Tree Following in February: Bare-n-Naked

As I  join with tree followers everywhere in admiring trees, not much has changed with my American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, since January’s reportI suppose that bare-n-naked (or nekkid, as we’re wont to say here in Texas) is expected during dormant winter months.

Stunning against the pure Texas sky,

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…the elegant, winter-white bark is especially gorgeous.

According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the American Sycamore has the largest trunk diameter of any Eastern North American native hardwood tree.  I suspect that the West Coast trees in the Sequoioideae family out-girth the Sycamore by a smidge. Or maybe more than  a smidge.

Sycamore wood is used commercially for butcher blocks, boxes and crates, as well as some furniture, but reportedly course and hard to work with.

The outer-bark is rough along the bottom of the trunk, with revealed patches of pale/grey/beige bark underneath,

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The pallid bark becomes smoother and more prominent toward the canopy.

Peeling bark showcasing subtle colors is a signature visual quality of Sycamore trees, but I’ve read that it’s not entirely clear why the bark peels.

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Some sources suggest that because Sycamores grow quickly and the epidermis of the tree is rigid, that it sloughs the bark to accommodate rapid growth. Also, Sycamores are happiest when they grow in wet bottom-lands, so it might be that the tree employs more transpiration throughout and therefore, the bark sheds more than many trees.   Another theory is that there are more issues with fungi and other wet-feet problems precisely because Sycamores grow naturally in wet and heavy soil types and the bark exfoliates as a protective measure against disease problems. A last explanation of Sycamores’ penchant for peeling is that because Sycamores photosynthesize through their limbs, the shedding bark allows for a longer season of photosynthesis and therefore,there is rapid and continual growth.

My Sycamore isn’t planted in a floodplain, nor does it grow in particularly soggy soil.  And yet,

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…peeling is a thing Shed does.  I guess adaptation and genetics win again.

Seed balls dangle in the winter chill, decorating the foliage-empty tree.

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I’m a little surprised that more of them haven’t drifted or dropped to the ground yet, in preparation of spreading Shed’s genetic material, but I’ve seen a couple of  mushed balls on the ground and in the compost bin.

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By next month, there should be many exploding seed balls (as a neighbor once described them), raining down on the Earth in and around my gardens, preparing to create new trees.

Perhaps there will be seedlings to show you.

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Thanking Pat of The Squirrelbasket for graciously hosting this fun meme about trees. Check out her blog for interesting information about trees from all over the world.

 

Wildlife Wednesday, February 2016: Bee House Buzz

It’s the first Wednesday of the month and time to celebrate those wild things who live in, visit, and NEED your garden!  Welcome to Wildlife Wednesday for February.   I’m still enjoying my backyard birds for Cornell Lab, but didn’t want to bore with the usual suspects from last month, though I have witnessed a Sharp-shinned Hawk, Accipiter striatus, visit a couple of times, no doubt looking for a tasty bird meal.  I was too excited to grab the camera, so there are no pics of that gorgeous raptor staring hungrily at the White-winged Doves.

Because it’s deep, dark winter,

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…or not, I thought I’d share a project that Bee Daddy and I undertook this past year.  It’s not related to our honeybees this time ’round, but to our beautiful native bee residents. I’ve long left well-aged wood in my gardens so that bees can make a home for their offspring.    It’s easy to do:  leave wood out in the garden for bees to find.

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They drill into the wood,

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…to lay their eggs and then tuck those eggs in with pollen, soil, and such, and voilà,

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…more native bees are made.

I do so love my honeybees. But the fact is that honeys are lazy pollinators and if you want bees with pollinating pow-wow, you need to attract whatever bees are native to your area of our little planet.  Native bees are the best pollinators around.  They pollinate food sources (one in three or four bites of food, depending upon your reading source) and approximately 90% of native plants are pollinated by native bees.

Native bees are vital for the health of the world.

