Friday, September 30, 2011

Another First for Me: Lobelia Siphilitica

   I was just out minding my own business, looking for some Jewelweed to collect some seeds from. Earlier in the day, during a bike ride, I saw some growing in a creek along the side of a quiet road. It's hard to find some that isn't surround by poison ivy. That afternoon, as I turned up the road in my car, I looked for a place to pull over, but I had some one behind me and the only place to park off the street was in front of a No Trespassing sign. So, I kept going, hoping the guy behind me would turn into a driveway. In the process, I went further up the street than I had planned, and stumbled upon a section of the creek even better than the first. I knew it as soon as I saw it, Great Blue Lobelia!

   I have never seen any growing in the wild before, and there was a lot of it! The pollinators were all over it! It was such a magical little spot, growing amongst the Lobelia was Swamp Milkweed (also first time seen in the wild, not a garden), Jewelweed, Wingstem, several Asters, some unidentified sedges, Boneset, PawPaw trees and a couple non natives, Polygonum persicaria, and something that looks like a helenium, but I'm not sure. The color combinations were simply stunning. Roanoke is typically such a dry place, I'm not accustomed to seeing these moisture loving plants.

Spotted Jewelweed

Polygonum persicaria (I think)

   I found this spot totally by accident, and yes, I did manage to collect some Jewelweed seeds, despite half of them "popping" into the creek before I perfected my technique, hence the other name Touch-Me-Not. The source of this little creek full of magic is a spring at the base of a mountain. Here's a picture of what I assume is some kind of community springhouse, it was one of the few places not to have a No Trespassing sign. Water was coming out of a pipe and seeping out of the corner of the foundation.

   The diversity and richness of this random spot along a nondescript country road will have me coming back to see what's blooming for a long time. 

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Found! Our first Wild Liatris

Sorry for the less than stellar image quality, it's an iPhone

   I shouldn't say "our" because I haven't seen it yet, in person. I should say "Jeff's", he found it, took its picture, and I identified it. He's been carrying his iPhone with him on his trail runs because he's been seeing what he believed to be some quality plants. It would take just about all day to hike up and back to the ridge with the good camera and tripod, but much less time if he's running.
   I've never seen Liatris growing in the wild before, so this is exciting. I think it looks like a Liatris spicata. Based on the remoteness of the location, high on a ridgeline, deep in a Natural Preserve, miles from civilation, I don't think this is an escaped cultivated specimen. This particular mountain area is one of the few in this area where you won't see any introduced species, it seems quite pristine.
   Thank you Jeff for this excellent find!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Monarchs are on the Move! Birds, too!

    We started seeing Monarchs heading south about a week ago, here and there, but over the weekend we started seeing them more consistently, even groups of three or more. Yesterday, where ever I was in town or at home, all I had to do was look up and I was guaranteed to see Monarchs heading south, just a constant stream of orange and black. My parents, who live north of us, also reported seeing them in a constant stream across the sky. Always about the same altitude, never coming down to feed, just floating away. That's why I don't have any photos, it would just be a black spot against a washed out sky, if that even. If I didn't look up, I'd probably miss them.
   So if you're near Virginia or further south, start looking! They're coming your way!

   A birding note...we've also had some nonstandard birds in the yard, a Pee-Wee spent the afternoon hunting from the tips of our hawthorn trees, some warblers (probably Pine) have been passing through the treetops, and a Red Shouldered Hawk has been heard calling (they're very vocal!) at the pond across the street several times. Another winter visitor, a Brown Headed Nuthatch, has been heard in the pines on the golf course. We hear it every year but rarely see it. One lucky winter we had a pair of Brown Headed Nuthatches come to our feeders regularly, but they seem to spend most their time in the pines.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Mysterious Eggs Update

*This is not an eggs update that happens to be mysterious, it's an update on some mysterious eggs!

   Well, I found the egg mass by chance, 12 hours later they'd hatched, 12 hours after that, you would never know they had been there! I haven't been able to ID them, but I have a few guesses. I was thinking maybe sawflies, now I'm thinking some kind of moth. When they were still on the plant, if I tapped the stem, the tiny 1 millimeter caterpillars would drop from a strand of silk, and the stem they were on was covered in silk by the time the left. It was hard to see, but they moved like an inchworm. That makes me think moth. Maybe a type of cutworm moth. That's the best I could do, unless I see something getting massively defoliated, I'll probably never know for sure.

