Gold is Good but ‘Plantinum’ is Better! Creating a Bird-friendly Habitat: The Sequel

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

On July 9, 2020, the New Hope Audubon Society (NHAS) revisited my suburban yard to evaluate it after I implemented their recommendations of their initial visit two years ago. I wrote about this very interesting experience in three installments for the Durham Master Gardener Blog[i] in November 2018. I earned the “Gold” level of certification from the NHAS Bird Friendly Habitat back in August, 2018 but I did not receive the highest level of Platinum, largely because greater than 10% of my available property, which is about 13,250 sq. ft. of a total of 16,117 sq. ft., was still covered by high-threat invasive species despite already having removed some exotics. These areas were located mostly along the north side yard and east-facing back yard of my property and native plants only covered 30% of the remainder of my yard. I had to increase the native plant coverage from 30% to 50% and remove the invasive species to less than 10% in order to achieve the platinum level. This was a fair amount of work but surprisingly easy when I did it in stages over two years. This time, two representatives (Alan Johnson and Jeanne Arnts) came from the New Hope Audubon Society and walked around my yard and natural buffer area and patiently answered all my questions. Jeanne Arnts took notes and both of them pointed out species of plants that were good for the birds.

It is well documented that planting native plant species is beneficial for birds and other wildlife[ii]. Native plants, especially native trees, host a variety of insects that are necessary for birds to feed their young and these plants host the insects that are vital to birds and the complex food webs that evolved in our local area. Not only do native gardens provide food, they provide shelter and nesting sites for birds. They also have the added benefit of reducing the need of added resources such as fertilizer because they are uniquely adapted to and thrive in our local area. Even with a portion of my suburban backyard preserved as a natural area with mature hardwoods, much of my yard space had at one time, 10 of the 17 most invasive species listed as species to avoid in the Piedmont North Carolina[iii]

  1. English ivy (Hedera helix), 
  2. Privets (Ligustrum spp.), 
  3. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), 
  4. Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), 
  5. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), 
  6. Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), 
  7. Periwinkle, Vinca (Vinca spp.), 
  8. Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana)
  9. Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)
  10.  Sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica)

In addition, I unwittingly planted the non-native invasive species: Golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicas) and other invasive plants just appeared in my yard without my help, like purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) and Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta).

The 2018 visit was a custom assessment of my yard and garden with respect to native plant species and wildlife habitat and a very educational two hours. I was delighted to be informed that I had several native wildflowers growing in my natural area like the diminutive native Crane-fly orchids (Tipularia discolor; also a subject of another blog article https://durhammastergardeners.com/2020/07/) under my beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) as well as another shade-tolerant native Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.) near a very large white oak.  In the natural buffer area there was one of North Carolina’s smallest woody plants, Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate). A native ground cover of Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) was also scattered throughout the leaf litter. Other native shrubs of arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and St. Andrew’s-cross (Hypericum hypericoides (L.) Crantz) were quite common in my backyard, not to mention a young Black gumtree (Nyssa sylvatica), which sadly succumbed to a dry spell in September, 2019 when I was out of the country.

Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.) near a very large white oak.
Photo taken June 3, 2020

The Work

A few weeks after the first visit my husband and I started to tackle the invasive species removal. We waited until there was a substantial rain to loosen the soil around the plant roots. We took out the invasive species armed with hand pruners, lopper, shovel, lawnmower and chainsaw. In a matter of a few days stretched over the past two years we completed Stage 1 and 2 of the removal of invasive species. One of the advantages of pulling and rolling the periwinkle (Vinca major) after a rain to loosen the soil or just mowing was that I did not have to use an herbicide which may have harmed the soil and prevented germination of native plants which could germinate now that they were exposed to sunlight. 