According to the US Geological Survey, there are roughly  20,000 native bee species in the world, about 4,000 of which live in the U.S.  They do not suffer the many maladies of honeybees, but we know that they are declining.  The decline comes primarily because of human encroachment on natural areas, the move away from using native plants in home and commercial landscapes, and pesticide use. Additionally, native bees nest  in wood and in open ground–all places and things that most folks rush to scrap in their home gardens. The sterile, pristine landscape paradigm is not kind to wildlife–of any sort–but it’s especially unkind to native bees.  Wild bees need wild space. There’s not much we can do about urbanization, but gardeners can easily make our home landscapes amenable and attractive for these incredibly valuable and fascinating insects.

Last spring, Bee Daddy and I designed templates for wood cuts of varying circles sizes and patterns on the computer,

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…that we (okay, Bee Daddy, not I) then drilled into cut, untreated wood.

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The wood doesn’t need to be expensive (Bee Daddy used inexpensive fence pickets and 2×4 boards), but it shouldn’t be treated with any chemicals. Remember, we’re trying to make nice homes for bees, not homes laden with icky, insect unfriendly chemicals. You want to drill a variety of circumference sizes as well as varying depths for the holes in order to attract different species of bees.

Additionally, we (okay, Bee Daddy, not I), cut various sizes of bamboo (harvested from a friend’s home who was glad to share) to insert between the holey wood.

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Ta da!!  A bee/insect hotel!  Or townhouse!  Or apartment!  Or condominium! Or nesting box!

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Whatever!!

What this bee house really does is create something cute for gardeners to look at and safe for bees to nest in and nurture their offspring.  Native bees rest-n-nest in  a variety of situations like the ground and natural cavities of wood or even rock. People-made insect hotels have become popular garden-art additions for those wild gardeners wanting to attract even wilder bees, as well as other  important garden residents.

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I stacked the two insect hotels for “my” native bees, one on top of the other, with both popped atop an unused and upturned terracotta pot.  Many insect hotels are free-standing and some are made to hang on fences or posts.The insect hotels can be as elaborate or as simple as your time and interests allow for.  My bee condo is situated in a shady spot and both stories have a little overhang so that the entrances to the holes are somewhat protected from weather conditions.  The different sized holes  assure that bees of all kinds can find refuge for their young.  Additionally, lizards and other insects will probably use this as a shelter and also to hunt critters who happen by.

Such is nature.

Don’t have a handy honey-do, carpenter-happy Bee Daddy to do the drill-baby-drill part of this project?  That’s perfectly okay. Aged firewood, or smaller, broken or trimmed tree limbs make great homes for native bees–and all you have to do is place these soon-to-be-bee homes in your garden and the bees will come.

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Can you see this little gal, squirreled away in her hidey-hole?

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Available wood makes life easier for bees like this female Horsefly-like Carpenter bee, Xylocopa tabaniformis.            .

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This mother-to-be drilled all afternoon one day last spring, only to abandon her nesting site. I hope she found softer wood here  in which to lay her eggs.

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On my back patio, there are holes in the limestone rock that were drilled for shelves that we removed some years ago.  Instead of filling those holes with mortar, I’ve left them open and I’ve seen several species of bees use these holes as nurseries for their off-spring.

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Nice!  I’m looking forward to viewing whomever emerges from that hole and who will be a pollinating fool all spring, summer, and fall.

Along with setting out wood or building insect hotels, if there are fallen leaves from autumn, on the ground waiting for “someone” to pick them up–don’t!  Or, at least, leave some leaves on the ground.  Better yet, place that fallen foliage in your gardens.  Many insects, including bees, take refuge in the cover that crinkly leaves and small tree limbs provide.  Plus, the leaves don’t end up in the landfill and  it’s less work for the gardener if the leaves aren’t bagged.

“Less work” for the gardener is always a good thing.

Lastly, don’t be shy about allowing some open dirt space in your habitat.  There’s no garden rule that says every square inch of your property must be mulched, gardened, turfed, or hardscaped.  About half of native bees are ground nesters and some of the most threatened native bees are those that need bare ground, either to over-winter in or to nest in.  You’ll do everyone a favor if there’s a little naked dirt on your property, here and there.

