leaf color could be good but if we get some cloudy, rainy, warm days, then maybe not so much.  But even then, there will be spots where the color will be intense, you may have to just search it out.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Plant of the Week: Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia)

This is one of the most elegant of all the native goldenrod species.  It is a fall flowering species and is at peak flower right now in the woodlands.  It is only one of several native goldenrods that has flowers that appear in the axils of the leaves, zig zag goldenrod is the other and it has larger leaves with petioles (stems) whereas the blue-stemmed leaves are sessile. They are both woodland species but flower much more profusely in areas where they get lots of morning sunlight although it can tolerate almost full sunlight.  This is a species that can tolerate some clay in the soil and can even be found in rocky soils although like most woodland species, loam soil is the best.  This is not an aggressive or weedy species at all and the sometimes greenish-blue leaves can be up to 5" long and 1" wide. Remember, goldenrods have heavy pollen and this species is no exception in that it is pollinated primarily by bees, and it is not wind pollenated so it is not the cause of your allergies or hay fever.  If you really want an outstanding show of color, plant this in groups or clusters of 5 or so plants and then use blue woodland aster around it and the show of light blue and yellow is incredible.  This plant is not tolerant of deer browsing although it is certainly not a favored food.  Finally, this plant makes an excellent cut or dried flower.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Plant of the Week: New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)

If you want a show of color in early fall, and I really mean a show, then this aster is the one for you. It can reach up to 4' tall but I always clipped mine back in June and it never got above about 3' tall and talk about clusters of flowers!!!!!   Wow, what a show this plant puts on.  Individual flower clusters vary from pure white ray flowers with yellow centers to pink to blue to purple and red. It is also one of the great late season butterfly attracting plants.  Each composite flower is about an inch and half wide with up to 30 rays flowers.  If you cut the plant back, on the top of each plant the clusters of individual composite flowers can be more than a dozen.  One of the great things about this aster is it is quite easy to grow, doesn't really have much of a habitat preference (of course rich, mesic is best in the full sun - but it is adaptable) and it can be aggressive which means you need to be able to identify the small seedlings in the spring with their alternate leaves up to 4" long and 1" wide that are whitish colored (small hairs).  This species will also spread horizontally via rhizomes and every few years it will need to be divided. It also has a tendency to drop leaves during drought and will become leggy, thus in many cases you will need to stake it up. The primary pollinators are bees, skippers, and butterflies and it will be browsed by deer, turkey, rabbits, etc. but it is generally not a species they like to eat.  When the leaves are crushed they have a vague turpentine like smell.  Because this is such a showy plant and easy to propagate, more than 50 named cultivars exist all over the world and one of the most popular is 'purple dome' which is a dwarf form.  Whatever the reason, this should be a mainstay in the wild garden along with the various yellows of goldenrod.  That is a true fall garden.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Plant of the Week: Spurred butterfly pea (Centrosema virginianum)

Sorry for not posting anything last week, but I spent the entire week in the ICU unit at Central Baptist and funny how they don't let you access computers and such; but then I didn't feel much like doing much of anything so I guess we shall call it a wash.  But I am back and this weeks plant is outstanding vine, considered rare in Kentucky, but quite showy and profuse in the length of blooming season and beauty of the individual flowers.  The spurred butterfly pea is a short 6 to 8; long vine that doesn't have tendrils and has a tendency to intertwine among existing vegetation.  For this reason, you should probably keep in on a short trellis (along with some native clematis like C. crispa, C. texensis, and C. glaucophylla) for an extended blooming period on the trellis.  The companion vines are also short species and will flower much earlier in the year compared to this species which blooms in July through September.  It is considered a perennial vine, but in Kentucky it acts like an annual and it easily self seeds from the interesting narrow seed pods that are quite showy as well when dangling as they look like a long French string bean dried out.  It likes dry, open sandy soils in pine barrens, but is quite adaptable to most growing conditions.  The three individual leaflets are generally lance-shaped and range to 2" long.  This is the larval host plant for the long-tailed skipper and northern cloudy wing butterflies.  The primary pollinators for this plant are bees and it is a nitrogen fixing species.  I think you will be surprised if you grow this plant because the 2 -3" lavender flowers are very showy and most people in Kentucky are unfamiliar with this plant.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Plant of the Week: Striped Maple (Acer pennsylvanicum)

Often called moose maple or moosewood, the striped maple is the least known of all the common maple species in Kentucky.  In our state we find it primarily in the true mountains at higher elevations of Pine, Stone, and Black Mountain.  It is planted as an ornamental because of the distinctive white stripes on the greenish-brownish bark.  It is not a large shade tree, rather it can be a shrub or a small tree, up to 20', and is best grown in cool, shaded areas.  Unlike the other maples that do not really have a soil preference, this species is definitely associated with acidic, well-drained, organic soils.  In urban environments it would probably be wise to amend the soil to create this environment. One of the best attributes of this species is the bright yellow leaves in the fall and the outstanding bark in the winter.  One cultivar, 'Erythrocladum' is known for the bright red twigs in the autumn after leaf fall that form on young stems that contrast nicely with the striped bark.   This species has typically maple like looking leaves with three lobes and the leaves can be quite large ranging from 5 - 7" long and wide.  It does have some problems adapting to urban environments because it is susceptible to pollution and canker when under stress.  The key to successfully growing this species is to keep the roots cool and moist (not wet).  It does make for a great tree in naturalized landscapes.  The other big drawback is that this is a highly preferred browse species for deer and they will readily eat it to the ground.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Plant of the week: Obidient Plant or False Dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana)

This plant gets its name from the unique attribute that when an individual flower is moved it stays in place.  The other name, false dragonhead, arises from its resemblance to a European flower with that name.  This wonderful, showy wildflower is a member of the mint family and as such has a 4 angled stem that can reach as high as 4' tall.  The entire plant is hairless or smooth and the individual leaves are serrated, lance shaped and about 5" long and 1 1/2" wide.  The individual flowers are tubular in nature with 2 lips and the upper lip has a short hood and the lower lip is divided with three lobes.  The individual color of the flowers can range from pure white to deep lavender and this is a widely planted species with many cultivars available.  This plant can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions and will form large colonies in above average to moist soils.  Its preference is for well-drained loamy soils but it can tolerate some clay and gravel.  Bumble bees are the most important pollinators although other long-tongued bees and the ruby-throated hummingbird will use the flowers as will some butterflies with long proboscis like some of the swallowtails and silver-spotted skippers. Keep in mind, this can be an aggressive seeder in the garden and it will need to be divided every couple of years.  Some great companion plants shown above include great blue lobelia, orange coneflower, wild golden glow, some of the asters that flower early, and perhaps even cardinal flower.  I know if you have any spotted jewelweed (an annual I know but you can get seeds started in your garden by collecting them in the wild) the hummingbirds will come have a field day.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Nandina berries are toxic to birds.

