Native shrubs


In my blog of October 11, 2018, I shared images and some information on various flora that are found on Bermuda and promised to talk about some of the species that have become invasive. You may wonder why invasive species on Bermuda might be relevant to us in Connecticut. Islands as small as Bermuda or as large as Australia may have species that are unique to their location and that have fewer defenses against introduced plants, animals, fungi, or microorganisms. These places are great concentrated studies in the effects of introduced species.

We have seen many invasive species become hot topics as they moved from other parts of North America or even other places on the planet into non-native locations in the Northeast. The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group lists over 80 plants that are currently problems, some of which moved into our region in just the course of a decade. Transported wood that is infested with the Emerald ash borer or the Asian longhorned beetle has enabled these insects to move easily from state to state.

Japanese barberry image, UConn Plant Database, EAB image, CT DEEP

The isolated volcanic islands of Bermuda were not subject to invasive species for most of its history. There were only 165 species of vascular plants, 5 species of bats, a species of skink and another of turtle on the islands when Bermuda was discovered. Over the next several hundred years thousands of plant and animal species were brought by ships to the islands, sometimes intentionally but more often not. Some came as stowaways as seeds in hay or soils, on ocean currents, as insects in food stores, or in the bilge water of the ships themselves.

Bermuda cedar (Juniperus bermudiana), Bermuda maidenhead fern (Adiantum bellum)

Until Bermuda was visited by the first Europeans in 1505 there had been no human-related importing of flora or fauna to the archipelago so it is a great microcosm of the effects of species introduction. When settlers come to a new place the first thing that they attempt is to make it ‘home-like’. The introduction of rabbits to Australia in 1788 by British penal colonies. Within ten years they numbered in the millions and ate enough vegetation to cause widespread erosion issues.

5 Rabbits Australian National University

Rabbit around a waterhole, image from 1938/Australian National Museum

One of the first species introduced to Bermuda were the pigs that were released on Bermuda in the late 16th century. By the time a European settlement was established in the early 17th century the pigs had become abundant and feral. You may wonder why pigs were released in the first place. It was because the islands were used a place to replenish food and water, kind of a 17th century truck stop by ships. The pigs did untold damage to seabird and turtle breeding colonies.

Cockroaches, Periplaneta americana, came to Bermuda as egg cases in the bilges of a ship in 1621. Wireweed, Sida carpinifolia, was already a rampant invasive in 1669 when then-governor John Heydon was calling for tenants to pull it up by hand.

6 Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org

American cockroach (Periplaneta americana) egg case image

Many of the introduced species were brought in to control other species. The Jamaican anole, Anolis grahami, arrived in 1905 to control the Mediterranean fruit fly, Ceratitis capitata, and has since become naturalized. A beneficial introduction came in the form of honey bees, Apis mellifera. A beekeeping record dated May 25, 1617 stated that “The bees that you sent doe prosper very well.”. The Bermuda palmetto (Sabal bermudana), a native plant, is one of the main nectar sources for these bees. The giant Cane toad, Bufo marinus, an introduced species, was brought in to control garden pests but unfortunately consumes a lot of bees.

Honey bee, Bermuda palmetto, Cane toad

The Indian laurel, Ficus microcarpus, an ornamental garden tree was not considered an invasive species until the 1980s when a pollinating wasp was introduced to the island. Known as a strangler fig like its cousin the banyan, Ficus benghalensis, the Indian laurel can crack through walls and water tanks. It is a primary food source for the starling, an introduced species that does a lot of damage as they spread invasive seeds from the Brazilian pepper, Schinus terebinthifolia, the asparagus fern, Asparagus densiflorus, and the Indian laurel.

Indian laurel &  banyan trees

Casuarina, Casaurina equisetifolia, over-shades native plant species and causes soil erosion. It was introduced from Australia in the 1940s as a windbreak but no plants grow beneath it. Kudzu, Pueraria montana, is familiar to Connecticut gardeners as it is also on the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group list.

