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FLORA: Water’s edge botany

By Ken Moore

After months and months, I finally got the kayak out on the water a couple weeks ago. I wanted to return to the Robeson Creek tributary of the Haw River not far above the Jordan Lake dam. I remembered launching the kayak at Robeson Creek being a bit tricky several years ago. Not so now; there’s a new canoe/kayak roll-onto-the-water floating launching dock that’s a joy to use.

Buttonbush flowers encourage a “closer look.” Photo by Ken Moore

I’ve set paddle from there three times during the past two weeks – twice with Tony, one of my “let’s-get-lost-in-the-woods” walking buddies, and once with my partner/spouse, Kathy.

Though each paddle was along the same shorelines, the adventures were surprisingly different.

The experiences have included impressive fish-jumping displays and spectacular bird sightings. A noisy kingfisher or two are always to be expected. The quiet-when-standing and loudly croaking-when-flying great blue herons are too numerous to count. The family of osprey screaming and fishing in proximity is awesome. And Mary Sonis’ dramatic image of the bald eagle taking flight in this month’s MILL came to mind this past Sunday when Kathy and I marveled at seeing three mature and three immature eagles at various shoreline sites during the paddle.

However, there are stretches of quiet, non-animal activity during a several-hour paddle. “Not to worry,” as the British love to say. There are so many plants hanging out along the shoreline that even casual botanizing can be engaging for hours.

In the wild, buttonbush prefers water’s edge. Photo by Ken Moore

Most visible along water’s edge now, while it’s in flower, is buttonbush, Cephalanthus occidentalis, literally hanging out there with its roots in the water. Buttonbush is common in wet habitats throughout the eastern half of North America and is a favored food plant for a great diversity of pollinators including painted lady, cabbage white, clouded sulphur, eastern black swallowtail and monarch butterflies.

If you have a pond, you can easily establish buttonbush along the edges. And surprisingly, you can grow buttonbush without having a wet spot. My wild-gardening buddy, Sally Heiney, was proud to describe a specimen buttonbush in the botanical garden’s Plant Families Garden that “never knew it likes to have its feet in water.” That specimen is huge – one literally stands in the shade beneath it – and Sally says it gets watered very infrequently.

Buttonbush towers above the blue-coiled sculpture at the botanical garden. Photo by Ken Moore

There is an impressive newly planted specimen along the main entrance to the botanical garden’s Visitor Center, and nearby you’ll find buttonbush in pots at the plant sales area. Other sources of buttonbush are Cure Nursery and Mellow Marsh Farm.

Along the edges of Robeson Creek/Haw River, buttonbush will be in flower for another week or two, followed closely by the flowering of rose-mallow, Hibiscus moscheutos, another water’s-edge plant that takes well to cultivation.

A leisurely paddle reveals many interesting plants, like impressive clumps of Southern wild rice, Zizaniopsis miliacea, standing tall within extensive marshy zones of lush Asiatic dayflower, Murdannia keisak. Whether or not you can name them, you can enjoy water’s-edge botany at a distance or close-up.

Email Ken Moore at flora@carrborocitizen.com. Find previous Ken Moore Citizen columns at The Annotated Flora.

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