Nature Girl Goes to the Beach: Part 1

Guess where I’ve been this week?

That’s right – I’ve been buried under piles of dirty laundry!

Two weeks worth of laundry, in fact, because we went on vacation to the beach last week.  I hate laundry.  But this was sooo worth it.

The mountains hold my heart and always will, but, in the summer, the ocean calls.  And, yes, I did make just a few nature observations in between swimming with my daughter and sleeping late and gorging on incredible seafood dinners.  The first and biggest observation I made was . . .

Moon Phases & Tides

The moon made the high tides and low tides incredible while we were at the beach!  This was  because we arrived on the night of the new moon.

The new moon, or “no moon” occurs every month (28 days, actually) when, from our perspective here on earth, the moon is directly between us and the sun.  The sun shines on the half of the moon facing away from us, and the moon rises and sets at the same time as the sun, so we see “no” moon at night.  During the new moon and, two weeks later, the full moon, when the Earth, sun, and moon are all lined up, the gravitational pull on the ocean waters (what makes tides) is greater.  This creates very high high tides and very low low tides, and that’s called “spring tide” because of how the tide springs forth so high.  (Has nothing to do with the season.)

Had we come to the beach at first or last quarter, the gravitational forces of the moon and sun would be split in two directions, causing unimpressive high and low tides, which is called “neap tide”.  The word “neap” seems to have no other applications in English and its origins are old and sketchy, so we’ll have to remember it not by logical association, but by repetition.  Neap, neap, neap, neap, neap.  (That’s no help, I’m picturing a frog calling.  Oh, well.)

Perhaps the drawings I made will help.  Emphasis on the perhaps.

The moon travels around the Earth once about every day.  Throughout the full moon cycle, though, it occupies many different positions with respect to the sun, and those different positions, from our perspective, make the moon appear to change shape because of what proportion of the moon is lit by the sun.

The moon travels around the Earth once about every day. Throughout the full moon cycle, though, it occupies many different positions with respect to the sun, and those different positions, from our perspective, make the moon appear to change shape because of what proportion of the moon is lit by the sun.

Here, the oceans are represented in the light blue layer surrounding the green Earth.  During the new and full moons, the oceans are pulled into spring tides, and at the quarter moon the tides are softened into neap tides.

Here, the oceans are represented in the light blue layer surrounding the green Earth. During the new and full moons, the oceans are pulled into spring tides, and at the quarter moon the tides are softened into neap tides.

For more diagrams of moon phases, simply search “moon phases” in Google Images.  For an even better explanation of tides, check out the MarineBio.org website.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss some of the flora and fauna at the beach, including schools, sargassum, and shells.

As soon as I get the laundry finished.

Flushing

No, not that kind of flushing!

What kind of nature writer do you think I am?

Sicko.

I’m talking about flushing birds out of their hiding places among the leafy branches and briar tangles.  Apparently, I’m great at it.  I found this out a few nights ago while taking an evening walk in Heritage Park.

Heritage Park is a former dairy farm, with wide meadows covering its hills, complete with old silos and broken down wooden outbuildings turning silver with age.  There’s a farm pond in the forested upland and the hills,roll down to a wetland floodplain on the side of Tom’s Creek.  In short, every bird habitat you could hope for, all with mown, traveled, or paved trails.

The park is a regular haunt for the local birding club, whose expert members can pick out migrating warblers (tiny, flitting sirens who tease with sweet songs and bright feathers and then disappear behind a single leaf among millions) across a valley, sometimes only by call.  Unfortunately, the birders tend to hit the park to look for birds by 8:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, a time I have permanently reserved each week to spend looking at the backs of my eyelids.

So there I was, on my own (truly – in over an hour, I only saw three other people in the park) and with camera in hand, ready to capture the parks’ natural wonders in the golden hour before dusk.

I failed utterly.

Otherwise, this post would be titled “Fantastic Photos of Heritage Park Birds” and would be filled with said pictures.