Casaurina & kudzu

With 23 of the top 100 invasive species in the world, Bermuda is still at risk of additional invasive species as most of their food and consumer goods are brought in by ship. Visitors or traveling Bermudians also bring plants, fruits, and seeds on to the islands. When you travel anywhere in the world and see warnings about bringing back fruits and plants or prohibitions against moving wood, visiting farms, or petting livestock it is for the good of all to heed that advice.

Susan Pelton

Docked at King's wharfAlthough a month ago the weather in Connecticut was still very summer-like we headed to another sunny location, Bermuda. Bermuda is one of our favorite places to visit as it relatively close by compared to other island destinations. It is a two-hour flight but our preferred mode of transportation is to cruise there. The Bermuda archipelago has a great variety of native, endemic, and invasive flora species. Since the 1500s many plants have been introduced to Bermuda, some to much detriment. In my next blog posting I will discuss the species that are of concern for the island but for now I will share many of the beautiful plants that can be seen there.

Our first foray after docking at King’s Wharf at the Royal Naval Dockyard was the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Located in Paget Parish about a mile outside of Hamilton, it was established in 1898 as a public garden. In 1921 it became the Agricultural Experiment Station and then, in 1958, due to an increase in tourism and ornamental horticulture it became the Bermuda Botanical Garden.

BBG

Open year-round (no snow days in Bermuda!), this park has something for every visitor. There are areas devoted to roses, daylilies, hibiscus, conifers, palm trees, sub-tropical fruits, cacti, orchids, an aviary and more. There is even an aromatic sensory garden designed for the visually impaired although it may be enjoyed by anyone. The first tree that caught our attention upon entering the garden was this large banyan, Ficus benghalensis. A member of the fig species, it is epiphytic, beginning its life by germinating in the crack or crevice of a host tree. Also called the strangler fig, it then sends aerial prop roots down to the ground which envelop its host to the point of the death.

Walking a bit further into the gardens we found a section that is devoted to many hybrids of hibiscus that were originally brought to Bermuda from China. Hibiscus is an introduced species which has naturalized, meaning that it will reproduce on its own but does not become invasive.

The four-section formal garden has a 17th-century English Parterre garden, a Persian garden, a Tudor-style children’s garden, and a serene Japanese Zen garden bordered by vibrant pink plumeria hedges.

One of my favorites sections of the botanical garden was a cool and shady area that contained primordial vegetation called Cycads. Among these plants that superficially resemble palms were the large leaved Philodendron shrub, Philodendron bipinnatifidum, and an Abyssinian banana, Ensete ventricosum, that easily dwarfed me. Not really difficult to do, I know, but this plant was easily 10’ tall.

The subtropical fruit garden contained the familiar in the form of bananas, avocado, and citrus and the unfamiliar in the form of papaya trees, whose growth habit reminded me of Brussels sprouts!

So many beautiful plants were not contained to specific areas but were spread around the 35 acres just waiting to be discovered. There were chenille plants, Acalypha hispida, with its soft hanging cat-tail looking panicles. Pink and yellow shrimp plants, Justicia brandegeeana, are evergreen shrubs that are highly attractive to hummingbirds. Another evergreen shrub, Sanchezia speciosa has tubular yellow flowers that extend out of reddish bracts. And of course, what subtropical garden would be complete without bird-of-paradise, Strelitzia reginae?

Day 2 found us at the far east side of Bermuda on the island of St. George’s, one of the larger of 181 islands that make up the Bermuda archipelago. St. George’s has a great public garden, Somers Garden, named for Admiral Sir George Somers, the founder of Bermuda. A fountain sits in the middle of this lovely space, picturesque turquoise stairs lead in from one side and there is also a quintessential moongate, a symbol of good luck.

The trees in this garden are all labeled with their common names and species, always a benefit to visitors. Royal palms, Roystonea regina, line the walkways, there are Indian rubber trees, Ficus elastica, and a Bermuda palmetto, Sabal bermudiana, grew in front of a very large Norfolk Island pine, Araucaria excelsa.

There were also a large variety of flowering plants. Lantana, Lantana camera, an annual familiar to many of us, grew to heights not often seen in Connecticut. The lantana flowers were yellow, white, purple, and variegated. The white and purple-flowered plants are weeping lantana, Lantana montevidensis.