Click on the picture to see a larger version, it's hard to get the camera to focus on 1 millimeter caterpillars.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

A Plant that Found Me, Awl Aster

   I have this habit. If a plant sprouts up and I don't know what it is, I like to let it grow and flower so I can identify it and add it to my memory bank. If it turns our to be a desirable plant, I leave it. If it turns out to be an evil plant, I pull it up before it goes to seed. One particular new plant that sprouted up this year is pictured below...

   It's the leaning one, growing out of a crack between the bricks in the sidewalk. I had no idea it would get so tall, right now it's about five feet, and it's a bit awkward to walk around. Hurricane Irene blew it over, and it never quite straightened up. Now that it finally has begun to bloom, I think I've Id'ed it: Awl Aster, or Frost Aster, or Old Field Aster. The latin name seems to be Aster pilosus, or Symphyotrichum pilosum.

   Typical of asters, the flowers are small and white, and the stalks are quite rigid, almost woody at the base. Based on the size of this plant, there will be literally hundreds, if not thousands of flowers. It's hard to believe this huge plant grew from a tiny seed in just one season. It sure wasn't there last year, and I haven't seen any others around. I can only wonder how it got here. I think it's quite attractive, I just wish it was at the back of this border, not in the middle of the sidewalk. I would love to transplant it, but I don't think it will come out of the crack. Maybe I can collect some seeds and sow them elsewhere...

   It's been quite popular with spiders, particularly Long Jawed Orb Weavers, who've built numerous webs on this plants all summer long.

   Something has laid a mass of eggs on a stem, I have no idea what they are...And by the way, if you think I may have incorrectly identified this plant, please feel free to correct me.

So, you never what you might get, let that weed grow and it may just turn into a keeper!

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Few More September Blooming Natives...

 Crownbeard (Verbesina Occidentalis)

   I've really enjoyed looking for and finding some new wildflowers lately. The rains we had a few weeks ago really set the stage for a spectacular show. One of the the most common, and therefore probably most overlooked native plants in this area is Crownbeard (Verbesina Occidentalis). To some people it's a weed, to me it's a glorious golden pollinator buffet.

Crownbeard and happy honeybee

   The honeybees are really enjoying it right now, as are the many other insects. The flowers themselves have a rather disheveled look to them, maybe that's why gardeners don't care much for this plant, but the pollinators don't seem to mind. Crownbeard can easily reach six feet tall in dry, partly shaded soil, growing easily in difficult spots. It's even a host plant! (For the Silvery Checkerspot)

Blue Sky Aster (Aster azureus)

   One of our many new plants for us this year is Blue Sky Aster. I ordered it from Prairie Moon Nursery back in the spring. It bloomed well for us in it's first year and is gorgeous! Typical of asters, the small 1 inch flowers appear on long airy stems, 2-3 feet tall. I must order more of these next year!

   The latest new plant we've found over at Dean is Black Nightshade (Solanum nigrum). Jeff found it and suspected it might be a quality plant, so he snapped these shots with his iPhone.

   The berries are more noticeable than the flowers on this shrubby little plant, and presumably have some medicinal value. However, I'm not going to be experimenting with eating anything with nightshade in the name! 

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Late Sunday greetings to all! Well, I intended to do a brilliant post today but things got out of control. A bit of exercise in the AM, a quick lunch with hubby, and afternoon house hunting with my parents (for them). As a result, my time in the garden was a blur.

Hopefully tomorrow will be a little slower and my next post a bit closer to brilliant.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I Found Some New Plants!

   They're not "new", as in, just created, discovered, or purchased. But they are "new" to me, as in, I've never identified them before and I didn't know we had them on our property. I love finding new plants and going home and playing detective, trying to identify them in our books, which is not always easy. Over the course of this growing season, I've been periodically going through the landscape, trying to identify everything and either keep it if it's native or yank it out if it's not. (One of those jobs that'll never be finished) I've been coddling this first plant all summer, waiting for it to bloom so I could make a positive ID on it, guessing all along that it was a worthwhile plant. I had a pretty good feeling about it, it looked familiar. Well, it payed off...

It's White Snakeroot! Or, Eupatorium rugosum, or Ageratina altissima. It looks quite a bit like a Boneset, another Eupatorium, but with broader leaves. The pollinators were loving it, so I love it too.

Over at Dean, it's mixed in with all the Crownbeard which is also blooming now. We also have a lot more of it than I realized, which became obvious once it started blooming.

It seems to tolerate dry shady sites well, growing approximately 2-3 feet high. I read that it's poisonous, causing "milk sickness" when eaten by cattle. Maybe that's why the deer don't touch it?