Photo from Clemson University

How many books, articles, and other materials have you read that says to plant Nandina, Heavenly Bamboo, or Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica) to attract and feed birds in the late winter?  This plant is classified as a noxious weed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and many states list it as a noxious-invasive weed because it escapes readily from the home landscape.  It is used as an ornamental because of the dark glossy green leaves and bright red berries that persist throughout the winter. It is still used, in large numbers by the horticultural industry and landscapers and is a recommended landscape plant by University Extension programs across the country.   Unfortunately this species, which has escaped from cultivation, is highly toxic to birds. The bright red berries contain cyanide and other alkaloids that produce highly toxic hydrogen cyanide (HCN) which is extremely poisonous to all animals. Sudden death may be the only sign of cyanide poisoning and death usually comes in minutes to an hour.  The deaths of cedar waxwings in Georgia that were necropsied at the Vet. school showed hemorrhaging in the heart, lungs, trachea, abdominal cavity and other organs.  This is a horribly painful method of death for a bird or any other animal.  Bird deaths in the Houston, TX area and other parts of the country have also documented the death of songbirds as a result of eating these berries. 

Plant of the Week: Tall Green Milkweed (Asclepias hirtella)

This is one of the lesser known milkweeds found in western Kentucky and is considered rare which is probably why it is not very well known.  However, like most other milkweeds it is a magnet for monarch caterpillars.  I really like the delicate nature and color of the flower clusters on the 1 1/2 - 3' tall species that has light greenish to reddish stems that are soft and hairy.  It has narrow leaves that are 2 - 6" long and 1/2" across.  It likes full sun and can tolerate moist to dry soil that is sandy, gravelly, loamy or clay-loamy.  The primary pollinators for this species are long-tongued bees and wasps although small butterflies and skippers will also pollinate it.  It is a host plant for several unique moths and is not eaten, usually by deer and other mammals, because it has that waxy, latex sap that is bitter to the taste. The seed floss or fluff of the plants in this genus was used by American colonists as pillow stuffing and was collected during WWII by school children for use in life-preserves. Since this plant prefers sandy soils good companion plants would be Indian grass, prairie sage (Artemesia ludoviciana), white false indigo, and rough blazingstar. 


Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Plant of the Week: Gray Goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis)

This has to be one of my favorite goldenrods because it only gets about a foot high in poor soils and 2' tall in more fertile soils.  It forms a nice clump and the leaves are grayish-green with bright yellow spikes of typical goldenrod flowers.  It can tolerate sandy, rocky, and clay soils and generally speaking, the poorer the soil, the better the growing conditions for this species because it will die out in Central Kentucky in good, rich, fertile soil.  This is a relatively easy species to grow and has a few potential problems in the garden including spot anthracnose, powdery mildew, rust, and fungal spots when growing in moist conditions (which isn't recommended).  Like most goldenrods, insects absolutely love this plant.  Long-tongued and short-tongued bees, wasps, flies, butterflies, beetles and moths all collect pollen or nectar.  This is an excellent plant for honey bees. Several different moths feed on the foliage and American goldfinches will eat the seeds.  Native Americans used this after it had been boiled to treat jaundice and kidney disorders in addition to using it topically to treat burns and skin ulcers.  The Navajo used the seeds for food and they burned the plant like incense. This species also makes an excellent cut flower or dried flower for various arrangements. Good companion plants would include some of the lavender asters like aromatic, blazing stars, and autumn sage.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Plant of the Week: Ironweed (Vernonia gigantea)

Most agriculture folks consider tall ironweed as just that, "a weed."  I guess because it can take over pastures and cows won't eat it.  However, from a native plant standpoint, this 3 - 7' tall weed puts on a spectacular show and is a great butterfly attracting plant especially for migrating monarchs.  This is a highly variable species and will readily hybridize with V. missurica (only in the far western regions along the Mississippi River in Kentucky).  We also have another rare species in the state, New York Ironweed (V. noveboracensis).  Ironweed loves moist soils but will tolerate pretty much most soil types found in urban environments.  Flower color varies from deep purple to light purple and even purplish-red.  The leaves can be up to 10" long and 2" wide and are arrowhead shaped, in general, with serrated edges. The leaves are either sessile or have a short petiole where they attach to the stem which is usually slightly hairy.  The flower clusters have been 10 and 30 disk florets but no ray florets.  Each floret has 5 tubular recurved lobes (just the right length for its pollinators of bee flies, butterflies, long-tongued bees, and skippers.  Mammals leave this plant alone because it has bitter tasting foliage.  The root system is fibrous and rhizomatous and each rhizome can produce several plants.  My recommendation for keeping this tall growing plant at a reasonable size is to cut it back in mid-June.  This plant works well with goldenrods and yellow wingstem (both of which would probably need to be cut back as well) and if you want a butterfly paradise, place it in combination with joe-pye-weed, goldenrods, and boneset.  This plant is an excellent self-seeder and in the garden the flower heads should be dead-headed to prevent unwanted plants from popping up everywhere.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Plant of the week: Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) and Gray headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)

This week there are two plants of the week because they should definitely be grown together and provide a color palette that is outstanding (yellow and lavender).  I guess my reason for talking about these plants comes from my recent trip back from South Dakota where these plants dominate the tall grass prairie and roadside plantings in Illinois and Iowa.  Both species obviously flower about the same time (actually in mid-summer here in Kentucky) and are for the most part disease resistant (although wild bergamot has a tendency to develop powdery mildew) and can tolerate the typical nasty clay soils of urban development. They are also tolerant of deer browsing and are excellent cut flowers, even providing some nice fragrance in the process. Finally, these two species are easy to grow and establish and will flower for an extended period of time.  Both like full sun and can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions.  Because these grow up to 3 - 4' tall, never fertilize or water them and if grown together, there is no need for staking as each other will provide support.  The primary pollinators of the yellow coneflower are various bees some wasps and small beetles and butterflies.  This is a host plant for the silvery checkerspot butterfly.  Bergamot has an oregano-mint scent and is visited by ruby-throated hummingbirds, hummingbird moths, skipper and swallowtail butterflies.  The primary pollinators are long-tongued bees. This species was, and is still, used to make a tea (usually with honey added because the flavor is so strong) to ward off colds and one of the common names, bee-balm refers to its antiseptic uses as an ointment.