Clockwise from left: On November 5 and 12, 2018 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) was removed with loppers and the trunk was cut with a chain saw. A woodpecker and robin immediately investigated the newly exposed soil. On November 3, 2018, after a good rain, the periwinkle was pulled up by the roots behind the birdbath and near the concrete bench. I found the periwinkle stems matted and could be rolled as I progressively pulled up the roots and made a ball. My husband used a chainsaw to take out the firebush on December 16, 2018. The following year on May 7, 2019 I dug out the coreopsis and monkey grass that was taking over my front perennial bed. The monkey grass roots were so tangled that I was able to remove it in one long caterpillar-like piece. On April 28, 2019, I mowed the large patch of periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle along the north side yard with the lawn mower. My son mowed it again several months later when new shoots appeared but the second mowing along with a dry September finished it off for good except for an occasional plant that I weeded this year. 

I also planted some pink and white muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) to replace the crabgrass that inevitably takes over the strip of lawn between the driveways. The last job was the removal of the forsythia hedge (bottom right corner) for a spring planting of Fothergilla bushes (purchased just before the Covid-19 lockdown) behind the birdbath in addition to a bed along the south side of the house on March 14, 2020. I did not have a chance to purchase any more native plants this year but Mother Nature helped out with the abundant rainfall this spring and many Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginians) grew and filled in the area on the north side along with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Plants that I purchased like Virginia sweet spire (Itea virginica), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) became established and spread. It has been an excellent year for moss and it has spread downslope with little encouragement, from our fairy garden to our cedar bench along our property boundary. I also collected wild columbine seeds and spread them around the newly exposed areas. I did not amend the soil other than spreading leaves and pine needles, which I gathered off my fescue lawn, around my native plants.

White Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergla capillaris ‘White Cloud’ Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 10, 2019
One of two moss gardens I maintain (weed and sweep only) that has slowly spread downslope from the base of red maples to the cedar bench along our north property boundary. The fairy moss garden in the foreground got special mention in the Audubon report. Along with the moss are natives both planted and natural: Wild ginger (planted in April, 2019), fern (planted 2014), Hearts a Bustin’ (Euonymous americanus), St. Andrew’s cross (Hypericum hypericoides), Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) seedling, arrow wood (Vibrurnum dentatum) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
The fairy moss garden was a pandemic project on Memorial Day and received special mention in the Audubon report. My neighbor removed invasive bamboo from their backyard and I used the tips to construct the fairy fence and my husband cut tiny pieces for the red cedar door window grill.
Photo taken May 27, 2020

We managed to complete both Stage I and Stage II Removal plans as outlined in my blog article of November, 2018 without complaint but, due to Covid-19 and other extended family duties, I did not plant as many of the alternatives recommended to me by NHAS in their report from the first visit. I wasn’t having much luck sourcing some of the native ground covers I wanted to plant anyway like Frog fruit (Phylla nodiflora). I updated my plant list with the recent purchases of native plants in the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019 and 2020 (muhly grass, wild ginger, dwarf crested iris, fothergilla etc.) along with other natives pointed out to me by the Audubon Society representatives on their second visit: American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and American boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I transplanted some blueberries from under my beech tree to the south yard. This year several plants of spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate) have now appeared under my beech tree along with four more groups of cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor). I developed a nursery of Eastern red cedar in an area mostly covered by wild columbine, which tended to have numerous red cedar seedlings anyway. I will transplant them along my southern property boundary as a privacy screen when they get a bit larger. 

