Saturday, January 23, 2016

Native Plant Building Blocks

Having moved to a new (to us) house, new (to us) yard, in a different city, in a different state, I've shared that I feel like I'm starting completely from scratch again as I start to garden. This yard feels almost like a blank slate.

However, even a blank slate yard is never totally blank.  A suburban lot surrounding a house that's been lived in for almost 50 years is definitely not blank.  So, I've been watching the yard to see what's already living here, and I thought I'd share some of the native plant species I've found, the native "building blocks" that already exist in the yard for me to utilize.

Trees seem like the place to start.  The first thing I noticed coming up to our house last April was the big southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) by the driveway, dominating the front yard. 

Unfortunately, it's not a good location for this species, since southern magnolias grow way too large for this space.  So, sometime in the past, big branches were pruned out of the tree to allow the electrical lines to go through the canopy.  There is also a southern magnolia in the back yard, although it is younger and smaller than the one in the front.

Next on the current yard list are the oaks, live oak (Quercus virginiana) and sand live oak (Q. geminata).  In the photo above, the big tree to the right of the house is our largest live oak.  Although there are many sand live oaks in the neighborhood, I think we only have one, a relatively small one, in our (back) yard.  On the other hand, we have 5 live oaks, 3 of which are quite unhealthy.  Unfortunately, none of our live oaks are terribly picturesque, having been limbed up to be "proper" trees, judging from their form.

Right now we only have one other tree species in our yard, pignut hickory (Carya glabra), but we have 3 mature specimens of this species in our back yard.  Pignut hickory is the only deciduous tree species we have. 

This photo, of one of the pignut hickories in the back yard, was taken in late June last summer.  I kept waiting for these trees to turn colors this fall, but it was a long wait.  The trees stayed green until December, when they turned a beautiful, bright yellow.  Leaf drop was rapid, once the leaves started to fall, and took place right around Christmas.  Not a traditional yard display for the holiday season!  If my memory serves, these trees are late to leaf out and won't get foliage back until April.

While there is a lot of Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides) in the neighborhood, we have very little in our yard - perhaps a result of how open the canopy is.  There IS some, though, and I'm hoping that we get more to grow over the years.

For quite a while, I've been eyeing this little prostrate vine and thinking that I recognized it - and I did. 

It's partridge berry (Mitchella repens), a gorgeous little evergreen groundcover with a wide natural range.  I had started to make the mistake of covering much of this plant up with mulch, but realized what I'd done when I went out to take the photo this morning. 

Here's the full scope of this plant, unearthed from below the mulch.  I'm hoping that this little guy will bloom (white) and maybe even set fruit (a bright red berry) later this year.

If you take a second look at the photo above, you'll notice a bare vine going up the tree trunk.  This vine is crossvine (Bignonia capreolata), a classic native landscaping vine in the south.  Here is a new stem, probably from the same root stock, climbing up a different side of the trunk. 

I'm excited to see this plant naturally in the yard, although this specimen doesn't look particularly luxuriant. Hopefully some better yard management will make it healthier.

Coming up in the middle of an old sand box, along the city storm drain easement, is a dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor). 

These are palm-y shrubs, with the trunk remaining underground.  I'm not very familiar with this species, although now that I know how to identify it, I'm noticing them all around.  This is one of many plant species I want (and need) to learn more about.

Last summer I noticed a rather handsome perennial plant growing at the base of one of the pignut hickories. 

I cordoned it off, so that it wouldn't get mowed, and watched it to see what it was.  Finally, in October, it bloomed a bright yellow. By the time it bloomed, though, the base of the plant had browned out badly.  I've figured out that this is golden aster, probably narrowleaf golden aster (Chrysopsis linearifolia), and the lower leaf brownout is actually listed in the plant descriptions. 

Most interesting is that, even with just a few buds open, there were actually little native bees using it in mid October.  So, now the challenge is how to disguise those lower leaves...and increase the plant population from my current n of 1, without jeopardizing that current, single specimen.

For now, the last plant I'm going to mention is Woolly Elephant's Foot (Elephantopus tomentosus), aka Devil's Grandmother, which I noticed and photographed last June.  I have no idea why it has earned either the name of "elephant's foot" or "devil's grandmother". This is not a showy plant at all, but it is both native and perennial.  I will almost assuredly keep it, but I may not try to expand its presence in the yard. 

I did like the fact that this little damselfly was using the bloom head to perch upon!


Anonymous said...

Nice that you were able to find a few interesting things in there. I guess that's a plus when the house was built into the native landscape rather than scraping the site clean and bringing in all new soil, plants, etc.
50 year old house now, 100 year old before,and in both yards I was lucky to find even a native goldenrod or grass.
Good to see you back!

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks, Frank! It's good to be back.

Yes, one of the big pluses of this neighborhood (and one that attracted our daughter when she moved here 4 1/2 years ago) was the ambiance, since the lots had not been cleared of everything when the houses were originally built. The fact that we were able to find a house less than a block away from her and her husband (and our grandson) was a multiplied benefit!

It always amazes me how quick homeowners usually are to root up what grows well and naturally in an area so that they can replace those plants with exotics from the box stores...or simply with grass and green meatballs. Well, it does give those of us who love to garden a free hand!


Gaia Gardener: said...

I now realize that the "dwarf palmetto" is actually a young cabbage palm (Sabal palmetto). Although these are slow growing palm trees, the plants got too big, too fast to be be Sabal minor.

Cynthia, aka Gaia gardener