The Unusual Cardinal at the Feeder

Photo by Ramona Marie Lauder

Photo by Eddie Eller

This seems to be the year of the bald cardinal.  I can't remember receiving this many calls about the strange cardinals folks have been seeing lately.  What are these birds and why is this happening?  These are just regular cardinals but at this time of the year the birds go through a process called molting.  Molting is nothing more than feather replacement.  In this case, the best explanation is that all the feathers molted at one time, giving the appearance of a "bald" bird.  Most of these birds are most likely young of the year, or juvenile birds, that are undergoing their first molt.  Normally feathers are molted a few a time and it is unknown why this phenomena seen in the photos occurs.  There is not a large amount of research on the topic but it also appears that feather mites or lice may cause the condition as the head is one area that the birds can not reach to "preen" to remove the tiny bugs.  The final explanation may be some unexplored nutritional or environmental contaminant problem.  For whatever reason, there is no need to worry because by the next molt the feathers will return and your beautiful red cardinals will not be bald any longer, unlike the author of this blog, who lost his hair at age 18 and it has never returned!!  Now that's a long molt!

Monday, July 29, 2013

Plant of the Week: Round-headed Bushclover (Lespedeza capitata)

This 2-5' tall member of the bean family should be planted in a large cluster to get any type of showy appearance in the landscape.  However, I like it because it is quite drought resistant and builds nitrogen in the soil.  Plus the whitish covered leaves, whitish colored stems, and whitish flowers are pretty spectacular when backlit. It is easy to grow and pretty much carefree and can take full sun and moist soil although once established it can handle dry, rocky, or even clay soils.  The leaves occur in bundles of three and each leaflet is about 3" long x 1" wide.  The flowers are quite small In addition, the seeds of this plant are relished by quail, songbirds, mourning doves, wild turkeys and serves as a host plant for the northern and southern cloudy wing, hoary edge, and silver spotted skipper butterflies.  It is primarily pollinated by bees although butterflies will nectar on it, although they are not very effective pollinators.  This plant is high in protein and thus is readily consumed by deer, rabbits, and groundhogs.  This plant makes a wonderful addition to dried plant arrangements as the brown seed heads remain all winter long.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Plant of the Week: St. Andrew's Cross (Hypericum hypericoides)

I was visiting a cemetery the other day in eastern Kentucky and as is typical, it was located on the top of a hill with shallow, acidic soils.  Looking upon the landscape and seeing the typical horticultural flowers gracing the graves, I noticed a natural garden, albeit very small flowers, gracing the grounds surrounding the cemetery.  In this natural garden I found wild petunia (shortened because it was mowed), white milkwort, and great masses of St. Andrew's Cross (H. stragulum to some).  This very low growing shrub forms large masses, usually several feet in diameter where the four petaled, 8 sepaled 1/3" long flowers are arranged in a cross shape with an egg shaped ovary.  The leaves are simple, somewhat waxy, slender and oblong in shaped and occur opposite on the stem and the subspecies most common in Kentucky is multicaule (mat-forming).  The other subspecies get much taller, in some cases 2-4' tall.  This plant would make an excellent ground cover for a rock garden or other dry, shallow, well-drained soil in full sun.  I was only able to locate plants at one nursery, Mulberry Woods Nursery.  This has a tendency to be evergreen which gives it an additional value in the landscape providing some green during the winter.  The other great advantage is that it will stay in flower for several months.

Monday, July 15, 2013

The hummingbirds are back at the feeder!

It never ceases to amaze me how people are so concerned with our tiny little ruby-throated hummingbirds when they don't see them in early spring.  I always tell them to have some patience, they will return in mid-summer and yes, right on schedule the hummers are back at the feeders.  Why?  There are several reasons: 1. The babies have now hatched and are out and about on their own and looking to "beef up" prior to their annual trek to the tropics; and 2. the migrants are now beginning that journey south and are looking for nectar sources.  Because of these phenomena, it should come as no surprise that the best hummingbird nectar flowers are now just coming into flower including the number one species of all time: trumpet creeper!  This plant produces as much as 10x more nectar than any other hummingbird plant.  But other species are coming into flower now as well including cardinal flower (another favorite and maybe hummingbird plant number two), jewel-weeds, red bee-balm, our native mallows, royal catchfly (a specialist for the hummingbird), false dragon-head, monkey flowers, and trumpet honeysuckle.  Now that the heat is with us make sure you keep the liquid in the feeder fresh and clean the feeder scrupulously so no bacteria or fungal diseases become associated with it that might harm the birds. Here is a little extra recipe for attracting hummingbirds and non-nectaring butterflies: mix old stale fruit (peaches, nectarines, melon, pineapple) with stale beer and sugar.  Put in a blender and place in a container in the shade on a platform.  You will be amazed at what will come into that mixture as shown with the pearly eye butterflies shown below.  Happy gardening and enjoy those flying flowers from now until frost.