Before (left photo taken August 26, 2019) Chinese wisteria removal. Trees along property boundary and in the background: Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), Smooth sumac, Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), Fringe tree, dogwood (Cornus florida) and Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica). After the wisteria removal (right photo taken September 9, 2020). Move arrow to the left to see newly planted and self-seed native species near hanging garden structure: cross vine (Bignonia capreolata; on left post), Fothergilla (Fothergilla Major ‘Mount Airy’; around the right post), purple flowers of the New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Cryptomeria snag (died September 2019) behind New York ironweed. The bird feeder was installed in July, 2020. In the area formerly covered by the Chinese wisteria, climbing dogbane, Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra Linnaeaus) and Hairy skullcap have appeared as well as a family of Eastern fence lizards.
Before (left photo taken October 17, 2018) and after periwinkle removal (right photo taken September 10, 2020). A gourd is temporary ground cover until I find alternative native plants. Not many weeds appeared as the pine needles are thick in this area. Occasionally, Golden rain tree seedlings need to be weeded. A few St. Andrew’s Cross seedlings were transplanted in front of the newly planted fothergilla bushes that replaced the forsythia hedge. Wild columbine, frost aster and St. Andrew’s cross all volunteered to grow instead here in the former perwinkle bed.
Left: Small area of periwinkle near concrete bench and hammock. Daphne odora (near bench) died in 2019. Smooth sumac shrub (self-seeded) and turned bright orange and yellow (behind bench). Photo taken November 3, 2018 Right: Periwinkle was removed by pulling up the roots and rolling it into a ball. Area was thinly mulched beneath my husband’s hammock in 2020 and some native plants appeared: Wild Columbine, Virginia creeper, Smooth sumac and Eastern red cedar. I planted iris bulbs and replaced the Daphne (behind clay pot) with a propagated seedling. A volunteer dogwood and coral honeysuckle (staked to the right) in the less-shaded front of the former periwinkle bed. Photo taken September 10, 2020
Large bed of Periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle on north side yard. Photo taken April 27, 2019.
North side yard has American beauty berry (planted), muscadine grape, Virginia creeper, wild columbine (seeded), Virginia sweetspire (planted), hairy skullcap, dwarf-crested iris (planted), Virginia snakeroot, fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia; propagated) and Eastern red cedar.green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia lacyiniata) in background adjacent to moss garden. Japanese hop and Chinese elm next to stake on the left side of photograph was removed. Photo taken August 28, 2020.
Former bed of periwinkle is filling in nicely with planted and self-seed native species after only one year. The Virginia sweetspire has a bit of fall color and the beauty berry is loaded with purple berries. Green-headed cone flower in bloom in the background at the end of the moss garden A red maple snag is located on the right side of the Virginia sweetspire. Photo taken September 15, 2020

The Maintenance

They don’t call them invasive species for no reason and some species need constant vigiliance and weeding. It is a task that takes very little effort now that our new Covid-19 habit of walking through our yard reveals new invaders when they first appear and are easily dealt with. A new crop of mimosa seedlings sprouted up in the north side yard after the abundant August rain this year but they were easily dispatched. And it has been five years since we cut down the mimosa tree! In addition, the occasional golden raintree seedling shows up in the bed behind the birdbath. If I find myself missing the bright yellow blossoms of the golden rain tree out my bedroom window I will look at this photograph instead which is just as enjoyable but without the additional work of weeding.

Also, new alien plants appeared in the north side yard like the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), Japanese hop (humulopsis scandens) and the dayflower (Commelina communis) which were also pulled up. Photographs from left: Golden rain tree seedling, golden raintree in bloom (now removed) and mimosa seedlings in foreground next to dwarf-crested iris.

I would like to purchase some spice bush (Lindera benzoin) to fill in the areas where the forsythia hedge was removed and also to increase the midlevel landscape with shrubs in my yard and shade out the weeds. I plan on replacing the non-native morning glory at the mailbox next year with the native clematis viorna (Clematis viorna).

The Reward

I was delighted to see many native wildflowers either spread or appear for the first time without me planting them in the areas I cleared of Chinese wisteria, periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle and observing the garden become more vibrant. I also refrained from applying a thick layer of mulch in other parts of the natural tree area this year. It is amazing what nature can do with a little less competition from invasives and a little more sunlight. And of course, it helped that my neighbors and I organized and advocated to preserve a 30-foot tree buffer between our neighborhood and the proposed new subdivision, which replaced the forest behind my house back in 2003. Photographs clockwise from left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisryrinchium angustifolium), lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate), redring milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), hairy skullcap (Scutellaria elliptica), American boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and wild columbine (Aquilegla canadensis).