As of now there are no residents in our native bee houses.  Because life gets in the way, it took us a while to complete this project: we made the templates last May, but we (okay, Bee Daddy, not I) finished the frames, bamboo cuts, and holes in November.  I imagine there will be some residents in place by late spring this year.

For more information about building your own native bee/insect house, check out this link from the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.  There are many Internet sites with information about native bees and how to make insect hotels.  If you have children, this is an especially fun project in which to include them and teach the importance of nurturing wildlife and providing habitat.

Don’t forget to plant gorgeous native plants for your bee buddies to nectar on.

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Lovely non-native bloomers also fit the bill and provide for pollinators.

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The world will be a better place for their survival because of your efforts.

Did wildlife visit your garden this past month? Please post for February Wildlife Wednesday–share the rare or mundane, funny or fascinating, beneficial or harmful critters you encounter. When you comment on my post, please remember to leave a link to your Wildlife Wednesday post so readers can enjoy a variety of garden wildlife observations.

Happy wildlife gardening!

Frostweed (Verbesina virginica): A Seasonal Look

It’s seldom frosty here in temperate Austin, Texas, but when FrostweedVerbesina virginica, graces a garden, it beautifies with icy-white, frothy flowers from late summer through autumn.

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A native North American herbaceous perennial, Frostweed is a great plant to profile for A Seasonal Look, because it’s lovely, interesting, and home gardeners, as well as visiting pollinators and birds, should enjoy this plant.

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The most common of the common names for V. virginica is Frostweed, but according to the LBJ Wildflower Center, it also goes by the names White Crownbeard, Iceplant, Iceweed, Virginia Crownbeard, Indian Tobacco, Richweed and Squaweed.  While I don’t know this for certain, I’m guessing that the Crownbeard variations might refer to the clusters of lovely autumn blooms that V. virginica displays.

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Additionally, Frostweed leaves provided a tobacco source for some Native Americans, which presumably gave rise to those last two common names.  On  a healthier note, Frostweed was also traditionally used as a fixative for gastrointestinal issues, urinary, and eye problems.

I like it because it’s pretty and tough and a great wildlife plant.

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As for the various names suggesting more frigid attributes, those names are not referring to the cool white of the flowers, but instead to an unusual process that occurs with this plant early in winter, at the first hard freeze.  As the temperature plummets , sap in the trunk cools and expands, eventually breaking through the epidermis of the plant.  The sap hits the freezing air, solidifies in thin sheets, moving up along the vertical structure of the plant.

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The ice sculptures freeze in a ribbon-like design.  Conditions for this awesome display are particular:  the ground must be moist, assuring the roots are actively drawing  water into the plant.  Also, the temperature drop must be relatively rapid.

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The ice ribbons are fragile and thin, melting at the touch or quickly by air once temperatures rise above freezing. The Frostweed ice extravaganza is an ephemeral event. Not many plants ice dance this beautifully, but Frostweed is one that does. If you’d like to see more wavy-groovy Frostweed ice sculptures, click on the LBJ Wildflower Center’s Frostweed,  68 photo(s) available in the Image Gallery.

Once a hard freeze occurs and Frostweed concludes its frozen display for the year, the plant is rendered dormant.  I don’t necessarily prune my plants at that point, but one can–it’s a matter of your aesthetics and time.  Some winters are mild and in those conditions, Frostweed doesn’t produce ice sculptures, but the plant will become dormant, or mostly so, even with a light frost.

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Additionally, in mild winters even after Frostweed is dormant, new growth can appear from the ground when temperatures are warm enough, well before calendar springtime.

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That’s always tricky because if a late hard freeze occurs, the  Frostweed will die back again. An established Frostweed plant is robust enough to overcome that shock, but new plants might succumb. So, the stalwart gardener rolls up his or her sleeves and plants more Frostweed.

