Apr 302014

A couple of days ago, I photographed this plant with tiny yellow flowers (less than half an inch across), flourishing in a ditch along Piney Woods Church Road.  I have held off posting it, pending an identification.  After poring over several wildflower guides, to no avail, I put the task to my Plant Identification Facebook group.  Wow, how helpful everyone was!  After several suggestions from others and a bit more research on my own, I am fairly confident that this plant is Southern Ragwort (Packera anonyma), a perennial native herb.  Traditionally used by Native Americans to prevent pregnancy and treat heart trouble, the plant contains toxins and therefore should be used medicinally only with extreme caution.

Southern Ragwort

Apr 302014

After overnight rain, I set out down Piney Woods Church Road, noticing how the flow of water was already changing the newly-graded road surface, forming shallow channels where the water flowed, and excavating new potholes (or exhuming old ones?).  One particular tulip poplar leaf caught my attention.  On its underside were perched several minute water droplets, like temporary worlds.  I saw a tiny black form swimming in one of the droplets; I suspect that a microscope would reveal many more.

Temporary Worlds

Apr 292014

Today on my walk along Piney Woods Church Road, I encounter a purple bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) just coming into bloom, nestled in a grassy ditch, as if trying to hide from passersby.  I expect it will not last long there; the resident and dear friend who owns that property is not at all fond of them, because the seeds disperse widely and readily, and invariably the plant crops up in his horse pastures.  But for this moment, this Eurasian flower adds a lovely splash of color to an otherwise rather barren spot of ground, and I pause to enjoy its prickly form against the surrounding grasses, roadway, and sky.

Bull Thistle

Apr 292014

Fern Shadow

I am still reeling from the tragic news, just one week ago, that Fern’s Market in the Grange at Serenbe, in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, will be closing on May 10th.  Fern’s has been such a haven for me, a welcoming home on days when I just needed to get away from the stress of my home office or craved an hour or two of conversation with others after days in a row spent entirely online.

The shelves are mostly bare now, but you can still get a marvelous latte there, in a huge mug, prepared with care and, depending upon the barrista, topped with either a fern, an Easter bunny, or something that looks a bit like a poached egg.  The person behind the counter — Tammi Berden Cody or one of her charming and kind employees — will always offer it with a smile and will check in a few minutes later to make sure it is OK.  There is such care in the store, such love.  The loss to Serenbe and Chattahoochee Hills is immeasurable.  We will never know what circumstances led to the abrupt and tragic announcement of Fern’s closing last week.  But I know that Fern’s embodied the highest potential that Serenbe offers, as a place that embraced sustainability and local foods while also creating an environment welcoming to all, from tourists and Serenbe residents to construction workers and “Surroundbes” from greater Chattahoochee Hills and beyond.

Fern’s opened back in June of 2012, just half a year after my Dad’s unexpected passing.  For months, I had been struggling to come to terms with my loss.  I felt adrift, displaced.  The anchor of my childhood and my closest friend and mentor was gone.  I felt uprooted, and I thought seriously about moving on.  It was in the midst of the struggle that I learned that a new food market was opening in the Grange.  I recall my first visit.  I said hi to the smiling person behind the counter, bought a couple of items, and received a free flyswatter.  (I have never used it for its intended purpose, but I have used it a few times to look up Fern’s number, to call to see if a particular product was in stock).  Soon after the opening, I started dropping by Fern’s for coffee and a couple of hours with a book or online task.  The employees were so eager to talk, so glad I had dropped by.  I did not feel “different” for not living in Serenbe, or less worthy for being in a financially precarious place and thus unable to purchase all that I would have liked.  Fern’s Market included some high-end gourmet items (ones that, when I did sample them, always lived up to their cost).  But there were also plenty of staples, priced quite reasonably for everyone.  And Tammi was constantly giving things away, too.  Several times I was given free coffee for one reason or another; on my birthday, I received a free King of Pops bar.  Eventually, I would even win a “guess the number of King of Pops sold” contest (my guess was off by a mile) and be given ten King of Pops bars and a cool red cooler bag for carrying them home.

But what Fern’s most gave me is without price.  Tammi and her loving staff gave me a sense of home.  And I am still here today, walking the byways of Chattahoochee Hills and sharing the wonders of the everyday Georgia rural landscape with others, in part because of Fern’s.  Again, I am struggling to come to terms with my loss.

Apr 282014

I set out down Piney Woods Church late this afternoon with lifted spirits, following an encouraging note from a friend, reminding me that all the changes I saw yesterday will soon be undone by nature, in the form of rain, wind, and new growth.  Meanwhile, I discovered all sorts of possibilities for photographs today.  The image I selected is a close-up of the point where the leaf of a vine connected to the main stem.  It marks a confluence, where all of the veins in the leaf come together.  Also at the join, two long trendrils emerge from the plant, helping it to climb over any obstacles and cling to anything in its path.  Most likely, the plant is one of two possible species (both invasive) in the genus Discorea:  either the air-potato (Discorea bulbifera) from Africa, or the Chinese yam (Discorea oppositifolia) from Asia.  The two are difficult to distinguish (my bets are on the Chinese yam), but both plants are considered highly invasive.