The abundant rainfall this spring produced native plants such as Coral honeysuckle, St. Andrew’s cross, Virginia snakeroot or Dutchman’s pipe and climbing dogbane to appear in the former Chinese wisteria area of the backyard. My tulip poplar tree in the front yard also had an unusual amount of blossoms for the bees to enjoy.

One of the requirements for certification is to have eight or more wildlife habitat options from the Audubon list of 13. I managed to have the entire list: water feature/bird bath, no cats or kept indoors, several functional birdhouses, brown-headed nuthatch birdhouse (species of concern), rock piles and branch bundles, pollinator garden(s), several snags (maple, black gum, cedar and cryptomeria), window stickers to reduce collisions, leaf litter, reduced lawn areas, minimal use of nonorganic fertilizers, no usage of rodenticides and replaced 30-year-old gas lawn mower, hedge-clipper and weed-eater with battery powered tools. Thanks to my industrious neighbor and friend, Roger Fortman, who made and gave me a bird feeder and two more birdhouses, I have more than the minimum required wildlife habitat options and a very good wildlife habitat suburban garden and yard.

Beautyberry hedge (Callicarpa Americana) along the south property boundary with southern exposure. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) snag in the background provides habitat and forage for insects and supports a new birdhouse. Photo taken September 10, 2020

If You Plant It They Will Come

My yard now has 73 native plant species including canopy and understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and vines which flower at different times throughout most of the year. I also have large areas with leaf litter in my yard and a few trimmed dead trees left standing (snags). As the native plants have spread and established themselves, I have observed more caterpillars, butterflies, bees, fireflies and birds as well as lizards, toads and frogs. Photographs clockwise from left: Eastern tiger swallowtail and monarch butterfly on common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), bumble bee and common buckeye butterfly on butterfly weed (Asclepia tuberose) and Eastern tiger swallowtail on Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and scarlet rose mallow (Hibiscus coccinneus).

Photographs from left: Bumble bee on purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and dragonfly on dead milkweed leaf.

Many birds have been observed in the yard this year. Photographs clockwise from left: Female Red-bellied woodpecker and fledgling, bluebird, juvenile Ruby-throated hummingbird, goldfinch, White-breasted nuthatch, male bluebird with beetle and Red-tailed hawks.

Learning about many new native plants since that first NHAS visit in 2018 has been interesting and I found the follow-up visit rewarding and well worth the effort. I do not have any regrets about removing all invasive ornamental plants from my yard as it has given me the opportunity to learn and discover new native alternatives to plant and a chance to welcome nature’s gifts each spring. My yard is much more interesting and entertaining as well because there is a large variety of plants which flower throughout most of the year and wildlife to watch. This transformation to a yard where I can enjoy nature couldn’t have happened at a better time. All the work was worth it and I achieved the highest level of certification. 

While I have achieved my goal of Platinum certification, my gardening work is never done and the plan is to remove the severely pruned Burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burford’) foundation hedge at the front of the house. Alan Johnson suggested native alternatives such as dwarf yaupon holly (Illex glabra) or sweet pepper bush (Clethra anifolia) to replace the old hedge. He said the ‘Hummingbird’ cultivar produces numerous flowers and good fall color. To compliment these new shrubs other sun-loving herbaceous perennials such as golden alexander (Zizia), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum mutium) and aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) were suggested. There are many other natives to choose from but they reminded me that it is very important to choose native plants that were grown without the use of neonicotinoids and they provided source nursery’s that did not use this systemic insecticide in their four page report which they emailed to me shortly after their visit.

