Pitcher Plant Bog

It’s morning in late April, and spring is in full swing in the southwestern corner of Georgia. The air is warm without being oppressive, but summer is too impatient a season for that state to last long. 

You stand in a broad, open woodland of longleaf and slash pines; a little crowded to be a proper savanna, but open enough to allow a rich mix of groundcover species. This land was clearcut in the 1940s, but unlike most of the land around it, it wasn’t converted to agriculture.  In fact, roughly a square mile (barely a postage stamp on the greater landscape) around this spot is protected as a state wildlife management area.  This is fortunate, for you get to see a remnant of this vanishing ecosystem in a more or less functional state.

When nature-watching, careful attentiveness to your surroundings is key.  A quick sweep of this woodland, and the casual observer sees a broad expanse of grasses broken here and there by clumps of shrubs.  But standing within that groundcover forces a change of perspective. One reason, of course, is that some of the more mobile denizens of the forest don’t appreciate being stepped on and will tell you so, painfully.  Others, more vulnerable, are unable to defend against a boot but still worthy of recognition and protection.  

Without close attention, you would have missed the fingernail-sized puff of pink on the ground between the deerberry and the wiregrass clump.  The sensitive brier has bipinnately compound leaves snap shut and droop suddenly when touched.  Perhaps this serves to startle herbivores or shake off leaf-munching insects, but also entertains a youth with woodwise curiosity. 

The flowers rising between grass clumps host wild bees and bright butterflies as they make the rounds; less noticeable are the beetles, flies and wasps that also sip the nectar in exchange for pollen transport.

Toothache grass

The change in elevation is too slight for a Piedmont hill-dweller to notice, but a close eye on the vegetation reveals it.  Wiregrass gives way to dropseed and toothache grass, and then to rushes.  In a matter of inches of height, the upland has become bog, and a new suite of plants surrounds you.

Looking down, you spot tiny reddish spots the size of a quarter, obscured by pine needles.  These are sundews, which catch and digest insects on their sticky rosette leaves.  Your new vantage point as you squat down to observe these tiny herbaceous carnivores allows you to notice the glistening sand. You didn’t realize how wet the soil was, but now you see your last footprint is filling with water.  There is no water’s edge here, just a gradual gradient that dips and rises between “dry” land and standing water.  A fallen pine provides a precarious walkway for a few yards, yet you will get wet feet soon enough. 

Sundews

Off to your left, you see what you came for: a cluster of meter-long yellow pitcher plants (aka Trumpets).  Like sundews, pitcher plants are carnivorous, digesting insects to supplement their nutritional needs on poor, wet soils.  Attracted by the scent of nectar,  bugs alight within the leaf tube, where the waxy surface and downward-facing hairs slide the victim deeper in.  Eventually, the insect falls into a pool of digestive fluid, where it drowns and dissolves.  You also see the less lethal flowers among the pitchers; they too lure pollinators in, but allows them to escape after being dusted with pollen.

Your old-timer guide tells you he remembers, back in the 80’s, driving down the interstate and seeing fields of pitcher plant trumpets for mile upon unbroken mile.  But agriculture, industrial logging, and other development made the land inhospitable for these persnickety plants.  These bogs feature shallow, consistent, year-round water supply, and even a tire rut (or repeated human traffic) can alter the hydrology enough to make a spot unsuitable.  This particular woodland is protected from development and burned periodically to keep it open. 

Management burn. Photo by Joe Burnam, Ga DNR

Managers ran a prescribed fire through this bog last June, and already some bays, gallberry, and other shrubs are making their presence known.  A few years without fire would change the plant makeup of this woodland and threaten pitcher plants, sundews, sunny bells, and most of the plant and animal diversity you find here today. 

Your guide says it’s time to head out.  Carefully picking your way to “higher” ground, you find a footpath and say good day to the pitcher plant bog.  As you reach the dirt road you drove in on, you see the highway.  Cars pass by, driven by people with no interest in places like a pitcher plant bog.  It’s sad because they can’t appreciate the intricate, rich, and delicate web of life that still exists.  But perhaps it is also fortunate, because places like these tend to suffer when they receive too much human attention.