There were more sanchezia, sunny Mexican flame flowers, Senecio confusus, and the deep red-orange flowers of West Indian Jasmine, Ixora.

And a large selection of croton, Codiaeum variegatum, also in sizes way beyond our container houseplants.

Our third day in dock was spent at the Royal Naval dockyard. Built by thousands of convicts in the early 19th century as an anchorage for the British Royal fleet, it remained an active part of the British naval force until 1951. In 1982 it became a National Museum and is open to the public.

The flora that is found here is of a less formal nature than the Botanical and Somers gardens. Plants grow where they like, perhaps a better representation of Bermuda’s nature. Among them is prickly pear, Opuntia sp., a mounding coastal cactus native to Bermuda that is very effective as a defensive planting around fortifications, aloe vera, and dwarf palmetto, Sabal minor.

Tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, is grown as an annual in Connecticut as it does not survive our winters but it thrives in Bermuda. This specimen was inundated with yellow milkweed aphids, a sight that is not uncommon to Connecticut gardeners.

Mexican fire plant, Mexican poinsettia Euphorbia cyathophora

 

 

 

Anyone that has had a poinsettia in their home during the holidays will appreciate this next plant, the Mexican fire plant, Euphorbia heterophylla. Also known as wild poinsettia, this hardy native plant has bluish-green bracts with splashes of bright orange-red at the bases. Although small, it caught my attention as I walked by.

 

 

 

White Egyptian star flowers, Penta sp., rose periwinkles, Catharanthus roseus, deep pink oleander, Nerium oleander, and spider lilies, Hymenocallis sp. were all to be freely found.

So many of these species were introduced either intentionally or unintentionally by humans, animals, or weather-related events. In November I will write about the continued effects of these introductions to the islands of Bermuda.

Susan Pelton, all images by S. Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center

 

tiger swallowtail and obedient plant

Tiger swallowtail on obedient plant flower

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” – Jane Austen

What a strange summer we have had so far in New England! I almost thought of going to Florida to escape the heat and humidity. It has been hot and humid, no doubt, but it is August after all, and things are coming along nicely in the out- of-doors. This time of year there is enough good stuff going on in the landscape to overcome any weather difficulties we may be experiencing, so let’s plod on out and see what’s happening.

Horsebarn Hill on a foggy July morning

foggy morning on Horsebarn Hill UConn

 

 

As we head on into the mid= summer, most garden buffs are by now reveling in the abundance of hydrangeas that are now in bloom. The dwarf ‘Little Lime’ is one of several panicle Hydrangeas that have nice full-bodied lime green flowers that pack a visual punch in the landscape. ‘Little Lamb’ is another of the smaller panicle hydrangeas, this one also having a compact form with pure white, ethereal blooms that give it its name.

little lambs hydrangea

‘Little lamb’ panicle hydrangea

Hibiscus are also blooming now, with their outstanding large, colorful flowers that really provide some visual excitement in the garden. I came across a nice hedgerow type planting that made a nice privacy screen along a sidewalk. I am not really a hibiscus fan, but a pink- flowered one popped up in my garden, and looks so great there that I guess it can stay. I wonder if someone snuck it in there to get me to have kinder thoughts toward these plants…

hibiscus border

Hibiscus

On the wild side, the sweet- smelling Clethra alnifolia is in full bloom and is attracting all types of bees, beetles and butterflies. Look for this small clump-forming shrub in any areas where soils are moist. The white flower spikes are very fragrant, so you can tell where Clethra are long before you actually see them. Groundnut vine is also blooming now, with its pea-like pink flower clusters dangling from its twining stems. Often found twining itself around goldenrods and blue vervain, it is always fun to come across this plant.

red spotted purple on clethra alnifolia

Red spotted purple butterfly on Clethra

The barn swallows that are partial to building their nests on the eaves of our equipment building have had their second brood of the year, as have bluebirds. Hopefully that will exit the nest soon and mom and dad can have a much needed rest in the near future. There was a female wood duck taking her brood on a tour in a large beaver pond the other day.

