If you have a patch of beautiful native plants that now, at season’s end, look like you planted a bunch of weeds, and you’ve been feeling guilty about getting around to the fall clean-up—don’t feel guilty. Feel enlightened!
Here’s what our garden guru Devin Floyd had to say about the messy areas at the Quarry Gardens:
“As for the dead standing stalks, seed heads, and wilting overwinter foliage, they do far more than feed winter birds. While that is fun and easy to observe, and quite important, there are hidden and critical processes taking place, and most of them are important for the fledgling birds of next spring (and other middle-food-chain predators like frogs, snakes, salamanders, lizards, toads).
“The larvae and eggs of beetles, wasps, bees, moths, butterflies, stick bugs, mantids, leafhoppers, grasshoppers, assassin bugs, and many other arthropoda overwinter on, and inside of, all parts of the plant. In fact, many colorful insects, like the brush-footed group of butterflies, overwinter as adults, in diapause, and dangle with wings closed to mimic leaves from the stems of these plants (they are nearly impossible to see). In other words, when the flora isn’t providing food, it is providing shelter.
“In winter, the dead stalks and all their parts are the genetic life-bridge between autumn and spring, for the whole bottom of the food chain and, eventually, the upper reaches of it. What’s more is that the very health and capacity of the soil relies upon the in situ wilt and decomposition of the flora that grows upon it.
“This perspective frames our approach to fall ‘cleanup,’ and it can serve as a focal point for visitors/users that are new to the subject. If the contents are a bit wild, architecture is important. We create balance and clarity by maintaining edges and defined spaces that are clean, cut, straight, sweeping and tidy. This duo, wild+tidy, communicates that we are experimenting with native plant communities and biodiversity conservation within the context of true landscaping and gardening. For the benefit of education and conservation, we are proudly wearing a new Piedmont native aesthetic on our sleeves.”
Six students from Tandem Friends School’s 8th and 10th grades came to The Quarry Gardens one brilliant October day, and removed an invasive grass they piled into a mountain taller than the tallest of them. The occasion was an all-school community service day when Friends’ students lend time, skills, and muscle to worthy tasks throughout the Charlottesville area.
Here, they took out two large patches of Japanese stilt grass, Microstegium vimineum, where it was running from roadside into woods—it will grow in sun or shade—and threatening native species in an area that had been undisturbed for decades. As a foreign invader, stilt grass gives nothing to local ecosystems. Because insects or animals here are not adapted to use it, its sole function is to smother the native species that other native species depend on.
Kudos and thanks to the students—Sammy Buckley, Meridith Frazee, Elliot Rossman, Joey Spaeder, Josh Warren, and Adam Zhang—and to Christine Hirsh-Putnam, who drove the van and worked along with them. At the end, we celebrated with cookies, as among them were Quarry Gardens’ 1,000th visitor of the year!
Stilt grass may be found in scattered patches throughout the QGs’ 40 acres; its seeds are viable for 3-5 years. We’re using various strategies: hand-pulling around the quarries where desirable plants may be present; grass-specific herbicide or propane-fired torch in other areas.
Some other invaders we’re battling now:
Chinese lespedeza, Lespedeza cuneata—pulling it works if the ground is moist enough to release this perennial’s roots; otherwise, cutting at ground level and immediately dabbing the cut stem with herbicide is (tedious but) effective.
Japanese honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica—offers the advantage of having red stems that are visible through the winter, so it can be pulled whenever the ground is not frozen.
Maiden grass, Miscanthus sinensis (a large grass cultivated on roadsides and gardens that has escaped into woodlands)—the 8-foot-tall ones with massive roots have been all but destroyed; now we’re mostly digging and pulling smaller ones.
Autumn olive, Elaeangnus umbellata—many fewer than two years ago, but cutting and dabbing continues—to good effect.
Among other invasive we took on earlier in the year (to varying effect) were garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), carpet grass (Arthraxon hispidus), Japanese privet (Ligustrum japonica), and the native invasive greenbrier, or catbrier, (Smilax rotundiflolia or possibly Smilax bona-nox), climbing vines with nasty thorns that can reach the top of 40-ft trees. Fortunately, we have little poison ivy and no kudzu or wavy leaf grass (knock wood).
