An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

September 30, 2008

It's What's n' Yew

Today I had to spray some toxic chemicals on a few plants around the nursery, mostly to control some late season scale. As I was about to drench the Plum Yews (Cephlotaxus), a green vine caught my eye climbing up through the branches. I soon realized that it was no vine, but a Rough Green Snake. If I had to pick a favorite local serpent, it would be this one. Sure other snakes might be more powerful, larger or venomous, but I like this one precisely because it is not powerful, large or venomous, and if snakes could have a good disposition, this one does. Fortunately we were able to catch it for relocation before the spraying started. The Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus) is Virginia's only arboreal serpent. According to the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, this snake is usually found in small trees, bushes, briar patches and vines, and it is particularly attracted to lush green vegetation overhanging streams. They can be well adapted to suburban and urban areas as long as there is plenty brush and vegetation. Green Snakes mainly eat grasshoppers, crickets, spiders, caterpillars, snails, slugs, and small frogs. The main threat to their existence is lack of, or destruction of, habitat, but I am sure that spraying chemicals such as I was about to do, kills off many of their food sources. However, I can't sell plants with scale, and such a paradox is my life. (Thanks do D.M. for her use as a hand model, maybe she has a future in wrist watch advertising)

September 26, 2008

Great Glorious Gobs of Rain

For the past week the weather has been building for a classic Nor'easter, and yesterday the crescendo crested. We finally got the rain we needed, which has been absent since Topical Storm Hanna came through and left us with barely an inch. The rain fell gently at first for several hours, letting the ground get good and soaked - then the deluge came in successive waves. The wind was gusting to 60 mph and much of the rain was horizontal. Gardeners in the area were rejoicing, as were the water boards. The local TV weather crews and the Weather Channel were also rejoicing as they got yet another opportunity to put on hip-waders for live shots. Do we really need to see reporters risk electrocution, standing in water, to see how severe the flooding is?

Nor'easters are not an uncommon event for us, and we typically get more flooding, more frequently from these storms than we get from more powerful hurricanes. The geology of this place at the south end and mouth of the Chesapeake makes these events a particular problem. When storm winds blow from the northeast over a period of several days, the bay and local rivers can't empty as they normally would and at each high tide, salt water flooding occurs. When this happens in conjunction with torrents of rain on pancake-flat terrain, it can be a real mess here and you have to plan your routes accordingly. Experienced citizens know which areas and which streets to avoid. Unfortunately new drivers and new residents often get flooded.

Many parts of this area (including parts of my neighborhood) were built atop of filled-in wetlands, and during these Nor'easters, the old waterways reassert themselves. You can see this in a few pictures from around the neighborhood. The community mascot almost got to use those fins of hers.

This event and these pictures remind me of how lucky we are compared to the people around Galveston Bay. That story has all but disappeared from the national mindset as we contemplate bailouts and who is and isn't going to debate. Let's not forget about Texas.

September 19, 2008

Hardy Orange - Poncirus trifoliata

There are few plants left in my garden from the previous owner, but one I kept was the Poncirus trifoliata or Hardy Orange. It would have been a real bitch to try to get rid of, and this fact led to my appreciation of it. Right now it is covered in colorful fruit which are fuzzy, yellow and about the size of a ping pong ball. They have a wonderful aroma that reminds me of how Kumquats taste. I have read that you can use the fruit as a substitute for Lemon, or it can be used for marmalade. They are incredibly seedy and I think there would have to be a world-wide Lemon and marmalade shortage for me to make the effort. In spring it is covered with attractive white flowers. The stems stay green in winter as do the vicious thorns which were the main reason I did not want to attempt its removal. Birds love to build nests in it as it is virtually cat proof.

Poncirus trifoliata gets anywhere from 8 to 20' tall, prefers full to part sun, and I have never watered mine in 13 years. It is native to Korea and northern China. It is indeed a citrus plant and is often used as root stock for more popular members of the family. It is listed as hardy to zone 5b into 9. We have sold this at work occasionally, but we usually prefer the cultivar 'Flying Dragon' which has unusually twisted branches and curved thorns that look like green talons. If you are interested in seeing this plant there is a picture in a previous post here. Poncirus and Citrus are members of the Rutacea family. While doing some fact checking the inner geek in me was amazed to learn this family includes some widely divergent members including Rue (Ruta gravolens), Skimmia japonica, and two Zanthoxylums - the Tooth Ache Tree ( Z. americanum) and the Sichuan pepper (Z. simulans).