I also found this little gem, identified as Sweet Everlasting, or Pseudonaphalium obtusifolium. It's another plant growing randomly in a wild area that I weeded around earlier. I left it since I didn't know what it was, promising to keep my eyes on it in case it was a non-native. It really is sweet, evidenced by the teeny tiny little ants on it.

I'll have to get back out there and keep looking, there may be more!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Sad Story, but with an Uplifting Twist

I have no photographs to go with this story, it just didn't seem appropriate to take any.

I held a Broadwing Hawk in my hands on Sunday, it felt so rewarding to see such a beautiful creature up close, the talons, the beak, the eyes, but the eyes were cloudy, and I could not enjoy it. This poor creature was not alive, it had been hit by a car. It's remarkable how many raptors we find just around our neighborhood who've met an untimely end on the road. Mammals we expect, but raptors? Their habit of flying low as an element of surprise as they hunt road embankments probably accounts for this peculiar mortality.

I realize this may sound strange, and it's not for everyone, but Jeff and I try to retrieve some of the animals and birds we find that have been hit before they become, well, how do I put this...too gross. Even though the spirit has left we still respect the body and we try to give it a proper place of semi burial up in our woods, as if it died of natural causes and came to rest upon the forest floor. It will still be subject to scavengers, but that's natural, getting run over by automobiles is not.

Well, so there I was Sunday afternoon, I had just arrived at Dean to find a place up in the woods for the Broadwing I just picked up. I was standing in the driveway, holding the hawk, and looking up into the woods for a path without to much poison ivy. As soon as Jeff came around through the gate, two Broadwings swooped overhead and called out. My eyes instantly welled up and goosebumps ran up my arms. What a magical moment. Broadwings have been regular visitors, even residents with nests at Dean for many years, so seeing them alone wasn't special but the timing was. Were they thanking us, saying goodbye to a fallen comrade? It doesn't matter, maybe we're a little flaky. It felt special.

So that's it.

Well almost, we had another strange incident last night. We were sitting at the dinner table, we'd finished eating and were enjoying the perfect weather. I think we were talking about birds, what we'd seen and not seen, and Jeff mentioned how odd it was that we hadn't seen nearly as many Kestrels this year as in previous years. Not a minute later, through our screen door we heard and saw two Kestrels call out as they flew over our back yard. What's up with that!? Coincidence? It doesn't matter, it was cool anyway you look at it.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Honeybees Return, and more...

 Honey Bee on Sedum "Matrona"

   I have no idea where they live, but they stop in for a snack every now and then, particularly when they find something on my menu that suits them. The Honey Bees come and go over the course of the summer and I've taken a keen interest in seeing what their favorite plants are. This time, it's the Sedums that have brought them back.

Honey Bees on Sedum "Matrona"

   Nothing relaxes me more than sitting on the front porch, watching the bees whirring back and forth. Their motion and faint buzzing can have quite the hypnotic effect on me.

 Paper Wasp on Cimicifuga "Hillside Black Beauty"

   For some reason, this hybrid Bugbane (Cimicifuga) blooms later than the true species. It also smells much sweeter. Not surprisingly, it's covered in tiny ants, and only the boldest wasps can squeeze in for a sip of the nectar.

 Carpenter Bee taking the shortcut on Salvia

   We still have an abundance of Carpenter Bees hanging around. I noticed they've developed a clever way to "steal" some nectar from long tubed flowers that they otherwise wouldn't be able to access with their shorter tongues...they land on the tube, climb up, and pierce the base of the flower where they can then reach the nectar! Quite clever indeed!

 Milkweed Bugs on Swamp Milkweed

   I've been dutifully checking all of my Milkweed plants for Monarch caterpillars, but unfortunately all I have are Milkweed Bugs and Milkweed aphids. And boy do I have a lot of them!

I'm wondering, would having these insects on the milkweed plants discourage Monarchs from laying their eggs here?

If that's the case, should I have tried to remove the Milkweed Bugs and aphids when I first noticed them?

Or, is it perfectly natural for them to be there, and I should just leave nature alone?

Any advice is greatly welcomed!