Plant of the Week: Halberd-leaved rose mallow or smooth rose mallow (Hibiscus laevis)

This native perennial gets its name from the arrow or halberd shaped leaves that occur on this species that is common pretty much across the entire state of Kentucky. It does best and is found naturally near wetlands, streams, ponds, and other moist soil habitats, but does just fine in the garden.  If you are planting in a wet area, be aware this species can literally take over the entire habitat.  Of course there are worse things than having a 4 to 6' tall showy plant with up to 6" wide hollyhock like flowers that range from white to pink to red (and yes I have seen all color forms in Kentucky).  The 5 petaled flowers have a deep maroon center with a very prominent staminal column.  The plant has a deep taproot but it spreads easily via seed.  I recommend cutting this species back in the fall of the year to maintain a more horticultural appearance.  This species is pollinated by bumblebees and an oligoletic  (means specializing on pollinating one species or groups of species of plants) bee that also feeds on wild morning glories.  The plant also serves as a host for gray hairstreak butterflies (buds and seeds), painted lady and checkered skippers (foliage) and some moths including the pearly wood nymph, Io, and Delightful bird-dropping moth. Unfortunately Japanese beetles will eat this plant and deer will also consume the non-toxic foliage as well.  However, this is a much better replacement in the landscape than the exotic Rose of Sharon bush, which is invasive.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Plant of the Week: Culver's Root: (Veronicastrum virginicum)

This elegant plant of the snapdragon family can grow up to 5' tall and when found on steep slopes has a tendency to flop over.  Because of this tendency, even in the garden, I like to put a nice patch of this surrounded by either little bluestem, broomsedge, or split-beard bluestem grasses.  When backlit in the late afternoon it makes a stunning display.  This single stemmed plant has whorled leaves that are narrow and oval shaped, with serrated edges, and are about 6" long by 1.5" wide.  The flowers begin at the base of the flowering stalk and the white tubular flowers have beautiful rusty brown to yellow stamens.  The flowers do not smell and the plant has a central taproot with some lateral rhizomes but it is not an aggressive spreading species by any means.  One established, the taproot makes moving this plant difficult.  It likes loamy, well-drained soil in the full sun but can tolerate clay. There are no major diseases known for this plant. This species has many notable medicinal qualities as Native Americans used it to stop nosebleeds and as a purgative and emetic. It can be very harmful if ingested and therefore it is not used much for medicines today.  The plant is named for a noted 118th century physician who made it popular at this time.  There are so many good companion plants for this species it is hard to list them all.  I like the look with an understory of butterfly milkweed and maybe wild quinine but I think wild bergamot, prairie clover, yellow coneflower, black-eyed susans.  There are at least three cultivars available and include 'Diane',  ‘Lavender Towers’ and ‘Fascination’.  There are a host of other cultivars on the market as well.  This is a great cut flower and works well in a naturalized meadow.  The primary pollinators are bees including honeybees, bumblebees, Mason bees, Green Metallic bees, and Masked bees.  Generally deer resistant.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Plant of the week: Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum)

This is not the showiest of shrubs, but it is an excellent native plant for attracting birds and can be used in the back of your native wildflower garden.  It grows about 6 - 10' tall and can tolerate not only clay soils, but also the walnut tree.  It flowers typically in May and has beautiful bluish berries that the birds relish in late summer, early fall. It is especially showy in the fall when the leaves typically turn a beautiful red color.  The dark green, glossy oval shaped and toothed leaves get up to about 4" in size. To ensure good flowering every year (if you did not plant it for the birds), make sure to prune the shrub immediately after flowering since the flowering buds will form in the summer. This is one of our native viburnums that can be used to make a wonderful hedge.  It likes full sun but can tolerate quite a bit of shade, although it will not flower as profusely if planted in part-sun.  The plant gets its name because the Native Americans supposedly used the straight stems for arrow shafts. This is fairly deer resistant and the variety 'Blue Muffin' is a proven winner plant of distinction for the bright blue berries.  Other cultivars were developed for their fall color including: 'Northern Burgundy', 'Autumn Jazz' for an orange-red color, and 'Chicago Lustre' for golden yellow color.  This is one of the most disease and pest free viburnums in the market.

Monday, June 17, 2013

More Ticks

Blake Newton, UK Extension Entomologist

Last summer, I posted an item on this blog about Ticks In Kentucky. I listed some of the different kinds of ticks that live in the state, the diseases associated with those ticks, and how to defend yourself against ticks. I also addressed a question that we often receive in the Department of Entomology at UK: "Are tick populations increasing in Kentucky?"

Since then, we've seen even more evidence, both experimental and anecdotal, that tick numbers seem to be increasing. And while we have little scientific data from Kentucky, veterinarians and entomologists from states like Michigan, Missouri, and Oklahoma are convinced that tick populations are growing in number and that ticks are being found in new places. We still don't know exactly why the numbers are changing, but some scientists believe that growing deer populations, climate change, the suburbanization of the North American landscape, and even acorns may all be contributing factors.

I have not conducted any experiments on my own, but it seems like I see more ticks in Kentucky than I did a few decades ago. When I was a kid, I spent most of the 1980s wandering in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Rowan County. I was told by my parents to "watch for ticks." I would find a few every now and then. These days, when I visit the same parts of the forest, I will regularly pick off dozens of ticks. Sometimes, I find so many that I lose count, but I estimate the number to be about two hundred. When I find that many, the ticks are always very small: about the size of a grain of sand. Some people call these tiny ticks "seed ticks" or "turkey ticks." These small ticks are the immature stage of the Lone Star Ticknone of the other ticks in our area regularly attach themselves to humans while they are in the immature stage.

Luckily, these tiny tickswhich seem to be the most common in our area, and which are the ones that I run into almost exclusively in the woodsare not known to be associated with Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or any other major pathogens. (Identification can be tricky, though, so any tick should be removed as soon as possible.)

So, tick numbers may be on the rise. But there's one thing that hasn't changed: tick-safety! It is fairly easy to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from tick-borne illnesses, and you can read all the details in our online factsheet: Ticks and Disease.

Plant of the Week: Sundrops (Oenothera fruiticosa)

Sundrops or Southern Sundrops as it is sometimes called is a delightful, bright, showy member of the evening primrose family. It is a day flowering, not evening or night flowering member of the Onagraceae.  This is a tough plant that likes average soil and moderate moisture, but will do just fine and can tolerate poor soils.  It likes sun but can tolerate some shade.  It grows to about 18" tall and will slowly spread via rhizomes. This is quite a showy plant with 4 bright yellow petals in the flower that only persist a day or so but new flowers appear daily for a continuous show for several months.  It has 1 - 3" lance shaped leaves.  It is, for the most part, disease, deer and insect pest resistant. If it likes where it has been planted and the conditions are good, it can spread aggressively, though this is usually not a problem.  The genus name of Oenothera comes from the Greek "O├»nos" meaning wine and "ther" meaning wild animal.  One of the interesting pieces of folklore is that this plant has magical powers that made hunters lucky and the American Indians used to rub their moccasins in it to mask their smell to get closer to game.  The Germans felt when the roots were soaked in wine you could tame wild animals and the roots were thought to be very nutritious.  I love this plant growing with purple coneflowers and butterfly milkweed.  There are several varieties on the market including 'fireworks'  which is a more compact form. The variety 'Youngii' is a bit more showy with bright red buds and leaves that turn scarlet red in the fall.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Plant of the Week: Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

