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Getting lost in the winter woods

2012 January 19

Evergreen, three-lobed hepatica leaves are unmistakable. Photo by Brian Stokes

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Last week woods-walking companion Tony Blanford took the lead to introduce Brian Stokes and me to his favorite “secret forest” of legendary oaks and beeches. Part of the goal was to get lost, and Tony succeeded in getting us totally turned around, leaving us with the unusual satisfying feeling of, “Well now, we may really be lost.”

Though Tony’s “secret forest” was a rather large acreage, we comforted ourselves with the thought that wild areas hereabouts are so contained that if we simply walk in a straight path, we’ll eventually emerge on some, hopefully familiar, road.

The real challenge then became walking a straight unmarked route through the forest.

We did eventually emerge from the forest right behind our parked vehicle. We humorously made note that our walk into and out of the woods described a circular straight route.

Brian and Tony continued to humor my preference for winter as my favorite outdoor season. And they remained keen to continue appreciating the diversity of tree bark. At one spot we enjoyed noting the differences of bark patterns of our three local pines.

The flat, smooth bark plates of loblolly pine, Pinus taeda, contrast with the bark plates of shortleaf pine, Pinus echinata, that exhibit distinctive depressed pinpoints, called resin ducts. The smaller bark plates of the Virginia scrub pine, Pinus virginiana, are less organized in appearance, often being scaly or otherwise peeling off the trunk. However, one needs to study other characteristics of leaf and cone to accurately recognize these three pines; perhaps we’ll take a closer look at these in a future Flora story.

Beneath Tony’s giant trees we delighted in finding numerous surprises on the forest floor. What Brian now calls the “love of his life” were countless specimens of the three-lobed, evergreen liverleaf, Hepatica (Anemone) americana. A good population of hepaticas calls for a return visit from mid-February through early March to see clusters of nickel-size, clear-blue flowers. With this year’s warm winter sunshine, however, expect to see flowers sooner.

Finding an earthstar on a woods walk is special. Photo by Brian Stokes

Also note that finding a sizable population of hepaticas indicates the site will likely reward the woods walker with a diversity of wildflowers during the spring.
For me, as much fun as getting lost was the unexpected find of several earthstars scattered along the creek slopes. Being on uncertain footing with my fungi identifications, I will simply describe earthstars as a type of puffball mushroom. The fine specimens we found, captured by Brian’s camera, were hardened, ebony-colored star shapes from which the puffball portion had discharged its spores and disintegrated sometime in the fall. Most of the earthstars were barely visible scattered in the leaf litter, but two on a mossy rock surface were easy to spot and simply spectacular!

I hope you are taking weekly woods walks, enjoying the beauty of trees in the winter and discovering other botanical surprises along the way. Search for your own “secret forest” in which to get lost, knowing that if you succeed, you won’t be lost for long. And take care to have a friend or two accompany you!

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Feasting on Ocracoke

2012 January 12
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A ring-billed gull trying to perch on cedar branches is fun to watch. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
I am still relishing attending the Sixth Annual Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association oyster roast, shrimp boil and fish stew fundraiser on the eve of New Year’s Eve.

The tradition of observing the year’s changeover on Ocracoke Island began 13 years ago for Kathy Buck and me at the invitation of Carrborites David and Terri Swanson, who established their own tradition decades before. This particular year was special in that we were joined by other Carrborites Giles Blunden, Ginger Blakely and Muskie and Vikki Cates.

Hundreds of folks from as far away as Washington, D.C., helped celebrate this group of local fishermen, who, with broad citizen support, succeeded in rescuing the island’s waterfront seafood market and making it a viable base of locally harvested seafood for citizens across the state. (Visit for more information.)

Also feasting on the island during our visit were hundreds of gulls, mostly ring-billed, participating in a cedar-berry feeding-frenzy for days on end.

Try to imagine a gull perching on a lax cedar branch. Those gulls were actually mostly relying on their wings as they attempted to perch on the coastal red cedar, Juniperus virginiana var. silicicola, to pick off ripe berries.

