Summer interns at the North Carolina Botanical Garden cover a range of daily responsibilities, from leading children’s Nature Explorer groups to weeding garden beds. For me and the other two Conservation Interns, Shannon and Andrea, the typical day begins at Forest Theatre on campus. Upon arrival in the morning, we do a “sweep” of the site to remove trash left behind from the previous night’s event and then prepare the theater for scheduled upcoming events.
Removing bamboo —an invasive species in Battle Park.
The rest of our morning is spent in Battle Park, the 93-acre forest at the edge of the UNC campus. Our projects there are aimed at keeping the park accessible to the community and restoring the forest to its “natural” condition. On any given day, you could find us fixing water bars that prevent trail erosion and serve as steps on steep trails. Or, armed with handsaws and herbicide, we may be removing Chinese wisteria or English ivy—invasive plant species that alter forest composition. Flexibility is key, however: weather can completely alter planned activities. For example, this year, July floods resulting from heavy rains changed our agenda to repairing damaged bridges, removing fallen trees from trails, and renovating areas of trail erosion!
After lunch, we often head over to the Botanical Garden’s Education Center to work on individual projects. Shannon, who is propagating native plants for use in Battle Park, is likely to be found in the Garden’s library or greenhouse. Andrea spends much of her time on the Piedmont Nature Trails, mapping invasive plant species using GIS. I am helping improve Garden outreach through social media, among other things.
The best part about being a North Carolina Botanical Garden Intern is that every day is different and we are always learning something new.
On a very humid though cool morning this week, I snapped this image of a Hummingbird Clearwing moth (Hemaris thysbe) working the flowers of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) near the Totten Center.
In fact, I saw numerous pollinators on my stroll around the Garden that morning. We hear a lot these days about how our native pollinators (and the non-native honeybee, an important pollinator of crops, too) are threatened, so it is always encouraging to walk about in a garden where a very diverse collection of native plants draws in the winged ones—not to mention their larvae and eggs.
Participants in our Nature Explorers Summer Camp are learning about pollinators right now. Lead instructor Elisha Taylor tells me that they have already raised and released a few Snowberry Clearwing moths (Hemaris diffinis), which mimic bees rather than hummingbirds, like the Clearwing captured with my camera, above. Visit this website to learn about this species of moth (and use it as a resource to learn about other moths and butterflies).
Elisha says, “We’ve also got 2 spicebush swallowtail chrysalises and 1 remaining caterpillar (nearly ready to morph). Not sure, but we might have an Io moth pupa too down under the soil in one of the containers – but we’ll have to wait and see!” Clearly, I’ve got to get down to the children’s classroom and have a look for myself.
We are culminating our celebration of National Pollinator week (which was actually last week, officially) with a poetry reading that celebrates one of our most important pollinators: bees. Poet Jeffery Beam gives us “Bee—I’m Expecting You!” a performance of his and others’ poems about bees, this Sunday, June 30, at 3 pm. More here.
Can it be that only two weeks ago our deciduous trees were just splitting open their leaf buds? What a privilege it is to live among forests like these, where we can enjoy the spare beauty of winter, with easy vistas through gray, textured trunks, only to be surprised each April by the intensity and lushness of brand-new green.
No wonder that on a long walk along the Garden’s Nature Trails just a few days ago I was a bit startled to note that munching on this green cornucopia is well underway. Ragged holes in beech and maple, and assorted leaf galls like so many pincushions and warts. When I stood still, I could actually hear the “ticking” sound of caterpillar frass (“poop”) raining down on leaves and leaf litter!
So it is. The herbivorous insects—in particular, caterpillars like these fellas who came in on my sweater—are programed to emerge and become active at the same time their food sources come available.
And let’s not fret about it: there really is plenty of lunch to go around. We need these herbivores, who cycle energy and nutrients stored in the biomass of the forest into other parts of the ecosystem. These insects will be food for songbirds (note that 96% of our terrestrial bird species feed insects to their young). Furthermore, many of the caterpillars will eventually “grow up” into moths and butterflies, who will be important pollinators.
