Native Woodland Garden (Part 1)

I love the urban wilderness of our backyard, but the truth is it’s filled with non-native, invasive plants that have been left to their own devices for decades.

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My woodland garden against the backdrop of an urban wilderness

Close to the city, shaded by trees, private. There are many reasons I am fond of our little chunk of paradise. Thickets of Chinese privet, blankets of English ivy and roving wisteria vines are not among them. (These plants are pretty, of course; they’re just not so great in a foreign land where they compete fiercely and choke out everything else.)

The journey to restoring the back section of our property to something resembling a native Alabama woodland will be a long one. I have a lot to learn and even more to do. For the time being, I am doing the only thing I can—starting small. The tiny patch you see in the photo at the top of this post has been one year in the making. It’s a humble beginning, but I hope it will be the first of many chapters in this story.

Before I tell you about the plants, I’d like to point out two events where you can purchase native plants, for shade or sun, if you live in or near Birmingham, Alabama.

To date, I’ve planted the following native Alabama perennials in my woodland garden.

(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum)

Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum biflorum): This was my first purchase for the woodland garden last spring, and I’m happy to see it back and thriving this year. You can see flower buds hanging from the largest stem. I can’t wait to show it again when it’s in bloom.

  • Light requirements: shade/part shade
  • Soil requirements: moist
  • Size: 1-3 feet
  • Flowers: white, April-May
  • Rhizomes
  • Attracts birds and butterflies
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Purple trillium (Trillium cuneatum)

Purple trillium (Trillium cuneatum): I have long observed and admired this plant along nature trails, and I’m a little giddy about having one. Plus, it has cute nicknames, including little sweet Betsy, toadshade and whip-poor-will flower. I just purchased it, so I missed bloom season this year.

  • Light requirements: shade
  • Soil requirements: moist, woodsy humus
  • Size: 10 inches
  • Flowers: maroon, March
  • Rhizomes

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Bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia)The blooms are small, but so pretty. The foliage is delicate and feathery. I accidentally broke off a stem during planting, and I am now attempting to root it.

  • Light requirements: shade
  • Soil requirements: moist, rich woodlands humus
  • Size: 18 inches
  • Flowers: pink, spring-summer
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Alabama phlox (Phlox pulchra)

Alabama phlox (Phlox pulchra): I purchased three of these when I found out they are rare in the wild. This species will have a little haven in my yard.

  • Light requirements: shade
  • Soil requirements: average
  • Size: 12 to 14 inches
  • Flowers: pink, April-May
  • Rare in wild
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora)

Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora): I planted this shrub off to the side of the garden since it will grow quite large in the years to come. It’s in the sun at the moment, but won’t be once the oak tree above it leafs out.

  • Light requirements: part/full shade
  • Soil requirements: average, humus rich
  • Size: 8-10 feet
  • Flowers: white
  • Deciduous multistem shrub
  • Attracts butterflies
(c) Terri Robertson, T's Southern Garden, 2018
Suggested ID: Resurrection Fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides)

Resurrection fern (Pleopeltis polypodioides): This is the one plant I did not buy. It fell, along with the branch, from an oak tree in the yard about a year ago. I actually have a few such branches, and I placed the two largest on either side of the woodland garden as a border. This fern shrivels in dry weather and bounces back after a good rain. I feel pretty confident about this ID, but I will update this post if the iNaturalist community produces another ID.

I hope the plants I’ve introduced to my woodland garden thrive and multiply as I continue to clear invasive species and bring in more native plants little by little. What native plants do you have in your gardens at home?

 

Nature Walk at Jemison Park

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Lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”)

Jemison Park Nature Trail is one of my favorite local spots. This greenway follows Shades Creek and meanders through Mountain Brook. It’s just a hop, skip and jump away from central Birmingham.

I’ve written about iNaturalist on this blog before, and I’m featuring it again in this post about my recent nature walk through Jemison Park. If you’re in the Birmingham area and want to learn about iNaturalist from an expert, I recommend “Introduction to iNaturalist,” presented by Dr. John Friel of the Alabama Museum of Natural History on May 6, 2018, 1-3:30 p.m., at Ruffner Mountain.

I’ve been using the iNaturalist app since attending one of Dr. Friel’s presentations last year. I find it helps me better observe and appreciate the intricacies of nature, which makes spending time outdoors all the more rewarding. I also like recording and identifying plants in natural areas because my hope is to gradually transform our privet-filled wooded backyard into a woodland garden.

Here is what I observed on my walk through Jemison Park:

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Lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”)

I believe this ground cover (also pictured at the top of this post) is lesser Celandine (“Ficaria verna”). iNaturalist’s photo identification software suggested this ID. I carefully compared the database’s photos against mine. I think it’s a match, but the ID needs confirmation from the iNaturalist online community of citizen scientists. This plant is definitely going on my woodland garden wish list. [Update: I have since found out that Lesser Celandine is considered invasive in America, where it is not a native species. So it is off the wish list!]

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Next is Italian Arum (“Arum italicum”). Once again, iNaturalist software helped me venture a guess on the ID. A fellow user, who happens to be pursuing a doctorate in marine ecology and phycology, agreed. That moved my ID up to research grade. It will stay that way as long as two-thirds of iNaturalist users concur.

I also learned that some gardeners underplant Italian Acum with hostas. When hostas die back in winter, Italian Acum will maintain an attractive ground cover. I already have hostas, so I am definitely going to try this!

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Beaked Trout-Lily (“Erythronium rostratum”)

The identification of the Beaked Trout-Lily (“Erythronium rostratum”) above illustrates the combined power of software and collective human brainpower in making sense of the vast numbers of observations uploaded to iNaturalist.

After looking through the software’s suggestions, my best guess at an ID was a Yellow Trout Lily (“Erythronium americanum”). However, another citizen scientist, self-described as a “hobbyist botanist, reasonably well-read on trillium and solidago,” countered that the plant I observed was in fact a Beaked Trout-Lily. His argument: “prominent auricles at the base of the tepals which encircle filaments; tepals not streaked with purple; flower not nodding; petals not sharply reflexed.”

This is a good time to mention another tip about using iNaturalist. Even if you are an amateur, do your best to research and identify your observations starting with kingdom at a minimum, and narrowing down the taxonomy as much as you can. The iNaturalist software and other references can help you do this, as long as you employ common sense and pay attention to the details. The more you can help narrow it down, the more likely someone who actually knows their stuff will look at what you’ve posted. They can then confirm your ID, further narrow it down or correct it if needed.

I’ll close this post with a few more iNaturalist observations from Jemison Park Nature Trail.

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Red Buckeye (“Aesculus pavia”)

 

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Little Sweet Betsy (“Trillium cuneatum”), also known as toadshade

 

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My suggested ID, unconfirmed: Common Blue Violet (“Viola sororia”)