pioneer plants

Not all plants are born equal. Some go through their entire life cycle with nary a glance from passersby. Take, for instance, the plants that grow on bare ground and other hostile places with poor soil and few nutrients. To survive, these plants have developed special adaptations such as long tap roots and root nodes containing nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Some have thorns and a bitter taste as an added layer of protection. These plants grow, propagate, and die, and in the process enrich and stabilize the soil, paving the way for other, less hardy, plants to grow. These early soil colonizers are the ‘pioneer plants’ — otherwise disparagingly referred to as “weeds.”

Common mullein, also known as Aaron’s Rod or Adam’s Flannel, thrives in poor soil or areas where the soil is disturbed. A biennial, the first year it grows in a rosette with large, silvery-green, flannel-like leaves. The leaves are spread in a circle, shading the plant stem and roots and maximizing the sun. The rosette lives through the winter and in its second season, sends up a stalk with yellow flowers that bloom from June through September.

Mullein in the first year of its growing cycle

Although mullein is non-native, some gardeners allow it to grow because it is drought-tolerant, a prolific bloomer, beneficial to bees, and some birds including American goldfinches and indigo buntings eat the seeds. Mullein self-sows freely, but can be controlled by deadheading the flowers to prevent new seedlings.

Common milkweed is another pioneer plant that rarely receives its due praise. Found in fields and pastures, vacant lots, and along woodland borders, this native plays an important role as host plant of the larvae of the monarch butterfly (a declining species in Virginia), and is a highly sought-after nectar source for wasps, bees, butterflies, and beetles.

These young milkweed plants have injudiciously decided to grow in the middle of our lane where their future is a bit precarious, but hundreds come up every year in Butterfly Meadow and elsewhere around the farm.

Pioneer species are often also ‘opportunist’ species which are able to rapidly exploit a sudden new opening in ground plant cover. The seeds of these species arrive, germinate, and grow quickly, rapidly reproducing themselves before other slower-colonizing species arrive to outcompete them.

Dandelions, the bane of the perfect lawn set, fall into this category, but they, too, have a job to do. Their profligate nature and the fact that they are one of the earliest wildflowers in spring make them an important food source for honeybees and butterflies. Honeybees gather the pollen in special pockets and take it back to the hive to feed the colony; butterflies and bees alike drink the nectar for fuel.

Unfortunately, many homeowners and gardeners spend a fortune eradicating these so-called weeds rather than trying to live with them or manage their numbers. We would be wise to remember that when we remove or destroy the fertile top layer of the soil, nature sends in her first line of defense – the weeds!

 A weed is a plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered. Ralph Waldo Emerson


stumbled upon

Combine a beautiful spring day with a walk in the woods and there’s no telling what you might come across. Today I set out into the woods, following South Buffalo Creek downstream, and noticed this large brown feather lying in the leaves. It measures 16 inches from one end to the other. I think it might be from a hawk or an eagle, or maybe a vulture.

I saw several wildflowers, some of which I couldn’t identify. We just moved to Virginia a few months ago, so there are many new plants and flowers to learn about.  As I walked, I came across the stumps of American chestnut trees, a species wiped out decades ago by a blight, and how important they once were to the ecology of the Appalachian forests.

On my way back, I saw an autumn olive bush loaded with honey bees and tiger and zebra swallowtail butterflies. This accommodating zebra swallowtail stayed still long enough for me to admire its bold colors and snap a picture. I made a mental note to look for pawpaw trees, the host tree for the larvae of this species.

But no doubt one of nature’s most beautiful offerings was this native dogwood tree. The dogwood is the State Tree of Virginia, and they burst into bloom just about the time the flowers of the redbud tree are declining. This one at the edge of the woods is reaching out to capture the sun’s rays.

These walks never fail to remind me of a quote by John Muir: “In every walk with Nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Nature is ever-changing and I am thankful to be on the receiving end of all that she has to offer.

lost giants of the forest

While walking in the woods, I happened to notice an oddly shaped piece of wood, about four feet long with smaller, arm-like protrusions coming out from the side, lying on the ground. I took a closer look and realized that it was part of the root of an American chestnut tree, a species wiped out in the early 1900s by an exotic fungus.

