Spring is popping out all over

With so much rain, everything is growing at an incredible rate and new wildflowers are popping up every day. Just yesterday, I noticed Ox-Eye Daisies in the fields and Fire Pinks and Goatsbeard along the roadsides. Fleabane, a member of the aster family that tends to grow prodigiously in Virginia, is probably the most common wildflower in bloom now.

Ox-Eye Daisy

Ox-Eye Daisy

Fire Pink

Fire Pink

Goatsbeard (Yellow Salsify)

Goatsbeard (Yellow Salsify)

We’re really trying to get our garden and orchard going this year, sometimes working in the mud because of all the rain. I’ve been busy adding perennials to the rock garden I started last year and found this little salamander hiding under one of the plants. I tried to identify him, but there are just too many salamanders in Virginia. Does anyone have any idea what species this guy might belong to?

We also have what I believe to be a Little Brown Bat roosting in our porch rafters. I was surprised to learn that while most bats hibernate in large colonies during the winter, they may remain solitary the rest of the year, roosting in trees as well as man-made structures. I hope this one gobbles up lots of insects!

Each year, the same birds (or their offspring) return to raise another generation and there are nests everywhere. Bluebirds and phoebes have nests in the porch rafters and are busy making dozens of food runs everyday. Crazy wrens will nest anywhere: a pair is raising its young in the log splitter! My next post will probably be an update on the nesting birds.

just wandering on a beautiful fall day

Bill and I try to take the dogs for a walk every day. Yesterday started out cold, but warmed to 55 degrees by 10 o’clock. I particularly relish these mild November days because I know colder days are just around the corner.

With all the wildflowers now gone, the landscape is dominated by late autumn shades of brown and tan. I love the fall and I find these muted earth tones to be beautiful and inspirational. Even as she prepares to sleep, Nature is elegant.

Looking out across the fields, little bluestem, a native warm-season grass, is going to seed. Its abundant seed stems will provide forage for many songbirds throughout the winter. Below, milkweed pods have opened, revealing whimsical, silky tufts of seeds that will ride the wind to recolonize an area away from the mother plant.

With summer and the miraculous season of pollination behind us, the once-yellow, wand-like clusters of goldenrod are now beige tufts, waiting for the wind to help sow their seeds for next year’s crop.

I found a great website that shows the incredible ways that seeds are dispersed by the wind: http://theseedsite.co.uk/sdwind.html The shapes and sizes of seedpods, which are as diverse as the seeds inside them, have to do with how far the seeds are transported.

I’m not sure what flower produces these clumps of rounded seedheads (bergamot?), but they would make a nice addition to a dried flower arrangement! Hmmm, gives me an idea….

Along the way, we spotted a cocoon and this is one of those times I wish I had a biologist along with me to tell me what insect constructed it. I could have opened it to have a look, but something makes me hesitate to tamper with even the simplest and most ubiquitous of nature’s handiwork.

In a perfect ending to a perfect walk (at least from a retriever’s perspective), our yellow lab Autumn decided to go for a swim in our neighbor’s pond. She spotted a decoy floating in the middle of the pond and, true to her breed, couldn’t resist going in to retrieve it.

We took a longer walk than usual, trying to take in every minute of this gorgeous fall day. I know there are those who love winter and can’t get enough of the white stuff, but I’m not one of those people. Truth be known, I wouldn’t mind a whole winter just like today.

seedheads in the meadow

The brilliant fall foliage for which the Blue Ridge is so well-known has run its course, but Nature, which never has an off season, has not been idle. In accordance with her plan, summer’s fading wildflowers have been transformed into a botanical realm of pods, papery seedcases, cones, and burrs dancing in the wind. The seeds will eventually find their way into the ground where they will germinate at the appropriate time, continuing the circle of life.

The clustered seeds of burdock provide food for many birds, as well as other animals including voles and mice.

These seedheads are fascinating, but I’m not sure of the plant species. Any ideas?

This weed, also unidentified, grew in a pile of topsoil – look out for those spikes!

The silky seed tufts of common milkweed rely on the wind to carry the seeds far from the host plant.