Future project this fall will be to remove the Burford holly and nandina (circled in red) and plant native foundation shrubs and flowers. Beautyberry, New York ironweed and American pokeweed (green arrows) have already ‘moved in’ to this sunny part of my front yard.
Photo taken September 10, 2020

I proudly hang the Audubon sign on my mailbox for passersby to see and hopefully it will encourage at least one neighbor to undertake this certification process and rewarding experience. I want to inspire like-minded gardeners to contact the New Hope Audubon Society for their own certification so they too can sit back and enjoy the birds they will attract. I am looking forward to next spring and to observing how the garden has matured and perhaps I will see the spotted wintergreen finally flower or a brown-headed nuthatch take up residence in its waiting home. In the meantime, I will buy a frame for my Platinum Certificate from the New Hope Audubon Society.

References:

[i] https://durhammastergardeners.com/2018/11/ November 7, 2020; November 10,  2020 and November 21, 2020

[ii] http://www.bringingnaturehome.net

[iii] https://nc.audubon.org/sites/default/files/piedmont_plants_final.pdf

Resources for Bird Friendly Habitat Certification:

Certification Request Form:

Brochure: http://www.newhopeaudubon.org/wpcontent/themes/nhas/library/docs/certificationBrochure.pdf

Native Plant List and Suppliers:

Bird Friendly Habitat Information:

700 Bird-Friendly Native Plants for North Carolina

https://nc.audubon.org/700

Further Reading:

  1. http://ncbg.unc.edu/uploads/files/ControllingBooklet.pdf
  2. https://projects.ncsu.edu/goingnative/howto/mapping/invexse/index.html
  3. http://www.ncwildflower.org/plant_galleries/invasives_list
  4. http://moinvasives.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/03/MNRC_EmergingInvasives_QuinnLong_2016_0203_NotesPage.pdf

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

In a short time I will relocate to a place with entirely different land features and growing conditions than I have enjoyed in Durham County. Of all the places I have lived (three states and six dwellings) my current home is where I have had the biggest amount of land on which to garden and ample time each week to spend gardening. It is also where I learned a lot more about gardening: as a volunteer at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, as an Extension master gardener, and through trial and error in my own yard.

Reflecting on my gardening experiences has brought forth a list of recommendations I would like to share. Each recommendation is followed by the reason it made a difference to me and a tip about implementation. Of note, my garden is primarily ornamental and includes two natural areas, the property (1.74 acres) is fenced (so, deer-free but I contend with my share of rabbits and voles), and I have no outdoor pets.

If I knew then what I know now, I would:

Plant on top of the soil.  Digging through clay and rock is not fun for anyone and, often enough, not even successful, resulting in improper planting. When I first heard this tip, I dismissed it as cheating. Years later I gave in and tried it, and I haven’t looked back. Yes, I still attempt to dig a proper hole first. But if it proves too difficult, I dig what I can and make up the difference with commercially bagged garden soil or compost piled on top of the hole and mixed with the native soil.

Add a dose of compost every spring. As with planting on top of soil, before laying down compost rough up the soil surface a few inches deep. It will encourage the existing soil and the compost to mingle and improve the soil more effectively. Great gardens begin with great soils (and soil tests)!

Mulch every other year. Did you know that you are supposed to rake off old mulch before applying new mulch? I have too much garden for that chore! Yet not doing it while mulching every year (as I did for a while) does no good; layer upon layer of undisturbed mulch becomes compacted. Compaction causes a barrier where water runs off and air pockets beneath the soil line are compressed. Lately I’ve compromised by giving the mulch an extra year to break down. I poke and turn it with a pitch fork the days before new mulch is applied. This option is easier on my wallet, too.  

Weeding grass out of flower beds is no fun!

Lawns … a) Seed fescue grass every other year (alternating with mulch years) unless it really needs it. b) If ornamental beds haven’t been mulched in a while, don’t seed the lawn (see photo). c) Skip fescue entirely and plant zoysia or another warm season grass. It’s too hot here for fescue to thrive, especially without a lot of time and money.

