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.
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.
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).
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.
Fall is for planting! We master gardeners say that all the time. It is true for most plants, yet not for blueberry bushes as I have learned from Bill Cline, an NC State Extension specialist on blueberries. The best time to plant or transplant blueberry bushes is when they are dormant. In Durham County, February is a safe bet.
I planted three Rabbiteye blueberry bushes several years ago in an open wooded area; two survive but far from thrive. I wanted to know what I did wrong and, more importantly, what I needed to do right. The payoffs would be sweet juicy fruits a short walk from my front door and a bushy landscape plant with crimson autumn color.
About the Species
Blueberry bushes are deciduous woody perennials that are members of the Heath family and Vaccinium species. They are acid-loving plants native to North America and related to azaleas and cranberries. They are pollinated by insects. A winter chilling period is required for fruit to form.
Types of blueberries that can be grown in North Carolina are Highbush, Rabbiteye and Southern Highbush. The Rabbiteye (Vaccinium virgatum), however, is native to the southeast and easiest to grow. It is the one that does best in home gardens in the Piedmont. Rabbiteye berries will ripen from mid-June to mid-august and there are many cultivated varieties.
Pay close attention to three conditions for your Rabbiteyes to thrive: Full sun, acidic soil and good drainage. If sited anywhere with less than full sun, the plants will struggle. If the pH is not within the range of 4 to 5, nutrients may not be absorbed. Planting bushes in a raised bed fashion in soil amended with pine bark will help lower the pH and improve drainage. Cline notes that a lack of aeration in the soil is a problem he sees often in home gardens. Mix and mound the amended soil and mulch the area with bark, wood chips, pine straw or black plastic to suppress weeds and hold in moisture.
At planting time
At planting time (late winter), remove all flower buds and prune canes to six inches. Keep only three or four upright shoots. This will encourage the plant to branch out and form a vegetative, multitrunk bush. Removing the flower buds will prevent fruiting the first year and build a stronger plant. It may be three years before you harvest a crop. If you are transplanting an existing bush as I am, cut the top off and just move the root ball. Water the plant regularly the first year.
Pruning stimulates growth of young and productive shoots. Selectively prune the bush every year during winter.
Don’t be timid! Remove old, weak or diseased canes. Remove twiggy matchstick wood and take a few larger canes out each year. Strive for an upright plant. Annually remove 40 to 50 percent of flower buds; this will encourage bigger berries. Cline notes that no one should need to climb a ladder to pick blueberries; on a properly pruned bush the majority of fruit will be beneath knees and shoulders.
An insect must visit each flower or a berry will not form. Plant two or more cultivars for cross-pollination and to stretch the fruiting season and increase the yield. Standard Rabbiteye cultivars are: Premier, Tifblue, Powderblue, Climax, Brightwell. Newer ones are: Alapaha, Vernon, Ochlockonee, Columbus, Onslow, Ira.
Make every effort to keep bushes healthy through the spring and into summer months. Flowers need to survive in order for fruits to develop.
Pick your berries and collect them in shallow buckets so that fruit isn’t crushed. To increase quality and reduce rot, pick all ripe fruit at each harvest and do not pick or handle fruit when it is wet.
Test your soil before fertilizing.
Alas, I probably cannot produce the ideal growing conditions for blueberry bushes in my landscape, so I have adjusted my expectations. Rather than adding more bushes and creating a blueberry patch, I will transplant the two I already have to the sunniest part of my yard (half day at best) and follow all the tips above with the hope that my bushes may succeed as ornamental plants if not great fruit producers. And, as long as there are farmer’s markets in Durham, I’ll be berry happy.
Editor’s note: This is the third and final installment in a series about creating a bird-friendly yard. In the two previous blog articles, Wendy Diaz, EMGV, wrote about pivotal moments in her life as a gardener: deciding to focus on native plants, and creating a plan based on plant recommendations from the National Audobon Society.
My plan to create a bird-friendly yard will be accomplished in two stages. Stage 1 is the removal of high-threat invasive species in the fall of this year (2018), and Stage 2 will commence in the spring of 2019 by removing non-natives that are not high threat but their native alternatives would provide more benefit for wildlife and not multiply as quickly.
