Pussytoes and Painted Ladies

Pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia) and Painted Lady Butterfly

It can happen in any neighborhood. Once Pussy Toes arrives on the Strip, pretty soon the Painted Ladies follow.

Some don’t think a respectable community should have these girls in plain sight, but for the past fifteen years I have encouraged it.

I first met “Pussytoes” at a ballpark.  My oldest son Tyler was spending endless hours in ball practice. One morning I wandered off by myself to explore the wild edges of the park.  The sound of birdsong was a peaceful respite to the voices of the coaches on the field – or my husband Michael in the stands.

And there she was – lying in the sun on a mound of the driest, worst-looking dirt imaginable.  I didn’t know her name at the time, but the silver leaved ground cover was beautiful.

I had to bring her home.

On the ride back, Michael wanted to know why – instead of watching our son play baseball and listening to Michael yell from the stands – I had dug up “dirty bags of weeds” instead.   I tried to show him the beauty of these unnamed plants, but by then he was talking to Tyler about “keeping your eye on the ball.”

So I planted the silver leaved ground cover in my front yard along a sunny island strip.  I looked it up: Antennaria plantaginifolia, or “Pussytoes.” Silvery leaves, totally deer proof, light up any sunny spot. In the spring, they send up their flowers, five fuzzy “toes” that resemble a cat’s paw – thus the name.

 It just so happens that Pussytoes is the host plant for a native butterfly, the Painted Lady.

When the butterflies arrive in spring to flutter around my flowers it’s like watching angels visit.  The Painted Lady is not a woman of disrepute.  She is a beautiful soul that brings joy to my heart.

I plant native nectar plants each season for the butterflies. But when it comes to attracting them year after year, you have to keep your eye on the ball; butterflies need not only nectar, but also a place to lay their eggs, something their caterpillar offspring will munch on.

I have noticed painted lady caterpillars every summer in my front yard, sheltered in the silver leaves of the Pussytoes.  Native plants feed native insects, which feed our wild birds and animals. If we all plant native plants, pretty soon a subdivision can be a thriving ecosystem – with Pussy Toes and Painted ladies on every corner.

For years I’ve listened to Michael complain these can’t be real plants because they don’t sell them at Pike’s.  Three years ago I began to see Pussytoes for purchase online.  I showed Michael so he’d know those “dirty bags of weeds” were actually considered prized ground cover by master gardeners.

He admitted he was wrong and apologized.  It’s fun winning an argument – even if it takes ten years.  You just have to keep your eye on the ball.

35 Natural Wonders in Georgia To See Before You Die

Painting of Cumberland Island beach by artist and writer-naturalist Ann Litrel

The wild beaches of Cumberland Island, Georgia

[A list authored by CHARLES SEABROOK
for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution,
Published on: 02/03/08]

Inspiration for this new series of paintings comes from Author and Naturalist Charles Seabrook. Since beginning my studies with the Georgia Naturalist Program, I’ve been paying more attention to the huge diversity of ecosystems right in our home state. This list by Mr. Seabrook, first published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, inspired my latest art-making trip, to Cumberland Island.

Here’s what Charles Seabrook had to say about Georgia’s Natural Wonders:

“Bookstores are filled now with such titles as “1000 Places You Must See Before You Die” and “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.”
Everywhere you turn, in fact, there are lists suggesting things you should do, see, read, taste or listen to before you die. So, I’ve come up with my own list — 35 Natural Wonders in Georgia You Must See Before You Die. You might have candidates of your own, but here are mine:

1.
Okefenokee Swamp. World-famous wetland.
2.
Marshes of Glynn. Far-as-the-eye-can-see coastal salt marshes that inspired poet Sydney Lanier to write his famous poem.
3. Cumberland Island National Seashore. Former President Jimmy Carter called it one of his most favorite places on Earth.
4. Ossabaw Island. Unspoiled barrier isle; amazing natural beauty.
5. Cabretta Beach, Sapelo Island. One of Atlantic coast’s most beautiful undeveloped beaches.
6. Woody Pond, Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge (McIntosh County). In spring, thousands of egrets, herons and endangered wood storks form spectacular nesting colonies.
7. Ebenezer Creek (Effingham County). National Natural Landmark; harbors 1,000 year-old bald cypress trees with huge buttresses eight to twelve feet wide.
8. Altamaha River. Lower Altamaha called “Georgia’s Amazon” for the lush, jungle-like growth along its banks; river’s entire 137 miles unfettered by dams.
9. Broxton Rocks Ecological Preserve (Coffee County). Rugged sandstone rock outcrop deep in South Georgia; sculpted over centuries by water into fissures and shallow ravines that are now havens for many rare plants.
10. Ohoopee Dunes State Natural Area (Emanuel County). Sometimes called “Georgia’s Desert” because of its dry, sandy soil and scrubby vegetation. Biologists call it an “enchanting environment.”
11. Wade Tract Preserve (Thomas County). Privately-owned 200-acre swath of old-growth long leaf pine and wire grass; one of few remaining examples of great long leaf forest that once covered Coastal Plains region.
12. Providence Canyon State Park (Stewart County). Eroded land that transformed into a place of great beauty; sometimes called Georgia’s “Little Grand Canyon.”
13. Doe Run Pitcher Plant Bog Natural Area (Colquitt County). Lush growths of carnivorous pitcher plants in spring.
14. Pine Mountain (Harris County). Spectacular view from Dowdell’s Knob of valley below; President Franklin D. Roosevelt often came here to picnic and meditate.
15. Warm Springs (Meriwether County). Naturally warm, soothing water bubbling from Earth; FDR came here for treatment of polio.
16. Oaky Woods Wildlife Management Area (Houston County). See for yourself why conservationists are intent on saving from development this place of roaming black bears and rare wildflower habitats.
17. George L. Smith State Park (Emanuel County). Bald cypresses growing in pond are magnificent in fall when they take on their orangish-bonze tints.
18. Sprewell Bluff State Park (Upson/Talbot counties). Little known gem on Flint River, which is one of South’s most beautiful and interesting streams; 3-mile trail offers superb views of river and rocky cliffs.
19. Palisades unit, Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area. Spectacular greenspace in midst of sprawling, bustling metro Atlanta.
20. Graves Mountain (Lincoln County). Rockhounds from all over world come here for amazing array of rocks and minerals.
21. Stone Mountain/Arabia-Davidson Mountain/Panola Mountain. Huge geological wonders that sport some of Georgia’s most colorful arrays of wildlflowers in spring and fall.
22. Tallulah Gorge (Rabun County). Hard granite walls fall perpendicular to land above, forming steep cliffs.
23. Amicalola Falls State Park (Dawson County). Falls plunge 729 feet in seven cascades; highest waterfall east of Mississippi River.
24. Richard Russell Scenic Highway. 14-mile-long road is not natural, but it winds through some of the most splendid mountain scenery in the Southeast. Along the way are trailheads to waterfalls and scenic spots.
25. Cloudland Canyon (Dade County). One of Georgia’s most scenic state parks; rugged geology and beautiful vistas.
26. Brasstown Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). At 4,784 feet above sea level, it’s Georgia’s highest mountain; four states can be seen from top.
27. Rabun Bald (Chattahoochee National Forest). Rivals Brasstown Bald in elevation and spectacular views.
28. The Pocket, Pigeon Mountain. (Walker County). Lush growths of colorful spring and fall wildflowers in a beautiful setting.
29. Rocktown, Pigeon Mountain. Stunning, house-size boulders make it a rival of its famous cousin, Rock City near Chattanooga.
30. McLemore Cove (Walker County). One of Southeast’s most picturesque mountain valleys.
31. Chattooga River (along Georgia-South Carolina border). Untamed and unimpeded; wild and rugged.
32. Sosebee Cove (Chattahoochee National Forest). High elevation, north-facing cove forest; rich diversity of shade tolerant trees, shrubs and wildflowers.
33. Cooper Creek Scenic Area (Chattahoochee National Forest). Harbors large hemlocks and white pines, some with bases as big as four feet in diameter.
34. Raven Cliffs Falls (Raven Cliffs Wilderness Area). Splendid waterfalls; trail to them almost equally stunning.
35. Anna Ruby Falls (Unicoi State Park, White County). A must-see for visitors.”