Plant more native shrubs. I’ve come to appreciate native plants for their benefits to native wildlife. I’m no scientist but I’m in my garden a lot and the more natives I’ve added or let be, the greater variety of insects and birds I’ve observed. But frankly, the native plants are more carefree and thus bring me more joy.  (Granted I could really make a difference by getting rid of my lawn …)

Be bold about removing things that aren’t “right plant, right place” (apple tree in a shady valley, hostas in too much sun, hydrangeas in a cramped spot). They will struggle to flourish and you’ll be disappointed. Once something un-spectacular is gone from sight you will hardly remember that it was ever there.

Raise a few chickens. I had never lived anywhere that backyard chickens were allowed. So, it’s no surprise that it took me this long to consider raising them myself. There’s a perfect site in my yard (remember that shady valley where the apple tree struggled). And mine is an egg-eating household. Plus, chickens and gardens play well together.

Rejuvenate or replace the hedge sooner. Hedges are high maintenance. At least the really good-looking ones are. I’m always shy about making the first cut but have rarely regretted giving my hedge a confident trim or applying a rejuvenating prune to a shrub in need. Alternatively, plant a loose hedge; one that need not be squared off or rounded to look decent. Fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is a great choice as is the anise tree (Illicium floridanum).

Photo by A. Laine

Foundation plantings. Think twice before putting shrubbery up against the house. Mine were present when I moved in; But had I removed them a decade ago, they would not be the nuisance they sometimes are today. Vegetation up against the house is not necessary (in my opinion) and it’s a pain when it comes time to paint the exterior, power wash, or make a repair. It’s also a hassle to trim bushes placed so close to the house!


Focus, Focus, Focus. If I knew then what I know now, I would have heeded the advice to design and landscape one section of my yard at a time. Not strictly adhering to this rule haunts me on dry summer days as I traipse around the garden with a hose or watering can tending newly planted trees, shrubs or perennials.

There’s no time like the present to learn from our mistakes.  Ask yourself what you would do differently and then set out to do it.  

Extension Resources & Further Reading
Publications and factsheets from NC State Extension
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/

A comprehensive look at soil compaction
https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/soil-compaction

A guide to maintaining quality turf in NC
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolin a-lawns

Create your own native landscape, even in an urban landscape
https://projects.ncsu.edu/goingnative/create/index.html

Raising chickens
https://poultry.ces.ncsu.edu/backyard-flocks-eggs/
https://extension.psu.edu/successfully-raising-a-small-flock-of-laying-chickens

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu

Pruning shrubs and trees
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pruning-trees-and-shrubs

Ode to the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Maple trees are among the most popular shade trees in America. They grow fast and tall, averaging 40 feet but capable of reaching 120 feet. I remember the one in the backyard of my childhood home on Long Island. We lived in a suburban development typical of its time: Finished in the late 1960s, the homes were similar in size and layout and every house sat on the same amount of land which was some measure of an acre. The community was called Point of Woods – which was humorous as most of the “woods” were cleared in order to build the houses. Most homes were surrounded by large areas of lawn. The yard cried out for a shade tree. Enter the maple.

Our maple tree felt special. My grandmother spotted the seedling growing in her tiny urban yard in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mature maples lined her two-way street; they were so large that their tops completely shaded the street and their shallow roots buckled the sidewalks. Grandma was no stranger to gardening so she nurtured that seedling for a bit and then potted it up and brought it to Long Island to plant in our new backyard. With lots of attention, but little actual care, it grew fast and tall and quickly delivered welcome shade.

Alas, I have no (good) photo to share of the maple of my youth. Besides, my tree may have been the invasive (!) Norway maple (Acer platanoides) which was widely planted as a street and shade tree back in the day. I have something much better to share with you — a spectacular red maple tree that has, for years, graced the Durham County, NC yard of a fellow master gardener.

