Native Plant Focus: Butterfly Weed

I’ve never been one to love orange. As a University of Georgia graduate and diehard Bulldog fan, I learned to despise orange early in life. And the good state of Georgia is surrounded by collegiate orange: Tennessee, Clemson, Auburn, and Florida. More’s the pity.  Despite this fact, I’ve recently found myself nearly taking out mailboxes and street signs while trying to catch a better glimpse of orange alongside the road. I’m talking about butterfly weed. A wonderful Alabama native perennial, butterfly weed (Asclepis tuberosa) is one of the relatively few plants in the Southeast that boasts an orange bloom. Even for someone that bleeds red and black, this color is worth noticing.

 Butterfly weed growing alongside a road in Birmingham.

Butterfly weed growing alongside a road in Birmingham.

Butterfly weed is a clump forming perennial that grows between 12 to 24 inches in height and has alternate, green leaves between 2 to 3 inches. The blooms, which range between yellow to reddish orange, occur in mid spring and last throughout the summer. The flowers give way to seed pods that eventually release parachute-like seeds that are scattered by the wind. The species prefers well-drained, moist sites but it will tolerate a wide range of soils. It needs full or partial sun to thrive.

With the plant’s name comes some unfortunate misconceptions. This plant is only a weed if you don’t want it on your property or garden---but I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t! It’s relatively easy to maintain, and like many natives, it’s well-suited to our Alabama soils and climate. It occurs naturally on the edges of fields and roads but it can easily be grown in gardens and residential areas.

 Clump forming habits of butterfly weed

Clump forming habits of butterfly weed

As with all natives, butterfly weed has an important place in our local ecosystems. True to its name, this plant is a major hit with insects and butterflies, including the monarch and queen species. Monarch butterflies even use the plant as a host for laying eggs and rearing caterpillars. Expect to see more life and activity in your garden if you use butterfly weed. And expect to see more orange…


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

 

Plants: More Than Decoration

As a professional in the landscape industry, there is one question that I hear more than any other from my friends and clients: “What plant should I put here?” When asked this question, I often wonder if it’s best just to spout out a list of plants that can always be found at the local box-store nursery, or to launch into a series of probing questions to determine what that person was really asking of me. More often than not, he or she is simply asking “what can I put in this location that won’t die, requires minimum maintenance, and looks pretty.” Because beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, it’s always challenging to determine what plants a client will perceive as pretty. With this reoccurring conversation, it’s clear that we often see plants as mere garnish and decoration to our homes and buildings. The aesthetic beauty of branches, leaves, and flowers is hard to deny, but there are many other great reasons to integrate plants into our built environment. Some of these reasons are: to help create microclimates, reduce noise pollution, prevent erosion and stormwater runoff, remove toxins from soil and water, provide food, and creating wildlife habitat.

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Creating Microclimates

A microclimate is a small area that differs slightly in temperature from the surrounding regional climate. The most basic example is using trees and landforms to provide a cooler climate through shade and moisture. In some cases, you want to alter microclimates throughout the year. If a deciduous tree (loses its leaves in the winter) is planted on the southwest side of a building, it will insulate the roof from the sun in the summer, and allow the light to pass through in the winter. This can significantly reduce energy cost of heating and cooling our buildings.

Removing Toxins from Soil & Water

Plants not only remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, but can also remove various toxins from soil and water. Certain species have the ability to absorb harsh metals and excess minerals from the soil. This process, called phytoremediation, can be used to remediate polluted soils or improve agriculture fields.

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Reducing Noise Pollution

While many people are familiar with the visual screening ability of shrubs and trees, their added benefit of reducing noise is often overlooked. Plants, with all their branches, bark and leaves, can absorb sound waves better than walls and flat surfaces. Utilize vegetation along busy highways, near property lines or in a courtyard to reduce noise and echo.

Providing Food

There’s hardly a better way to appreciate plants more than by growing a food garden at your residence. Even a small piece of ground can be enough to provide a wealth of food throughout the year. Aside from traditional vegetable gardens, there are other creative ways of integrating food into your landscape. Blackberries and other fruit-producing vines can be grown along existing fences and property lines. Fruit trees can replace ornamental flowering trees. Herbs and edible forbs can be grown in lieu of seasonal flower beds.

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Preventing Erosion & Stormwater Runoff

Erosion is not just bad for our soils but also for our rivers and waterways. With the combination of proper grading and vegetation placement, you can drastically reduce the amount of erosion on your property. Trees, shrubs, and grasses all have roots that act as an interlocking web to hold soils together. In addition, plants suck up ground water and slowly release through their leaves in a process known as evapotranspiration. Some large trees can absorb as much as a hundred gallons of water in one day!