Orange Milkweed aphids on Swamp Milkweed

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Feast or Famine

   This year, like many before it and surely those to follow, has been a textbook "feast or famine" year. Meaning we either have too little or too much of something. As gardeners, we've become more sensitive to what the weather is doing than the typical person. So many times we'll be out in a restaurant, for example, the weather will be sunny with a bluebird sky and a warm, gentle breeze and the waitress will say "Oh, isn't this weather just perfect!". They're always shocked to hear us exclaim that NO, it's not perfect, it's too dry and we need rain. Which is usually followed with "Oh no, rain is too depressing". I guess we just see the world a little differently.
   Earlier this year we had record rainfalls, followed promptly by record drought, now record rainfalls again. Feast, famine, feast. Last Saturday the heat index was 103 degrees, now it's a wet, chilly 65 degrees. Typical Virginia. 
   The only thing preventing me from truly enjoying this rain we're having now is guilt. I feel so bad for everyone in Texas right now. I've officially revoked my priveledge to complain about anything, no matter how bad it gets here, Texas has it worse. All that rain falling in Louisiana, so close, yet all they get is wind which just starts more fires.

   I wish I could send some of this down to Texas. I realize you guys don't have a reference point for this place, but I assure you, it's a lot higher than usual. This is a spot along the Roanoke river over in Salem that's popular with birders. Usually it's a shallow stony flats kinda area that's pretty good for spotting migrating waders and water fowl.
   Need less to say after two days of thunderstorms followed by two days of nonstop rain from TS Lee, the Crownbeard and Wingstem that I posted a picture of last Friday has perked back up. Our water storage systems are full, the creeks and rivers are over their banks, and I've had a lot more free time since I'm not having to water everything. I haven't been out in the yard lately, there doesn't seem like there's much to see anyway. The birds, however, have been feeding quite heavily, especially the goldfinches and hummers.

   Autumn is definitely right around the corner, our chipmunks have been more visible lately, busily collecting and storing nuts for winter. Every morning I throw out a handful of peanuts for the Bluejays, squirrels, chippies. Sometimes Cardinals and Thrashers show up. As you can see, my cats love the show. (They are indoor only cats, I would never feed the critters and then release a predator into the mix) The deer are also beginning to shed their velvet, or at least, Trusty Rusty has. Yes, some of the deer have names, but only because it helps us keep track of them as we study their behavior. ;)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Late August Happenings...

   When I complain about how dry it is here in our corner of the Roanoke Valley, I'm not exaggerating. On the rare occasion that a pop-up thunderstorm has passed though, it misses our property completely. Especially when it approaches from the west, the rain systems typically are diverted, courtesy of being in what's called a rain shadow. Thanks Poor Mountain! We haven't had any measureable rain since late June/early July. I know there are folks out there who have it worse, namely Texas, or the other end of the spectrum, Vermont. Still, it's pretty bad here. The photo above shows what should be a glorious, lush stand of Crownbeard and Wingstem about to bloom and put on a buffet for the late season pollinators. However, I doubt it will bloom at all as the plants seem to have put themselves into survival mode. You can probably also see the brown leaves at the bottom of the photo. The trees are also going into survival mode, cutting off the circulation and dropping their leaves much earlier than usual. Crownbeard and Wingstem are staples here in the Roanoke Valley, you can find them growing at just about every woodland edge or right-a-way all over town. I really worry about the pollinators not having valuable late season food sources available to them.

   This is what the ground looks like, needless to say, no irrigation here!

   Although we can't give enough supplemental water to keep everything alive, we are watering the most essential plants, especially those blooming now, to continue to feed whomever passes through.  Here's a small sampling of this week's flowers and visitors...

   This tiny but gorgeous Pearl Crescent stopped by for a sip of Gaillardia nectar...

   and managed to share a little with the bumbles.

   A Gray Hairstreak (also called Common Hairstreak) was nearby on some Sedum.

   Some of the Joe-Pye Weed is still blooming, and our Skipper population explosion continues.

The wonderful Agastache "Blue Fortune" is still the favorite of all my pollinators, and pollinator hunters! Here a Wheel Bug is having a bumblebee for breakfast. Sorry Mr. Bumble but a Wheelbug's gotta eat too!

   We've also had a population explosion of Carpenter Bees. This one is a male, as evidenced by the yellow patch on his face and greenish eyes. Females have a black face and black eyes. I thought I had found a new-to-me bee before I realized the two sexes looked different.
   It's been fascinating to note over the course of the summer how different species of insects seem to have "their" time, when their population really takes off. Due to migration patterns and breeding behavior, I'm really starting to see how insects stagger their life cycles.

   Hey! Stop the press! As I'm writing this RIGHT NOW it's starting to rain! It's been thundering for about 30 minutes, but I didn't think we'd actually get any water from those clouds.

   I know it's hard to tell from this photo, but when I can't see Mason's Knob, I know it's raining hard! (There should be two mountains visible on the horizon) The rain barrels are overflowing! This is unreal! Wheee!