This outstanding native perennial has been in the nursery trade for decades and today you can get them in almost any color under the sun.  However, from the native plant garden aspect, the true purple coneflower is the species you want and you do not want any of the hybrids or cultivars if you wish to attract butterflies.  Why?  The primary reason is that those other plants are not breed or cloned for high nectar production to attract the native pollinator, or butterfly.  This is a great butterfly plant and you will likely see red admirals, giant, spicebush, gulf, and tiger swallowtails, great spangled, meadow, and variegated fritillaries, pearl crescent, viceroys, American coppers, and numerous skippers.  This species grows from 2 to 4' tall with a spread of about 1.5'. It begins flowering in June and will continue blooming much of the summer and in late summer, the American goldfinches come in and teach their youngsters how to get the seeds out of the center of the flower. This plant does well in average to dry and well-drained soils with full to part sun.  The plants will need to be divided about every 4 years. It should re-bloom without deadheading, but deadheading will send this plant into overdrive with respect to flower production.  This species has also been reported to have a wide variety of medicinal properties including a cure for the common cold, improved immune system function, as a mouthwash for mouth ulcers and gingivitis, and has anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties.  As with all herbs, you should consult your primary care physician prior to using it for any health purpose.  This is a great plant and good companion plants include black-eyed Susans, bee-balm, blazing-stars, and early goldenrod.  This is one of the easiest and showiest of all native sun-loving perennials to grow.  It has few disease or pest problems and the name Echinacea is from the Greek word echinos which means hedgehog (the spiny center cone).

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Plant of the Week: Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)

Look closely at the turtlehead flowers and yes, each individual flower in the cluster does resemble a turtles' head.  There are two distinct species in the state, C. glabra (White) and C. oblique (pink or purple).  White turtle head is considered infrequent and the two subspecies of pink are either endangered or special concern.  They are both obligate wetland species which means they must live in a wetland habitat (but do well in urban soils because they are similar in nature to wetland soils). They belong to the snapdragon family or Scrophulariaceae which includes other plants such as beard tongues, Indian paintbrush, false foxgloves, hedge hyssops, veronicas, and monkey flowers. Many members of this plant genus are associated with wetlands. Turtleheads are stiff plants without hairs (glabra) and have opposite, toothed, narrow leaves on a square stem.  They like to keep their roots moist to wet and grow in partial sun. The flowers occur in late summer and are irregular, two-lipped and grow in dense clusters.  In the garden this species does well at the edge of the woodland garden as long is it is heavily mulched to keep moisture in the soil.  This plant gets its name from Greek mythology. A nymph named Chelone had insulted the Gods and for her punishment she was turned into a turtle.  The species name of glabra is Latin for smooth.  This is also the primary host plant for the Baltimore checkerspot butterfly shown above.  This is a rare species in Kentucky and home owners attempt to attract it by planting turtle head, but usually to no avail because it naturally occurs in wetlands and is only found in a few rural locations around the state.  Furthermore, it only has one flight in late May to June and the larvae over winter in rolled up leaves on the ground and they have a very high mortality rate because they often fall off the tips of the leaves of the host plant.  Hence you need to beware when looking at native plant nurseries that indicate this is an attractive species for butterflies, because most do not nectar on the plant and the Baltimore checkerspot is the primary species that uses it for a host plant. This species is primarily pollinated by nectar seeking bumblebees.  It is primarily deer resistant and has no serious insect pests or diseases.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Plant of the Week: Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)

The wild strawberry is one of those native plants that provide fruit that is edible by humans and a variety of other creatures.  The fruits, smaller than horticultural varieties but much sweeter and better tasting, is now ripening in the fields across the Commonwealth.  This is a low growing loose colony forming perennial that has trifoliate leaves with each leaflet about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide.  The five-petaled 3/4" wide flowers bloom in early spring with fruit usually arriving about this time of year.  This plant likes full sun to partial sun and loamy soils if possible.  It produces long, hairy runners about 2" long which will produce more plantlets.  The most important pollinators for this species are small bees although some flies and skippers will also visit the flowers.  A wide variety of birds and mammals will readily eat the fruit.  There is a very nice Native American folk legend about strawberries that does something like this.  Soon after the Great Spirit created the first man and woman they got into an argument.  Because of this, the woman ran away and left the man, who became lonely and sad and began to weep and moan.  The Great Spirit heard the cries from the man and asked him if he wanted the woman to return.  The man said yes and if she returned he would never fight with her again. So the Great Spirit told the man to go find the woman.  Well the woman had a tremendous head start and so to slow her down so the man could catch up to her, he placed a large patch of blueberries in her way hoping she would stop to eat.  However, she was so mad she ignored them. The Great Spirit then tried raspberries, currants, and blackberries, all to no avail.  The woman was so angry she ignored the thorns and her clothing that had been ripped to shreds.  Finally the Great Spirit decided to create a new fruit growing near the ground.  The woman had never seen this fruit and was intrigued and she ate some berries.  It was so good, she actually stopped to pick some to eat them and the man caught up to her.  He apologized and they made up and the strawberry was shaped like a heart because it symbolized the love between the man and the woman and the Native Americans called the fruit, heart berry. This species and one from Chile are the ancestors of our domesticated strawberries that we purchase at the market.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Plant of the week: Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