If you enjoy such work, or are willing to do it in exchange for becoming a Friend of the Quarry Gardens, please let us know via the Contact button on the website: quarrygardensatschuyler.org. We’ll tell you when we schedule volunteer workdays.
Monarch on a thistle—how beautiful! We’ve heard that the biggest threat to Monarch butterflies is loss of habitat where they overwinter in Mexico. And we’ve heard that feeding on milkweed renders Monarchs toxic to predators (which they signal with bright yellow and black stripes). In Bernice’s story, below, this week we learned Monarchs are not as safe from predators as we’d thought.
Kindly neighbor Bobi Thornhill found ten Monarch caterpillars eating the last leaves of her four milkweed plants, and asked if I had milkweed to which she could transfer them. She brought five and deposited them on two plants near our terrace. Her research said they were of a size—25-45mm long—to begin pupating (https://monarchlab.org/biology-and-research/biology-and-natural-history/breeding-life-cycle/life-cycle/#larva).
I photographed them; then, before leaving for errands in Charlottesville, checked back: Three quietly nibbling, one moving along the ground under the milkweed, one missing—and a shifty-looking Chinese (aka “praying”) mantis prowling among the leaves. Suspicious, I chased the mantid off the plant and it sprinted to the other side of the terrace. (Had I realized, definitely, that some mantids will eat Monarch butterflies in all their life stages, I would have captured and moved it to the vegetable beds.)
Late in the afternoon when I returned, only one caterpillar remained on the milkweed, and next morning it was still there, chomping away. The others? Pupating somewhere out of sight? Or eaten?
Curious, I went online to learn more about Monarch predators. Most birds avoid them, but ants, spiders and certain wasps will feast on eggs and larvae: (https://monarchlab.org/biology-and-research/biology-and-natural-history/parasites-natural-enemies/) And, I found that mantids are able to avoid the most toxic parts while eating the caterpillars: (http://phenomena.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/25/chinese-mantis-guts-its-toxic-caterpillar-prey/).
To give the remaining caterpillar a better chance, I wrapped the plant and adjacent rose support with the close-woven plastic shade cloth I keep for sheltering lettuce seedlings in late summer—making the metamorphosis, if not unassailable, at least inconvenient.
Next morning, we had a J-shaped caterpillar hanging from the top of the tuteur and, by late afternoon, a shiny green pupa in its place. Having learned that this generation of monarchs—the summer’s fourth—is the one that will fly to warmth for the winter, hibernate, and return in spring to restart the cycle, I was excited at the prospect of seeing this one off.
Next morning, thinking the heavy shade a bit unnatural, I partly opened the covering.
Following morning: Pupa gone!
Another friend, Master Gardener Pat Chadwick, said she had 45 monarch caterpillars disappear from her swamp milkweeds in a matter of hours last week.
Now I understand why Monarchs lay so many eggs, and why some enthusiasts cut milkweed and move them inside to pupate. For now, we’re hopeful and on the alert for any Monarchs that made it.
Thanks to Bobi Thornhill for, if not butterflies, certainly a learning opportunity.
The Quarry Gardens are glowing right now with 14 species of goldenrod in various stages of bloom. If that seems like a lot, know that solidago, or goldenrod, is a genus of 100–120 species of flowering perennial plants in the aster family (Asteraceae), and most may be found in North America.
The most prominent species at the overlook platform is Gray goldenrod, Solidago nemoralis, seen above and in the highlight photo.
Nine species are QG legacies—found here in the pre-garden surveys of biota. Among those legacies is Pineywoods or Small’s goldenrod, Solidago pinetorum, pictured below, about 3 feet tall, discovered only weeks ago as a volunteer along the walk from the Visitor Center through the pine woods—a Nelson County first.
