Native Plants

In Love with Acorns

Tallahassee Democrat, Thanksgiving Day 2007

I love acorns – their simple beauty, their value as wildlife food and the promise they hold for the future.

The caps are cute and some have very interesting textures and patterns. A swamp chestnut oak’s cap consists of many woody scales in an intricate overlapping pattern. It is large enough (up to 1¼ inches wide) to serve as a squirrel’s helmet if it only came with a chin strap. The over-cup oak’s cap is unique because it encloses ninety percent of the acorn.

The live oak acorn, when freshly fallen, is white on top, grading into pale yellow and on to dark green. I love this acorn after it has had time to ripen and change colors. The top becomes tan and transitions into a beautiful black. I like to buff them to get a striking sheen and have a handful sitting on my dining room table with a fresh green sweetgum ball and a branch of pokeweed.

I suspect deer, turkey, bear, woodpeckers, wood duck and 75 other species of wildlife see beauty in calories and full stomachs. Acorns can be a staple in their autumn diet. For a deer, a large swamp chestnut oak acorn at 1.6 inches long and over one inch wide would be a tasty morsel indeed.

I enjoy watching a busy squirrel dig a hole, place an acorn in it and pack the soil with a jack hammer action, then sneakily hide the spot by raking leaves over it. I wonder if it will find the acorn during winter. If not, this acorn holds a promise for the future. With warming soil in spring, the acorn is split in half by the root and tender shoot and a new oak tree is on its way. The root grows quickly and deep, beginning to form an incredible anchor, sometimes extending three times the spread of the branches above. The shoot depends on luck that open space waits above providing maximum sunlight and room to grow to its full magnificent size and shape.

Size and shape vary in the noble oaks—from the diminutive running oak, usually less than three feet tall and forming extensive ground cover by underground runners, to the stately southern red oak, up to 125 feet tall. The Florida champion live oak in Gainesville has a spread of 160 feet and a height of 85 feet. I’m lucky to have a patriarch live oak in front of my house on Ellicott Drive in Tallahassee. It has three huge vertical trunks and one big horizontal limb 36 inches in diameter that sprawls 81 feet across my yard. It is a massive weight to hold horizontally, requiring strong wood. The limb seems to be tiring with age; it rests wearily on our yard. Fifteen years ago it was six feet off the ground.

I like to think of this tree as mine, but it really belongs to the people of Tallahassee. This tree produces many acorns. The few that survive the blue jays, squirrels and acorn grubs may grow into other majestic specimens for future generations to enjoy. So the acorn holds a wonderful promise for the future. Maybe that is why I love acorns so much.

The Value of Native Plants for Wildlife

(Tallahassee Democrat 8/19/10)

In Tallahassee, we have many fine non-native plants to use in our landscapes – camellia, azalea, crape myrtle all come to mind. The claims that native plants are easier to grow and require less water sometimes do not hold up.

For me, the main reason to choose native plants in the landscape is to promote the unique relationships between our native plants and animals, from the smallest microorganisms, insects and other invertebrates to birds and mammals. Simply put – what you plant in your yard makes a difference to wildlife. There are unique evolutionary relationships between native plants and wildlife that have developed over a very long time. Here are a few examples.

Red buckeye blooms in mid to late March, just in time for the return of ruby-throated hummingbirds from Central America. The hummingbirds drink nectar from red tubular flowers and, in return, provide pollination services for this native tree whose nuts are food for other wildlife.

Sweetgum trees have close relationships with several animals. When American goldfinch arrive in late fall or winter, they can be seen and heard high in sweetgum trees clinging to the prickly balls feasting on abundant sweetgum seeds. Many of our resident birds, like the Carolina chickadee, also depend on the seeds of sweetgum.

As valuable as seeds and fruit are to wildlife, native plants serve an even more important function. Native plants, from grasses and wildflowers to towering shade trees, form the base of the food chain. Our native insects are uniquely adapted to eat native plants; some are generalists and can eat a variety of plants, but many are specialists that can only digest certain types of leaves based on the chemistry of the plant. For instance, the luna moth would not be with us without the sweetgum tree and a few other native hardwood trees. Each female luna moth may lay 150 eggs, which then become 150 highly nutritious caterpillars, feeding chickadees, vireos, spiders and more. These in turn may be eaten by a snake, hawk or other predator. It is estimated that of the 150, only 2 or 3 survive to mate and lay eggs.

Most of our butterflies and moths depend on native plants, not just for nectar, but for sustenance while in the larval stage as caterpillars. For instance, spicebush swallowtails depend on sassafras, giant swallowtails on hoptrees and Gulf fritillaries on passion vine. Without their native food plants, these butterflies would cease to exist.

To make our yard more hospitable to wildlife, our goal each year is to increase the percentage of native plants. Over the last 18 years, we have transformed our front yard from a mediocre monoculture of lawn to a shady native oasis beneath a huge live oak on one side and a wildflower/butterfly garden on the sunny side. Judicious use of nectar rich non-natives like pentas, perennial salvias, Mexican sunflower and cardinal guard extend the blooming season of our butterfly/hummingbird garden and mix nicely with the native purple coneflower, ironweed, heliopsis, sunflower and other wildflowers.

We’ll always have room for a few azaleas, camellias and hydrangeas among the natives, but native plants provide the staff of life for wildlife. For further reading, I recommend Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants by Douglas Tallamy.