Instead, I hope to do the birds I saw a modicum of justice by describing them and finding pictures on line.

Turkey Vulture

A soaring turkey vulture (Coragyps atratus) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms.  Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

A soaring turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) shows those long, white feathers I think of like the pale insides of my arms. Photo courtesy of Roy W. Lowe via Wikimedia Commons.

Vultures often ride the updrafts rising off of the hills in Heritage Park.  I love to visit this park with kids because it gives me an opportunity to teach them e difference between vultures and hawks (hawks rarely soar outside of migration season; they hunt by swooping or diving from a high perch or chasing smaller birds through the forest with stunningly acrobatic flight) and between turkey and black vultures:

Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura) are slightly larger, have red heads like turkeys, and the entire length of their underwings is divided by color, white toward the tail and black toward the head.

Black vultures (Coragyps atratus) are smaller, have black heads, underwings that are black to the wrist, but with white “hands” at the wingtip.  Black vultures also fly with their wings held flat, whereas turkey vultures’ wings are held at an upward angle.

What I saw on that evening was a turkey vulture, but not alone.  The vulture was being chased and harassed by two red-winged blackbirds protecting their nest from the giant soaring intruder.  The vulture seemed more annoyed than concerned, as if the blackbirds were mosquitos buzzing around its ears rather than a real a problem.  A vulture would rather have a nice, stinky carcass for dinner than a plain meal of eggs.

The whole group flew in by me not fifteen feet away, but quickly, and directly in front of the sun.  Had I been quick enough to stop watching and aim the camera, I would have caught a dark blur in a blinding white frame of evening sun.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Every beautiful blue in the whole wide world, it seems, lives in the feathers of the male indigo bunting, captured here by Kevin Bolton and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

Indigo Bunting

I had forgotten how blue, and how many blues, the male indigo bunting (Passerina cyanea) can be.  They look like a tropical artist used their feathers to paint the ombré of the Caribbean Sea:  turquoise, electric blue, teal, royal, and, yes, indigo.  The birds spend their winters in the islands, Cuba, and Mexico and I can’t help but imagine a scene where the birds paint their own plumage, turning and dipping as they fly low above the warm sea waves, catching color on their wings and tails that spreads like summer tie dye.

The bunting was perched on a tall stalk of grass, and froze as I came around the corner.  I stopped moving immediately and stood to gaze for a few seconds, holding my breath.  I brought my camera up slowly in my right hand, and moved only my eyes to check my hand placement, and when I rolled my eyes back to the subject, the bird was gone.

A brown thrasher holding still.  My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds.  Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

A brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum) holding still. My respect for this Carolina bird photographer, Dick Daniels, knows no bounds. Photo provided via Wikimedia Commons.

Brown Thrasher

I still remember the first time I saw a brown thrasher (Taxostoma rufum), nearly ten years ago now.  I was teaching an environmental summer camp in the Florida panhandle, driving a 15 passenger van full of kids, and the thrasher swooped out from the edge of the forest and back in through a tangle of vines.  I was so excited – a new bird!  (FYI, I kept the van on the road despite the excellent distraction – the campers survived.)

Brown thrashers are so wonderfully not some of the more common birds.  They are the size of a robin, but where the robin’s back is black, the thrasher’s is a rich, milk-chocolate-with-a-hint-of-red-chili-pepper (like a Mexican hot chocolate) brown.  Its tail is long and slender like the mockingbird’s, but curves downward ever so slightly, like a sardonically raised eyebrow.  Its beak is likewise slightly curved downward, like a Carolina wren’s.  As I write, I can’t help thinking that if these three birds were evolutionarily smashed together just right, the resulting Frankenbird would be our beloved brown thrasher.

On this particular evening in Heritage Park, the brown thrasher flew from one tree to another and I caught it out of the corner of my eye – a swoosh of that warm brown, the right size, a glimpse of streaked breast.  Not even a chance of a shot with the camera, but still that sweet, delighted feeling of “I saw my new bird again!”