The predominate tree cover of the Outer Banks is the coastal red cedar, close kin to the common red cedar, Juniperus virginiana, of the mainland. (See “A tale of two cedars” in the Flora archives). For the past 13 years we’ve enjoyed the beauty of the salt-sprayed, wind-sculptured cedars, of which the female specimens are laden with clusters of beautiful blue-gray berries. But this was the first year we’ve observed such frenzied feeding on cedar berries. We are accustomed to seeing cedar waxwings feeding on cedar berries, but gulls – wow!

Gulls in a feeding-frenzy on Ocracoke’s cedar berries. Photo by Ken Moore

I quickly sought a definitive explanation from the numerous birders present for the annual Portsmouth and Ocracoke Island bird counts. The general response was that such frenzied gull-feeding on juniper berries had not been particularly noted before. By contrast, some full-time island residents remembered such gull activity in some years. Some remarked that gulls went after juniper berries when they were starving. Other residents noted that gulls always seem to be starving and will eat anything, anytime.

My need for a specific explanation led me to seek out birder Jeannie Kraus, botanist/ecologist and author of A Guide to Ocean Dune Plants Common to North Carolina. Jeannie had not made particular note of such gull activity, but was definite on the fact that gulls are omnivores. She further inquired of noted expert birder John Fussell III, author of A Birder’s Guide to Coastal North Carolina. John related that ring-billed and laughing gulls in particular occasionally eat berries as well as insects. John Fussell’s birding associate Jack Fennell added that when the gulls’ favorite food, menhaden, is scarce, they go after berries, human food and garbage.

So there you have it. For whatever reason, the gulls are outcompeting cedar waxwings on Ocracoke’s cedar trees this winter.

As for me, I’m still in disbelief after seeing dozens of gulls trying to perch on cedar branches. In the context of the many noted medicinal properties of cedar berries, as well as their use to flavor gin, I’m imagining Ocracoke’s population of gulls being very healthy, or at least very happy, for a few days.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Winter tree watch

2012 January 5
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by Robert

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

I hope some of you joined in on the Eno River Association New Year’s Day Hike. That annual tradition began more than 40 years ago.

More recently, 20 years ago, the Blue Hill Reservation, a state park in Milton, Mass., initiated First Day hikes for the American State Parks system. This year for the first time, state parks in all 50 states sponsored First Day hikes. We can be proud that 27 of North Carolina’s state parks joined the Eno River Association in conducting a New Year’s Day hike.

The unmistakable bark of loblolly pine (right) contrasts with the rough grey bark of the elm on the left. Photo by Ken Moore

Now don’t stop with that “first hike.” Resolve to take a walk at least once a week. If you need encouragement, make note that the Eno River Association has scheduled Sunday walks ( from now through spring.

I think the winter season is the best time to be outside, when the bareness and sparseness of nature reveals the essence and beauty of it all. There’s so much to see and absorb in the winter landscape that it can be overwhelming. I enjoy focusing on the trees. Think of it as a winter tree watch.

Walk some distance into the forest and pause. Look all around; unless you’re in a stand of evergreen pines, you may feel a slight panic, lost in a wilderness of grey monotony. Close your eyes and slowly open them to take a closer look all around.

Trees reveal all kinds of interesting traits when they are leafless. For this particular walk, just focus on bark, the protective skin of the trees. Some, like the pines, are easy to detect; we’ll take time to distinguish between our three locally common pines in a couple of weeks.

For now, concentrate on variations of bark on the other trees. Is the bark smooth, and if so, is it colored or rippled like a muscular arm? If the bark is rough, you have a whole world to explore. Is the bark peeling away from the tree in distinctive patterns? Is the bark deeply grooved (furrowed), and are those groves vertical, sometimes making diamond shapes, or crisscrossed with horizontal cuts making square or angular patterns?

Bark of a young black cherry

Bark of a young sycamore. Photos by Ken Moore

Don’t be concerned with names of all these different trees. It’s as if you’re at a holiday gathering of mostly new people. There are way too many new names to remember. Just enjoy meeting new personalities. If you are inclined, begin keeping a nature journal of sketches of bark patterns, or begin a digital photo collection. Either or both can come in handy later. If you sketch, I promise you’ll never forget what you’re seeing.