I remember years and years ago when I took my first range management course and we discussed plant increasers and decreasers (those that increase with grazing and those that decrease) and leadplant was high on the list of decreasers because it is not tolerant of heavy grazing, fire exclusion, or frequent mowing.  It's absence from tall grass prairie systems indicates the prairie is in poor ecological condition.  This is because it is a highly palatable and highly preferred browse species relished by most grazing animals, including deer.  It is an amazing legume because one single plant can produce more than 3,000 seeds, it is an important source of nectar for butterflies and more importantly, honeybees, which also eat the pollen.  At least 47 different insects feed on this plant.  Another amazing fact is that the taproot can extend 2 to 20' deep into the soil which makes this species quite drought tolerant. It is also very good at fixing nitrogen in the soil.  This also makes a fine garden plant and can be used in rocky, gravelly, or loamy soils that are dry and well-drained.  It grows to about 1 to 3' although if burned or grazed it can maintain itself as a relatively short (1') plant.  It typically flowers in July through September and it can re-sprout from rhizomes or root crown if the top dies back. The bi-pinnately compound leaves may have up to 50 leaflets and can be up to 12" long and have a whitish soft or grayish green appearance.  The stems are hairy.  Each flowering spike can be up to 4" or more in length and it is striking to see the bright yellow anthers against the purple flowers.  If you are a honey producer, this is an outstanding plant to use for bees.  It can stay in flower for up to a month, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the varying textures and colors of this small shrub.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Plant of the Week: Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum)

Wild geranium is one of the easiest, and showiest of the late spring woodland wildflowers.  I love this plant because it forms nice clumps and when combined with eared coreopsis in part sun, the lavendar and yellow color combination is quite stunning.  This shows and individual flower, but when mature it will have clusters of the five petaled lavendar flowers standing tall about about 18" and spreading out about the same.  It is quite drought tolerant, deer and rabbits don't really like it and it will tolerate tougher growing requirements than most native woodland wildflowers.  Like blue phlox and foam flower, this is a staple in the native woodland wildflower garden.  The leaves are also quite interesting and are deeply cut five lobed palmate that can reach 4 to 5" wide.  Some people call this plant crane's bill because the seed pod does in fact resemble a beak of sorts. In fact, geranium in Greek means crane.  These plants are pollinated by a variety of bees, including bumblebees, and butterflies and skippers.  Native Americans used the plant as an astringent to contract tissues and stop bleeding and also to treat toothache and hemorrhoids. There are a few cultivars out there including album with white flowers, Elizabeth Ann with bronze colored leaves, and Beth Chatto with fingered leaves.  Good companion plants include eared coreopsis, dwarf crested iris, Indian pink, spiderwort, and of course native ferns.  Give this wonderful plant a try in the garden because it is so easy to grow.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Plant of the Week: Jack in the Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum)

This is one of the most unusual of all the native woodland wildflowers. When you say you are looking at the flower, you are not really looking at the flower but rather the inflorescence or cluster of flowers because the individual flowers are tiny and hidden in the "jack" which is located inside the rolled leaf-like structure, the "pulpit." This is a unique species in that individual plants are either male or female.  Most plants have both flowers on the same plant.  In this species to see the individual flowers, which are located at the base of the spadix (the pulpit) inside the jack or jill as it may be which is called the spathe.  If it is a jack you will see tiny yellow to brown thread like anthers and if it is a female you will see tiny green berries. All members of this mostly tropical plant family has a similar structure and while rare in nature, people are familiar with this family because of the calla lilies, peace lilies, philodendron, and caladiums.  Most people are unaware that this plant can change sex multiple times over it's 20 year lifespan.  Plants that have grown for a sufficient number of years that get large enough and have enough resources are often females.  However, when times get tough, they can revert to becoming a male or non-flowering plant.  So what determines the sex of this plant?  We have all heard the rumors about size and does size matter?  In this species the answer is definitely yes, size matters! Bigger plants are usually female plants. The sex of the current year’s plant is determined by the size of the previous year’s root storage structure, called a corm. Larger corms yield females, while smaller corms yield males or nonflowering plants. In addition, in those plants that have produced larger clusters of the red berries, the next year they are most likely going to be male plants. Another factor affecting sex is that skunks, slugs, and deer will devour these plants, even though they contain oxalate crystals that makes them distasteful.  Since this species has both male and female flowers, how do they get pollinated because the flowers are not accessible to bees?  Basically, the jack produces a fungus type odor that attracts its primary pollinator, the fungus gnat.  Unfortunately, once the female fungus gnats get down to the base of the flowers, the tube is too slippery and they can not get out, hence dying at the bottom of the tube along with their valuable pollen.  If the flowers were pollinated the red berries will begin to grow and by the end of the summer the female plants can have large, showy clusters of red berries. Immature plants usually one have one leaf with three leaflets and mature plants typically have two leaves with three leaflets each. These are easy to grow in the woodland garden as they tolerate a wide range of soil pH and it appears about the only thing that will kill the corms is excessive water in the winter and spring.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Plant of the Week: Intermediate Wood Fern (Dryopteris intermedia)

This is one of the largest and most showy of all the ferns in Kentucky.  It loves rich woods and has a tendency, particularly these days, to be somewhat evergreen, although the fronds do lay on the ground during the winter.  It is now just growing in the woods and makes a wonderful foundation planting in the woodland garden.  It has several cousins including Goldie's wood fern (D. goldiana), marginal wood fern (D. marginalis), log fern (D. celsa), southern wood fern (D.ludoviciana), and autumn fern (D. erythrosora) among numerous others. For the most part, they all look alike superficially except the autumn fern which can turn a beautiful cinnamon color.  Furthermore, this group of ferns is known to hybridize which can make exact field identification difficult. However, that is not a concern for the gardener. The intermediate wood fern grows from about 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 feet tall. It is very delicate, graceful, and lacy and has lobed leaflets on twice compound fronds. The spores on the underside of the leaflets are usually produced in mid to late summer and there is a translucent tissue that covers the spores, which are circular. This species likes slightly acidic to neutral soils that are well drained and high in organic content, which is typical for most mesic woodland wildflowers like trilliums, lady slippers, etc.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Plant of the week: Foam Flower (Tiarella cordifolia)