My garden plan includes the following replacements based on recommendations from the New Hope Audubon Society, NC Botanical Garden and the Going Native Website1,2,3:
Native Alternative Plant
Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin)
Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)
Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana)
Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)
Chinese beauty berry (Callicarpa dichotoma)
native beauty berry (Callicarpa americana)
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata)
Maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum)
Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)
Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium)
Stage I Removal of High Threat Invasive Species (Fall, 2018)
Native Alternative Plant
Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis)
crossvine (Bignonia capreolata) or trumpet vine (Campsis radicanas) or Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and Dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla gardenii)
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)/high bush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
Rosy Sedge (Carex rosea) and Pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris)
Scarlet rose-mallow (Hibiscus coccineus)
Liriope (Liriope muscari variegated)
Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
Next time you are considering an ornamental plant to add to your landscape why not try a native plant that suits your needs and helps wildlife at the same time? At the very least, don’t plant invasive species like I did. Hopefully in time, I will attract new birds, butterflies and caterpillars. Then I will need a better camera lens to zoom in on all the new flowers and animals!
Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series about bird-friendly native gardening written by Wendy Diaz, EMGV. The third and final post, a plant list, will appear next week.
After a visit to my yard by representatives from the New Hope Audubon Society, I resolved to rid my garden of invasive species. My goal is to achieve Platinum Certification and, consequently, invasive plants cannot cover more than 10% of my property; an improvement from the Gold Level I received in August. A helpful guide on how to plan and implement a more bird-friendly yard, by selecting native plants that suit your needs as well as birds, is provided by the Going Native website1. A particularly useful tool is the plant selection guide that helps you select plants that fit your gardening needs and conditions so you can make your own plant list2. A native plant is suggested just by entering your region, light requirement, soil moisture, leaf type, wildlife value target and bloom period.
This fall, the first plant to be removed is my non-flowering Chinese wisteria that I will probably replace with Audubon’s suggestion of a crossvine or trumpet vine. The second plant that I will take on will be the Big Leaf Periwinkle (Vinca major). About 1,000 square feet of my yard, beneath my hardwoods is covered with Big Leaf Periwinkle so I plan on using several plants to replace this ground cover in the part shady area with varying degrees of soil moisture. This will also increase the diversity of plants in my yard and year-round color interest. It is relatively easy to pull the Vinca major up by the roots, although they recommended mowing it first, because of the abundance of rain this year. Although I have already removed the Mimosa and Bradford Pear trees years ago, their former presence is evident by the frequent seedlings that still germinate in my yard, so this effort of eradication will require ongoing vigilance.
Planting of the alternative native plants will occur gradually over time as I source the plants from area nurseries, optimize my budget and observe the plants’ performance ornamentally and ecologically. I already have some of the native plants and I will encourage them to spread and may propagate them.
On August 5, 2018, the New Hope Audubon Society visited my yard after I filled out a simple online request form1. I heard about their Bird Friendly Habitat Certification Program2 after attending the Backyard Biodiversity talks which were presented at the Chatham Conservation Partnership meeting on July 19, 2018. My growing interest in the importance of my garden to wildlife came about because I began reading Doug Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home3. The book was recommended at a Durham Garden Forum discussion this spring on native plants by Ken Moore, assistant director of NC Botanical Garden Emeritus.
Before The Visit
The certification level (silver, gold or platinum) is determined by calculating the percentage of your available property (about 13,250 sq.ft. in my case) covered by native or invasive plant species and the number of wildlife habitat options4 available in the yard. My 0.37 acre (16,117 sq. ft.) pie-shaped property benefits from a mature hardwood buffer area in the backyard so I thought I would achieve at least some degree of bird friendliness. The process is more efficient if you have a good plot survey of your property and a preliminary list of your plant species. I already had these items as a master gardener because we compiled these documents in our Landscape Management Plan as part of the Master Gardener Certification. I was also thankful that in previous years we removed invasive species such as the ice-damaged Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) and a messy mimosa tree (Albizia julibrissin). There are multiple lists of invasive species to avoid planting in the Piedmont available at education institutional websites such as the North Carolina Botanical Garden5 and North Carolina State University Going Native website6as well as other organizations7,8.
