Beautiful Native Plants

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

Mother Nature’s Mysteries

No matter how much we study ecosystems and think we know the answers for which plants will grow where and under which circumstances, there are many instances when there is no obvious answer—they are Mother Nature's mysteries.

Most of The Ravines Conservation Area looks like this: dry soil with longleaf pines, oaks, and low ground cover. It’s managed with regular, prescribed burns.

For instance, there is a 965-acre conservation area adjacent to our neighborhood that’s owned by the St. Johns Water Management District and maintained by Clay County. Most of it is a dry, sandy upland dominated by longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) and oaks (Quercus spp.). It’s been managed with fire over the years to maintain the open pine ecosystem. There are also some wet bottomlands and a riparian shoreline along Black Creek. The trails are open to hikers and people on horseback, but no motorized vehicles. So it’s a pleasant place to take in nature and one of the local highlights for people who stop by to visit us.

This natural grove of oaks has resisted the fire maintenance regimen.

Alder shrubs grow well in wet habitats next to Black Creek.

Explainable plant communities

Some of the plant communities and relationships can be explained in this mostly wild area, like the pines and their adaptation to fire and some groups of oaks that have resisted the fires. The riparian areas next to the waterway are populated by moisture-loving plants such as bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) and alders (Alnus serrulata). But other communities are a complete mystery.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed a singular patch of moss and club moss about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide in the middle of an otherwise dry sandy, but partially shady, area. One oak sapling is artfully placed in an off-center location, but other nearby saplings had no patches of moss.

What caused this beautiful patch of moss in this dry sandhill?

So what caused this beautiful anomaly? If I were to try to figure this out scientifically, I’d need to compare the soil in this spot as opposed to soil in nearby areas that looked the same otherwise. It would probably take a few years and samples would need to be taken at least 4 times per year. All my studying would ruin this beautiful little oasis in the high pine sandhill community* and my research still might not be able to decipher which came first, the microhabitat, soil type, or the moss that altered it. So I’ll let it be one of Mother Nature’s mysteries.

* Florida's native plant communities

A close-up: In addition to mosses, there are lichens and club mosses.

Why are Mother Nature’s mysteries important to us?

As native plant enthusiasts, we’d love to have those rare, but beautiful lady slipper orchids (Cypripedium spp.) or farther south ghost orchids (Dendrophylax lindenii) in our yards. The desire for these showy orchids is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fussy plants that need a specific habitat or special soil fungus to thrive. Many fall into this category like those dimpled trout lilies (Erythronium umbilicatum) that grow naturally only on the slight slope facing north. For pictures see my post, A few people CAN make a significant difference.

A native plum growing at the edge of the conservation area.

The chances of our duplicating these very specific habitat requirements on our urban/suburban properties are remote. Our yards are not native ecosystems–only a pale imitation.

Our best options for natives are those that are less fussy and those that can be commercially raised for a profit.

After seeing a native plum tree (either a chickasaw plum (Prunus angustifolia) or a flatwoods plum (P. umbellata)) blooming at the edge of this conservation area, I asked at a local native plant nursery for either of these plums. They said that they don’t hold very well in pots. So here is a beautiful native tree growing in my own neighborhood that looks like it should do well in my yard, but it doesn’t do well in the nursery. I may be able to special order it, but meanwhile I bought a less-fussy, but moisture-loving Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica) instead to serve as a flowering understory shrub. (Update: a few years later I did end up with a flatwoods plum and it is doing well in a fairly dry section of the yard.)

Also read my post, When native plants die to help increase your success in your native landscape.

Mother Nature’s Mysteries

While we can enjoy her mysterious ways out in parks and native wildlands, most of us are better off not trying to duplicate very specific habitats for fussy plants. Let’s hedge our bets and go for the easy-to-grow natives that are the most likely to be successful on our properties. 

© Ginny Stibolt