Additional Resources:

Longleaf Pine Ecosystem from Wikipedia

Purple Spring

Watch when the tide comes in.  Waves rush up the shore, then fall back.  Every advance is a little higher, but then there is the ebb and momentary lull before the next advance. 

The latter end of spring is like that, forward two steps and back one.  Temperatures have been, by and large, nice – 60s F, occasionally 70s.  Last week, there were a couple of 80s.  Yesterday’s high broke 90, and now it is dipping down to 60 again. I love the cool and know that the hot will be here sooner than I’d like.  The trick is appreciating the good weather whenever I can and as much as possible.

My fallow field and unmowed roadside are flecked with purple now.  Verbena rigida is known by many common names, including slender vervain, tuberous vervain, and sandpaper verbena.    It is a South American plant, more tropical than temperate, but it seems pretty happy in South Georgia, blooming from spring to fall.  It is considered to be invasive in some locales.  However, with pollinators in need, I’m not going to begrudge their presence on my property.

Rogue Pears

As I write this, white blossoms are popping out behind my house — an old nemesis sneers at me. The Rogue Pear.

The callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) is an Asian native brought to the US in the 1960s.  Why?  The pears are small, round, and inedible.  The flowers fill the air with a sickly-sweet odor.  The trees are densely limby and prone to splitting in bad weather.  Like many fast-growing trees, the callery pear is short-lived, lasting only a couple of decades or so.   So why has it turned up in every doctor’s office park and subdivision?  Three things: beautiful foliage– deep green in summer, leaves turning blood-red or wine-dark in the autumn; an explosion of flowers late in winter; quick growth to a bushy, symmetrical silhouette.

Horticulturalists created a number of cultivars, the best-known being the ‘Bradford’.  We removed the thorns, we straightened the forms.  As a useful biproduct, these cultivars couldn’t reproduce.  You plant Bradfords, and they stay where you put them. 

But, in our great and unmatched wisdom, we kept tinkering.  Each cultivar had slightly different properties.  Different colors, stronger limbs.  And then it happens. One cultivar is used to landscape a new strip mall, and a different one dresses up an office park down the street.  Some local bees visit one and then the other.  It turns out that different cultivars can fertilize each other. And these new seedlings exhibit the attributes of the original, wild pear: able to grow on a wild range of soils, able to seed prolifically, and armed with thorns that can punch through a truck tire.  I call them rogue pears, when I don’t use stronger adjectives for them.

It’s a contagion the scope of which you aren’t likely to notice until late winter.  Come February until April, these innocuous green trees suddenly blaze white in floral profusion.  My corner of the county is pretty well infested; a mere 10 years after being fallow, the neighbor’s field is a young forest, with 8 out of 10 trees being pears. But I didn’t have any inking of realize how widespread the problem was until I was a couple of hours away, driving on  a highway skirting the Fall Line.  In the pine plantations on either side, the midstory was packed with pears bedecked with their white blossoms.  Some quick research showed the rogue pear has popped up in most states east of the Mississippi, and it has a foothold in several western states as well.

Everyone knows about kudzu.  You may have heard of Chinaberry or privet or tree-of-heaven.  Now that pear is on your radar, maybe you’ll start seeing it come the end of winter. 

Maybe, hopefully, you’ll choose native trees for your next landscaping project.

Beauty at Our Feet

Outdoors folks in the South  spend a lot of time with downcast eyes.  This isn’t out of bluets2shame or sadness.  Knowing where you are stepping is of real importance.   Besides the scaly or chitinous critters that might violently object to being trod on, there are other dangers, from stump holes and brambles to rusty wire and glass.  There are prizes as well: arrowheads, coins, antique bottles, shed antlers, and more can fill the pocket or pack of the sharp-eyed observer.

As winter slides into spring, other tiny treasures reveal themselves to those who look.  A particular favorite of mine is the bluet.  This annual sports a quarter-inch  4-petal flower ranging from white through pale blue to purple.  The books say it can grow 6-8 inches tall, but on mowed-but-weedy lawns or road shoulders they hug the ground.  Last month I saw a few scattered around, like early evening stars on a green sky, but this week I enjoyed a regular Milky Way running along a field border.

