Sunday, February 27, 2011

Master Gardeners partner with Kingwood Center

People interested in botany and horticulture are fortunate to have several excellent resources in mid-Ohio, including Richland County Master Gardeners and Kingwood Center.

Kingwood Center is a horticultural jewel, open to the public since 1953. I often have the pleasure of conducting tours for them, especially for Master Gardener or Garden Club tours. Kingwood is now closed for the winter, until March 1st. However, we had a special event on Saturday.

The local Master Gardeners are teaming up with Kingwood to pool our resources. Our Saturday training session for trainees took place at Kingwood, with one of Ohio's best Horticultural speakers, Dr. Laura Deeter. Dr. Deeter teaches horticultural classes at OSU's Agricultural Training Institute (ATI) in Wooster.
She is a real dynamo! Six hours of class room time goes by in a flash when Dr. Deeter is on stage, as she has earned several Distinguished Teacher Awards, one from ATI and one from OSU Alumni Association. If you ever have an opportunity to hear her speak, go for it! Not only is she well versed on landscaping and ornamentals, she is well-acquainted with the native species too.

And yes, her license plate reads, "Garden Hoe." That should give you some idea of the energy and enthusiasm that awaits her lucky students!
Thanks for speaking to our group, Laura! Kingwood can't wait to have you back again.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

In Which Tree?

If you have ever found yourself birding with friends who are unable to competently state the location of a bird... you might relate to this little animated film by Laura Kammermeier.
Laura is friend and past OOS Board member with many talents: web design, blogger extraordinaire, travel-meister, and now a cartoonist as well! Awesome.
Anyway, you will want to see how she addresses the problem of a friend who can only say, "Over there. In that tree."

Do they all look the same to you?
All the more reason for a little dendrology. Be kind to your botanical friends, and let's start with the basics. Is it an evergreen or deciduous tree? Winter tree with leaves? Probably an oak, or possibly a young beech. White and green flaky bark, growing along a river? Try sycamore.
Tree identification is not only handy for locating and sharing birds (which are excessively fond of trees, I might add.) Trees greatly enhance our lives, and not just as lumber, paper or mulch.
Eastern Redbud, Shawnee Forest

Think about the sap flowing in sugar maples this week and the tasty syrup you like to pour on pancakes. Or what about those beautiful spring-flowering trees- like Eastern Redbud?

If you ever wanted to learn more about trees, especially some of the specialty species in southern Ohio, Jim McCormac has just the program for you. He'll be the kick off speaker for Flora-Quest, with another educational and entertaining program, 'The Forest from the Trees: Woody Players in a Sylvan Sea.'
Trees won't all seem the same after Jim gives you the low-down. You might even begin to recognize the forest by its trees! Hope to see you there!

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bovines, Buffalo and Botany

Old #106 has really inspired some thought on several bovine issues. Ok, I am sure you are saying, "But what do bovines have to with botany? I thought this was a botany blog?"

Plants and cows are related topics, far more than one might think. After all there is a whole grass-fed beef moo-vement out there. All cows, or bovines, are ruminants. They evolved to eat grass. But sometime after World War 1, farmers learned to fatten beef very quickly on corn. This reduced the time-to-market by several years. Unfortunately, it plays havoc on the cattle's digestive system, requiring constant doses of antibiotic. You can't fool Mother Nature. Cows weren't designed to eat corn.
Now we know grass-fed beef is a much healthier and more sustainable way to raise beef. There is a ton of info out there, but we can confirm it personally, it is all we eat at home. Thanks to our neighbor and his organic, grass raised cows.
American Bison, photo Wiki

But again, what does that have to do with botany? So cows should eat grass... but cows didn't even exist in America until the settlers brought them! At least cows as we think of them.
Another species of bovine did live in America, the American Bison. Bison bison is a bovine but not a true buffalo. But who would argue that point with the likes of Buffalo Bill? The common name stands. American Bison and American prairies were a part of the great mystic of the old West, and places like... Ohio.