barn swallows ready to leave nest

barn swallows ready to fledge

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks

I came across a wild grape that had one leaf covered with interesting cone- like galls formed by the grape tube gallmaker midge (Schizomyia viticola). This is a harmless gall, and only affected one leaf on the entire grape plant. Looks like a bunch of tall red, skinny gnome caps were set on the leaf.

grape tube gallmaker on grape leaf

grape tube galls

Combing through garden centers for great plants is always enjoyable when you find something like the Blackberry or leopard Lily Belamcanda chinensis. Star shaped flowers only 2 inches wide are heavily spotted with red, while foliage is sword- shaped. The flowers appear in late summer and bloom until frost, so this is a good plant to spiff up areas where other perennials are fading into the sunset.

leopard li;ly Belamcando chinensis

leopard lily Belamcando chinensis

Interesting plants suitable for containers are agave and other succulents. I saw a good size Agave colorata recently which was very striking in appearance. Its leaves are thick and powdery blue- gray with unusual cross- banding designs on them, plus leaf edges have brown teeth tipped with spines. A spectacular plant!

Agaave colorata

Agave colorata

pattern on agave leaves

patterns on Agave colorata leaves

Caterpillars this time of year are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than the early season caterpillars. One favorite is the brown- hooded owlet, which is a sports a rich array orange, blue, yellow and red. Look for this caterpillar on goldenrods, where it feeds on flowers and flower buds.

brown-hooded-owlet-caterpillar

brown-hooded owlet

If you want a nice surprise, with a little careful handling you can check inside folded stinging nettle leaf shelters and may find either caterpillars of the comma or red admiral butterflies, or the chrysalis of the red admiral.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a leaf shelter on stinging nettle

 

The skies can provide some viewing that is better than any television show. Thunderhead clouds can provide some drama as they develop on hot and humid afternoons, and may provide further excitement in the form of thunder and lightning, and rainbows may follow. We can have remarkable sunsets any time of year, so don’t forget to have a look at the sky around sunset. August is also a great time for early morning fogs as well, especially when we have had a humid night. Getting up early does have its good points…

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Thunderhead developing on a hot and humid afternoon

 

Pamm Cooper

Cornus mas flowers April 24 2018

Cornus mas flowers- Cornelian cherry dogwood flowers in April before leaves appear

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

This spring has arrived at a plodding, glacial pace. Several snows in April and chilly, gray days which far outnumber the anticipated sunny, warmer ones seem to have put nature into a low gear. Birds that normally would have arrived in early April, like chipping sparrows, were late arrivals. Forsythia bloomed later than it did the past few springs, and soils have remained cold enough to hold back lawn grass growth. But the cold weather can’t last, and we finally have seen a few sunny days this week.

colletes at hole 4-14-2018 Pamm Cooper photo for Facebook

Native Colletes inaequalis ground nesting bee at entrance to her nesting tunnel- one of the earliest spring flying bees

Tree swallows arrived a couple of weeks ago, and barn swallows followed a week later. I always check out a nice swampy area along a road every spring when false hellebore is about a foot tall. This is when many migrating warblers start to come through on their way north. Two of the earlier arrivals are the yellow-rumped warblers and the palm warblers, which can often be seen together in good numbers as they catch insects on the fly. The loud drumming of pileated woodpeckers can be heard and barred and great horned owls should have nestlings by now. Canada geese should be sitting on eggs, with young hatching out in a week or so.

Pileated woodpecker pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpeckers

Bloodroot is now blooming, and before it is done, red trillium should also be blooming. Trout lily leaves are up, and its flowers should appear in a week or so. The early flowering azalea, Rhodendron mucronulatum, is flowering now with its welcome pink flowers. Bees were all over several plantings of this shrub on the UConn campus this past sunny Tuesday. Pieris japonica, or Japanese andromeda, Cornus mas and star magnolias are also in full bloom. Ornamental cherries are just beginning to bloom now and as the native black cherries begin to leaf out, look for tents made in the forks of branches by the Eastern tent caterpillars. Native bluets began blooming this week, and many native and honey bees, as well as early flying butterflies avail themselves of the nectar these tiny blue flowers provide.