And now, as you continue your walk, notice how some trees may disappear or appear around you as you change your position from low ground to high ground, from sunny south slopes to darker north slopes. You’re observing that some trees can be mighty particular about the ground upon which they stand.

Well now, that’s enough for today’s walk. Enjoy the new nameless friends you’ve just made, and with whom you’ll be getting better acquainted on subsequent walks.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

Don’t discard that special tree

2011 December 29
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by Robert

Please don’t let this happen in your neighborhood.

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
As we reflect on the joys of the season, take time out to ponder the specialness of that tree you brought indoors to accompany your family traditions.

Most likely that special tree is a North Carolina Fraser fir, Abies fraseri, purchased from a temporary tree lot.

The former magnificent North Carolina high altitude evergreen Fraser fir forests, described as “Christmas Tree Land” by B.W. Wells in The Natural Gardens of North Carolina, are now much diminished by an exotic insect pest, the balsam wooly adelgid. I remember being awed back in 1967 by the blue-green Fraser fir forests along the Blue Ridge Parkway’s highest elevations. Those ridge-tops today are graveyards of dead stems of the formerly magnificent firs.

Today we see Fraser firs mostly as crops on Christmas tree farms in our mountain counties. Though helping the economy of the region, those farms don’t replace the biodiversity of the former Fraser fir forests. Unfortunately, much of the Christmas tree production depends upon heavy pesticide, herbicide and fertilizer applications with resulting toxic runoff. A bright side is that some farms are now moving toward non-toxic organic operations

With the holidays past, those trees are sadly discarded along curbsides. Please don’t let this happen in your neighborhood. Though we are fortunate to have curbside pickup for landfill composting, our special tree deserves better treatment. Honor that tree by continuing its usefulness on your home turf.

Sited upright near bird feeders, it becomes excellent shelter and perches for birds. It also provides an additional evergreen element in your landscape for several more months. When it finally turns brown, cut it into pieces for your compost bin or apply cut branches as mulch at the base of trees and shrubs. There is no sense discarding them curbside, making more work for public works crews.

Until some other creative homeowner is nominated, Chapel Hill resident Diana Steele once again receives the annual “Citizen Award for Creative Orphaned Christmas Tree Recycling.”

Preschoolers enjoy creative play with “rescued” holiday trees. Photo by Diana Steele

For years, Diana has inspired curbside rescuing of discarded trees to be dropped along the driveway of her Willow Hill Preschool at 1207 Mason Farm Road. Propped up along the edges of her parking spots, these trees provide instant dramatic landscape effect. For weeks the kids in her preschool drag them around, and with creative energies, like budding architects, make tree fortresses, tree castles and even giant bird nests to explore for weeks on end.

Under Diana’s supervision, the trees eventually settle into natural recycling as meandering brush-pile wildlife habitats along the woodland edges of her magical gardens and preschoolers’ discovery ground.

Every time I spot one of the orphaned trees at curbside, I rescue it. A few go to my yard, but most will find a happy home at Willow Hill Preschool. It’s a great celebration when the kids are there at drop-off time.

I hope you honor your tree this year by keeping it on your home turf, or at least on a neighborhood site where the kids may enjoy it on its way to a natural return to the soil.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Enchanted holly forest

2011 December 22
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Tony Blanford (left) and Brian Stokes dared to follow Ken Moore into the enchanted holly forest. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
For years I have made pilgrimages to my secret forest of American holly, Ilex opaca, on the edge of Jordan Lake. This year I shared that special woodland with nature-exploring buddies Brian Stokes and Tony Blanford.

We try to explore different nearby areas weekly and sometimes we steal deep into the woods, trying to get lost. Warning: Don’t try this alone and be advised to protect yourself with brightly colored hats and orange or yellow safety vests during the winter hunting season.

By now Brian and Tony have become accustomed to some of my quirkier notions, and I appreciated their patience when I carried through with my threat to have them photographed in the holly wearing reindeer antlers. Surprisingly, Tony outdid me when he pulled out his son Campian’s rather substantial moose headgear.