One thing I have noticed from all my explorations of roadside plants is that most of them are non-native, and they harken from a variety of homelands.  Many are from Europe, but others are from parts of Asia or even Africa.  I am coming to realize that a rural Georgia back road can be a much more cosmopolitan place than I had previously imagined.


Apr 272014

A poison ivy vine blooms in the May Day sunshine in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.As spring advances, the observant naturalist notices an array of flowers coming into bloom along roadsides and forest paths.  One flower blooming now that is easily missed belongs to a leafy vine that should not be overlooked:  poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans).  Few of our native plants have as black a reputation as this member of the cashew family, frequently encountered along forest edges, roadsides, and in other disturbed areas.  After all, how many other native plants are the subject of rhymes about their dangers?  “Leaflets three / let them be.”

Certainly poison ivy’s reputation is, to some extent, richly deserved.  Unless you happen to belong to the twenty percent or so of the population that can handle poison ivy plants with impunity, contact with them can have memorable but unpleasant consequences.  Poison ivy’s shiny leaves and hairy vines both contain an oily sap, urushiol, which can penetrate the skin and provoke an allergic reaction that produces a rash, blisters, intense itchiness, and general misery.  Some people are so sensitive to this allergen that merely coming into close proximity with poison ivy may be enough to have an effect.

But with respect for those so severely afflicted, poison ivy is actually a highly beneficial plant for our native wildlife.  Strangely enough, humans appear to be almost its only animal victims.  White-tailed deer actually forage preferentially on poison ivy leaves.  But birds are the main beneficiaries.  Woodpeckers, flickers, grouse, pheasants, bobwhites, and warblers are all drawn to poison ivy’s small, spherical, tan fruits in the fall and winter.  The seeds pass through these birds’ digestive tracts, helping to spread poison ivy far and wide.  To aid in its own dispersal, poison ivy practices foliar fruit flagging, a technique also used by flowering dogwood.  In the autumn, poison ivy leaves turn to blazing shades of red and gold.  This bright coloration signals to the birds that food is available.

This early in the year, though, poison ivy sports bright-green, shiny leaves.  Beneath the leaves hang panicles (dense, branching clusters) of minute, greenish-white flowers.  In close-up photographs (such as the one available about halfway down on the left on this page), the minute flowers with their five petals forming a star and their white and yellow pistils and stamens look almost elegant.  But to appreciate them under a hand lens requires putting the hands, arms, and face at too great a risk to be worthwhile, in this writer’s opinion.

A hardy survivor, poison ivy spreads not only by seeds, but vegetatively as well.  The vines that appear to be hairy are, in fact, covered with rootlets, ready to take hold of a tree trunk or burrow into the soil.  Considering its predilection for covering extensive ground, this writer confesses to eying the plant with suspicion when encountering it in the yard, despite its benefits to deer and songbirds.  But inevitably, it is easiest to let a few vines be, provided they not overstep their bounds.  After all, poison ivy is here to stay.

In fact, recent studies of forest plant response to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels indicate that it leads to a significant increase in poison ivy growth — on the order of 150 percent.  This result is known as the “carbon dioxide fertilization effect.”  Accompanying that surge, it appears that the increased carbon dioxide also enables the poison ivy to produce a more virulent strain of urushiol, leading to worse allergic reactions than are presently experienced.  At least we can look forward to the day when the poison ivy begins to choke out our invasive plant species — kudzu, privet, honeysuckle, wisteria, and others.  That is some small consolation, perhaps, at least for the die-hard naturalists out there.

This article was originally published on May 2, 2010.

Apr 272014

My afternoon walk down Piney Woods Church Road was an experience in letting go.  The road has been regraded — it is wider than ever before, and all the potholes and ruts are, for now, absent.  Along the roadside, it seemed as if everyone with a mower was out in force this weekend.  What was yesterday morning a sea of self-heal weeds along the road was, today, just a band of short grass with a couple of self-heal remaining that somehow escaped the blade.  The air was close and the sky gray, but not a gray that betokened the arrival of dramatic weather yet (on Tuesday, though, quite possibly).  I was in the grips of a head cold, my first illness since ten days in a hospital with pneumonia last September.  And there was practically nothing to photograph.

I settled, at last, for this image, conveying well the transience of all things.  A fallen petal of flowering dogwood rests on a Chinese wisteria leaf.  The dogwood and wisteria are both past blooming now.

Fallen Petal

Apr 262014

Using the digital zoom on my Sony Cyber-shot camera (a sort of devil’s bargain, enabling me to get much closer to distant objects than otherwise, at the cost of dramatic decrease in image quality), I was able to snap a couple quick photographs of a red-headed woodpecker perched high in the branches of an ancient, half-dead pecan tree.  Only later, reviewing my photos from the day, did I see the second bird, glancing up at the first one.

Two Woodpeckers

Apr 262014

Without intention to do so, I found myself yet again this morning photographing the play of morning sunlight and green leaves.  There is so much possibility here, in the ways the early morning and late-day sun illuminate, for a brief moment, a particular leaf or plant.  The light calls to me — there is so much to wonder at that I had never noticed before.  In this particular moment captured in this image, a misshapen hickory (mockernut?) leaf catches the sunlight and becomes a form of beauty and delight.