purple trillium Pamm Cooper photo

Purple trillium blooms shortly after bloodroot

Rhododendron mucronulatum. Azalea Pamm Cooper photo (2)

Rhododendron mucronulatum azalea in bloom in late April. Note that this azalea does not retain its leaves through the winter

Spring peepers have been singing like a glee club, and are a welcome white noise in early spring for those of you who live near ponds. In vernal pools, egg masses of wood frogs, spotted salamanders and American toads can be found now. Diving beetles and water striders are also active now. Our vernal pools support life stages of many kinds of insects and amphibians, and provide water sources for many animals and birds as well.

spotted salamander nymph among frog eggs April vernal pool

Gilled larva of the spotted salamander swims among wood frog eggs in a vernal pool

Red, or swamp, maples are already dropping flowers, while spicebush are just starting to bloom.  Snowball viburnums are leafing out and new leaves seen curling are probably signs of snowball aphid feeding. Look inside the curled leaves for these aphids. While not a cause of alarm for the health of the plant, it is a cosmetic issue. Redbuds are showing deep pink flower buds as are the larger ornamental cherry varieties like Prunus subhirtella, the weeping Higan cherry. When these bloom, crabapples are not far behind.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese Andromeda, Pieris japonica, can bloom in March. This year it has remained in bloom through late April. Many bees visit its flowers.

More insects are becoming active now with the warmer weather. Look for the striking six- spotted tiger beetle along open woodland trails. Cabbage white butterflies are also arriving, and will lay eggs on native mustards and the invasive garlic mustards. The second generation may end up on your brassica later in the year. Mourning cloak and comma butterflies are out now, and look for swallowtails and the spring azure butterflies. Migrating red admirals and painted ladies usually arrive around the time of crabapple and invasive honeysuckle bloom. I can hardly (but must!) wait to see a swallowtail butterfly. To me this is a certain harbinger of steady, warm weather.

6-spotted tiger beetle

The 6-spotted tiger beetle is hard to miss

Mourning cloak early spring

The mourning cloak butterfly survives winters here in the north as an adult. Often it is seen imbibing at sap flows or on animal dung

tiger swallowtail butterfly on bluets Pamm Cooper photo

Tiger swallowtail on native bluets

As you venture out this spring, listen for the songs of newly arriving birds, observe  insects as they go about their daily activities and enjoy the flowers that join together to make spring a poetic response to winter. Definitely a more charming repertoire in answer to winter doldrums than my own seemingly useless “ hurry up spring” song and dance…

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
 One clover, and a bee, And revery.
 The revery alone will do, If bees are few      – Emily Dickinson
bee on gold sedum late June - Copy

Tiny native bee on gold sedum

When I first moved in to my present residence, there were neglected flower gardens and poorly maintained landscapes that did not seem to attract nor support many insects or even birds. The expression “out goes the old and in comes the new” is an appropriate aphorism for what needed to be done. The not so modest enterprise my sister and I undertook was to establish a more useful environment for pollinators, butterflies and birds. The emphasis would be mostly on pollinators, as the birds already there seemed happy enough. As butterflies often share the same flowers with bees we assumed we would attract them as well.

P1320667

Out with the old…

We were able to rip out most of the plants, whether shrubs or perennials, that were really not important food sources for most pollinators, and we concentrated the first year on putting a majority of native plants like elderberry, currant, Joe-pye weed, boneset, blue curls, bloodroot, May-apple, trillium, blueberry, winterberry, Asclepias, Aronia (chokeberry), mountain mint, goldenrod and turtlehead. We also included non-native perennials that bees love like blue giant hyssop, Caryopteris (bluebeard) obedient plant, Veronicas, and yarrow.

P1400471

…in with the new

The first year we saw quite a few species of bees, especially sweat bees and all kinds of bumblebees. We also had the handsome Colletes inaequalis bees, who visited the early spring flowers like dandelions, henbit, willow and maple. They actually built their solitary ground nests in the neighbor’s sandy soils, but stopped by our nearby flowers. We also had honeybees, from who-knows where. Since bees active in the fall were already there, a couple of native witch hazels were also added.