It’s helpful to reflect on what Doug Tallamy said in Bringing Nature Home:
"Of the 4 million or so insect species on earth … a mere 1 percent interact with humans in negative ways. The other 99 percent of the insect species pollinate plants, return the nutrients tied up in dead plants and animals to the soil, keep populations of insect herbivores in check, aerate and enrich the soil, and … provide food either directly or indirectly for most other animals."
So I’ll enjoy this leafiness in all its forms, pristine and otherwise: nothing lasts forever.
For some weeks now, I’ve heard the sweet warbling song of bluebirds—pine warblers too. The trout lilies opened weeks ago as well. But gosh: last year’s papery pale leaves are still wobbling in the wind on the beeches, and the view out the window is dominated by bare branches of the other deciduous trees.
Regardless, there is one day when I wake up to spring. I guess that’s when some critical number of spring wildflowers have opened and a few choice shrubs have begun to unfold lush, pleated leaves. Whatever it is, that day has come.
A walk along the garden paths and nature trails two days ago brought to my eyes the sight of so many old friends: spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), hepatica (Hepatica americana) [1st photo below], star chickweed (Stellaria pubera), bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) [2nd photo], windflower (Thalictrum thalictroides), little sweet Betsy (Trillium cuneatum) [3rd photo], spicebush (Lindera benzoin), yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima).
And how about these painted buckeye leaves (Aesculus sylvatica)?
These seem to emerge in the blink of an eye—that is, over the course of three days, which is fast by my book.
One early spring bloomer that particularly grabs my fancy, and which I don’t manage to stumble upon very often, is the inconspicuous pennywort (Obolaria virginica)—a member of the Gentian family, and a monotypic genus to boot (meaning, there is only one species of Obolaria).
Pennywort grows so low to the ground, tucked into the leaf litter, and its fleshy purple-green stems and leaves blend in so well, that only when little white buds appear in the leaf axils, and later, white-tinged-purple flowers open, do I have any chance of seeing it at all. Like some of the other wildflowers mentioned above, it is a “spring ephemeral” and will be finished blooming and setting seed by the time the tree canopy has obscured the falling of sunlight onto the deciduous forest floor.
On the evening of the same day as this wildflower walk, I saw a bright sliver of new moon in the western sky, where a bit of color from sunset lingered on. I realized at once that this was the last new moon balanced in bare branches of oak and maple that I will see until next fall: leaves will already be at least partway out by the time of the next full moon.
That’s a wake-up call if ever there was one!
My attention, of late, is on buds. Most plants have set their next-year buds by end of summer, if not earlier, so we can observe them all winter long and note what happens in spring. Think of this: a bud is a tightly enclosed package of primordial leaves and/or flower parts!
(From top to bottom: Paw paw buds—a leaf bud at the tip of a branch, and flower buds along the stem; Bigleaf magnolia flower bud; and Smooth sumac leaf bud, showing the heart-shaped “scar” from last year’s leaf)
Long fascinated by the engineering feat represented by a plant bud, I am watching the changes that buds undergo this time of year—changes in color and size. As days grew longer and warmer (with a lot of variability in the latter), flower buds on red maple trees became redder and larger. I hear that red maple flowers have already begun to burst and are open for business—that is, pollination with the assistance of wind.
Yesterday I discovered that the slender buds of our local trout lilies (Erythronium umbillicatum) are now opening to reveal their yellow flower.
Observations on the timing of seasonal, life-cycle events in plants—such as first flowering, first fruit, leaf drop—are known as “phenology.” There is a wonderful opportunity for you to contribute your observations on plant phenology to a citizen science project called Project BudBurst (www.budburst.org). Since 2007, Project BudBurst has engaged citizens in making observations of local flora. Participants can choose species growing in their backyard or community and enter observations of phenological events into a web-form connected to the BudBurst database. Apparently there are now about 13,000 participants representing all 50 states! Perhaps you’d like to be one and build your budding relationship with plants?