When a forest isn’t a forest

A prairie savannah in what had recently been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.
A prairie savannah in what had once been forest in Phil Hardberger Park, San Antonio, TX. Photo from the Phil Hardberger Park Conservancy.

We so often think that forest is the natural result of just letting nature be and that to see forest is to see an indication of a healthy ecosystem. Yet we forget that many ecosystems are actually not forest-based at all, or else they are a mix of forest and other types of ecologies, such as grasslands and prairies. Years of fire suppression and mismanagement in the US have actually allowed many formerly grassland and savannah (mix of grassland and forest) ecologies to become completely dominated by forest, which is then often dominated by one or two species that have simply outcompeted everything else.

This scenario was very much the case within what is now Phil Hardberger Park in San Antonio. Years of fire suppression, grazing, and dairy ranching on the site had turned what had once been prairie, prairie savannah, and some forest, into basically all forest. So embedded had the forest look and feel of the area become that within the local narrative of the place people simply saw it as natural and having always been there. Recently, when the site was to be re-envisioned as a park, designers and ecologists had to contend with vast stands of juniper that had worked their way in and basically choked out native grasses, oaks, and perennials.

This foresting of places that were never forests to begin with is nothing new in American history. In fact, much of California was grassland before European settlers arrived. In his book, Trees in Paradise, Jared Farmer writes that settlers coming to the Far West wanted to “complete” the land by foresting it. “They forced grasslands and wetlands to metamorphose into fields, orchards, and garden cities,” he writes. To use a term of the time, they “emparadised” it. These longstanding efforts, combined with years of fire suppression, have transformed parts of California into hybrid manmade-natural tree-dominant ecologies that didn’t exist prior to the arrival of the Spanish some 450 years ago.

Of course, the lessons we can learn from these examples are not that trees don’t have their place in spaces where perhaps they once didn’t grow. Our urban and suburban landscapes are brimming with things that didn’t used to be there – pavement, right angles, roofs, to name a few – so to make the case that trees shouldn’t be there because they weren’t there before doesn’t really hold water. Not to mention that we need street trees more than even, given the realities of the urban heat island effect and climate change. Yet when it comes to our less urbanized and wilder spaces and places, rethinking the role of the tree in ecologies that were not ever forest is a much-needed endeavor. To restore these places back to prairie or Savannah is a way of ensuring that they are able to grow and evolve in a way that ultimately reaches a balance, so that one species – such as juniper – doesn’t become so dominant as to prevent biodiversity from flourishing. As a result, intense, long-term maintenance of the space does not have to be a prolonged and expensive reality.

Goldenrod, a sign of now

An illustration of goldenrod from the Macmillan Wildflower Book, 1954
An illustration of goldenrod from the Macmillan Wildflower Book, 1954

Late summer and early fall in much of the country are characterized by golds and purples, if you know where to look. In fields, prairies, vacant lots, and roadsides, the gold of goldenrod makes its determined and brilliant appearance. Growing from spring through summer, slowly sending its flower buds forth, it finally bursts into explosions of gold when many plants have long finished flowering and are already getting ready to slow down for winter. Bees and butterflies then flock to its flowers, stocking up on pollen and nectar before hunkering down or flying south. And then, just like that, the spectacle of color is over – or seemingly so – as a new spectacle then appears: birds, coming to feast on the seeds.

While some goldenrods do look a bit on the weedy side at times, we can forgive them for that, because everything else about them is, well, golden. For further reading, we cannot think of a better writing on this amazing plant and flower than the poem “Goldenrod” by Mary Oliver. You can read that here.

Hope

dwarf fritillary butterfly caterpillars on passion vine in Oakland, California
Dwarf fritillary butterfly caterpillars on passion vine

In 21st-century California, it is increasingly a luxury of kingly proportions to have a yard of one’s own, especially within one of the state’s major metropolitan areas. As such, container gardening is the only option for many of us, a type of gardening that presents its own set of challenges, not the least of which being watering, as even the most drought-tolerant of plants will require much more watering in a container than they would in the ground. Maintenance reservations aside, I bit the bullet some months ago and started transforming the fire escape/balcony we have here in Oakland into a pollinator garden that is ideally groovy to look at and hang out in as well. To these ends, I planted, among other ‘tings, three kinds of passion vine back in April, hoping to attract the dwarf fritillary butterfly, whose food of choice is the passion vine. Well, as of a month ago, I discovered tiny orange eggs on the vines, and then two weeks ago, these eggs hatched into the tiniest of caterpillars. Since then, the caterpillar children have eaten to their hearts’ content and grown exponentially bigger by the day.