I Almost Got Frostbite On My Birthday

Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River, Nebraska: Evening Light, Winging Home

Pastel, Sandhill Cranes Over the Platte River: Evening Light, Winging Home

I celebrated my 50th birthday by shivering in a duck blind in Nebraska in the 10 degree weather before dawn.  I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes.  I remember looking at my sister Jane – This was her idea of a birthday trip?!!

Jane’s bucket list is all about seeing “The Earth’s Ten Great Animal Migrations.”  This includes whales, wildebeests, monarch butterflies and – the reason why I was freezing in Nebraska – Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane In Flight, drawing in charcoal, art by Ann Litrel

Sandhill Crane In Flight, a wingspan of six feet

The Sandhill Crane migration through the Great Plains was timed perfectly just before my birthday, Jane assured me. A half million birds flying together, resting each night in the wetlands of Nebraska’s Platte River, was reputedly a Natural Wonder, a sight not to be missed.  And so in March we flew to Omaha, drove across Nebraska to the Iain Nicolson Audubon Center at Rowe Sanctuary on the Platte River. And we woke before dawn in freezing weather just to see a bunch of birds.

And even though it annoyed me for just a moment to be shivering next to my earnest sister with that wide eyed joy on her face, I must confess: watching the Sand Hill Cranes was absolutely magical.

A half million cranes rose up with a resounding cry at dawn, in a shadowy explosion of wings against the sky. Prehistoric creatures with giant wing spans six feet across, they flew in widening circles over the water, wheeling and returning for many minutes, calling to each other in low haunting trills so distinctive I shall never forget them. They scattered to feed in the surrounding fields, fueling their flight to the Arctic. Some would fly as far as Siberia, we learned, where they would nest, and raise their young, returning in the fall to their winter homes in the south.

I came back to Georgia inspired by my Nature Encounter – the cranes, the lonely wetlands, the arching skies.  I began painting.  Visitors to my studio were intrigued.  Several started planning their own trip next spring to Nebraska right on the spot.

Then came the buzz kill. My friend Jan Parrish arrived with her golf buddy, Joey Peeples, both wearing wide smiles as they listened to my adventure about braving the freezing wetlands.

“You know,” Jan told me, “you can see the cranes right here in Georgia.”

“Yeah,” Joey chimed in.  “We see them every spring when we’re out golfing.”

I didn’t believe them until Joey proceeded to imitate the exact warbling cry I had heard from the cranes in Nebraska.

We enjoyed a good laugh. I consulted the internet when I got home. Sure enough, an eastern population of Sandhills – distinct from the Great Plains group – does indeed fly right over Woodstock, migrating north from Florida to Canada.

And one quiet morning last spring as I sipped my early morning coffee, I heard the cries of the migrating cranes, far overhead. I looked outside and saw them flying high over my own backyard, these beautiful winged creatures moving forward in life on their long journey home.

And their song brought tears to my eyes.

Sandhill Cranes on Platte River at Night

The Secret of the Fall

Painting of Eastern Towhee Searching for food in fallen leaves,

Eastern Towhee In the Leaves

When I was a kid, I liked everything about the fall leaves.

I liked stomping. I liked raking. I liked jumping.

Wading down the sidewalk, I kicked up a splash of leaves with every step. CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH, four blocks to school every morning, four blocks home in the afternoon. Watching out for the prettiest leaf. This one? Or this one? Comparing. Look, see this red and orange? Mine is prettiest.

Raking was fun, too. A teetering mound, as high as your head. Pile it up, go at a run, a flying leap – DIVE IN! Buried – up to your eyes in rustling fall leaves.

Then the musty earth smell, the roar in your ears, the little bits of leaves, everywhere – in your hair, on your clothes, in your socks.

The only part that was no fun came at the end. The bagging. The bigger the pile, the longer it took.

After a few years, leaves didn’t seem so fun anymore. And maybe that’s the end of childhood,when you can see the work of bagging – before you even start the fun of jumping.

It ruins fall leaves. And a whole lot of other things, too.

But I have a secret, a secret which has brought back the fun of fall yardwork. And I am willing to share this secret, a secret that has earned me 2 (count them, two) Yards of the Month.

 

You DO NOT Have To Bag Your Leaves

As an artist and a gardener, I can tell you that getting rid of leaves is one of those suburban things that just doesn’t make sense.