Creating Wildlife Habitat

With our forests being developed at alarming rates, much of our native landscape is being replaced with homogenous, ornamental plant species from other parts of the world. The truth is not all plants are created equal. While it might look nice and clean, a manicured yard of turf grass doesn’t provide much benefit to wildlife. As well, most of the ornamental shrubs used in the landscape industry do not provide adequate food and cover for our native insects, birds, and mammals. By using a broad-pallet of native plants (biodiversity), you can increase the amount and species of wildlife on your property.


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

Our Native Azaleas

The sound of leaves crackling beneath my shoes filled the woods as I tried in vain to slip quietly into the creek bottom. I paused to listen for a distant gobble as I squeaked out another amateur hen yelp from a mouth call. Greeted with only silence, it was clear that the afternoon would be better spent searching for something other than a wild turkey. I suddenly noticed a bright pinkish bloom in the distance and knew I had located something just as remarkable as the bird I was chasing. A cluster of piedmont azaleas were bursting out a showy display of flowers, a signal to everyone that spring has arrived. This past weekend I was reminded why I love getting out into the woods in Alabama.

 One of the many native azalea blooms dotting the creek bottom

One of the many native azalea blooms dotting the creek bottom

With the Masters just around the corner, many of us are eagerly anticipating spring and the showy azalea flowers that always seem to coincide perfectly with the legendary southern golf tournament (props to the maintenance team there in Augusta). While I love the imagery and picturesque scenes, I can't help but be a little sad that most people will assume these are our native southern azaleas. Over the last few centuries, azaleas from Asia have been brought to America and have become the dominate azalea species found in ornamental landscapes and gardens. While I appreciate these foreign species for their own value, they have taken the place of our of native flora. Sadly, our native azaleas have been all but forgotten. But maybe we can help bring them back to the spotlight!

Piedmont azalea, or wild azalea, (Rhododendron canescens) is a deciduous shrub that enjoys moist sites along streams and bogs. Typically the flowers are white to pink in color and bloom from February to May (depending on region). If you've ever seen one of these shrubs in person, you can attest that they have some of the most exquisite flowers you'll ever see--they're also slightly fragrant. The plant can grow as tall as 15 feet, but typically I think of it in the landscape as a 5 to 8 foot shrub. 

 Rhododendron canescens 'Phlox Pink' - a nice selection from my garden

Rhododendron canescens 'Phlox Pink' - a nice selection from my garden

In addition to being the showiest bloom in the neighborhood, the piedmont azalea is also a good attractant for butterflies. In particular, swallowtails, Gulf fritillaries, and Monarchs will frequently visit the flowers. If you like the idea of bringing more life into your garden, give these native azaleas a try. Just as warning though, you probably won't find them at most box-store garden centers. While they are proven plant, they just don't meet cookie-cutter approach that most garden centers have adopted.

It probably won't ever be the signature plant for the 14th hole in Augusta, but hopefully it will find it's place back into our gardens and properties. If not, you might have to get out in the woods to find one these beauties. Maybe on a day when the turkeys aren't talking... 


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

Native Plant Focus: Yaupon Holly

While there are many native Alabama plants that can be used as ornamental shrubs, there tend to be less evergreen options than deciduous ones. For whatever reason, many homeowners simple don’t want plants near their house that aren’t evergreen. For those people, I would recommend a closer look at yaupon holly. Yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is a great evergreen plant that has many benefits to both gardeners and wildlife. It’s found throughout the southeast, mainly along the coastal plain and certain locations in the lower piedmont regions. In Alabama, yaupon holly occurs naturally in the lower two-thirds of the state. It is especially valuable to gardeners in that it will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and thrives in swamps, sandy dunes, fields, and the edges of forests.

Yaupon holly is also unique in that it has multiple growth forms including columnar, weeping, and dwarf varieties. Typically, in the wild you will observe a broad, branching form with dense canopy. It can be left alone to form thickets and informal hedges, or pruned tightly for topiary and formal gardens.  While the dwarf variety is often used the most in residential and commercial landscapes, I think the larger form is an underutilized plant that should be used as a small tree. At mature height, yaupon only grows to about twenty or twenty-five feet. This makes it an ideal tree for powerline easements or other places where shorter tree heights must be considered.

 The multi-trunked, tree form of yaupon is excellent in powerline easements.

The multi-trunked, tree form of yaupon is excellent in powerline easements.