It would be a cliche to say that these are uncertain times we are living in, but, well, the cliche rings true. And in such uncertain times, inviting wildlife intro your landscape in whatever way possible can be a tonic to the lunancy about, serving as a small beacon of hope. What’s not to marvel over that a tiny butterfly would fly around and somehow locate a little patch of passion vine in the middle of dense, urbanized Oakland and decide to make that small patch of green home for its butterfly kids? It is marvel-worthy indeed.

John Kamp

Plants as magnets for the good and bad

Observing the Joppa Avenue Landscape in Minneapolis, Minnesota, for bees, butterflies, and bunnies
Lounging and observing the laboratory

The occasional sad reality of doing landscape design is that not all landscapes you create will survive long-term. Ownership can change, and maintenance can be spotty. At the very least, you can expect that some plants will die or be less successful than planned due to circumstances outside of your control, and the result will be a landscape different than what you had envisioned. In our case we never could have anticipated the bumper crop of rabbits that seemed to emerge in Minneapolis in the summer of 2009, or how that bumper crop would subside by 2014. Nor could we have anticipated how much the monarch and honeybee populations would dwindle during that same period. Fortunately, we’ve had a living laboratory of sorts in which to observe all of these phenomena long-term and to see what plants are bunny magnets, and which are monarch and bee magnets.

Here is our run-down:

BEE/POLLINATOR MAGNETS
Nepeta x faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’ / Walker’s Low catmint: Blooms for at least a month (reblooms after a mid-summer haircut), with the bees (bumble, honey, and solitary, not to mention hoverflies, hummingbird moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds) on it from sunrise to sunset
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Very good late-summer nectar/pollen source
Solidago speciosa / showy goldenrod: Also an ideal late-summer nectar/pollen source
Diervilla sessilifolia ‘Butterfly’ / Butterfly bush honeysuckle: Bumblebees love the little yellow flowers; lightly cut back after blooming for a second bloom
Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Longin’ / ‘Longin’ Russian sage: Bees of all varieties love this plant, and it blooms from July virtually til the end of summer
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ / Autumn Joy stonecrop: Amazing late-summer nectar/pollen source

MONARCH MAGNETS
Liatris ligulistylis / meadow blazing star: They bloom, and the monarchs come. . . in droves; it’s as simple as that
Eutrochium purpurea / Joe Pye weed: Huge, tall, and full of monarchs once they bloom in July
Verbena bonariensis / Brazilian verbena: An annual that blooms from June (depending on when you plant it) until the end of summer and thus provides a very consistent nectar source for monarchs, which flock to it

RABBIT MAGNETS
Echinacea purpurea / purple coneflower: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2013, have replanted new ones and caged them
Panicum virgatum / switchgrass: Ultimately disappeared after two years and space taken over by other plants
Sporobolus heterolepis / prairie dropseed: Initially took a huge hit from the rabbits but now seems to be doing better now that it’s been in the ground longer (maybe rabbits don’t like crusty old grasses?)
Koeleria macrantha / June grass: Suffers some damage by rabbits each year in the spring, becomes less attractive to them by July
Rudbeckia hirta / gloriosa daisy: Numbers dwindled down to almost none by 2012; some that had self-sown in cages around other plants managed to survive, and now the landscape is full of them again (but there are also fewer rabbits now)
Liatris spicata / dense blazing star: Caged them and the rabbits have since kept away; landscape now dense enough that the plant has self-sown here and there, and the seedlings seem to be protected by other plants (that is a very loose hypothesis based on casual observation)
Aster oolentangiensis / sky-blue aster: Some were gnawed down to the ground and died; remaining ones caged and are now thriving and self-sowing with a bit too much aplomb
Liatris ligulistylis / prairie blazing star: A choice meal of rabbits of all shapes and sizes; the plants need cages around them if they are to survive a rabbit’s dinnertime whims

Just to be clear and in layman’s terms: bee and monarch magnets will bring you happiness; rabbit magnets, without the proper protection, will bring you sadness.

John Kamp

With rains come blooms

echinops lateritia in bloom at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens

With all the rain this year, the cacti at the UC Berkeley Botanical Gardens are putting on quite the show right now. If you have never been, now is the time to go. Not only do you get to see these insanely huge cactus flowers live and in the flesh, but you get to experience sweeping views down a canyon and out into the Bay, with the Golden Gate Bridge just shy of the horizon. And there are newts o plenty swimming in the pond in the Asian Garden area. You will be stupefied by their gentle cuteness. What’s not to love?

John Kamp