Salamanders are s sign of a healthy eco-system in your yard

Salamanders Love Hiding In Moist Leafves

From a gardener’s perspective, leaves are healthy. They make great compost. They have nutrients in them that the trees draw up from deep in the soil. WHY would we throw them out?

From an artist’s perspective, leaves are no problem. They’re brown, just like mulch. They look great in your beds, around your shrubs. If your leaves look “too big,” just run them over a few times with a mower or put them in a shredder before you blow them into your shrubbery beds.

The entire trick to mulching with leaves is this: edges. Keep the edges of your beds neat. Take a few bags of brown mulch. Mound the mulch along the edges of the beds. Six inches in, let it thin out. Take a few handfuls and scatter it into the bed so the mulch blends into the natural shredded leaves.

Take it from an artist – the human eye is mysteriously attracted to neat edges, and for some reason will ignore all kinds of messiness – if only the edges are neat.

Save money on mulch. Save money on fertilizer. Leave the Leaves.

 Finally, Be Kind to Small Animals In Your Yard

Leaves make a healthier yard.

Leaves are healthy for all the little creatures who live in our yards. Creatures most of us stopped noticing once we got all grown up. Snails, fireflies, lizards, birds, turtles, salamanders… leaf litter sustains insects and the many, many small animals who eat them.

They all depend on the nutrients of leaf litter to sustain the base, the foundation of their food chain.

Snails and Other Small Creatures Thrive In Leaf Litter

Snails and Other Small Creatures Thrive In Leaf Litter

So be healthy. Be kind to small animals. And remember the secret to having fun again in the fall –

Leave the Leaves.

A Backyard Peeping Tom

Eastern Box Turtles

 

Ecology In the Suburbs: Saving Nature In Your Own Backyard

The coffee was percolating early one morning when I found my husband Michael with binoculars, staring intently into the backyard. Since I stopped using pesticides and herbicides ten years ago, my backyard has become a haven for all kinds of wildlife. I wondered what Michael was staring at.

It wasn’t deer or foxes or birds that had captured his attention. Over the years, I’ve nudged Michael to appreciate the wonders of nature, and he’s become an avid turtle watcher. Ten years ago, Michael didn’t like the idea of letting our backyard go wild. He didn’t like me encouraging the moss on the northern exposure rather than struggling with grass. Now the backyard with its velvet green is the perfect place to spot turtles, making their morning journey from one wooded area to the next in search of breakfast.

Turtles live 50 years, some even up to 100. The Eastern box turtles that we’ve found in our backyard were likely around well before this neighborhood was built thirty years ago.

One box turtle is definitely not the same as another. We’ve come to recognize them by the various markings on their shells. The males have red eyes, the females brown.

This morning we saw something new. Turtles are solitary animals, and we’ve seldom seen more than one at a time. But this morning we witnessed two turtles biting and fighting.

Ultimately, one turtle lost the fight. He actually wound up flat on his back. We watched him struggle for ten minutes, unable to right himself. Venturing into the yard, we saw that it was a turtle we didn’t recognize. Pinky, the victor, was close by.  Michael righted our new visitor and was instantly in good spirits as the turtle ambled off.

He’d saved a life – as a doctor, always a good way to start the day.

While we finished our coffee, I did a little research on my cell phone.

A Smithsonian article revealed something unexpected. What we had seen was less of a turtle fight and more of a turtle tryst. Indeed, the article reported that a male will sometimes die after copulation if he flips over and can’t get right side up again.

This discovery was embarrassing to some degree. Michael and I were not simply nature lovers enjoying the wonders of backyard ecology. In creating a hospitable environment for flora and fauna, absent herbicides and pesticides, attracting bugs and groundcover for wildlife, we’d apparently become something much more insidious, maybe even sordid –

X-rated turtle watchers, spying unnoticed on a tender turtle moment.

I kept this information to myself, unsure of the implications.  Were we nature lovers – or peeping toms?

But Michael was not bothered by the revelation. After I told him what we’d been watching, what most upset his scientific soul was that we hadn’t captured it on video.

We’re still debating on a name for the new turtle he rescued.

We’re thinking, “Casanova.”