Foam Flower is one of the main stay plants with any woodland or shade garden.  It is very adaptable to a wide variety of conditions and numerous other woodland wildflowers work well in creating a dynamic and colorful garden.  Some excellent companion plants are wild blue phlox, dwarf crested iris, Jacob's ladder, bellwort, trilliums, jack in the pulpit, violets, yellow lady slipper orchids and even may apples as seen in the photograph above.  This is such a delightful and charming plant that has captivated plant breeders and there are now dozens of varieties in the market place.  Some cultivars have dark brownish, blackish, or reddish veins, some have foliage that turns bronze in the fall and winter, some have pinkish flowers, others have bluish flowers.  I have observed a tremendous amount of variation in the wild with leaf and flower color.  This plant gets its common name from the fact that the tiny white, spider-like flowers on a short stem look like foam.  The scientific name arises from the Latin name tiara which is a Persian crown and ella which means a turban shaped dry fruit. This species is member of the Saxifrage family which includes the commonly planted Alumroot.  The wild version of this species is a natural clump forming species that sends out above ground runners and if given enough time can become an excellent shade ground cover.  The leaves look similar to maple leaves but are highly variable in shape where some look more like Japanese maples (highly dissected) to a more thickened type leaf representative of a red maple.  The plant gets no taller than 8 to 12" and the leaves are evergreen to semi-evergreen. This is a good deer and rabbit resistant plant and it has no serious insect or disease problems. The tiny 5 petal, 10 stamen flowers are pollinated by small bees, syrphus flies, and butterflies.  It is relatively easy to grow but does best in rich organic soils that drain well because they are killed easily in the winter if the soil stays waterlogged.  They like dappled sunlight as well.  This is one of those species that every woodland garden should have and should be a foundation species for small woodland spring wildflowers.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Plant of the Week: Robins Fleabane (Erigeron pulchellus)

When most folks think of fleabanes, they concentrate on the tall, weedier species that can be found in road ditches and other weedy, idle areas in the spring and early summer.  This species, however, makes a great woodland garden species because it grows no taller than a couple of feet and the flowering heads are quite large, sometimes up to 1.5 inches across. It has basal leaves that persist throughout the growing season and these soft, fuzzy like leaves add considerable interest to the summer woodland garden. During the flowering period, the leaves and stem are soft and hairy. This is an easy species to grow as it likes average to dry garden soil,  The flowers attract numerous different types of small insects from bees, to flies and butterflies. Mammals like the leaves and small rodents like the seeds.  I love the flowers when they first emerge and have a pinkish to lavender tone to the ray flowers.  Planted in a nice clump, this species would make quite a showing in the front of a native plant wildlife garden.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Plant of the Week: Cumberland Rosemary (Conradina verticillata)

The Cumberland Rosemary is a very rare plant known only from several counties in Tennessee and Kentucky. It grows on gravelly river banks which are seasonally flooded then left high and dry in the summer. The plant looks like a semi-prostrate juniper growing about 8 inches tall and spreading several feet. Its leaves are semi-evergreen and look like those of Rosemary. They are wonderfully and strongly scented as you would imagine a wild Rosemary and can apparently be used like Rosemary in cooking. Lavender flowers appear in May. This species must be grown in extremely well-drained soil or pure sand in very slightly acidic conditions in full sun. Use it for its fine texture where a low plant is needed. I grew this in a container by the front porch so folks could smell the wonderful fragrance. There is also a white form of this species available.  There is only one nursery I know of that has the permits to sell this species and it is Sunlight Gardens in Andersonville, TN.  A great companion plant to grow this with is Barbara's buttons (Marshallia grandiflora).

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Plant of the week: Large flowered bellwort (Uvularia grandiflora)

This is a nice woodland clump forming species that actually makes a pretty good cut flower, of which there are not that many native species that can be used for this purpose in the spring.  It grows to 2' tall, with lance shaped leaves that are perfoliate (leaf base encircles the stem), slightly twisted, and bright green in color.  The flowers have 6 tepals (sepals and petals look alike) that hang below the stem and in early stages of growth gives it a droopy appearance.  It is very easy to grow in the garden in rich organic soils in full to partial sun habitats. The three celled and lobed seed capsules are quite showy after the plant has flowered.  This is a highly preferred deer browse and it will be quickly destroyed in areas with high deer densities.  It is primarily pollinated by various bees and like many woodland species, the seeds are dispersed by ants because of the fatty acid elaiosomes (ants eat this and leave the seeds to germinate). It has been reported in the literature that the young tender sprouts can be eaten like asparagus. As with many native plants, the Native Americans used this species to treat a wide variety of ailments ranging from swelling to diarrhea to healing ulcers and broken bones.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Plant of the week: Violet woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea)

Violet woodsorrel is the only native woodsorrel in Kentucky with lavendar to purple flowers.  All the remaining species have yellow flowers.  The use of this in the woodland garden is as a filler plant, filling in and under some of the earlier blooming species and I love this plant for the usual red blotching in the trifoliate (clover like) leaves (hence the name trinity grass) and for the fact that deer do not typically eat this species (because of the oxalic acid). Because it is sour tasting, many herbivores do not eat this plant and historically after sheep would overgraze pastures, this species would invade and thrive because the sheep would not graze it (hence the name sheep sorrel).  The oxalic acid gives rise to the genus name of Oxalis and of course violacea refers to the lavendar flowers.  It has also been called Indian lemonade as the Native Americans brewed a sour tasting beverage that was used to treat mouth ulcres, stomach distress, and urinary tract problems.  It has also been used to treat scurvy, as a fever reducer, diuretic, and appetite suppresant.  This is a diminuitive plant that only reaches 6" tall when flowering but it is very easy to grow in the woodland garden, in a rock garden, or any place with good well drained average soil.  It is quite drought tolerant and the sour tasting leaves add an interesting tart flavor to salads.  It has few natural pests and will spread to form a nice colony if it is planted in favorable growing conditions of part shade, well-drained slightly acidic soils.  The leaves and flowers typically "open" or unfold on sunny days and stay tightly bundled on cloudy and rainy days.  It is pollinated by primarily carpenter, cuckoo, mason, andrendid, and halictid bees.

Monday, March 11, 2013

The purple martin scouts are back, get your houses up and cleaned out now!!!

