Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A Masked Face Fox Squirrel

Have you ever seen a fox squirrel like this?

Fox squirrels (Sciurus niger) are one of the most variable colored tree squirrels in the world. They are known for their rufous colored fur but their upper coloring can in fact range from black, silver and red. Whereas their body coloring can differ, they all have reddish-orange bellies. A consistent feature of these squirrels in the Southeast is a dark facial mask around the eyes and nose with the tips of the nose and ears being white.

They are large squirrels weighing about 3 lbs. with bodies about 10 inches long and their tails equally as long.

Despite the fact that the fox squirrel is found along the eastern parts of North America over to the Great Lakes and the Canadian border populations are scattered and densities low. This is my first time seeing this masked face squirrel sometimes referred to as a raccoon face squirrel. My in-laws are happy this unusual looking squirrel has taken residence in a tree at their farm.

Most people have an opinion about squirrels. Some people feed them and others consider them a nuisance and try desperately to get rid of them. Which ever side of the fence you fall, it is important to know that squirrels play an essential role in the composition of forests. Some years they may eat most of the seeds produced by trees but when squirrels bury seeds and forget them these seeds will sprout promoting the growth of certain types of trees. Squirrels are also an important source of food for hawks and owls and the babies are sometimes taken by snakes.

(I apologize for the quality of these photos. My only chance to photograph this squirrel was right before a strong storm rolled in and it was very dark and I had to use flash.)

My next post will feature all the flora and fauna found at the family farm. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Magnolia: A Perfect Flower

A Southern garden just isn't complete without a magnolia tree. Historically its shiny evergreen leaves provided much needed shade to southern homesteads 

while its large showy blooms added beauty and sweet smells. But the magnolia tree is actually the oldest flowering plant with its roots in the age of the dinosaurs.

Since it is older than our modern day pollinators, the bees, the magnolia bloom is actually pollinated by beetles.

The tepals, a primitive version of a sepal and a petal, is designed to accommodate beetles. The blooms do not produce nectar but attract the beetles with fragrant, sugary secretions. The pollen of these blooms are high in protein supplying the beetles with an excellent source of food.

The Magnolia bloom starts as a bud

which slowly opens

revealing the inner parts of the flower. Magnolia trees have a "perfect" flower which means that it has both male and female organs.

The fruit of the magnolia looks like a cone but is actually a woody aggregate fruit. The seeds are enclosed in the fruit during their development and are therefore angiosperms. Songbirds especially like the seeds that are covered in a red fleshy aril that is high in fat and provides migrating birds with the energy they need. 

The magnolia is both the state flower and state tree of Mississippi. This is fitting since we are spending some time with family in Mississippi. I will be posting more of our gardening and nature adventures in the coming days.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Ssssscaly Find

(Warning: not for the faint-hearted or squeamish)

While working in the garden this past weekend my hubby found this...

A snake had shed its skin near the wood pile. A super cool find in our household! We haven't seen any snakes in the garden yet this year but this is evidence that they are here. But who does this skin belong to? 

Northeast Georgia has a variety of non-venomous snakes including this Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus). He is often found basking in bushes but if startled will retreat to the nearest water source. They glide across the top of the water very gracefully.

And, this Rough Green snake (Opheodrys aestivus) the most arboreal snake in the Southeast. They spend most of their time climbing vegetation hunting for insects, spiders, and other invertebrates in the flora well above the ground. Not a bad little guy to have around.

But in most likelihood this skin belongs to a black rat snake (Scotophis alleghaniensis) a common snake we see occasionally in our garden during the hotter months.

The black rat snake is actually good to have around because they keep the venomous snakes at bay. If I had my choice I would rather have a black rat snake in my garden than a venomous snake any day.

Last spring we found these two (look closely and you can see two heads and two tails) at the back corner of our house. Admittedly, my heart starts to race when I see any snake but I calm myself knowing they are harmless and a sign of a thriving ecosystem in my garden. They eat mice, rats, squirrels and birds (and maybe the occasional vole or two).

I suspect these two were mating. Once they separated we could see that one snake was about 4 ft. long and the other about 6 ft. long.

But what is it about finding a snake skin that is so intriguing? The mear fact that snakes can shed their skin fascinates my children. There is just something about an animal that can slide out of its skin several times a year that fires the imagination. 

Snakes shed their old skin when they have outgrown their existing skin and formed a new layer of skin below it. When the old skin begins to disconnect the snake’s colors become dull and its eyes look milky or bluish. When the old skin is completely separated from the new skin it splits open at the snake’s nose and then begins to peel back. The snake helps the process by rubbing against a rough surface such as a rock or log. The new skin has the same patterns and colors as the old skin but the old skin doesn't look exactly the same as its replacement. It takes on a nearly transparent appearance. 

Here is a view of the interior of the skin layer.

Snakes are one of the most misunderstood and feared creatures in this world. But a snake in the garden helps deter unwanted visitors such as rabbits, mice, moles, voles, and some other snakes. They are a middle order predator which are food for Birds of Prey and other snakes.