Mexican Migrants In My Backyard: Monarch Butterfly Migration

Art of a Monarch butterfly Garden, Watercolor by Ann Litrel

Now that my boys are grown and gone, I sometimes feel like the only kid left outside in our neighborhood. When I see a turtle, I run out to take a picture and give it a name. (So far I’ve named eight.) When my husband finds a cool bug like a writing spider or praying mantis, he knows to send me a picture because it makes me happy.

And in September every year, I go out in my garden to look for monarch caterpillars in my milkweed.

Passing neighbors no doubt wonder what I’m doing – a middle aged lady with sketchbook and camera, crouching down to stare at something no one else can see. That’s okay. As the world becomes more developed, I’m interested in what small animals, bugs and critters can survive in my yard – a tiny oasis of wild plants and flowers in the middle of a big subdivision.

Who Feeds Them?

When I was a kid, every first grade classroom had a glass fish tank for hatching monarch butterflies. Every kid got to see the caterpillar form a chrysalis and hatch two weeks later into a grown butterfly.

Nowadays, the monarch butterfly’s annual flight to and from Mexico appears in innumerable documentaries. It’s named one of the world’s “ten great animal migrations.” What you might not know is that the entire migration takes four generations to complete. The female butterfly that flies north from Mexico in spring to mate, lay her eggs, and die, is the great grandmother of the butterfly that makes its way back south in the fall to hibernate. He or she will roost sleeping with millions of its fellow monarchs, and then fly north in the spring to mate and start the cycle all over again.

Fifty years ago, milkweed was common along roads and in fields. It’s the only plant that monarch caterpillars will eat. In my small hometown in the Midwest, we could always find a stand of milkweed – with caterpillars – to bring to class for the annual hatching.

This was not true for my sons. In the manicured subdivision where we live now, anything that vaguely resembles a natural field is sprayed or mowed down to create the appearance of conforming green. Outside subdivisions in rural areas, most farms use herbicides, killing the strips of wildflowers between fields that used to feed and host butterflies in their migrations.

Home Owners Form a Grassroots Rescue Operation

Across the country, many people have joined together to fill the gap, swelling into a grassroots movement to plant Monarch waystations in their own gardens. These small plots and patio pots include nectar flowers for butterflies, and host plants for caterpillars to eat. In an amazing feat of species survival, even a tiny spot of asters can call a monarch down from the sky to feed, and lay their eggs if they are so fortunate to find a milkweed.

As I write this article, I take a break every few hours to watch a baby monarch caterpillar eat milkweed I’ve placed in a jar. By the time this magazine appears, the caterpillar will have made its chrysalis and hatched. And hopefully, I will see it spread its wings and take off on its flight for a long winter’s sleep in Mexico.

Plant a Monarch Waystation This Fall for Next Spring

Nectar Flowers for Adult Butterflies

  • magenta Echinacea
  • purple Liatris
  • gold Black-Eyed Susan
  • pink Joe-Pye Weed
  • yellow Sneezeweed

Host Plants for Monarch Caterpillars

  • Common milkweed
  • Butterfly weed

Online sources for native plants:

www.easywildflowers.com
www.nichegardens.com

 

Monarch caterpillar feeding on a milkweed leaf in this Georgia suburbs garden.

Just hatched: a baby monarch caterpillar feeds on a milkweed leaf in my Atlanta suburban garden.

Carpe Diem

Art Showing Joe-Pye Weed and Summer Butterflies

Swallowtails and Joe Pye Weed, A Healing Garden

For August, I want to share something from my journal last year.

August 8, 2015

I am healing this week.

The breast surgeon cut a gash in my right breast to remove a lump of flesh. Stage Zero, carcinoma in situ.

I am in no pain, so it’s hard to rest. I go outside every few hours. The Joe-Pye weed billows down the hill in my backyard, six feet tall. It began blooming a few weeks ago and hardly drew any visitors, but now, in its third week, it has begun to take on the quality of an independent colony.

Iridescent blue wasps, honeybees, plodding black carpenter bees, odd flying insects of spotted colors I have never seen. Dozens and dozens of small butterflies.

And this week, the swallowtails and fritillaries have begun to alight.