Newly emerged foliage is exuberant and verdant, but like others in the Asteraceae (Aster) family of plants, Frostweed’s leaves are sandpaper rough.  The leaves are also a bit awkward because they’re also quite large, even those on the new spring plants. Frostweed is the plant version of a puppy with large paws.

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I like the showy, scrappy foliage. I plant my Frostweed with complementary fine or small leafed shrubs and grasses, and also mix it with evergreens (when possible), since Frostweed itself is pruned back in winter.

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Throughout the late spring and summer months, Frostweed grows and the plant  eventually catches up to the leaf size.  The puppy grows into its feet.

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Frostweed’s height ranges from 3 feet to about 6 feet, depending upon soil, sun, and moisture.  It’s a woodland plant and considered an understory, so it grows and blooms well in shade–with or without extra watering.  It’s an excellent dry-shade plant.  Some of my Frostweed get a reasonable amount of afternoon (Texas!!) summer sun and those specimens tend to grow to about 6 feet.  Some years (depending upon rainfall) I stake with rebar because at the first heavy fall rains, Frostweed can flop a bit and I prefer their stand-at-attention persona.

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By early August, here in Central Texas, regardless of whether it’s been a dry or a wet (hah!) summer, Frostweed flowering begins. At first, a tiny bit of bloom.

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…then more.

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And more.

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It can take  6-8 weeks from those emergent blooms for the whole set of flowers to burst forward in full cauliflower-style glory, but when they do, stand back and enjoy.

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A favorite of many pollinators, Frostweed’s blooms are timed for the autumn Monarch migration.

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Many other pollinators visit too:

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This Tachnid fly is one that I never see–except when Frostweed blooms.

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Frostweed blooms from August through early November.  Once the blooms begin fading, they turn a pale green,

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…then toasty brown.

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At this point in late autumn, seed development is well underway; finches and warblers are present and snitch Frostweed seeds from time-to-time.

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Still, there are plenty of seeds that drop, germinate, and produce seedlings for the next growing season–either to give away or to transplant to other places. Overall, I think that Frostweed is a superb  insect nectar source, but it’s also a fair seed provider for the avian set and for future Frostweed production.  In short, Frostweed is a great wildlife plant addition to any garden.

Frostweed is found throughout a large area of North America, from Texas to the deep South and northwards to the mid-states of the US.  I would imagine that in the areas where freezes are a sure thing, Frostweed’s ice show is always a winner, though that’s not always true where I live in Austin.

I would also suggest that Frostweed is a casual plant.  In literature about using Frostweed in the garden, it’s often suggested that it’s best planted in an informal setting or as a transitional plant situated between a cultivated garden and a more natural wildscape.

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Frostweed is not something that is pruned and shaped, nor is it something that you want to tidy too much.  For the more formal garden and gardener, Frostweed’s crinkly winter leaves won’t appeal,

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…nor will its rangy growth be a desired outcome.  Frostweed’s beauty lies in its hardiness and value as a wildlife food source,

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..and of course, those pretty, pretty blooms.

Left to its own devices, Frostweed will create a thicket and that is typically how you’d find it growing in a wild area.  It’s deer resistant and needs no irrigation–gosh, the perfect plant! So where do you get this perfect plant?  If you’re in or around Austin, I’ve seen it for sale at the LBJ Wildflower Center’s spring/fall plant sale.  If you live in Frostweed’s native range,   check out your locally owned nurseries and if they don’t carry Frostweed plants or seeds, request that they do.  Native American Seed, an online native seed source, carries Frostweed, as well as many other native North American seeds.  In my quick Google search on where to buy Frostweed, I noticed that Amazon also carries them, along with everything else.  No word though whether a drone would drop off seeds at your house. Best bet?   Find a garden buddy who’ll share his/her seeds–and enjoy the results.

A year in the life of Frostweed, Verbesina virginica:

Winter:

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Spring:

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Summer:

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Autumn:

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Plant it!