So here above you see the three of us paying tribute to my “secret” forest, which I now call the “enchanted” holly forest.

All the more reason never to venture into a forest alone; you never know what you may encounter.

The evergreen holly has for centuries been a traditional plant to bring indoors for the winter season (see Flora, 12/9/10). In Archibald Henderson’s The Campus of the First State University, 1949, Dr. W.C. Coker, founder of The Coker Arboretum, described this holly in the short section, “A Naturalistic Garden.” “Often planted in Chapel Hill lawns but now quite rare in the woods because of its abuse for Christmas decorations for over a hundred years, we would like to mention the Christmas holly (Ilex opaca).”

Dwarfed by Christmas holly, Tony Blanford (left) and Brian Stokes are wise to wear safety vests during hunting season. Photo by Ken Moore

There are so many fine cultivars of American holly in nurseries that we should all plant one or more in our gardens for year-round beauty as well as to have one’s own personal source of holly to bring indoors.

American “Christmas” holly is scattered about in the understory of local forests, but only now and then do we stumble upon an entire forest of this beautiful evergreen. Specimens such as the 200-year-old male hollies on the UNC campus and in front of Carrboro’s new fire station are seldom found in the wild these days.

When I do find myself in a far-as-the-eye-can-see holly forest, I have a sense that I’ve entered some enchanted place. That’s why I refer to this particular holly forest as an “enchanted” holly forest.

This one is easy to locate. Traveling west on U.S. 64, look for the gated abandoned road on the right just past the Parkers Creek arm of the lake. Park along the edge and follow the old roadbed a few hundred yards and you’ll spot an old logging road on the left. Walk there and soon you are engulfed in the “enchanted” holly forest.

Red berries are produced only on female holly trees. Photo by Ken Moore

This year there are only a few red berries on female trees. The birds have already feasted or it’s just a poor fruiting year at this spot.

Take time out of this Christmas week to discover and explore the “enchanted” forest with family and friends.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Gifting naturally

2011 December 15
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Leading others to local natural areas like Occoneechee Mountain is a special gift. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Accompanying the joy of the gift-giving season is often the stress of determining what to give. Here are a couple of ideas to avoid the potential exchange of “unnecessary stuff.” Give a gift of nature.

Consider giving memberships to local conservation groups like the Haw River Assembly, the Eno River Association, the N.C. Botanical Garden and the Triangle Land Conservancy – all “necessary stuff” in conserving the nature around us.

Or consider a gift of sharing a special place in nature you enjoy exploring. Describe your place in a card and wrap it like a present. For example, your gift may be a visit to nearby Occoneechee Mountain. You’ll enjoy introducing it to special folks who have never been there.

If you want to make it a really special gift, expand the gift to four seasonal walks or 12 monthly walks. This gift will require planning and time on your part. Many of our local nature preserves like the Botanical Garden’s Battle Park, UNC’s Carolina North Forest, the Triangle Land Conservancy’s Johnston Mill and Carrboro’s Adams Tract have interpretive kiosks with trail maps to guide you along diverse habitat experiences.

A great resource is right here in town at Carr Mill Mall. Townsend Bertram is a treasure trove of many free-for-the-asking regional trail maps. Among them are a Chapel Hill Bicycle & Greenways map and a guide to Carolina North Forest. Parking areas with interpretive kiosks are located at several of the entrances to Carolina North’s 20-plus miles of trails. One special trail, reserved for walkers only, is the Nature Observation Trail, and the recently installed Tripp Farm Trail bridge provides an impressive elevated view up and down Bolin Creek.

The new bridge in Carolina North Forest provides an elevated view of Bolin Creek. Photo by Ken Moore

One of my nearby favorite big areas is Duke Forest. As described in The Duke Forest at 75: A Resource for all Seasons by Ida Phillips Lunch, there are more than 45 entrances to a 7,050-acre network of more than 75 miles of gravel roads and footpaths spread across Durham, Orange and Alamance Counties. Most are close in, stretching from east Durham to north of Carrboro. The set of two large Duke Forest trail maps are worth the cost to purchase them. With these maps in hand, you can explore the forest every week for three months before repeating a trail.