September 13, 2008

From War to Wildlife

The Eastern Shore National Wildlife Refuge occupies a strategic location on the extreme southern tip of the Delmarva peninsula. During World War II, Fort Custis was established here and bunkers were built that housed 16" guns to protect the mouth of the Chesapeake. After the war it became Cape Charles Air Force Base and radar towers were built for use during the Cold War. In 1984 all of this was turned over U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to establish the refuge to protect an equally strategic piece of real estate for the natural world, especially the avian world. Literally millions of neo-tropical songbirds, waterfowl and raptors come through this place yearly. The geography of the Delmarva peninsula funnels all these birds southward in the fall where they wait until climatic conditions are right to cross the Chesapeake Bay.

For most of my life I have driven by this place at least a dozen times a year and have never stopped. We are usually more interested in where we are going, or in getting home to stop, and besides the car is full of dogs and one or two people who don't enjoy traipsing through wilderness. This past August I was temporarily childless, wifeless and dogless and decided to stop.

The refuge is a mixture of ecosystems that include forests, meadows, freshwater ponds, salt marshes and creeks. There is a very nice visitor center just past the Cheasapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel and makes a good stop for people who would like to stretch their legs for a break during road trips. Around the center are the only cultivated areas and these are meant to showcase some of the native plants and to attract butterflies. Exotic Lantana and native Joe Pye were both present.

The only real trail leads from the back of the Visitors Center through an open field that is inhabited by too many non-native species. Although there are several native Lespedezas, I think this one looks more like one of the Asian species.

The Lespedeza was still behaving itself and had not taken over large areas (yet). One of the worst challenges that the refuge faces is in trying to get control of the Fennel and Japanese Honeysuckle. There is apparently an eradication program in place, which is a good thing because these two thugs were everywhere.

There were a number of native vines also present, and they seemed to be holding their own against the foreigners. I felt that if I stood still long enough I would soon be covered by one or more of them. This is Wisteria frutescens reblooming as is its habit.
World War II may be over, but an older struggle was still going on between the Virginia Creeper and the Trumpet Vine.
One of the worst weeds in my own garden is this Passion Vine, it comes up through everything.
Sweet Autumn Clematis was doing its part to choke out some poor shrub.
I have no idea what type of flower these are, but they were very pretty and tall with large leaves. Perhaps some sort of Sunflower.

Native Muhlenbergia was beginning to bloom...
... as was the Sumac.

The female Wax Myrtles were berrying-up and will be needed for some of those birds to make it across the bay.

I did not see much wild fauna as it was the hottest part of the day, but that did not seem to deter this turtle. I would have taken a picture of the 5' black snake that suprised me and nearly made we wet myself, but I was too busy running the other way. A truly wild cherry.
The only part of the base that is still visible are the two massive bunkers that housed the guns. Their tops have been completely and thickly covered by vegetation. On one of them you can climb up to a good view of the woods, marsh and the Atlantic beyond.

Next week the refuge will be one of the hosts for a few of the events during The Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival.

Finally, for those of you who like to know where this place is, here is an image compliments of NASA.

September 6, 2008

Thank You Hanna!

Tropical Storm Hanna began blowing through last night and brought us several inches of much needed rain. Things were nearing desperate here, drought-wise, though not as bad as last year. The tides were not abnormally high and so the places that usually flood were still passable. We also got a lot of wind which kept the trees dancing most of the day causing some limbs to come down, but little other damage. During a break in the rain, we took a trip to the beach, and it was apparent we were not the only ones with that idea. We started at Rudee Inlet where we saw a few hard core folks surfing and lots of on-lookers. We ended up at the North End where we had the beach to ourselves and were able to let Loretta off the leash.

As an unexpected bonus we parked next to one of my company's biggest landscape projects from the past year. I've never been in person, but was able to recognize it from pictures I have seen. I pulled more than a few hairs out trying to secure plants for this job so it was good to see them doing seemingly well.