Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

As I walk around in our woodland garden I often hear a slow, irregular beat as if someone is sending a message via Morse code. This is the sound of the yellow-bellied sapsucker. I am seeing a lot of them in our garden now. They are highly migratory birds and overwinter in the Southern part of the U.S. where sap is more readily available to them at this time of year.

Sapsuckers drill holes in uniform rows or columns (or both) in over 200 species of native trees but they seem to prefer oaks, ashes, and maples. They often select trees that are wounded or weakened from insects, disease, lightning, or wind. It is thought that the sap from trees in poor health contain higher levels of protein and amino acids. From where I sit this is a win-win collaboration for the birds and our gardens.

These woodpeckers feed on the sap by licking it up with their tongue which resembles a paintbrush. Since trees usually seal over wounds to prevent sap from being lost you may wonder how the sapsuckers keep the sap flowing so abundantly. According to the Smithsonian, researchers believe that the sapsucker saliva may contain a substance that acts as an anticoagulant that prevents sap from clogging up and sealing the holes.

Sapsuckers are one of the few animals that are capable of getting the phloem sap from trees (as opposed to the xylem sap which humans harvest for syrup). Phloem sap is more nutritious and therefore many other animals like to feed from the sap wells the sapsuckers make available. Hummingbirds, warblers, nuthatches, cedar waxwings, other woodpeckers, bats, and squirrels will eat the sap and the insects that are attracted to these holes.

Rufous Hummingbird

The rufous hummingbirds (see post here) that are overwintering in my garden are almost certainly feeding from these wells. The sap is very similar to flower nectar in the amount of nutrients and sugar it offers and makes a great substitute when flowers are not blooming. I read that the yellow-bellied sapsucker has been known to feed at hummingbird feeders too. That I would like to see!

I have watched them at the suet feeders on cold mornings but usually they are busy in the trees and blend in pretty well until the light shows off their red cap.

They will leave my area in spring (mid-April/May) to head North where they will nest/breed during the summer months.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is February 15th -18th. Mark your calendars so you can participate. Also, if you want to learn more there is a FREE webinar (here) on January 29th from 2:00-3:00 EST.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wildflower Wednesday: Crane-fly Orchid

Last week I made an exciting discovery in my garden. In amongst the leaves at the edge of the woodland garden is a colony of crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor).

The crane-fly orchid is most noticeable in winter with its very distinctive leaf which is green above; sometimes with raised purple spots,

and purple below. The single leaf appears in late fall and remains throughout the winter absorbing sunlight.

In spring the leaf withers away and nothing more is seen of this plant until its flower stalk emerges in summer.  The cool thing about the bloom is that it is pollinated by noctuid moths. The flowers have pollinaria which is a specialized structure containing pollen (characteristic of plants such as orchids and many species of milkweed). The pollinaria attaches to the moths eyes and they then pollinate the blooms as they visit them.

The crane-fly orchid is a terrestrial perennial (and only member of the Tipularia genus found in North America) found scattered throughout the Southeast. They like moist humus rich soils of deciduous forests and the acid soils of oak-pine forests. They can be found as far North as Pennsylvania and West to Texas. Click here to see its native range. Within its distribution range it is listed as Threatened in Florida and Michigan; Endangered in New York and Massachusetts; and Rare in Pennsylvania. This is mostly due to deforestation and displacement by exotic species.

Terrestrial orchids don't transplant well because they have a complex relationship with fungus. The fungal fibers in the soil enter the roots of the orchid to give it food. If the orchids are dug up and the fungus dies (which usually happens when they are dug up) the orchid looses its food source and eventually starves to death.

Walking around the garden I found three colonies of crane-fly orchids. I have marked the spots where this plant has come up so that I can be sure to observe the blooms in July. Stay tuned, hopefully I will have photos of the blooms to show you in the summer!

I am linking up with Clay and Limestone for the first Wildflower Wednesday of 2013!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What is Normal Really?

Normal is an illusion
What is normal for the spider
is chaos for the fly
~Morticia Addams 
(The Addams Family)

This winter has been very mild in the Southeast (and many parts of the US) but you won't hear any complaints here because we've been able to get out and have some very productive work days in the garden. Some plants like the pineapple sage haven't even been bothered by the few freezing nights. Of course as soon as I write these words down I will have to eat them. Normal will be back.

The Camellia are blooming profusely. The bees are out and the temperatures are in the mid to upper 70's. That can be normal, sometimes.

The witch hazel are busting open to celebrate my son's January birthday with party streamers and horns.

While the Edgeworthia chrysantha is quietly opening its buds to reveal butter yellow blooms. There are a few winter bloomers who are just a little more reserved.

But most of them are here to party. This is what I love about winter blooms...they all look like there is really something to celebrate. And, rightly so, they have the garden mostly to themselves; so, why not!

