Around the Garden

Sightings & notes from the North Carolina Botanical Garden

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Discovering the Campus-to-Garden Trail

We invite you—if you are here in Chapel Hill—to experience the Campus-to-Garden Trail through our Coker Pinetum. What, you might ask, is the Coker Pinetum? A pinetum, by definition, is a collection of pines or conifers that is used for their scientific study. This particular pinetum came to the Botanical Garden as a deeded gift from the estate of UNC botany professor William C. Coker, who used it for teaching and as a living laboratory. It is a surprisingly hidden 25 wooded acres sandwiched between Manning Drive and Laurel Hill Road.

Hardwoods now dominate this tract, but some of the shortleaf pines are original campus trees and retain the resin-tapping scars known as “cat-faces.” According to the 1946 deed, the described property shall be used “only for a Botanical Garden and Park area.” Thus, the Pinetum was part of the larger plan of Professor Coker, and his student Henry R. Totten, for our now blossoming botanical garden.   

"Cat faces" on turpentine trees, northern Florida, 1936. Source: Farm Security Administration (Wikipedia)

The most enduring feature of the Pinetum is Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek (so named by Coker), which tumbles downhill through the Pinetum, passes unnoticed beneath the 15/501-54 bypass near Manning Drive, and courses through ourPiedmont Nature Tails to its confluence with Morgan Creek.

Two trails diverge in the wooded Pinetum: the OWASA easement, which is very pleasant and can accommodate people and mountain bikes, and the nature trail, which is the one less traveled. The easement is maintained by the Orange Water and Sewer Authority, and the nature trail is cared for by Garden staff and a handful of diligent Green Dragon Volunteers. These individuals, along with all of our other volunteers, epitomize volunteerism and are in many ways the Garden’s backbone. The Pinetum nature trail has also benefited from three separate Eagle Scout projects that created a beautiful bridge, benches, and many trail improvements.

Green Dragon volunteers Marcella Grendler, Chris McKeever, Eleanor Rutledge, and Larry Howard at the Coker Arboretum

The prime directive of all Green Dragons is invasive plant removal. Beginning in about 1999, Marcella Grendler decided that she was fed up with the Chinese privet understory and set forth on a removal campaign. Since then, a remarkable transformation has befallen the Pinetum, where native plants now thrive.

Access to the Pinetum at the Garden end is at the terminus of Fern Lane for the OWASA trail; the nature trail begins across from the Fern Ln/Iris Ln intersection. Access to the campus end of both trails is at the bottom of the Boshamer Stadium parking lot drive off of Ridge Road. Sstart your walk on campus at the Coker Arboretum/Battle Park using the following directions:

• From Coker Arboretum, take a short sidewalk-stroll east to Forest Theatre and on to the Battle Park trails, ultimately taking the Deer Track Trail to the Sisters’ Corner on Gimghoul Rd.

• Follow the sidewalk to Country Club Rd.; take a left and follow Country Club across Raleigh Rd. to Ridge Rd.

• Take Ridge Rd. to the Boshamer Stadium parking lot and find the trailhead to either the OWASA trail or Nature Trail

• Both trails end on Fern Ln., which you must follow to the pedestrian crossing at Old Mason Farm Rd., and then over to the Botanical Garden entrance.  

So … I invite you to slow down, rediscover Chapel Hill with your feet, practice orienteering, experience urban natural areas, listen to Meeting-of-the-Waters Creek, carefully cross a busy highway, and enjoy what’s happening at the Garden proper! If you’re not tuckered-out, trace your way back up through the Pinetum on the trail you didn’t take down.

               —Johnny Randall, NCBG Director of Conservation Programs

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A Day in the Life of An Intern

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.

                                                                   —Samantha Pfotenhauer

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The Pleasure of Pollinators

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.

—Laura Cotterman

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Lunching So Soon?

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.

—Laura Cotterman

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Waking Up to Spring

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). 

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And how about these painted buckeye leaves (Aesculus sylvatica)?

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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).

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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!

—Laura Cotterman