The bright, red berries that mature in winter are often the most famed asset of yaupon holly. They make for a nice accent color to the grayish-green foliage and will be quite showy. If you’re planting a yaupon holly for the berries, there are a couple of considerations before selecting a location. First is the exposure. As with many holly species, the more sun a plant gets, the more flowers it forms—and consequently, the more berries it produces. The other consideration is ensuring that you have both female and male plants present for pollination. I’m not aware of any cultivars that are specific to the plant sex, so grouping multiple yaupons is the best way to ensure that you have both males and females.

 The bright, red berries add nice pop of color to any space and will be used heavily by birds.

The bright, red berries add nice pop of color to any space and will be used heavily by birds.

As with most native plants, one of the greatest benefits of yaupon holly is its use by wildlife. The dense tree makes excellent nesting locations for birds. The berries are consumed by many species of birds including cedar waxwings, turkeys, Northern bobwhite, Eastern bluebird, brown thrasher, American robin, hermit thrush, red-bellied woodpecker, northern mockingbird, eastern towhee, and blue jay. A number of small mammals will also eat the berries. In addition to the fruit, the leaves are an important browse for whitetail deer.  So, if you like a garden that’s full life, then yaupon is a great property addition.


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.

Whistlepig Day

Early this morning, the furry meteorologist came out to give us his prediction: Six more weeks of winter. Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog from Pennsylvania, performed his yearly ritual of weather prediction to a lively crowd that had gathered to witness this curious spectacle. I can’t speak for the northern climate, but here in Alabama, the groundhogs appear to have missed winter altogether this season. Only two days ago, I passed a groundhog that had been hit on the road just a mile from my house. Normally the animal burrows and hibernates throughout the coldest days of winter to conserve its limited energy supply. With the lack of cold days this winter, the little guy probably hasn’t gotten much shut-eye this season.

 

The groundhog (Marmota monax) is a member of the squirrel family (Sciuridae) that has attracted a host of other names, including woodchuckmarmotthickwood badger, and my personal favorite, whistlepigThe species’ habitat spreads across much of eastern US and Canada, but is rarely found in the Deep South. The exception is Alabama, where it lives in the northern half of the state. Personally, I haven’t seen many in the region, but have noticed them occasionally along roads adjoining meadows and vegetated lowlands.

Groundhogs are one of the largest members of the squirrel family, usually reaching 10-14 pounds and 18-24 inches in length. If you’ve ever spent time gardening or farming, you are most likely familiar with the groundhog’s ability to dig tunnels and dens. Impressive little engineers they are. Unfortunately, their handiwork is often at the expense of crop growers, as they munch and dig away. If you are having issues with groundhogs digging in your garden, you have a few options to deal with them.

 

The first option is trapping. There are several different traps on the market that can help you. With both live-catch cages and leg-hold traps, you can take your pick of whether you want to relocate your unwanted guest or add him to the circle-of-life chain. Either way, if you want to be successful, make sure to use the right bait and to set the trap in the right location. Typically, right outside of their den hole is the best place.

 

The second option is defense. This is probably only a viable option if you have small gardens or raised beds. Using hardware cloth or other wire mesh products, you can construct a 3 to 4 foot high fence around your plot---and below it. Building a surrounding barrier 2 to 3 feet below the soil will keep groundhogs and other tunneling rodents from getting in through the ground. Above grade, make sure that you either keep the top portion of fence loose or angling back at 45 degrees. This will discourage climbing---of which the multi-talented whistlepig can do (crazy, isn’t it?).

 

The third option is hunting. If you’ve fancied the idea of being sniper after watching the latest Hollywood flick, you can always test your skills on the groundhog. No need to go into graphic detail here, but problem groundhogs can always be exterminated with a quick shot from a rimfire rifle--or a bow if you’re feeling particularly manly. And, because I’ve never been a fan of wasting opportunities, a harvested whistlepig can make decent meal—don’t let the rodent name scare you off…

 

While they can be particularly pesty, groundhogs have their place in the in our environment. They are an important food source for several predators—including the red fox. In controlled numbers, they can be a fun and interesting inhabitant on your landscape. If they aren’t causing significant damage, it’s probably just best to leave them be. They make an entertaining pet and at times, a decent meteorologist. 


Cahaba Design Studio is a landscape architecture studio located in Birmingham, Alabama that provides landscape design, land planning, and ecological design. As a division of Richter Landscape Company, the design studio is experienced in native plants, gardens, arboriculture, land preservation, and wildlife habitat design.