There have been lots of grey skies, gloomy days and rain. That is normal too. So it is nice to have the cheerful blooms to brighten one's day. What is your normal?

Happy Garden Blogger's Bloom Day! And many thanks to May Dreams Gardens for being such a wonderful host. Be sure to pop over to view all the links.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Butterflies in January?

Does the calendar really say January? With temperatures climbing to the upper side of 70 this weekend and the daffodils poking up it is hard to believe. But, if that isn't odd enough imagine seeing a butterfly in North Georgia in January. When I looked up from pulling privet and Japanese honeysuckle in our newly expanded lot there was a butterfly.

Can you see it perching from the branch imitating a dead leaf? It hung there long enough for me to run and grab my camera. Here is a better shot on its new perch, an expired blackberry cane.

Its distinctive snout gave it its name. I think it is rather endearing.

American Snouts (Brushfoot family) host on Common Hackberry (C. occidentalis), Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia) and Sugarberry (Celtis laevigata) trees.

This is the first of its kind I've ever seen in our garden. I don't know how it ended up here in January or how it will survive on the limited blooms available right now but I hope nature will be kind.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Alien vs. Native Ootheca

As gardeners, we are very familiar with the debate of native versus invasive when it comes to plants but what about insects. There are many  introduced insects some intentional and some by way of imported goods or accidental escapes. Kudzu bugs, Japanese beetles, Asian lady beetles, hemlock wooly adelgid, Africanized honeybees are a few that come to mind. We battle these constantly. But how do these introduced species impact the native populations of insects?

Recently I found some egg cases in our garden that were identified as the native Carolina Praying Mantis (Stagmomantis carolina) thanks to Janet at The Queen of Seaford and Clare at Curbstone Valley.

egg sack from Carolina Mantid

Female mantids lay their eggs in a case formed from a liquid foam secreted from the abdominal glands. The foam quickly hardens creating a protective shell. To see a YouTube video of a Carolina Mantid laying her ootheca click here.

In North America all adult mantids die in the winter. The eggs that overwinter in these cases are the next generation that will hatch in spring. I didn't recognize these initially as an ootheca because they are different from those that I normally see in our garden.

egg sack from Chinese Mantid
These are the egg cases from the Chinese Mantid (Tenodera aridifolia). They are significantly larger than the native cases.

There are twenty native mantis in the United States. Most of them are small and brown. The big, green mantis that I often see are from China, imported in the 1890's to work as biological control agents and eat pest insects. Unfortunately, they often eat the smaller native species of mantis contributing to their population decline.

I am thrilled to have the native species in my garden. Hopefully they will manage to co-exist with their Chinese relative or better yet thrive because I don't seen any way of getting rid of the alien insects. Have I become an insect snob? I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on dealing with aliens.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Gardening with Children: with Dr. Carver

This is the first post in a series on Gardening with Children that I will be doing throughout the year. One of my favorite volunteer activities is my work in schools and educational gardens teaching children about nature and gardening. The gardening lessons tie in with reading, math, art, nutrition, and/or science. My goal is to post a lesson or activity geared toward children once a month. I hope you will find these posts informative and useful.

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Children love good stories. Literature is a great way to connect children with the garden and natural world. There is a wide selection of garden and ecology-themed books available. One of my favorites is In the Garden with Dr. Carver (written by Susan Grigsby and illustrated by Nicole Tadgell). This book is a piece of historical fiction which looks at the work of Dr. George Washington Carver through the eyes of a child. The story is set in the 1900's in the rural South and illustrates how Dr. Carver brought his classroom to the people by roaming the countryside with a "funny looking wagon" pulled by a mule which was filled with examples of his discoveries in the laboratory (the first moveable classroom).

In the story he visits a local garden with the children and encourages them to observe the importance of the interactions of plants and insects and their dependence on one another.

I like this book because it illustrates to children the importance of being close observers of plants and animals and encourages them to be good stewards of the natural world. There are many good lessons to be gleamed from this book that apply to student and adult gardeners alike.

"Listen to the plants, and they'll tell you what they need "

Activity: Go outside to the school garden and have each student find a place to sit for 15 to 20 minutes. Ask them to observe the plot in front of them and then have them sketch the leaves, stems or flowers they see. Ask them to also write down the sounds they hear, the scents they smell and the activities they witness.

Discussion: What do you think Dr. Carver meant when he said that we should listen to the plants to find out what they need? How did Sally know what the rosebush needed? What clues did she observe to figure this out?

"Before you change or destroy something, you need to understand why it exists and its relationship with the rest of nature"

Activity: Brainstorm with students to create a list of plants, trees, creatures and other elements such as water features, etc. in their classroom garden. Divide the list among the students and ask them to answer research questions about their topic and to draw it. Using a large wall, hang the students' art work and connect the pages with yarn, creating the strings of the web.

Discussion: What goes in the center of the web? Which lines are food chains? Is everything connected? What happens if one link is removed? 