There’s still time to create your gift of nature for a special person. Consider including a hand-scribed copy of Mary Oliver’s “How I go to the Woods.”

How I go to the woods
Ordinarily I go to the woods alone with not a single friend, for they are all smilers and talkers and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to the catbirds or hugging the old black oak tree. I have my way of praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone, I can become invisible. I can sit on the top of a dune as motionless as an uprise of weeds, until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can hear the almost unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me, I must love you very much.

Season’s greetings, naturally, from Ken Moore

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Occoneechee, our biggest little mountain

2011 December 1
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by Robert

Large chestnut oak acorns are essential for wildlife and a nice snack for some humans. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Among several little mountains scattered about the county, the tallest, at 867 feet, occupies Occoneechee Mountain State Natural Area near Hillsborough.

For folks out for a vigorous walk, there are several miles of up-and-down terrain to satisfy the most active. For those who enjoy poking along to see what one can see, several hours can pass by quickly.

It’s the most biologically diverse natural area in our region with several rare plant and animal species identified by the N.C. Natural Heritage Program.

From the high dry (xeric) Chestnut Oak Forest to the Piedmont Bottomland Forest, there are at least seven distinct plant communities, including extensive mountain laurel thickets so evident in the winter, and a lush fern glade evident spring through fall.

Whenever one explores the mountain, there are multiple discoveries to be made along the way. During the warm months, butterfly enthusiasts will be eager to spot brown elfin butterflies that feed on huckleberries and lowbush blueberries, as well as the sleepy duskywings that feed on leaves of the chestnut oak. Both of these little brown butterfly species are unusual for this area.

You can count on the mountain laurel being in flower every Mother’s Day weekend.

My favorite time of year on the mountain is winter because it’s fully visible. Rock boulders scattered atop the summit and ridges invite exploration. Resting on any of those boulders, one will likely marvel at the massive rock chestnut oaks, Quercus prinus, that dominate the forest.

Some of those trees must be up to 200 years old. You’ll likely be curious about the contorted appearance of some that have three, four and even five massive trunks radiating from the base. This oak is noted for sprouting vigorously from the ground if injured by fire or harvested for its timber.

An impressive multi-trunk chestnut oak “sprout” resulting from a fire long ago Photo by Ken Moore

The forest floor this time of year is a lovely thick carpet of mostly chestnut oak leaves. Beneath the leaves in some spots you’ll find large, 1-to-2-inch-long acorns beginning to sprout a little tap root. Like the white oaks, these acorns are edible and worth the effort to roast a few for winter snacks.

Occoneechee is steeped in history, beginning with the Native Americans who named it. There’s an abandoned quarry dating back to the 1880s on one side of the mountain and a present-day active pyrophyllite mine on another side. Curiously associated with the mountain’s erosion-resistant quartz rock is the soft phyrophyllite being quarried for the manufacturing of products ranging from soft, fine talcum powder to heat-resistant electrical insulators.

The more than 630-million-year-old geological story of the Occoneechee area is beautifully described and illustrated in the N.C. Geological Survey’s Information Circular 35, A Geologic Adventure Along the Eno River, by geologist Philip J. Bradley. It’s a very readable resource. ( In addition to descriptions of rock types and geologic history, the publication contains guides to the geology of four popular trails along the Eno River.

I recommend at least monthly explorations of Occoneechee, our highest little mountain.

Please note: Guided walks scheduled this month include a geology hike on Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. and a Christmas sunset hike on Dec. 22 at 5 p.m. Call 383-1686 to register.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

Thankful for a new place to walk

2011 November 23
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Merritt Pasture is great for winter explorations. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
This is the week of big gatherings of family and friends and a time for outdoor excursions together. Daily joggers and walkers will be sharing local pathways with larger assemblages of folks.

The wealth of trails and greenways offering us access to the natural areas of our community is worthy of our thanks.