The northern flicker will give you a "flicker", a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground.  Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

The northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) will give you a “flicker”, a glimpse, of a white patch just above its tail as well as yellow underwings as it flies up from its spot feeding on the ground. Photo courtesy of Cornellier via Wikimedia Commons.

Northern Flicker

Spotting woodpeckers has never been easy for me.  Well, actually, I can spot them, but the little wiseacres always spot me right back and promptly hop around to the far side of whatever tree they’re on so I can’t get a good look at them.  Even the downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) – or it could be a hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus), or maybe I get both – that visits my suet feeder in the winter doesn’t stay long enough for positive identification.

But northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) are different.  First of all, they’re big – 12 inches from top of the head to tip of the tail (compared to the downy’s diminutive eight inches).  Second, and even better, they feed on the ground a lot, using their beaks to dig for ants and beetles.

The flicker I flushed (ooh, that’s fun to say) had been feeding at the edge of the mown path on the hilltop meadow.  It flapped up to a tree on the other side of the path and, even in the low light of gathering dust, I saw the white patch just above its tail between wing beats.  It’s that white patch flashing that gave the bird it’s name “flicker”.

One of these days I’ll carry my best camera (I call her “Big Girl”) out to the park with me.  I’ll lug the tripod and the telephoto lens, too.  I’ll bring a chair and sit and be patient.

And, even then, I’ll still be distracted in all different directions by flits and flaps and flutters and flushes and photo opportunities missed.  Fortunately, I’m totally okay with that.

Looking Under Logs

I volunteer at the local nature center on Friday mornings, teaching preschoolers all about nature.  It is the highlight of my week, surrounded by the chaos of toddlers and tiny-legged runners, all ready to absorb and love whatever I enthusiastically share.

So, of course, in return for this love and mutual enthusiasm, I make them hold creepy crawlies.

Well, I don’t technically force them, but I do encourage and help (and cajole and convince) a lot.  In fact, I’ve gotten so many kiddos on board the “Creepy Crawlies are Cool” train that it’s become an expected part of our Friday mornings.  We play lots of different games in the nature center yard, but we never, ever forget to roll over a few of the logs and have a look underneath.

And here’s what we find:

Earthworms

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time.  She was mesmerized!

A girl less than two years old holds an earthworm for the first time. She was mesmerized!

I love worms.  There, I said it.  Worms are amazing creatures not only for what they do – decompose organic matter such as dead leaves and turn it into rich soil – but also for their kid-friendly pick-up-ability.  (It’s my blog, I’ll make up whatever words I want.)  Worms do not bite or sting.  Worms do not even look like they could bite or sting.  They are not covered with scratchy scales or poky hairs; they are smooth and cool and wiggly.  And, when you put a worm in the hand of a little kid, it’s practically guaranteed that their eyes will grow wide and a joyous grin will spread across their chubby cheeks.  They’re doing it!  They’re holding a wild animal!  And it is awesome.

Wonderful worm facts:

  • There are hundreds of species of worms and they live in practically every environment on Earth.  The red worms we find in our backyard soil in North America are round, segmented worms, called annelids.
  • What’s that darker brown strip that runs through the middle of the worm?  It’s their gut!  You’re seeing through the body of the worm and all the way to those pieces of dead leaf that they’re turning into soil.  Yes, soil is made up of a lot of worm poo.  If you’re lucky; gardeners go dreamy eyed over high worm counts and will buy “castings” (that’s the science-y word for worm poo) to add to the soil because their plants will grow so much better.
  • Earthworms breathe through their skin.  This is why you often see earthworms on sidewalks and streets during heavy rain – the soil becomes saturated with water (soil is usually about 25% air) and the worms must tunnel up and out of the dirt to breathe.
  • Earthworms are hermaphrodites (I don’t usually share this fact with the preschoolers), when mating, two worms exchange sperm and both are fertilized.  Mating occurs on the surface of the ground, at night.  I think of it as “Earthworms After Dark” – cue the seductive lounge music.  Their “mommy and daddy parts” are located in the belt-like swelling around their body and eggs are produced there after mating.  The the eggs and sperm are later deposited into a vaguely lemon-shaped egg sac, from which tiny, fully-formed worms,

Ants

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I'm sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom.  Ask any gardener - if you want a peony bud to blossom, you'd better have ants attending it!