The last bison recorded in Ohio was shot 1803.
Yesterday I traveled down to Battelle Darby Creek, a Columbus Metro Park, in hopes of seeing the bison that have taken up residence on a prairie restoration. These big beasts were laying low, probably literally, in a driving rain. I plan to make a trip back though, as I can't imagine any sight more magnificent than these creatures- designed to consume prairie grasses.
Their presence on the prairie also provided a benefit for the plants. These giant seed spreaders also cultivated the soil, and created disturbance required for some of the now rare botanical species like Running Buffalo Clover, Trifolium stoloniferum.

The next time you see prairie grasses in Ohio, remember - it used to be where the buffalo roamed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Birding with Friends

A few last photos from last weekend's Amish country birding trip.

I had met up with some friends to see the Harris's Sparrow, and I ended up making more friends behind the barn. Number 106 was intent on checking my pockets while I tried to concentrate on some very decent birding. It seemed rude to ignore her...

After all, we were on their turf. A recent post on the Ohio List-serv suggested we all take up "cowing" on the slow birding days. This is certainly a common species of cow, but I am afraid I will have to wait until my "Field Guide to the Cows" arrive, before I can properly ID them.

This Troyer family has been feeding Horned Larks, Snow Buntings, and Lapland Longspurs behind their cattle lot. The flock has been ranging between 200- 600 birds swirling like snowflakes around the corn stubble field. We appreciated the cows letting us in on their show.

We happen to be there when 4 Rusty Blackbirds (front left) decided to join in at the buffet, just in time to make the Rusty Blackbird count on E-Bird.

This field provided excellent studies of Horned Larks, and Snow Buntings in various plumages. The Horned Larks are the yellow-faced birds (front right) with a black mask and collar.
The majority of this flock was made up of Snow Buntings. A careful look at the buntings towards the center of the photo shows that first year birds have a nearly complete cinnamon colored collar, while older birds only show cinnamon on the shoulder. Several of the males in this flock were starting to show breeding plummage (not shown in this photo.) Instead of a molt, the males are actually wearing down their brown colored feather-tips and revealing a stark black and white coloration beneath. By the last weeks of March these males will head north for the Alaskan tundra, setting up breeding territories and singing their sweet melodic song. The females will follow several week later.
As we are all looking forward to signs of spring, we will know it is here when the snow, and the Snow Buntings disappear.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Amish Country Visitor

A few miles down the road from Wooster's Secrest Arboretum, the heart of Ohio Amish country spreads across Wayne and Holmes Counties. It is a favorite place to bird, as the folks are friendly, the birds are numerous and the scenery- is just delightful.

One never tires of this type of scenery, and it is plentiful in Wayne County.

I met up with Greg Miller and Nathan Madison, to try once again for the Harris's Sparrow.

Greg and I have set the record for missing out on this bird- this was our third trip! I would like to show you photos of the home and children, but that would be disrespectful to the family. Amish people do not wish to have their photos taken, so I limit my photography to barns and buggies... and a few good birds. We are grateful for their hospitality, and do not wish to offend.
Troyer's farm is a wonderful place to visit, with a warm wood-stove and a clean windows to view the feeder set-ups (this photo shows only one of many.) They attract many species of birds, and not just your average cardinals and jays. Each visit provided good looks at species like Carolina Wren, Pines Siskins, and White-crown sparrows in abundance along with all of the other regular "feeder" birds.

But this winter, their son, Andy found a special visitor at the feeders. A young Harris's Sparrow has been making regular appearances, much to the delight of Ohio's birding community. Of all the sparrow species found in Ohio, the White-crowned sparrow (left) and this Harris's Sparrow (front right) are two of the "lookers," as far as sparrows go!

Handsome youngster, isn't it? Third time was a charm, and so it goes with a "chase bird." There is never a guarantee that the bird will be there when you arrive; our persistence paid off.

So why would we want so desperately to see this sparrow? As the USGS map shows, a Harris's Sparrow's routine migration is well to the west of Ohio. But each winter, we may get one off-course Harris's visiting in Ohio and they generally stay for several months once they arrive. But I have not seen a Harris's Sparrow for several years, and this opportunity was just too good to miss.
Besides, the Troyer family's hospitality made this adventure feel like a visit with old friends, or rather- new ones.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Where have all the Robins gone?