Chapel Hill’s most recent addition to its greenways, the Morgan Creek Trail: Merritt Pasture Access, is most definitely appreciated. Dozens of folks, from grandparents with baby strollers to dog-walkers and joggers, were making good use of this newest pathway this past Saturday afternoon. This Thanksgiving Day, I suspect it will be discovered by many.

From the parking area, located just east of Kingswood Apartments along the N.C. 54 bypass, one may explore west on the unpaved sewer easement along the creek toward Frank Porter Graham Elementary School, or enjoy the newly paved portion as it travels east.

The paved pathway to the east meanders through the forest and across the utility easement, providing close-up experiences with beautiful winter stems and seed heads of wildflowers and grasses. Generally, walkers seem more intently engaged with their dogs or conversations with companions than in observing the nature about them; last Saturday, however, one couple was eager to inquire about the fluffy clematis seed heads that had caught my attention.

In fact, between the parking area and the elevated wooden walkway approaching the James Taylor Bridge, there are two species of native clematis sporting quite different seed heads.

For walkers interested in subtle discoveries along the way, there is much to reward observant eyes.

My special discovery of the day was along the southern edge of the pathway a short distance before the gentle ascent onto the elevated wooden walkway. There in the leaf litter were numerous recently fallen fruit of a pale hickory, Carya pallida. Those shiny little hickory nuts are described as tasty; I’ll make an effort during this holiday to laboriously extract some meat from those smallish half-inch nuts to determine how tasty they may be.

Pale hickory nuts are among many natural treasures spotted along the new greenway. Photo by Ken Moore

Continuing on beneath the James Taylor Bridge, the path is sited close enough to Morgan Creek to provide nice views and a glimpse into the distant past where the stone foundation of an earlier bridge silently rests, almost hidden within the forest. What stories that old stone foundation must contain.

The paved path ends at the bottom of the extensive rolling former farm pasture of the longtime-resident Merritt family. To many, particularly the kids, this becomes the highlight of the greenway. The Town of Chapel Hill now manages the open pastureland to preserve several large populations of milkweed for butterfly habitat, with wildflowers and native grasses. For the winter season, most of the rolling hillside is open for kite flying and other pleasures so special to the kids.

Whether or not you explore this new greenway with special folks this week, wherever you choose to engage nature, remember to pause in thankfulness for all the trails through the nature around us.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

So many colors

2011 November 17
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From a distance, this yellow red maple looks like a hickory. Photo by Ken Moore

By Ken Moore
Flora Columnist
Emerging from the forest interior last week, the afternoon sun was dazzling on the big tree ahead. That brilliant yellow made me think first of hickory trees, which, along with tulip poplars, southern sugar maples and elms, are the common local trees most associated with yellow fall colors.

Walking across the opening to take a closer look, I quickly altered my reasoning. Opposite simple leaves (definitely not hickory leaves, which are alternate compound leaves) with sharp angles between the leaf lobes and margins of sharp pointed teeth screamed out to me, red maple!

Indeed, I should have known better. That yellow was not the rich golden yellow (like yellow mixed with a bit of mustard) characteristic of our hickories. I had forgotten the description from Fall Color and Woodland Harvests by Bell & Lindsey, a recommended companion for any woods-walker in the fall.

But aren’t red maples supposed to be red? Well, usually they are; that’s one of the special attractions of fall in New England and the Carolina mountains. Red maple commonly occurs east of the Mississippi all the way from southern Canada down deep into Florida. With that broad natural occurrence, we can expect regional variations. Red maples seem most predictably red in cooler climatic regions. Here in the Piedmont, magnificent red red maples occur only occasionally. Hereabouts, I find myself most frequently looking at yellow red maples.

Now this particular yellow red maple was special, as so many of them are. Here and there, scattered among the yellow, were a few brilliant red leaves. It’s curious how nature expresses itself.

Our local yellow-red maples often bear singular red leaves. Photo by Ken Moore

When shorter and cooler days halt the production of a plant’s green pigment chlorophyll, the ever-present yellow pigments carotin and xanthophyll are then allowed to express shades of yellow.