Monarda (the round seed heads), shown here mixed in with little bluestem and other native grasses, is a winter food source for birds and other wild critters.

These species, found in our meadow, represent only a few of the tremendous variety of seed heads that lend color, texture, and design to the fall landscape, while also providing a valuable winter food source for wildlife. Beauty abounds in every season – and I’ll be supplying pictures all along the way!

yep, fall is here

This time of year, the landscape is changing rapidly. We don’t need a calendar to tell us that fall is here; the change in the seasons is reflected all around us. We see it in the trees, the flowers, the birds, and even the squirrels madly gathering and stashing acorns in preparation for winter.

Most of the summer wildflowers are gone or in decline, bowing to the onset of the golden reign of the goldenrods that are so prominent now.

The asters, also blooming in large numbers, fill the fields and woodland edges with color.

These late-season flowers provide sustenance to bees and other pollinating insects searching for food that is increasingly harder to find.

Like the rest of nature, the grasses are also reacting to the shorter days. Little bluestem, festooned in contrasting shades of green and maroon, stands in beautiful contrast to the yellows of the ironweed and goldenrod.

Butterflies are becoming less numerous as their favorite flowers decline. The monarch butterflies, which began their fall migration through western Virginia five days ago, still can be seen winging their way south. This one is enjoying a brief stopover to visit a butterfly bush before continuing on to its wintering grounds (for more on monarchs, see previous post, “monarchs on the move“).

Just by chance, we were lucky enough to spot this praying mantis watching us from the camouflage of the autumn grass – it’s amazing how the insect’s coloring matches the grass reeds, making him virtually invisible to predators.

As I look out, the fields are awash in hues of yellow, gold, russet, and brown. The trees are in transformation as well; some, like our neighbor’s maple, are showing tinges of yellow and orange. In just a couple of weeks, it will be a blazing reddish-orange.

Soon the Blue Ridge will be blanketed in a glorious quilt of autumn colors, a sight more breathtaking to behold than any postcard or photograph could ever portray.

Each moment of the year has its own beauty.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

summer’s end

Both the calendar and the shortening days tell us that summer is coming to an end. I thought it would be a good time to take a look back at some of my favorite wildflowers that were so beautiful only a few weeks ago, but are now gone until next season. Some of the pictures include one of the flower’s associated pollinators. As always, feel free to correct me if I have made an incorrect identification.

Zebra swallowtail on autumn olive

Even though the autumn olive bush is an introduced species, I included it because of its importance to pollinators such as honey bees and butterflies. In early May, I saw a dozen different pollinators enjoying the nectar.

Bergamot patronized by a hawkmoth

Bergamot is also wildly popular with pollinators including honey bees, bumble bees, and hawkmoths. Most of those pollinators visited other wildflowers, but the hawkmoths remained loyal to the bergamot until it stopped blooming (makes perfect sense to me – I have that kind of loyalty to pasta!).

Monarch butterfly on joe-pye weed

Joe Pye, an Indian healer from New England, used E. purpureum to treat a variety of ailments, which led to the name Joe-Pye weed. I don’t like the suffix “weed” because of its negative connotation and I think it, generally, shows a lack of creativity, but that’s the popular name for this beautiful plant that is an herb, a wildflower, a butterfly magnet, and an ornamental in the garden – not bad for a “weed,” huh?

Bumblebee on a purple coneflower

Common milkweed visited by a spicebush swallowtail

Common milkweed is another wildflower that attracts a host of insects, including bees, wasps, flies, skippers, butterflies, and moths, which drink the nectar. It is also the host plant of the larvae of the monarch butterfly.

Green-headed coneflower

And two of my all-time favorites because they are so closely associated with the ridges and valleys of the Southern Appalachians…

Catawba rhododendron

Catawba rhododendron is native to the eastern United States, growing mainly in the Appalachian Mountains from Virginia south to northern Alabama, splashing its lovely pink blooms up and down the hillsides and along the creek banks every spring.