Bluebeard caryopteris

Bluebeard, or Caryopteris, attracts all kinds of bees

native bee on blue giant hyssop Agastache foeniculum

Native bee on blue giant hyssop Agastache foeniculum

 

frittlary and bumblebee on white swamp milkweed

Fritillary and bumblebee on swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata

The second year we put in some annuals that flower from early summer through fall. Lantana, cosmos, Euphorbia (‘Diamond Dust’ and ‘Diamond Frost’ are really good cultivars), petunias, sweet alyssum, salvias (pink and black and blue varieties that really attract lots of bee species as well as hummingbirds) and zinnias. Non-native perennials yarrow, coreopsis and Echinacea were also added. Perennials are even better the second year, and many more species of bees were seen throughout the second season.

Bombus hortorum on milkw3eeedpg

Bombus ssp. on common milkweed

It is often difficult to tell native bee species apart. For instance, the tiny Halictidae family sweat bees that are metallic green can be hard to sort out. A good reference book for identifying bees and learning about the flowers they like and nesting sites they need is “ The Bees in Your Backyard” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. There are good photographs of the bees, and also maps showing where they can be found in North America. Good anecdotes are also a feature of this book. Douglas W. Tellamy wrote “Bringing Nature Home’, a must-read for anyone concerned about supporting wildlife through thoughtful native plant selection.

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excellent resource books

Here is a link to the University of Maine’s bulletin on “ Understanding Native Bees, the Great pollinators; Enhancing Their Habitat in Maine ” https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/7153e/. This is suitable information for those of us who live in Connecticut, as the same native bees are found here as well.

echinacea

bumblebees and American lady butterfly on purple coneflower Echinacea purpurea

Many bees are important keystone species who have an essential role in maintaining diversity in ecosystems. This is because they pollinate the flowers they will later bear fruits that will support other fauna in the system. And whatever is not eaten will fall to the ground, where the seed will produce more plants, allowing a landscape that is sustainable(as long as there is no human interference to its natural continuation). If you can provide nesting and food sources for bees that are nearby your property, that will help the birds and other fauna that share the same territory.

fabulous garden- summer phlox, rudbeckia, daisies

Fabulous pollinator plant combination- summer phlox, daisies, Rudbeckia

It has been four years since the renovations in my own gardens, lawn and landscapes. Perennials are now well established, native cherries have been planted to support both bees and other creatures, and a few more plants are popped in as we see what bees we have and what flowers they may also like. There are pollen and nectar sources from spring to fall, so many bee species that are active at different times of year will find what they need. This last summer, there were many species of bees that seemed to be new- at least we had never seen them. We had leaf-cutter and mason bees, all sorts of bumblebees and sweat bees, Hylaeus masked bees, and others.

sweat bee on aster

Halictidae sweat bee on aster

If you are looking to add some plants to your own landscape, consider choosing something that will be enjoyable for you and then useful the native bees. Sort of a dual purpose, double-for-your-trouble investment. Itea virginica, ‘Henry’s garnet’, is a beautiful sweetspire shrub with cascading white flower spikes that are very attractive to all kinds of bees and butterflies. Tree hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata, are a great late summer pollen and nectar source for native bees, and Rose- of Sharon is another. They are beautiful to look at and serve a good purpose for our little native heroes of the natural world.

Pamm Cooper

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park, Manchester 2017

Hydrangea paniculata -tree hydrangea

winter landscape January

Frozen lake in January

“Feeling a little blue in January is normal”

  • Marilu Henner

The one thing I like about January is that at least the days are getting a teeny bit longer. We still have the cold weather and probably a bunch of snows will fall, but the nights are shorter and I am fooled into thinking spring will soon be here. While I like to escape into the wilds in the warmer, more colorful months, it can be a more difficult enterprise now. Snows may not allow an easy walk in the woods, but the roads are clear, and they will have to do as a means of checking out the January happenings outdoors.

winter stream

A winter stream and beech trees still holding onto their leaves

Although cold, the air is nice and clean (it seems!) and crisp, providing a refreshing change to an extended existence in an indoor environment. And there is still much to see in the winter. Bird species may not be as abundant, but the ones that are still here provide a nicer experience for me than watching fish in a tank would.