I have not yet captured a satisfactory picture of the ants we find under logs, so instead I’m sharing this photo I took of ants on a peony blossom. Ask any gardener – if you want a peony bud to blossom, you’d better have ants attending it!

Sometimes when we roll over a log we’ll find a colony of ants or termites busily moving around their underground nest.  Usually they are busy moving eggs.  Here in Virginia, we don’t have the invasive, biting fire ants that are common throughout much of the deep south, so we can feel fairly safe to squat down and observe the ants up close.  I would NOT have attempted that in our previous homes in Texas, Florida, or Louisiana!  A few amazing ant facts:

  • More than 10,000 different species of ants have been identified around the world.
  • Biologist Edward O. Wilson has made studying ants the majority of his life’s work, and his discoveries about ant society and behavior are mind blowing.  He’s also written an insightful novel centered around ants, Anthill, which I highly recommend for tweens and adults.
  • Ant colonies share some similarities with bee hives; both have just one queen who lays thousands of eggs and all of the workers are females, males have one job:  mating with the queen so she can keep laying those eggs.
  • Ants communicate with one another by means of chemical scent trails that can lead to a potential food source or alert the colony to danger.

Millipedes

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons.  To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder's hand.  The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand.  I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

This great close-up of a millipede on an adult hand was captured by Darkone and provided via Wikimedia Commons. To hold a millipede, pick it up by gently pinching it between two fingers and place it on the open palm of the holder’s hand. The millipede may coil up, a natural defense mechanism, but will soon uncoil and walk all over the hand. I like to have the preschoolers count seconds till the millipede opens.

The millipedes we find under logs in the yard are almost always much smaller than the millipedes featured in my previous post, A Moment for Millipedes.  They vary in size from about a half inch to one and a half inches, are about the width of a piece of acrylic yarn, and are so light that usually you can’t even feel them walking around on your hand.  Millipedes do not bite or sting, and are incredibly important to the ecosystem because they eat and break down dead vegetation such as fallen leaves and rotting logs. Some memorable millipede facts:

  • Though the Latin origin of the word millipede, milli for 1,000 and ped for feet would have us believe that all millipedes have that many legs, that’s a wild exaggeration.  Most millipedes have less than 100 legs (always two pairs per body segment, though) and the record-holder has just 750 legs.
  • Millipedes are long-lived among the arthropods.  They can survive up to seven years.  Sounds like a great pet – an aquarium with a lid, regular meals of rotting food, and you’ve got a friend for half of your childhood.
  • The fossil record leads us to believe that millipedes were the first animals to live on land.  A 428 million year old fossil of a millipede (Pneumodesmus newmanii) found in Scotland in 2004 is the oldest known animal to have body parts called spiracles (tubes that connect the inner body to the outside air) for breathing air.

Centipedes

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs.  Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side.  This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

This looks most like the centipedes we find under logs. Not much bigger than the millipede, but with that orange/brown color and legs that stick out to the side. This photo was taken by Thomas Quine and provided by Wikimedia Commons.

What’s the difference between centipedes and millipedes?  There are many differences, but as a children’s nature teacher, the one I find most important is that centipedes can bite.  I have never been bitten, though I’ve had them crawl over my hand, but I still don’t advise picking them up.  The gentle pinch required to lift them may feel like an attack to a centipede (much like when King Kong picked up Fay Wray) and they may bite in defense.