Mountain laurel

Part of the appreciation of these flowers of wood and field is that we have to wait so long to see them from one season to the next. They emerge, grow, blossom, and decline in just a few short weeks, then disappear for another year. We are fortunate indeed to be able to capture their beauty on camera and enjoy them, if only virtually, when the days get short and all of nature is in slumber.

creating biodiversity

When Bill and I bought our farm, the fields were being managed for hay production and were mowed a couple of time each summer. The mowing schedule made it impossible for native wildflowers, grasses, and shrubs to grow and reproduce; as a result, there was a distinct lack of diversity of plant life.

Here’s how the fields looked in June 2006 when we purchased the property. An idyllic scene to be sure, but other than the trees, there is little vegetation to protect and benefit wildlife. Fescue, a popular grass for lawns, pasture and hay, was the dominant vegetation and although spring was well underway, there are few wildflowers or shrubs to be seen.

Here’s a shot of Bill standing in the front field in 2006 (that’s our neighbor’s cabin in the upper right side of the picture). Note the lack of brush or other dense growth that provides cover for rabbits, deer, raccoons, and other wildlife for nesting, hiding, or traveling from one area to another.

It was our goal to increase the diversity of native plants to attract more wildlife, so we stopped mowing the fields and let nature take its course.

For comparison purposes, the picture below shows the same field in July 2012, six years later (again, that’s our neighbor’s cabin in the pine grove in the upper right side of the picture). Note the layers of grasses, shrubs, and young trees that benefit wildlife by providing food sources and cover.

During the last six years, I’ve inventoried the plants on our farm and found that as the fields mature, the variety of plant life has increased exponentially. Cattails are now growing in the lower part of the front field that remains wet year-round.

Native warm season grasses including little bluestem, switch grass, clover, and Indian grass are providing sources of “green browse” for wildlife. Wildflowers such as golden ragwort, birds-foot trefoil, wild bergamot, St. John’s wort, burdock, and many others appeared for the first time this year.

Golden ragwort (and caterpillar visitor)

Wild bergamot

With the increased diversity of plant life, we have more butterflies and other insects, as well as turtles, skinks, snakes, frogs, rabbits, deer, and every other species that makes use of these plants. The reason is simple: there’s more food available and more places for wildlife to hide, rest, escape the elements, and raise their young.

At some point, we’ll have to decide when and where we want to suspend the rate of natural succession, or the fields will eventually return to woods (which would run contrary to what we’re trying to accomplish), but for now, we’re enjoying the benefits of letting nature run its course.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.

Lao Tzu

wild meadows

My husband and I decided when we purchased our farm that we would discontinue mowing the fields, which for the last few years had been mowed for hay. These now fallow fields, green in the spring and golden in the fall, are slowly being reclaimed by nature. Once plentiful native grasses and wildflowers are re-emerging to provide a source of food for deer and other browsers, seed for birds, nectar for pollinators, and places for wildlife of all kinds to find shade, nest, and hide from predators.

Native grasses like little bluestem are coming back

Looking across the fields, we watch the seasonal sequence of green shoots emerging, wildflowers blooming, monarchs and swallowtails nectaring, sparrows singing from atop grass stems, and bees gathering pollen to take back to their hives. At sunset, they become swallowfields as white-breasted tree swallows make low sweeps back and forth, plucking insects from the air, and after dark, they are the mating grounds of the fireflies.

Visiting tiger swallowtail

After four years of no mowing, native grasses are better able to compete with non-native species. We’re seeing an increase in such natives as Eastern gamagrass, Indian grass, and little bluestem. We’re also seeing more blackberry brambles than ever before, and more wildflowers, including some species we haven’t seen before such as butterweed, goatsbeard, and butterfly weed.

Oxeye daisies dominate portions of the fields

We mow a small area around the house and outbuildings and along the edges of the lane, but leave the remaining woods and fields to the deft hand of Mother Nature. There was a time when I liked an orderly, weed-free lawn, but now I see a tangle of weeds as a sanctuary for crickets and toads, a stand of thistle as a feast for goldfinches, and a tall reed as a singing platform for a sparrow. Beauty is, indeed, in the eyes of the beholder.

In upland mowings now no longer mowed, the banished weed again lifts high its head, ennobled by some quaint ancestral name.  Benjamin T. Richards

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