When down there, I stand in reverie, letting this swath of nature wash over me with the buzzing and fluttering and hum of life.

The energy feels like a healing balm. I drink in the medicine, letting the sun and the sounds of a meadow filter into my subconscious, into my pores like an unseen serum.

It’s a cloud, a mist of energy or life. Surrounded as it is by quiet and unmoving green, it almost feels like a starship or perhaps a space colony, humming with energy from another dimension – as though it could separate from the earth below and take off into the sky at any moment.

It vibrates with a higher energy than the spaces around it.

Over the three weeks I’ve watched it – it must act as a kind of homing beacon – more and more butterflies find it. Fritillaries flitter around each other, bees hover over the blossoms. Black swallowtails fly in to join a half dozen yellow.

This afternoon I found a katydid on the milkweed. I never get to see bugs like this. A little lizard dashed off into the grasses.

My mom Elizabeth Wallace and me

My mom, Elizabeth Wallace, and me

My mom stands out with me.

She is one of the people whom I know can stand in a patch of grass and listen to the insects buzzing, and think it’s just as rich and wonderful as I do. This time together feels precious. Mom is getting older. So am I. Who knows how long we have to enjoy unhurried conversation, moments as insignificant as standing in a small garden of grass and billowing wildflowers and enjoying the hum of insects, the flitter of scores of butterflies?

But I don’t enter these meditations until later, when I reflect upon the moment.

I’m just there, basking in it.


 Resources

 A “Carpe Diem” Butterfly Garden

Try these natives from your local nursery:
Joe-Pye Weed      Blue asters      Goldenrod     Coneflower (Echinacea)

Online, you can order butterfly plant or seed collections from “A Native Gardener’s Companion,” www.PrairieMoon.com

 

Midwinter Visitors

Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers

The Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers.

Today as ice fell from the white-gray sky, I remembered a bitter day a decade ago. The February morning was cold, and my two sons Tyler and Joseph and I stayed inside. Subdued in our post-holiday routines, the hours passed slowly. But around midmorning, an unfamiliar sound outside became noticeable. Barely audible at first, it grew, seeming to draw nearer, until it became a distinct twittering and chirping, a swelling of voices – birds singing!

“Mommy, come see!” My five-year old Joseph was pressed against the window. Tyler and I followed. The sky was alive – electrified – with birds. Flitting from tree to tree – birds, and more birds, circling tree trunks, probing bark, poking through the leaves.

Scores of chickadees and titmice filled the yard, along with birds I had never seen – small brisk woodpeckers, a nuthatch with a brown head, a little warbler with a flash of yellow at its tail. Tyler brought forth the bird guide, and we repeated each name for Joseph as we found it: Downy Woodpecker! Brown-headed Nuthatch! Yellow-rumped Warbler!

But our visitors moved on long before we tired of the show. The yard emptied like a sieve, leaking life and song. For hours the boys talked about the birds. Why had they come? Where had they gone? And they lamented – why did they leave so soon?

A field guide dispelled the mystery:  “…Continuing throughout fall and winter into early spring, mixed foraging flocks patrol forests and fields…mostly insectivorous species…A forest will appear empty of birds in winter, only to suddenly have the trees swarming with vocalizing chickadees, titmice, and other species.”

All our feeders filled with seed, all the fruiting shrubs planted just for birds – and our visitors were after plain old insects. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The birds never returned. Yet they sang in my memory all winter long, a bright song in that dark season. And one day as I sadly looked upon my cold silent yard it came to me – their visit was not just a memory; it was a promise – a promise that even in the cold of winter, Life would endure, a promise that one spring morning the silence would end and we would hear the songs once more.

How do birds survive the winter? Many small birds have an average body temperature of 107 degrees, and can forage with no apparent discomfort. The typical chickadee has 2000 feathers, with muscular control over all of them. It “fluffs” these feathers to gain better insulation. Some species actually roost together in tree cavities to conserve heat. These include the Brown Creeper, the Winter Wren, the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the Eastern Bluebird.

Drawing birds closerTo attract foraging birds, you can try making a thin “pssh pssh” sound or kissing the back of your hand – sounds which mimic distress calls.

A good nature guide for reading: John Krichner’s Ecology of Eastern Forests, of the Peterson Field Guide series.