The American chestnut once comprised 25 percent of all the trees in the Appalachian Mountains and provided much of the fall mast for species such as white-tailed deer, squirrel, wild turkey, and black bear. Its tannin-rich, decay-resistant wood was used by farmers for barns, rail fences, and fence posts. The old chestnut fence posts dividing our farm from our neighbor’s are still solid and still serving their purpose.

In 1904, a shipment of chestnut trees imported from Asia that contained a blight fungus arrived in New York. The exotic fungus killed most chestnut trees within a few decades, thereby altering the forests of Appalachia forever. Many of the old stumps continue to sprout to this day, sometimes reaching 20 feet and producing a few nuts before being attacked and killed by the blight.

It was amazing to think that the piece of wood I found could be upwards of 75 years old, yet, is still solid. My husband laughs at me because of the things I have lugged home in the past (tree fungi, rocks, bird feathers, nests), but incorrigible collector that I am, I transported my prize home.

My gnarled and weatherworn chestnut specimen now has a prominent place in my rock garden (a work in progress) where it will, in all probability, “outlive” me.

carpenter bees

Photo courtesy of Univ. of Arkansas

It’s that time of year again. If you go outdoors, you might be subjected to dive-bombing by black and yellow bumble bee-like bees. You might also notice a large, round hole on your porch or deck that you never noticed before. These two seemingly unrelated events can only mean one thing — carpenter bees!

Carpenter bees are in a mating frenzy, buzzing and hovering as they search for a mate and a place to build their nests. Just a few minutes ago, a female carpenter bee accidentally flew into me and fell to the ground, stunned. In that instant, a male bee took advantage of her momentary vulnerability to land on top of her and quite unceremoniously “have his way” with her, mere inches from my feet.

Male carpenter bees are curious and will investigate anyone, or anything, really, that comes near their nests. This curiosity is often interpreted as aggressiveness; however, the males are only aggressive to other male carpenter bees. They are quite harmless to humans since they lack stingers. Our yellow lab feels safe “attacking” carpenter bees, but knows better than to harass a wasp or a hornet! Female carpenter bees, on the other hand, can inflict a painful sting, but seldom do so unless captured or seriously provoked.

Carpenter bees get their name from their habit of tunneling into wood. They excavate perfectly round, half-inch holes, then create a tunnel parallel to the wood’s surface. Within the tunnel, the female deposits her eggs along with pollen balls to feed the offspring. Bare, unpainted, or weathered wood is preferred; painted or pressure-treated wood is less susceptible to attack. Common nesting sites include eaves, window trim, fascia boards, siding, decks, and outdoor furniture.

There are conflicting views about the damage caused by carpenter bees. Some say the damage is minimal and does not cause any structural problems; others say that, over time, with successive generations using and enlarging the tunnels, the damage can be substantial. Carpenter bees are important pollinators of trees and flowers, so as long as their numbers remain tolerable, we’ll leave them to their buzzing and dive-bombing, which only lasts a couple of weeks.

Cool Fact: Along with bumble bee queens, carpenter bees (genus Xylocopa) are the largest native bees in the United States.

eastern box turtle

I went on a walk yesterday with two of my grandsons in a patch of woods near a small creek – perfect habitat for turtles! We were admiring the wildflowers when we noticed a turtle half-hidden under leaf litter. I gently lifted the turtle from the leaves so the boys could get a close look at this handsome Eastern box turtle. He tucked his head and legs inside his shell, but after a few minutes, he relaxed and let me snap his picture.

Eastern box turtle. Photo by Jo Ann Abell

Box turtles remain in the same two- to three-acre area as long as they have food, water, and other turtles to mate with. In winter, they hibernate under leaf litter or grass clumps. Populations are declining due to the use of pesticides, loss of habitat, and people removing them from the wild for pets (where they often suffer malnutrition and death).

We found this little guy about 5 o’clock in the evening. The temps are going down into the low 40s tonight, so he is probably digging in under the leaves to stay warm. We put him back where we found him so he could burrow in for the night.

Cool Fact: Box turtles reach sexual maturity at 5-7 years and have been known to live 100 years!