Other legacy goldenrods:
- Tall goldenrod,Solidago altissima, (to 4 feet)
- White goldenrod, Solidago bicolor
- Blue-stemmed goldenrod, Solidago cassia
- Slender goldenrod, Solidago erecta
- Gray (or Field) goldenrod,Solidago nemoralis
- Anise-scented goldenrod, Solidago odora
- Stiff goldenrod,Solidago rigida var. rigida
- Wrinkle-leaf goldenrod, Solidago rugosa
The Slender goldenrod at left is definitely a legacy but the Stiff goldenrod at right, found in the overlook prairie, might have sneaked in with purchased seeds of other plants.
New to the site are five more species—native to the immediate area—that Rachel and her CUH crew have added:
- Early goldenrod, solidago juncea, greets visitors from the prairie planting at the entrance gate.
- Showy goldenrod, Solidago speciosa, may be found among the thousands of plants in the prairie over the original filled-in quarry pit between the two quarry pools.
- Stout goldenrod, Solidago squamosa, is in the North Quarry’s waterside pollinator patch.
- Zig-zag goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis,may be found in the dry shade near the Whispering Waters
They are often difficult to distinguish from one another
Goldenrods are among the most important late-season pollinator plant. Honeybees collect the nectar for winter, and other bees use the pollen to supply late-season nests.
No honeybees in this photo, but at least a dozen species of bees and wasps were working the plants when it was taken.
Here are some things from Wikipedia of interest about goldenrod:
- Although frequent handling of goldenrod and other flowers by florists can cause allergic reactions, goldenrod is inaccurately blamed for hay fever: the blame for that lies with the ragweed that often grows in proximity and blooms at about the same time.
- Goldenrod does make a spicy honey, but it sometimes has a rank odor and taste until fully processed (by bees). It is not a big commercial success, but apparently has its followers.
- Thomas Edison and Henry Ford experimented with growing goldenrod for its rubber content before and during World War 2, anticipating a need for synthetic rubber. Ford even gave Edison a Model T with tires made of it in late 1920s. After Edison died in 1931, Ford enlisted the aid of Washington Carver, a well-known agronomist, and they succeeded in producing a hybrid goldenrod that yielded as much as 12 percent rubber. Unfortunately, it was not very good rubber, and by the time that first Carver and then Ford died by 1947, the project was abandoned.
We haven’t seen a rattlesnake of the reptilian kind here at the Quarry Gardens site in 20 years. (…unfortunately—since their presence indicates a healthy forest environment). We do have other forms of rattlesnakes, however—three plants whose common names associate them with rattlesnakes. Among them is the Rattlesnake fern, depicted in the featured photo.
Rattlesnake fern, Botrychium virginianum, is a charming small fern, so named perhaps because the fertile spike is said to resemble the tail of a rattlesnake. Such resemblance may have led Cherokee and Chippewa peoples to use the plant as a topical treatment for snakebite (treat likes with likes). Each plant consists of a single sterile leaf directly attached (no stem) to an erect basel stalk; the roots are shallow, fibrous and fleshy. These unusual features tell us that rattlesnake ferns arose early on the planet, before the fern world evolved to arrange spore-producing sporangia as neat little fruit-dots or sori on frond undersurfaces, or to have the hairy, efficiently absorbent roots typical of modern ferns.
Another of our rattlesnakes is Downy rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera pubescens (not named for young tires), blooming now along the streamside trail, where it may be found at any time. One of the eastern U. S.’s most common native orchids, it was the Virginia Native Plant Society’s Wildflower of the Year 2016—http://vnps.org/wildflowers-of-the-year/wildflower-of-the-year-goodyera-pubescens-downy-rattlesnake-plantain/. Its bloom stalk rises in summer from a whorl of evergreen, ground-hugging, dark green leaves with a delicate pattern of light veins. Native Americans used the plant to treat snakebite and other conditions. Here is a composite of it and its flower.
Yet another is Rattlesnake weed, Hieracium venosum, in the aster family. It sends up yellow ray dandelion-like flowers in May on slender leafless stalks. Its ground-hugging basel leaves are marked by a network of purple veins. It is said to grow in high, dry woodlands preferred by rattlesnakes. We see it here on the thin soil above the South Quarry’s south wall, where little else but reindeer lichen thrives. It also has been used to treat snakebites. Although there is no reliable information about its effectiveness against poison (nor of the other two), the plant is rare enough that one is cautioned not to harvest it in any event.