Spring is slated to be on the way, and before our snow cover is completely gone, let's have a few local photos from Saturday's Greater Mohican Audubon bird walk at Secrest Arboretum in Wooster, Ohio.

Just this morning my father noted that "the Robins are back". I almost hated to break the news, they were probably never gone. Many of our American Robins over-winter in wood lots, especially where fruit is prolific.
If one ever desired winter Robin watching, Secrest Arboretum is the place to go. The numerous crab apple and decorative fruit trees are a magnet for these winter frugivores. American Robins are forced to have a diet shift, from worms (and grubs) to fruit, during the winter months.

Take a few extra minutes to really study your local Robins. Have you ever noted they have an eye-ring? Or white under-tail coverts? These beautiful singers from the Thrush family deserve your second look.

Whoa! Pine Siskins are here, taking a winter vacation from Canada. We found a small flock of them acrobatically feeding on the Sweetgum trees, Liquidambar styraciflua . Remember, birds have to eat; find them where they feed. The siskins could have easily been dismissed as American Goldfinches, but the stripey chest and wing bars tells the tale. A life bird for several in our group.

This walk was the first we have been back in Secrest since last year's devastating tornadoes swept through. Many buildings and trees were broken and twisted, and the clean up has taken many months. There are still signs of the wind damage, as shown in this photo of giant pines snapped off like tooth-picks. However, Secrest is actively rebuilding and welcomes visitors again.
The very business of nature is constant change. Birth, growth, life, and death... a never ending cycle. I hope you will join us on one of our scheduled walks this coming year, and witness the re-birth of this amazing botanical jewel.

Friday, February 11, 2011

I only have "eyes" for you-

The cold snowy days seem to have no end in sight, they have worn me down and made me nostalgic for a bit of color.

A two-for-one in the color department: A Common Buckeye nectaring on Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea. This Ohio native prairie plant is just the bee's-knee for attracting butterflies. And who doesn't have "eyes" for that Buckeye? Occasionally we have bumper crops of buckeyes (like in 2010) but some years they are uncommon in Ohio. This is not a hardy butterfly, but rather one that re-colonizes in northern states during long hot summers.

Even the buckeye's caterpillar is a stunner! It can often be found in chemical free lawn or roadsides, using plantains or members of the snapdragon family as host plants. This colorful fellow was feeding on an Agalinis sp. (used to be called gerardia.) Photo taken by Jackie Riley.

Such a common Ohio butterfly, the Eastern Tailed Blue could be easily confused with the rarest of Ohio butterflies- the Karner Blue. They are both members of the Lycaenidae family.
This is a poor photo for identifying the species, as the "tail" and diagnostic orange spot are obscured from view. However, ETB are lovely little butterflies, too often over looked and snubbed for being common. If they were as rare as the lupine dependant Karner- we would be mad for them as well.

Butterflies love milkweed, and it is not just the Monarch which utilises this Ohio native plant. Many species of butterflies nectar on the honey-scented flowers. This male Black Swallowtail will nectar here, but the female Black Swallowtail will be searching for Golden Alexanders, Zizia aurea or other members of the parsley family for egg laying. Swallowtail caterpillars wouldn't survive the toxins in the milkweed. Butterflies are a picky lot, with very particular needs in host plants.
It is fascinating to study the butterfly/ host plant relationship. The more you know about these winged jewels, the more you will want to plant the host plants which attract them and provide habitat for their conservation.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Re-thinking "green" space

Green comes in all forms: grasses, trees, woody and herbaceous plants, both native and/ or ornamental.
Who is to say one can't substitute "native" plants into our home landscapes? This fits right in with Tallamy's thoughts in "Bringing Nature Home." That's a great book to curl up in front of the fireplace with on these cold winter days.

Sure, we enjoy the lawn that frames my gardens and natural areas. But I have a rather loose definition of lawn these days, which includes anything green that can be managed with regular mowings. I rarely fertilize - and that alone reduces the mowing! Long ago, I gave up the chemicals that kill everything but grass and beat lawns into a monoculture that can't harbor biodiversity.