Centipedes we find under logs also looked markedly different from the millipedes, so it’s easy to know which creatures to leave alone.  The centipedes have a decidedly orange tint to their exoskeleton, and their legs (one pair per body segment, if you’re counting) stick out from the sides of their bodies, whereas millipedes legs are neatly tucked beneath their bodies.

Centipedes are the hunters of the under-log world, and therefore move much faster than herbivorous millipedes.  (Carnivores need speed to attack.  A good comparison for centipede vs. millipede speed would be a wolf vs. a cow.)  Centipedes will eat small insects, snails, slugs, and worms.  A celebratory collection of centipede facts:

  • Just as millipedes don’t have 1,000 legs, centipedes don’t always have 100 legs,  though the number is usually between 30 and 360.
  • Centipedes can regrow legs that have been lost to birds or other predators with each new molt (shedding of the exoskeleton as they grow).
  • Over 3,000 species of centipede have been documented worldwide.

Slugs

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it.  Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

In my greedy hand I hold not only a slug with partially-extended eye stalks, but also a light brown millipede crawling around the slug and a June beetle grub curled up next to it. Yes, I am one lucky nature teacher!

Ahh, the invasive leopard slug (Limax maximus).  Foe of the gardener and friend of the toddler who doesn’t mind slimy hands.  (The look on their parents’ faces when the tots joyfully hold up a palmfull of slug is excellent.)  We find lots and lots and lots of leopard slugs under logs.  These non-native creatures have done incredibly well here in the U.S., despite my mother’s valiant attempts at trapping them with old margarine tubs half full of my father’s Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I don’t grow veggies, so they don’t bother me much, and I have to admit to even liking them a bit after falling in love with the slug character Mub in the animated kids’ film Epic.  (Mub’s friendly insult to one of the human-like “leaf men”, calling him a “flat-face” was, in itself, epic.)  I encourage the kiddos to hold the slugs until they relax and extend their eyestalks.  Eyes at the end of long, antennae-like, telescoping appendages are just plain cool to kids of all ages.  Some super slug facts:

  • Slug eggs look like tiny tapioca pearls, and are frequently and easily found under logs or between the bark and core of a rotting log.
  • It’s plain to see that slugs and snails are related, but did you know that they’re also related to marine cuttlefish?  (Obviously the cuttlefish don’t react to salt the same way . . .)
  • Slugs are soil janitors, eating both live and dead plants as well as dead animals (omnivorous decomposers ain’t choosy) and digesting them into nutrient rich castings that enrich the soil.
  • The banana slugs that live in the Pacific Northwest of North America are the second largest slugs in the world, growing up to eight inches long!

Salamanders

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand.  She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids.  They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

Queen of the Salamanders holding three Eastern red-backed (Plethodon cinereus) salamanders in her hand. She and her BFF, whose hands are just beneath hers, spent the morning catching the slippery fellows and sharing them with the younger kids. They were very careful to put the salamanders back in the moist leaf litter before their skin dried out.

In wet, cool weather, rolling logs and lifting the leaf layer on a forest floor may get you a glimpse of a salamander.  They are fast little creatures, and sunlight means danger in their world (a number of predators find them quite tasty, and to be seen is to be lunch), so it takes practice to snatch one up before it darts off and hides again.

I am, as I’ve said, very lucky when it comes to nature, though.  In this case, it’s because my daughter is a nature girl, too:  my daughter is Queen of the Salamanders.  She finds and catches them all over the place!  In one day at the Nature Center she caught a half-dozen!  I am one puffed-up, proud mama.

A selection of superlative salamander facts:

  • Salamanders are amphibians.  They breathe through their skin, and their skin must stay wet in order for them to breathe.  Though their cousins, the frogs, have lungs as adults, they also breathe through their skin when submerged in water.
  • Salamanders can regenerate limbs and tails that have been bitten off by predators within just a few weeks.  The hunter gets to eat the leg, but the salamander gets away.
  • Virginia is very special, salamander-wise, home to 49 different salamander species.  Many of these species are found in mountain woods, and the Virginia Appalachians are considered a salamander hotspot.  Check them out at the Virginia Herpetological Society’s website.