During the Visit
Three representatives from the New Hope Audubon Society slowly walked around my yard and natural buffer area and patiently answered all my questions and took notes pointing out species of plants that were good, not so good and considered an invasive threat for birds. It was a customized assessment of my yard and garden with respect to native plant species and wildlife habitat and a very educational two hours. I was very delighted to be informed that I had the diminutive native Crane-fly orchids (Tipularia discolor) under my beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) which I had never noticed until they pointed them out as well as identified a shade-tolerant native Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.) near a very large white oak (Quercus alba). One of North Carolina’s smallest woody plants, Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata, aka pipsissewa) was observed in the natural area. 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).
As a gardener, I have been reformed through education. The New Hope Audubon Society pointed out the many invasive species and also the natives in my yard. Why are natives important? 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 have evolved in our local area2,3. Lists of native plants ideal for your area can be found on these educational institution websites5,6 or you can use the helpful online tool9 by just entering your zip code into the Audubon Society database of over 700 bird-friendly North Carolina native plants10. I obtained a list of 116 native plants that are important bird resources, relatively easy to grow and available at area native nurseries for my area.
Native plants covered about 30% of my available property (14 native canopy trees, 10 understory trees, 11 native shrubs, 18 native herbaceous plants, 8 native vines as well as leaves and decaying ground matter). I would like to take credit for most of these plants but the truth is, the homebuilders left the natural area behind my house with the existing forest more or less intact. Nevertheless, I did plant several native herbaceous plants such as beauty berry (Callicarpa Americana) in my perennial borders, pollinator and rain gardens and native magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora) and red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) for privacy screens. I also had several wildlife habitat options such as a snag (part of a dead tree), leaves left as mulch, pollinator garden, bundles of branches, blue bird houses, bird baths and no cats.
I did some damage in the past and roughly 10 % of my available property contained what they referred to as high threat invasive plants. When I first moved to the United States, I was a dangerous gardener ecologically speaking. Armed with very little knowledge of the southeast ecology but a strong desire to plant attractive flowering trees and vines that I could not grow in Canada, I planted a golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata)8, Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), a mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), burning bush (Euonymus alatus), Bigleaf periwinkle (Vinca major) and English ivy (Hedera helix). The Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana) planted by the homebuilders was not my fault. The Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium viminium), heavenly bamboo (nandina) and purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) invaded from elsewhere.
Native beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on August 9, 2018
After the Visit
The following week, I went to work pulling up some of the invasive species. I already was in the habit of pulling up mimosa seedlings as they germinated after a good rain; despite the removal of the mimosa tree over 3 years ago! Also on the clean up list were a small patch of Japanese stiltgrass, spiny olive, Chinese holly seedlings and the bigger job of removing tall nandina.
A few weeks after their visit, I received a package from the New Hope Audubon Society. In the end, my garden was certified a Gold Level wildlife habitat garden. They provided a plaque/sign that I hung proudly near our porch, a two page summary of their assessment listing number of native plant species in the canopy, understory, herbaceous and native vines along with recommendations for habitat improvement and provided a list of alternative plants to achieve the same landscaping goals only with native plants11. They also provided recommendations on the highest threat invasive species (10%) and other potentially invasive species. Am I going for a Platinum certification in the future? Yes, but that requires reducing the available property with high threat invasive species to less than 10% and increasing the coverage by natives from 30% to 50%! I will do the work in stages after I make a plan and that will be the subject of my next blog.
Ever since their visit, three things have happened to me 1) I am noticing invasive species everywhere and 2) I am more observant of the birds and caterpillars and enjoy taking their photographs and 3) I am more appreciative of the commonly ignored but important native species in my yard. Our HOA discourages fences so I have resolved to embrace the wildlife that use my yard as a transportation corridor and as for my much loved ornamentals like hostas and other deer-loving plants, they are restricted to zones near my house where the deer do not seem graze. I found this exercise educational and rewarding and I enjoyed getting the attractive sign and recognition for my gardening hobby and stewardship. I encourage like-minded gardeners to contact the Audubon Society for their own certification.