Red maple trees are native deciduous trees. They tolerate a wide range of growing conditions which may be why they seem to grow carefree. It is one of the first native trees to flower in very early spring and there is something red about it year-round. It has red twigs, buds, and flowers in winter, reddish new leaves in spring, red leaf stalks and seeds in summer, and reddish (or yellow) foliage in autumn. 1   

There are a number of types of maple trees and it is not easy to identify them from afar. You need to observe their structure and then get close enough to observe the bark, the leaves and their arrangement, the flower and/or the fruit. A distinguishing characteristic of the red maple (in addition to its overwhelming redness as described above), is that the edge of its leaf, also known as the margin, is highly serrated.

To learn more about the characteristics of other maple trees, consult the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox online.  

Photos by Wanda Cruthfield, used with permission.

Footnotes

1. Spira, Timothy P., Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont, 2011 University of North Carolina Press

Additional Resources & Further Reading

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/acer-rubrum/
Also take note of the list of maples often confused with the red maple

Maple Tree ID – especially as it pertains to trees tapped for syrup
https://www.massmaple.org/about-maple-syrup/make-maple-syrup/maple-tree-id/

Beware the Norway maple – it is an invasive species! http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=275380https://www.invasive.org/alien/pubs/midatlantic/acpl.htm

Maple spider mites could be a concern
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/maple-spider-mite-oligonychus-aceris-shimer-acariformes-tetranychidae

Getting Back to Basics

September is synonymous with school. So, this week we are getting back to basics with a post that defines foundational gardening terms. The better you understand these terms and phrases, the easier it will be to identify, select and care for plants in your landscape.

Growing season:  The period between the beginning of growth in the spring and the cessation of growth in the fall.

Hardiness zone:  Expressed as a number and letter combination from 1a to 13b, the US Department of Agriculture has assigned a zone to every geographic area of the United States based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. Tags on plants sold commercially often identify the zone(s) in which the plant will grow.   

Microclimate. Climate affected by landscape, structures, or other unique factors in a particular immediate area.

N-P-K:  Acronym for the three major plant nutrients contained in manure, compost, and fertilizers. N stands for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium.

Coreopsis major, blooming along roadsides now, is a native perennial hardy in zones 5a to 9b. It attracts butterflies and songbirds and is deer resistant. The flowers are large (for coreopsis) and the stems are tall. Photo by A. Laine

Annual: Plants started from seed that grow, mature, flower, produce seed, and die in the same growing season.

Biennial: Plants that take two years, or a part of two years, to complete their life cycle. By freely reseeding, a biennial plant may seem to come back year after year, but you are actually seeing new plants.

Perennial: A plant that lives more than two years and produces new foliage, flowers, and seeds each growing season. Tender perennial:  A perennial that is not tolerant of frost and cold temperatures. Applying a winter mulch can help it survive It may die off above ground and regrow from the roots.

Woody perennial: A plant that goes dormant in winter and begins growth in spring from above-ground stems. Herbaceous perennial: A plant that dies back in the winter and regrows from the crown in spring.

Exotic: A plant of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized.  Naturalize: The process whereby plants spread and fill in naturally.

Native plant: A plant indigenous to a specific habitat or area. Nativar: A plant that is a cultivar of a native plant. Cultivar: A cultivated variety of a species. Propagation of cultivars results in little or no genetic change in the offspring, which preserves desirable characteristics.

Integrated pest management. A method of managing pests that combines cultural, biological, mechanical, and chemical controls, while taking into account the impact of control methods on the environment.

Invasive. Growing vigorously and outcompeting other plants in the same area; difficult to control.

Noxious weed. Weeds that have been declared by law to be a species having the potential to cause injury to public health, crops, livestock, land, or other property. Noxious weeds are very invasive. There are 124 plants in NC that meet the legal criteria.

When a gardening term has you stumped, refer to the glossary chapter of the Master Gardeners Handbook for a definition – there are hundreds of entries — and a small dose of continuing education.