Look no further than the advertisements of the lawn companies to tell you the truth. They have no respect for nature; they cannot even be bothered to appreciate one of our best known butterflies and replicate it correctly. When did the Monarch grow blue and yellow swallowtails? After a blast of lawn chemicals? This mutant butterfly says it all.
Chem-lawn may call themselves Tru-green, but there is nothing environmentally friendly about chemicals that can give your dog cancer, poison butterflies, and run-off into our watersheds. There is a reason they are required to put warning flags on lawns that have been sprayed.

Some areas beg for a different treatment. If it is too shady to successfully grow grass, why not try moss instead? Moss gardens are gaining popularity, and there are many varieties of moss that will adapt to your shady areas. Check out this website-

Consider a patch of prairie plants in your sunny areas!
Tall grasses, native sunflowers, flowering mints, and cone flowers will attract hosts of birds and butterflies to your yard. Click on the "Natural Areas" link in the slide bar of this blog to get a complete listing of native Ohio plants.
We discussed techniques for planting prairies during a recent Master Gardener class, and Guy Denny will be one of the speakers at Midwest Native Plant Conference (as well as a Flora-Quest guide), if you would like to learn more about Ohio Prairies.
Nature's beauty is offered in many forms. And while a little lawn is an asset to your home and yard, there are other options as well. You'll attract more wildlife, and enjoy more butterflies when native plants dominate your landscape.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Lawns may seem like an unusual choice of topic for a flora and nature blog, especially in mid-winter when your lawn is probably blanketed with 6-8" of snow.

Even the most nature attuned home owner can benefit from a bit of lawn. Think of a lawn as the "frame" for your perfect picture. If the woods and mini-prairie/ sedge meadow ran right up to my front door, the panoramic views afforded by a bit of lawn would be lost. And besides, a good lawn makes your neighbors think you are not such a crack-pot after all.
I have been thinking a lot about lawns this week, as Monday night I will be teaching the local Master Gardeners interns about Lawns, and of course my favorite- lawn alternatives.
Having been the Head Groundskeeper for Lakeside, and a bit "lawn obsessed" in a former life, I can relate to the needs of a "green-grass" junkie. Somewhere in the middle lies a compromise; one can have an attractive lawn without spraying a ton of chemicals or spreading toxic grains on the grass where your children, grandchildren or pets play.
Relax and smell the clover, or henbit. These "weeds" are just as green and stay green better during droughts. So if you will work with nature, you can reduce your lawn's chemical dependence, and save yourself a ton of time and money. Time that can put to better use watching birds, chasing butterflies, or walking barefoot in that grass.

Lawns at my property are green and beautiful transitions to native (and some remaining non-native) horticultural pursuits. I admit to harboring hosta. ...Catmint runs rampant at my place. Pokeweed and blackberry brambles are respected for their attractiveness to birds, but kept somewhat in check for their aggressiveness. And thanks to the lawn, for the easy access it affords to all of the best views of nature that my property offers.

SO think a bit about your lawn, and how you can reduce the chemical load and maintenance, while still enjoying a bit of barefoot grass and eye-candy green.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

World coming to an end?

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.

That's a pretty good piece of wisdom to remember.
Just when life seems most out of hand, something good can still come of it.
Our lives can seem so complicated, if we forget to put things in perspective. It is amazing how these little sayings remind us to focus on the basics- and the rest will fall into place.
And if you like those gentle reminders of Amish wisdom found in proverbial sayings, you will certainly enjoy this book:

A while back I did a radio interview with the author from California, Suzanne Woods Fisher. She has written a number of books, and this little compilation of Amish sayings is an enjoyable read- and it makes a perfect gift for friends.
You can find Amish Proverbs, Words of Wisdom from the Simple Life in many Christian Books stores, or on line at Amazon.

Jan Auburn, Cheryl Harner, Suzanne Woods Fisher and Greg Miller in Berlin, Ohio
Suzanne made a whirl-wind tour of mid-Ohio's Amish country last month. Her warm personality shines through her writings and it was a great pleasure when my friends and I met her in person.
I hope you have been enjoying the scenes from my last couple of Amish country posts, and the sayings- you'll find many more in Suzanne's heart-warming book.