The red and orange colors of black gum, sassafras and some of the maples erupt from anthocyanin compounds, which are produced by sugars and starches in the leaves after cessation of chlorophyll production.

While some tree species are characteristically yellow or red and orange, others, like some maples and the sweet gum, contain all these pigments. Variables of environmental influences from year to year result in the dazzling diversity of colors we enjoy. My favorite of all trees is the sweetgum, which year after year can exhibit all colors on the same tree.

I had returned last week to where the fall flora class two weeks ago determined that we had found peak color. Though the recent wind and rain had reduced much of the color of that particular scene, there remained many spots of peak color showing off all around. Combined with the subtle beauty of the emerging winter landscape and a surprise encounter with a group of flowering witch hazels, Hamamelis virginiana, I became aware of a wonderful spiritual and sensory overload.

So here’s a challenge for you. As peak color continues, overlapping with an emerging winter landscape, go exploring outdoors this week to discover your own sensory overload.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora (

With a sharp eye, you will spot witch hazel flowering in local forests. Photo by Ken Moore

More than “peak”

2011 November 10
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Ken Moore
Flora Columnist

Exploring my favorite power line right-of-ways last Saturday, still chasing after the elusive “peak” of fall color, I was surprised to find colorful wildflowers following the recent frosts.

Flowering since mid-September, one of my favorite fall flowers is frost aster, Aster pilosus, more correctly, Symphyotrichum pilosum. Its white-flowered stems are scattered freely about my yard and vigorous clumps, appearing like tiny shrubs, are still evident along rural roadsides.

In spite of frost, frost asters continue to sparkle along roadsides. Photo by Ken Moore

Chapel Hill resident Mickey Jo Sorrel selected frost aster to study as her project for the N.C. Botanical Garden’s fall flora class. The class projects included a challenge to define the selected native plant with a haiku. Mickey Jo’s haiku shows that she truly understands the plant.

Scraggly, nondescript,
But the meek shall inherit.
Must resist weeding.

Beginning as a winter basal rosette of “scraggly, nondescript” leaves, Mickey Jo does “resist weeding” it from her garden, knowing in advance that “the meek shall inherit.” Common frost aster thrives throughout the challenging growing season to dominate entire fields in the fall with a layer of snow-white flowers, appearing like frost on chilly mornings. Mickey Jo likes to make certain she always has some in her garden.

Make note here not to confuse diminutive frost asters with the eye-catching sea myrtle, Baccharis halimifolia. This large shrub has suddenly burst onto the roadside scene with billowy masses of white. (See Flora: “A Plant that’s on the move,” Nov. 8, 2007) We are not seeing flowers; we are seeing masses of white seed heads, each tiny seed bearing little white plumes awaiting a wind for transport to faraway destinations.

This plant of the coastal salt marshes was not so locally common three decades ago. Now it is aggressively invading roadsides and other disturbed areas at an alarming rate. Travelers to and from coastal areas have helped spread this opportunistic plant inland along highway corridors. Once established, it’s almost impossible for other native plants to become established.

Now back to my recent power-line adventure: More impressive to me than the late flowering of the asters was the diversity of pollinating insects. One would have thought the recent freezes would have eliminated this year’s populations.

While taking a closer look at brilliant violet-hued, big-flowered asters, Aster grandiflorus (still not used to the new name, Symphyotrichum grandiflorum), I counted no fewer than six different insects vigorously visiting the flower heads.

This common buckeye survived frosts to visit a colorful large-flowered aster. Photo by Ken Moore

Among the visiting insects were solitary bee, honeybee, thread-waisted wasp and a common buckeye butterfly. The buckeye is reported to be migrating south because it can’t survive freezing temperatures. Well now, this one has survived, though it did appear to have had several rough nights. It was quite lively in the afternoon sun however, and the experience made me pause to marvel at the perfectly aligned seasonal cycles of flowers and their partner insects. I wonder if those same insects find shelter among the flowers that visit.

Whether or not you have a favorite power line to walk, there’s still time to get out for fall color with flower and insect surprises along the way.

Email Ken Moore at Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.