Coot Pamm Cooper photo 2016

Coot sporting its ivory bill

Pileated woodpeckers may be elusive, but they are quite vocal, and so they often give away their location as they gad about in the woods. Water birds are still around- a kingfisher is still finding stuff to eat in areas of open water- and mallards and Canada geese are, too. Coots may be seen in open water near the shore, and merganzers and ruddy ducks can be found in small or large flocks in the coastal areas. And Cooper’s hawks, as well as sharp-shinned hawks, small accipiters that prey on birds, can be seen buzzing bird feeders for easy pickings on a winter’s day.

Coopers hawk in yard Jan 8 2018

Cooper’s hawk waiting near a bird feeder

In my town, there is a large population of black vultures now, which is a remarkable development as just a few years ago avid birders would ‘flock’ to an area where a black vultures was reported to be. During the 1990’s, black vultures were considered very rare visitors to Connecticut, but in the last few years, they are definitely staying year- round and breeding here. You can tell black vultures from turkey vultures in flight by the white bands on wing tips, versus the half silver wing undersides of the turkey vultures.  Up close, the gray faces of black vultures are readily distinguishable from the bald, red faces of turkey vultures. Black vultures will often congregate on chimneys on cold days.

black vulture in 5 degrees

Black vulture on a 5 degree January day

vultures

Turkey vulture spreading wings- black vultures in the foreground

We had very cold weather the last two weeks- down in single digits on a few mornings and not much above the teens the rest of the time. Today, it is raining and fifty two degrees. If warm conditions keep up for a few days, fireflies may come out from their winter hiding spots in bark crevices, Look for them on sunny sides of trees in wooded areas. They will not fly, too logy for that, and will return to their resting places as the weather gets cold again.

fireflies in winter

Fireflies out on a warm winter day

When we have snow cover, that presents an opportunity to check out animal tracks in the snow. Deer tracks require no great hunter-like skills to figure out, but others may be tricky. I get a kick out of mouse tracks- don’t’ know why- maybe because they are one of the few animals that leave a tail print between the footprints.

two mice headed for a tree trunk as seen by their tracks in the snow

Two sets of mice tracks leading to a tree

 

Two of my favorite native plants that give interest to the monotone winter landscape are the redosier dogwood, Cornus sericea and winterberry, Ilex veticillata. Both plants offer a splash or red to a snowy landscape, and winterberries offer a food source for many birds and some small animals. Winterberry is found in the wild along edges of woods and swamps, and redosier also prefers similar areas in the wild.

red twig dogwood winter color

redosier dogwoods in winter

Even though it is not a native plant, I do love the Norway spruces when they have established mature stands. Red squirrels, at least, also appreciate the seeds that are one of their important food sources in the winter. You may come across piles of the spruce cone scales where the little pissant red squirrels take off the scales to access the seeds inside.

Norway spruce forest in winter 2-27-16

Stand of Norway Spruce in the winter

Indoors, though, it is warm, as well- lit as you may desire, and a better relaxing environment in January. Until the warm weather comes, perhaps an orchid in flower may providing a charming blush of living color, while we wait for nature to do the same.

Pamm Cooper

orchids in January

 

 

 

 

   “The grass on the rock, the flower of the heath, the thistle with its beard are the chief adornments of his landscape.” Ossian.

Well, here we are. 2017 has come to an end and 2018 lays before us. We are at the darkest time of the year as the winter solstice, which occurred on December 21st, brought us only 9 hours and 8 minutes of daylight on that day. That is 6 hours and 5 minutes less daylight than on June 21st! Its no wonder that this time of year is referred to as ‘hibernal’, a time when the deciduous trees are bare, the dropped leaves begin to decay, and birds and wildlife have settled into their winter homes and habits.

Squirrel on the suet feeder
A squirrel on the suet feeder      Image by S. Pelton

In Connecticut winter-time means that most plants have either died back or gone dormant. The evergreens hold onto their leaves and needles but they are not actively growing. Some of the more common evergreen landscaping plants for zone 6 such as the (clockwise from the top left) the rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.), the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), the mugo pine (Pinus mugo), and the white spruce (Picea glauca) add so much to the barren winter landscape.