— A. Laine

Resources & Further Reading

Glossary Chapter of Master Gardener Handbook: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/glossary

Find your plant hardiness zone:  https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2012. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Noxious weeds in NC: https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious?rptType=State&statefips=37

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/coreopsis-major/

An Innocent-looking Invasive: Ficaria verna or Fig Buttercup

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

A fellow Extension master gardener recently brought this cheerful-looking plant to my attention. Its common names are lesser celandine or fig buttercup. (Scientific name is Ficaria verna and was formerly Ranunculus ficaria.) She spotted it blooming in March on the Ellerbe Creek and also beside the Eno River at Penny’s Bend, an area known for extraordinary native flora. However, this plant is not native to the the Southeast nor even to North America. It is an aggressive, exotic, invasive species that threatens to displace our beloved native spring ephemerals.

Ficaria verna
Lesser celandine. Photo by Mary Ann Chap

Lesser celandine is a herbaceous perennial that emerges earlier than most native species.  Additional identifying characteristics are:

  • A basal rosette of dark kidney- or heart-shaped leaves;
  • A bright yellow flower blooms on a single stalk that rises eight to nine inches above the leaves;
  • Small bulbets borne in the leaf axis.
  • Abundant fig-shaped tubers form along the roots; Even when separated from the parent plant, the tubers can produce a new plant.
  • An overall tight low-growing mat that rapidly chokes out neighboring seedlings.
  • It grows best in moist, shady soils like those in a river’s floodplain.

Supporting its rapid growth are three ways the plant can reproduce: by the tubers/root fragments, by seeds, or by the bulbets. Any of these methods can form a new plant in the vicinity of the parent or be carried downstream to begin colonizing in a new location.

lesser-celandine-roots-CC-300x400
Tuberous roots of lesser celandine. Photo by C. Carignan, http://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/lesser-celandine

Complicating matters of identification is that lesser celandine looks very much like marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) which is native in North Carolina and enjoys similar growing conditions. The two can be distinguished by the number of petals on the flower (typically eight for lesser celandine and five for marsh marigold) and the appearance of the leaf margin (smooth for lesser celandine and serrated for marsh marigold).

MarshMarigold
Marsh marigold. Photo by Michael Gäbler, CC-BY-3.0

Like many invasive plants, this one was introduced commercially as an ornamental plant. It became popular in the Northeast, but its status is in transition. It appears on the The North Carolina Native Plant Society invasive plants list as a “significant threat.” Yet it is absent from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s list of noxious weeds in North Carolina. That list reports that it is absent/unreported in N.C. and S.C., however according to the South Carolina Native Plant Society, it is banned in S.C.

Exotic plant species that essentially grow too well in an area negatively impact a local ecosystem by crowding out the native plants.  Insects, birds and animals native to the area depend upon native plants for nutritional sustenance and preferred habitat.

If your property offers the ideal growing conditions for lesser celandine or marsh marigold and you appreciate diversity in your landscape, keep an eye out for an expanding patch of low-growing plants with bright yellow flowers. If it turns out to be lesser celandine, feel free to remove it. If you locate it on land you do not own, say while you are enjoying a public park or private nature preserve, you may bring it to the property owner’s attention, but you do not have the right to remove it. The patch recently found at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve has been removed, and the patch on Ellerbe Creek was sprayed by a licensed herbicide applicator. It was linked to a larger patch growing behind a house just a couple blocks upstream on a feeder creek.

Sources & Further Reading

https://scnps.org/education/citizen-science-invasive-fig-buttercup

Factsheet: http://www.docs.dcnr.pa.gov/cs/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_010251.pdf

https://ask.extension.org/questions/440047

https://www.ncwildflower.org/plant_galleries/invasives_list

https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=RAFI

http://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/lesser-celandine

NCSU suggests planting Geum as an alternative:  https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/geum-spp/

About Marsh Marigold:  https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/caltha-palustris/

How the North Carolina Botanical Garden defines “invasive exotic species: http://ncbg.unc.edu/exotic-plant-policy/

About Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve:  http://www.enoriver.org/what-we-protect/parks/pennys-bend/