So, don't fear the snake but respect it. 

Mother Nature has a purpose for the remarkable snake.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Star of Gold

Stella, O Stella! she comes!

This beauty, Stella d'Oro, meaning Star of Gold, is my favorite daylily.

I love the gold yellow blooms against the dark green leaves. It is a staple in my summer garden. And, yes it isn't officially summer yet but it sure has felt like it with temperatures climbing in the 90's this week.

Always a dependable re-bloomer. The trumpet shaped blooms last for one day but no worries because there is a neighboring bud ready to bloom the following day.

Some other great qualities are that it is deer resistant, drought tolerant, and gets very few pests. All reasons why it is commonly used in landscaping. It can pretty much thrive on neglect. A bonus in my book especially when it is too hot to garden.
Can you imagine?

When I walked out to my garden this morning I was greeting by the blooms of sunshine covered with raindrops from a light morning rain (Yeah!). What a great way to start the day!

"In the garden my soul is sunshine"

Monday, May 9, 2011

Roadside Wildflowers

A good part of my days are spent in my car as chauffeur to my children or driving myself to the many volunteer activities I am involved in. As tedious as this is most of the time, in the spring driving along Georgia's roadways is a sight to behold.

There are gorgeous wildflower everywhere! It makes driving more bearable and truth be told it can be a distraction because I become entranced by the beautiful flowers when I should be watching the road.

Mrs. Virginia Hand Callaway (co-founder of Callaway Gardens) as chair of the Birds and Wildflower Committee of The Garden Club of Georgia, lead the movement to plant and protect wildflowers on Georgia's roadsides back in 1974.

In 1998 Georgians voted to amend the Constitution to create a roadside enhancement and beautification fund which is supplemented by the sale of special wildflower motor vehicle tags.

The beautification fund helps preserve and restore native flora. It also supports research projects on the uses and value of planting native flora and native seed sources as well as the planting of trees, shrubs and ground covers. Since native plants have already adapted to the climate and soil conditions they do not require a lot of labor, equipment or irrigation. Grassy roadways typically require mowing at least three times a year, while the wildflower plots are mowed only once after the plants have shed their petals and the seed heads have dried.

The Department of Transportation tries to plant at least an acre of wildflowers in each county every year and additional beds are added through funds raised by the sales of wildflower license plates. Each plot lasts three to four years before reseeding is necessary. Here is a list of wildflowers that you can see along the roadside while driving in Georgia.

  • Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  • Bur-Marigold/ Tickseed (Bidens aristosa)
  • Clasping Coneflower (Rudbeckia amplexicaulis)
  • Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
  • Corn Poppy (Papaver rhoeas)
  • Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)
  • Drummond Phlox (Phlox drummondii)
  • Golden Wave Coreopsis (Coreopsis basalis)
  • Indian Blanket/ Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella)
  • Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  • Lemon Mint (Monarda citriodora • Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnaris)
  • Narrow-leaved Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius)
  • Perennial Gaillardia (Gaillardia aristata)
  • Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria)
  • Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnaris)
  • Showy Primrose (Oenothera speciosa)
  • Threadleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis grandiflora)
  • Tickseed/Lance-leaved Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)

All the above photos were taken on Highway 129 in Jackson County.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Hope Grows Day: May 2011

Last month on Hope Grows Day I envisaged irises, day lilies, lavender, coral bells and azaleas blooming at Southern Meadows. With steady rains this spring and some warm days in the upper 80F balanced by more spring like days in the mid-70F everything seems to be blooming early this year.

My azaleas have already come and gone. They were very prolific this year but all too short lived.

The purple bearded irises are in a sunny corner at the edge of the woodland garden. They have only put out a few blooms so far. Hopefully there is more to come. They are a pass-a-long plant from my mother's garden.

 The yellow bearded irises are in full sun at the front of our house and have done very well in this location.

The Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which I thought I lost to the drought last year, thrilled me when it came up. These native woodland plants are tough!

Queen Anne's Lace is also beginning to flower. A plant that many consider a weed since it grows in ditches along side the road and open fields and can be invasive. But I really like this plant. Did you know that it is actually a wild carrot? The carrots we eat today were cultivated from this plant. (The large taproot is a carrot.) Most importantly, caterpillars of the black swallowtail butterfly like to eat its leaves.


The lavender which have struggled the past two years are producing a few blooms. I hope to add more of them to my garden this year in a newly created bed that I hope to complete this fall.

And the Daylilies are full of blooms ready to burst open.

A big surprise this month are the Carolina Jasmine. I planted two of them two years ago and they are blooming for the first time! I love their sunny blooms. And this is a native plant to the southeast which is fairly hardy.

So what can I expect next month? It will be hot, humid and dry. The spring blooms will be long gone and the summer heat will be in full force. I am looking forward to seeing Yarrow, Butterfly Bush, Salvia, and Guara kick off the summer season. I also hope to be able to show you a first harvest from the vegetable garden. See you next month! Please visit Sweet Bean Gardening to view other gardener's hopes.