Purple martin scouts began returning to Kentucky in late February this year but right now in the past few days, more reports are coming in of seeing purple martin scouts.  So now is the time to get that martin box up and cleaned out and prepared for the birds this year.While you still have some time to get a new house up and running, the only time you should open your nesting box early is if you see birds using a neighbors house that is within 1 mile of your property. Generally speaking you have about 4 - 5 weeks to get your house up and running after the first adult scouts arrive because the birds that will select a new housing location are sub-adult (last year's fledglings that have not yet nested) birds. Older or mature martins rarely, if ever, can be lured into moving to a new location because they have a strong nest site fidelity, which means nothing more than coming back to the same place they have nested in the past. In Martin culture, the oldest birds arrive first and the youngest arrive last and it occurs over a several month period with new birds arriving daily, but you should be prepared because if you want to attract a new colony of martins (and it can be difficult) now is the time to get things ready. Why is it so difficult to attract a new colony? The biggest and most common reason is that houses are placed in the yard incorrectly. These aerial acrobats can't tolerate trees that are as tall as the housing unit located within 40' and to be on the safe side it should be 60' from the housing unit. This spacing should be in three directions and as for the fourth direction, it should be from 40 to 120' from your house or building. It appears that martins have "learned" that housing units in close proximity to human habituation reduces predation (the likes of raccoons, snakes, hawks, owls, and crows) and the birds have a better chance of fledging more young. If you aren't getting martins nesting, try moving the housing unit closer to your home. Reason number three as to why folks don't get nesting martins is that the unit is not painted white. Why white? Well because it reflects the sun better and the birds don't experience as much heat stress, it creates a contrast with the dark entrance hole making it more enticing, and finally, male birds seem to prefer it for courtship. Another reason you don't attract martins is opening the unit too early and it gets invaded by house sparrows, finches, starlings, and other nest site competitors. If this happens you might never get martins to nest in that unit. This doesn't mean you shouldn't open the house before the birds arrive because if you wait until you actually see birds, it is too late. So open at least a few holes on each side prior to birds arriving and maintain vigilance to keep the other species out. For established colonies you can wait until you see birds returning because of their strong nest site fidelity. If you have vines, shrubs, or bushes growing up the pole, remove them as the birds rarely if ever nest where vines, and other plants crawl up the pole because the birds instinctively know it increases the chances of predation. In the same vein, do not put any guide wires or have the house located near ANY wires that are close enough for a predator to access the house and this means at least 10' which is about how far a squirrel can jump. Finally make sure the housing unit has the correct dimensions and while it may sound silly, there are varying recommendations as to what housing should look like. The most important feature of any housing unit is that the size should be no smaller than 6" x 6" although 7" x 12" is preferred, the entrance hole should be 1" above the floor, and the size of the hole should be 2 to 2 1/4." Lastly, the housing unit should be secured to a pole that can be raised and lowered by either a telescopic or pulley system so that pest birds can be evicted, units can be cleaned and closed/opened, and you can check on the baby birds to keep records of what is going on. Good luck in attracting these beautiful birds.

Plant of the Week: Blue Cohosh (Caulophyllum thalictroides)

This early spring blooming woodland flower is not that showy for the garden, although I do like the texture and leaf/stem color and the blue berries in the fall.  It is mostly grown for it's medicinal purposes (more on that in a minute).  This is a 1 -3' tall plant that is unbranched and has a smooth stem that varies from light green to light purple. Non-flowering plants have a single compound leaf at the top of the stem.  Flowering plants have two compound leaves and each leave is subdivided into 9 subleaflets.  The flower clusters range from 5 - 30 individual 1/3" wide brownish to reddish-brown flowers with 6 petals.  A member of the Barberry family, this is a long-lived species which has both rhizomes and fibrous roots so it can form small colonies because it is somewhat difficult to grow from seed.  It likes dappled shade with very rich organic soils. The flowers are pollinated by various small flies, parasitoid wasps, and small bees.  The berries are toxic to humans and the foliage is also toxic to many mammals, including white-tailed deer, hence it is a plant that can be used where deer densities are high. The name cohosh comes from the Algonquin word meaning rough, which refers to the root. While this is not that showy of a plant in flower (it is showier with the bright blue berries - hence the seed is most likely dispersed by birds), what is fascinating about this plant is it use as a medicinal plant.  It has been used for starting labor and menstruation, constipation, stomach cramps, sore throat, hiccups and seizures. Unfortunately most of these claims are unverified by research. The established medical community generally considers blue cohosh to be unsafe to take for both children and adults. There is scientific evidence that it makes the uterus contract and should not be taken if pregnant or to aid in delivery and there have been cases reported that blue cohosh taken at the time of delivery may cause; 1) perinatal stroke, 2) acute myocardial infarction, profound congestive heart failure and shock and 3) severe multi-organ hypoxic injury. It makes chest pain (angina) and high blood pressure worse; it raises blood sugar in diabetics; makes diarrhea worse, and has a tendency to act like estrogen affecting breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, endometriosis, and uterine fibroids. The list of drug interactions is long and makes nictoine more addictive and harmful.  As with any herbal medicine, if you decide to use this, and it is widely available, you should consult your doctor prior to beginning a treatment regime.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Plant of the Week: Squirrel Corn (Dicentra canadensis)

The foliage of this early spring wildflower is easily mistaken with the foliage of its close cousin, Dutchman's Breeches (D. cucullaria). The easiest way to tell the plants apart is via the flowers, but the leaves of squirrel corn are typically shorter and there is one compound leaf per flowering stem compared to Dutchman's breeches which has longer leaves and there are typically two leaves per flowering stem.  In addition, squirrel corn leaves have a tendency to have a more "open" appearance.  Like many members of the fumitory family, these plants are highly toxic and make for good garden plants because mammals, even deer, do not like to graze on them.  The leaves appear early in the growing season and completely disappear by mid-May but they can form dense colonies when established in the garden.  The plants are typically about 6" tall and squirrel corn gets its common name from the underground food storage structures that look like corn kernels.  The flowers are quite distinctive and look like small hearts and the plant is named Dicentra which refers to the two spurs on the flowers and canadensis means from Canada.  This plant is easy to grow in the garden and it is one of those species that must be interplanted with ferns or later blooming species because it is so ephemeral in nature.  Squirrel corn had great significance as a Love Charm to the Mennominee Indians and a young man would throw the flowers to his intended love or chew the roots which gave a perfumed smell in the face of the woman causing her to follow him from that time forward. The Onondaga called this plant the "Ghost corn" believing it was "food for the spirits." Like trilliums, the seed of this group is dispersed by ants because the seeds contain a fatty substance called elaisome, which is highly relished by ants.  At the nest the elaisomes are eaten and the seeds are left to germinate.  The plants are primarily pollinated by bumblebees.  Hisotrically the plant was used as a tonic and for use in treating syphlis.