                                                                                                Images by S. Pelton

The non-evergreen perennials can also be of interest during this time. From the top left clockwise, the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), the stonecrop (Sedum sp.), and the hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) all add some textual variety to the landscape.

                                                                                                         Images by S. Pelton

 

Their monotone appearance doesn’t really catch the eye like the very appropriately named winterberry (Ilex verticillata) does. One of the deciduous hollies, winterberry looks especially outstanding after a snowfall. As with most hollies the winterberry is dieocious and requires a male and a female plant to produce these beautiful red drupes which will remain on the plant through a good part of the winter to the benefit of small mammals and more than 40 species of birds.

                                                                                        Winterberry images by S. Pelton

But I would like to talk about an evergreen shrub that holds not only its leaves but its flowers all winter. Known as spring or winter heath (commonly but incorrectly called heather) Erica carnea has the most delicate, bell-shaped pink flowers and whorled, needle-like leaves that are barely ½” long. The family Ericaceae also includes the true heathers that were once included in the genus Erica but are now in the genus now called Calluna. Calluna heathers are called summer or autumn heathers and can be identified by their smaller, scale-like leaves which are in opposite pairs and their flowers which emerge in late summer. It is the heather Calluna vulgaris that evokes images of wide expanses of Scottish highland moors that appear to be covered in a pink mist.

5391978-PPTJohn M. Randall, The Nature Conservancy, Bugwood.org

It was the winter heath, Erica carnea, that stood out as I walked through our yard on a recent sunny but bitterly cold day. Its tiny pink flowers don’t seem capable of withstanding the arctic temperatures of the past week yet there they are.

heather in winter closeup 2                                                                                 Erica carnea close-up       Image by S. Pelton

The compact, or dwarf, size of most heath helps to limit the amount of air circulation through the plant and it creates its own microclimate whereby the plant is not as vulnerable to the cold as a taller, more openly branched plant. Its low growth habit does expose it to the possibility of frost when very cold air settles near the ground but it’s likely that in Connecticut a cover of snow may insulate it.

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                                                                                E. carnea in the snow    Image by S. Pelton

Early spring and early fall are the best times to plant, feed, or prune heath. When planting in full sun or slight shade in the early spring or fall do not allow these shallow rooted new plantings to dry out before they can establish themselves. Some gardeners amend the soil with peat moss, which can hold more than 20 times its dry weight in water in its cells, to help retain moisture. If you do add peat moss your heath plantings will receive an added benefit as the moss takes up calcium and magnesium from the surrounding soil and releases hydrogen. This action, called cation exchange, acidifies the soil. Heather prefers acidic soil which means that they are well suited to Connecticut. Plant them in area that will not be affected when you lime your lawn. Give them a dose of Holly-tone once a year when fertilizing other acid-loving plants such as rhododendron, azalea, or holly making sure that it doesn’t adhere to the foliage and reaches the drip line of the plant. As with any fertilizer it should be watered in.

                                                     Heath and heather images by the UConn Plant Database and S. Pelton

Spring is also good time to do any pruning of heath before the plant sets its flower buds or has new growth. Prune just to control any unwanted spreading and avoid pruning in the late fall as open cuts can collect water that will expand during a freeze and cause the stems to split. True heather (Calluna sp.) should be pruned annually in the spring as the flower buds do not set on old wood and the plants will become leggy and unattractive. Prune C. vulgaris at the base of old flowers.

Caliuna vulgaris heather

                                                                                   Calluna vulgaris      Image by S. Pelton

Other than needing occasional pruning heath and heather are very low-maintenance plants with few issues. You may find that deer or rabbits will feed on it as will the larvae of the Lepidopteran order which includes butterflies and moths or moths in the Coleophora genus. All in all, these plants are a wonderful addition to any yard or landscape as they unobtrusively add a swath of pink flowers and deep green foliage year-round. Perhaps 2018 is the year to add some year-round color to your landscape!

Susan Pelton

For additional information visit the UConn Plant Database: Calluna vulgaris (Scotch heather, Common heather) and Erica carnea (Spring heath, Winter heath)

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