"Plants, like people, need nutritious food to help them grow"

Activity: Explain to the students how to make a good compost pile applying the concepts of balancing brown for carbon and green for nitrogen. Build a compost bin (using wooden pallets, cinder blocks, plastic bin with holes drilled to bottom, etc.).

Discussion: What do plants need to be healthy? What do people need to be healthy? Which needs are shared and which are different? Where do plants get the things they need? What happens if they can't get those things? What might cause one of these things to not be available?

"So much of what people waste can be put to good use"

Activity:  (reduce, reuse, recycle...find your own treasures) Have the students identify plants in the garden. Then create garden labels using items such as old paint sticks, plastic knives, Popsicle sticks, clothes pins, and rocks. Be creative and think outside the box!

Discussion:  What does it mean to recycle? What items that get sent to the dump/landfill could be reused? How could these things be used in a different way?

These are just a few possible lessons to be pulled from this book. There are many more activities and discussions related to social studies, math, poetry and gardening. I definitely recommend this book as a jumping off point for introducing gardening and the natural world to children.

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One of my favorite lines out of the book:
"Some people come in and out of your life, as quick as a hummingbird darting at a trumpet vine. And some of them, when gone, leave something behind that sticks in your heart or mind. It wraps around you like the tendrils of a vine."

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A little on the life of George Washington Carver:
Dr. George Washington Carver is best known as the inventor of peanut butter. He was a botanist, chemist and inventor whose work revived the agricultural economy of the South.

Carver was a frail and sickly child and unable to work in the fields so he helped his aunt in her garden. He spent his free hours wandering the nearby woods collecting rocks and flowers which sparked his lifelong love with nature. He became known as the "plant doctor" because he helped friends and neighbors nurture sick plants back to health.  

He studied music and art at Simpson College (Iowa). He was an accomplished painter and his work was displayed at the 1893 World's Fair. His interest in horticulture took him to what is today Iowa State University where he graduated and became the school's first African-American faculty member. Booker T. Washington persuaded Carver to join the faculty at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School (Alabama) to conduct agricultural research. he remained at this institution conducting research that gained him much worldwide acclaim.

During this time, Southern agriculture was in serious decline as the result of many decades of single-crop cotton cultivation that left the soil depleted of nitrogen. Carver discovered that the soil could be revitalized by planting peanuts and soybeans. And so he began advocating crop rotation. This increased the cotton yield but farmers were left with a surplus of peanuts in alternate years which sold at lower prices. Carver began to experiment with peanuts and developed more than 300 uses for this humble legume from cooking oil to peanut butter. After a while the demand for peanuts had increased and it was no longer a financial sacrifice for farmers.

Carver was a man well before his time. Upon his death Carver contributed his entire life savings to establishing a research institute at Tuskegee.

An excellent site for elementary plant science is The Missouri Botanical Garden's Biology of Plants
Find information about Dr. Carves and his work as an inventor, researcher and humanitarian here and here

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Soul Food for a Year of Luck

There is a Southern saying "eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year".

It is a tradition in the South to eat black-eyed peas on New Year's day. It is thought to bring a year of prosperity and luck. Black-eyed peas were introduced to the the United States in the 17th century and grown as food for livestock. They are in fact not peas but beans (legumes). The crop grew well in our hot and humid conditions. It is thought that this crop saved Southerns from starvation during the Civil War. During Sherman's "March to the Sea" crops were burned and destroyed. The Union soldiers ignored the fields of black-eyed peas since it was considered animal feed. It then became a nutritious staple for surviving Confederates who considered themselves lucky to be left with some food and peas became a symbol of luck.

Hoppin' John is a traditional hearty meal made with black-eyed peas simmered with ham hocks or spicy sausages. The first written recipe appeared in The Carolina Housewife by Sarah Rutledge (published anonymously) in 1847.

There are many variations of this dish but this is my take on it.

1 pound dried black-eye peas
8 slices of thick cut bacon (diced)
2 cups chopped ham
1 chopped onion
2 1/2 quarts water
1 minced garlic clove
1/8 tsp rosemary
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp hot pepper sauce
diced jalapenos (optional)

Soak peas in water overnight. Remove any peas that have floated to the top. Rinse and cook peas for 6-8 hours. Place bacon and ham in large pot and fry over low flame until almost all fat is rendered. Add onion and cook, stirring until limp. Pour in water, add garlic and seasonings, bring to a boil. Drain peas and add to boiling mixture. Lower heat, partially cover pot and let simmer gently for 1-2 hours until liquid has reduced to a savory, thick sauce. Add hot pepper sauce and jalapenos to taste. (We like ours spicy hot). 

Some cook peas and rice in one pot. I prefer to prepare the rice separately. I also serve the dish with a good side of homemade cornbread. 

Enjoy and may the rice bring you riches and peas bring you peace!