Another flower catching my eye is the southern woodland violet.  It’s easy to miss on an unmowed lawn, but the little pop of purple draws the gaze and makes you want to take a closer look.

Violet 2There are others coming up these days, but the above two, beautiful but unassuming, are harbingers of the season for me.   Always keep a watchful eye; you’ll be surprised what is going on around you.bluets1-e1551640039489.jpg

It’s Fawning Season

Now is the time of year when, as you wander through field or forest, you may be lucky enough to spy a reddish-brown lump peering up at you from the grass.  More likely, you’ll miss it and wander by.

In Georgia, late spring to late summer is fawning season for white-tailed deer.  A doe may give birth to one, two, or even three fawns, each weighing 4-8 pounds.  Fawns can stand soon after birth, but aren’t able to keep up with their mothers for a week or so.  Their best defense is in stealth.

For one thing, they have very little scent compared to an older whitetail. There is fawnredderenough for a doe to recognize her offspring, but not enough for her (or a coyote) to easily trail it.  Their second asset is their reddish-brown color.  That seems counterproductive until you realize that most predators don’t see well in the red range of the spectrum; like many color-blind humans, coyotes and bobcats cannot easily distinguish between red and green, so a reddish fawn in green grass is pretty unobtrusive.  Furthermore, they are dappled with white spots.  Perhaps it breaks up their visual pattern  further, or perhaps it mimics the dapples of sunlight filtering through the leaves.

But this camouflage only works if the fawn is absolutely still, even when danger is near.  A frightened fawn’s breathing becomes slow and shallow, and its heart rate plummets.  I’ve seen fawns so still I wasn’t sure they were alive; they wouldn’t move even when touched.

Does feed their fawns several times a day.  After each feeding, the fawn leaves the doe and curls up in grass, under bushes or in some other cover;  this way, the doe’s own scent won’t  draw a coyote or other predator to the fawn.  Until the mother calls for it, the fawn lays motionless and quiet, safely hidden in forest thicket, field, or even backyard — I once found a fawn hiding under my truck!

To come upon a fawn is a treat.  Unfortunately, many people who find one  assume the mother has abandoned it.  Too often, these well-meaning folks will carry the young deer home and either try to take care of it or call a zoo or nature center.  Either way, the doe has lost her fawn, and the fawn has lost any chance at a normal life.  “Rescuing” fawns that aren’t in trouble never ends well for the animal. It is very difficult to provide the right nutrition and attention for any infant, and even if the deer lives to adulthood it may lack the skills to survive in the wild.   In addition, requests for assistance with fawns overwhelm wildlife rehabilitators at this time of year, keeping them from helping animals in genuine trouble.  A couple of years ago I had to collect a fawn from someone who tried to be helpful but couldn’t support the animal.  With no rehabilitators to take it, I had to put it down.  I don’t want to have to do that again.

If you find a fawn, the best thing to do is walk away quietly.  If the animal is in a dangerous place – such as in a road or a field about to be plowed – it is okay to move it out of the way, preferably to a shady spot.  Touching a fawn briefly will not make the mother abandon it, but taking it home will!

Stepping Back to Spring

spring flowers

I drove through the Great Smoky Mountains around mid-May.  I started the uphill climb in Cherokee, North Carolina, which (at around 2000 feet above sea level) has been shed of icy mornings for about a month and a half.  I drove through a canopy of mature, deep green.    By the time I reached Newfound Gap, some 3.000 feet higher,  the days of frost weren’t nearly so distant.  Temperature drops with increase of elevation, on the order of 3-5 degrees F per 1000 feet.  So just as the greening of the land creeps northward, it also crawls up the mountains.  Here, on the ridge line that marks the divide between Tennessee and North Carolina, the new leaves were bright green.  In the Autumn, the progression will reverse, with leaves flaring and falling on the ridge before those in easterly Hendersonvile properly start to turn.  So the southern Appalachians have growing seasons as short as those of Ohio or Pennsylvania. Yet with abundant rainfall and moderate sunlight, the mountains are mantled in lush growth.creek-thumbnail.jpg