What Native Plants?

Japanese Spirea ~ a beautiful invasive

We rounded the bend on Griffith Creek last week to find a hundred yards of creekside lined thickly with a flat-topped pink-flowered shrub I recognized as Spirea, a member of the rose family.

But the members of the genus I was familiar with are knee-high wildflowers, not shrubs. And seeing the extent of this population, I suspected it was spreading without threat of disease or predators, because it was “not from these parts.”

I sometimes wish I did not notice the invasives that are taking over Floyd County; that are changing the visual space; that are outcompeting or otherwise damaging what used to be endemic North American natives. There are so many forms of “kudzu” these days, and it makes me heart-sick.

At one point, I spent a lot of energy hand-picking the garlic mustard, coltsfoot and Japanese stilt grass; clipping back the multiflora rose, autumn olive and oriental bittersweet from anywhere I came across it within our boundaries.

Now I have acquiesced. I surrender. The bittersweet reaches the tops of young trees under the powerline clearing, having dropped so many seeds already that clipping back the mature vines will have no impact on future infestation. I suppose I have no options but to harden my shell.

I wish I didn’t care. I wish that this out-of-balance state felt okay; that knowing my grandchildren would experience the consequences of biological homogenization–the opposite of biological diversity–in their world and beyond.

It is the price we will pay as a species for the speed and ease with which we travel and ship and transplant from all around the living world. Their native plants and animals are now our pests, nuisances and invaders. And the average person thinks “so what?”

“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.” Aldo Leopold

(extra)Ordinary Nearby Nature

Ichneumonid wasp on our woodpile a few years back

Horntail wasp just out the back door last week

I’d never seen a horntail wasp until I saw this one last week, but knew at a glance what it was. Note the horn on the tail, just above its rather short, stout ovipositor. It is NOT a stinger.

And so now, I have familiarity with both the predator and the prey. How they interact is truly amazing, and a story I had known about for decades.

This short video below shows excellent details of the Ichneumonid’s remarkable way of getting its egg onto the horntail larva deep inside the trunk of a tree. Worth your time. Trust me.

This is just crazy! And yet, it’s just life for this barely-noticed common wasp.

Pollinia: How Milkweeds Do It

It seemed simple enough. On the Blue Ridge Parkway on the way back from an oil change yesterday, and in no particular hurry. I pulled off to the shoulder of the road and grabbed my camera (which you can also use as a phone! Really!) and walked back a hundred yards to a nicely-lit display of surrealistically-orange Butterfly milkweed. I grabbed a couple of shots and brought them home.

But as so often happens, looking and thinking back to this ordinary moment with this common roadside wildflower, I considered the story contained in this and every living creature’s “natural history.”

How does this plant make a living in ways it shares with other milkweeds? And in what ways is this plant or group of plants different in structure or “behavior”, and what role does it play in the larger ecology of this place?

Well, these considerations are complicated, and to me, incredibly interesting and intriguing, posing at least as many questions as answers.

If you care to see deeper into the living world, dig into its stories, one insect, salamander or fern at a time. What you’ll learn will make you a more engaged and committed resident of your neighborhood, community and planet.

We are in desperate need of nature and science literacy that exceeds the eroding average in America in our precarious times.

Trust me: watch this video, and then find the nearest milkweed (probably the pink, sweet-smelling common milkweed) and dissect a single flower and find the pollinia.

What are pollinia, you ask? Honk if you watched this short video.

Spontaneous Flora of Floyd

One of my favorite features on the trip to town along 221 this time of year is the wildflower assortment, the “unplanted garden” in which yellow is disproportionately well represented.

Much less familiar than the yellow-rayed Black Eyed Susans or the soon-to-come goldenrod y is this yellow (or lady’s) bedstraw.  The flowers can only be seen individually if you stop your car (near Ray’s Rest for instance) and look carefully. The leaves remind me of the thready foliage of dill.

About this plant, Wikipedia has this to say:

“Galium verum (lady’s bedstraw[1] or yellow bedstraw) is a herbaceous perennial plant of the family Rubiaceae. It is widespread across most of Europe, North Africa, and temperate Asia from Israel and Turkey to Japan and Kamchatka. It is naturalized in Tasmania, New Zealand, Canada, and the northern half of the United States. It is considered a noxious weed in some places.

In the past, the dried plants were used to stuff mattresses, as the coumarin scent of the plants acts as a flea repellant. The flowers were also used to coagulate milk in cheese manufacture and, in Gloucestershire, to colour the cheese double Gloucester.[6] The plant is also used to make red madder-like and yellow dyes. In Denmark, the plant (known locally as gul snerre) is traditionally used to infuse spirits, making the uniquely Danish drink bjæsk [da].”

Spring at Full Tilt

An obliging Trout Lily, showing flower interior and speckled fish-shaped leaves

Don’t know about you, but for us, spring happened on Saturday (20 April.) By Sunday, the foliage of almost all trees was at least barely emerged, if not half-way, the sun setting spring colors ablaze.

It is a different orange, pink and red than fall leaf-change. The plant tissues are so early formed that light passes through the leaf tissue more than it is reflected off. I think I actually prefer springs delicate to fall’s bold palette.

And there are SO MANY different greens! A mixed hillside that includes some dark green white pines for contrast sets spring foliage off to best effect.