There are many, many more species to be discovered in and under rotting wood (this is why woodpeckers are always pecking holes in dead trees – there’s a buffet under the bark) but I think we’ll leave it here for now.  Today is National Get Outdoors Day, and that’s exactly what I’m going to go do!

What’s Blooming Now: A Wildflower Gallery

This post could be 14,000 words long.

Or I could use 14 pictures and give them all captions that will tell you a bit about the flower pictured, then get myself back out into the gorgeous weather to experience more nature.

Yeah, that’s way better.

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed.  Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds.  If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

This particular cluster of elder flowers is only half-bloomed. Later, the blossoms will give way to tiny, purple-black berries that are a staple food source for wild birds. If you can beat the birds to them, the berries can be used to make jelly or, even better, wine!

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)  bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers.  Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

The elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) bushes are blooming in flat topped clusters of tiny white flowers. Look for them in moist forests and at road sides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas.  Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

Wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) from afar looks like a dusting of gold on top of tall (5-6 foot), flat elf umbrellas. Look for it in open fields and on roadsides.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers.  Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout.  Unfortunately, water hemlock and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The wild parsnip (Pastinacea sativa) is also in the carrot family and, therefore, resembles the poisonous water hemlock except for the gorgeous citrine flowers. Though held in the same loose umbel (umbrella-like cluster of flowers), the golden blossoms are a standout. Unfortunately, water hemlock (see below) and wild parsnip have been confused by too many people in the past, leading to human consumption of a hemlock root and deadly results.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them.  This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you'll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study.  You'll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn't until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed - they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

The field thistles (Cirsium discolor) are just beginning to blossom, but the butterflies and bees have already found them. This cabbage white butterfly (Find a thistle and you’ll find a treasure trove of pollinators to study. You’ll also likely spy an American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) checking the plant for any ripe seeds, which are their main source of food; it isn’t until the thistle blooms that the goldfinches will breed – they want to be sure of a steady food source for their nestlings.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks.  The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

Just before I aimed my camera at this lovely patch of field thistle, a brilliantly yellow and black male American goldfinch took off from one of the stalks. The energy of his lemon feathers against the purple of the thistle was electric.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts.  It stands about five feet tall and, though it's related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

From afar, water hemlock (Cicuta maculata) looks like delicate, white, fluffy tufts. It stands about five feet tall and, though it’s related to the edible carrot, it can kill with just a nibble.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like.  Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten - all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person.  Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

This is what a water hemlock plant (Cicuta maculata) looks like. Pretty to the eyes but not to be eaten – all parts of the plant are deadly poisonous, and it only takes a small quantity to kill a grown person. Cattle, horses, and other livestock have died from grazing on it.

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native.  Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA.  The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it's an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed.  I'm on it!

A beloved summertime treat of my childhood, Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is actually a non-native. Introduced from Asia, this invasive climbing vine has made itself quite at home in the USA. The only way I stop myself from being upset over the fact that it’s an invader is by realizing that this means we should drink the nectar from as many flowers as possible to prevent the plant from spreading by seed. I’m on it!

How could they name a plant this pretty

How could they name a plant this pretty “spiderwort”; I’m a gal that loves spiders and I still cringe at the “wort” part. However, etymologists tell us that the word “wort” comes from old English and, in fact, means “good”. The only association with spiders is that (to someone who had good intentions, I’m sure) the angular arrangement of spiderwort’s (Tradescantia virginiana) leaves looked like a sitting spider.

If you’ve driven on a highway lately, you’ve likely noticed that the hillsides seem covered with a lacy pink blanket. This is crown vetch (Coronilla varia). It’s a member of the pea family and a cousin of red clover (Trifolium pratense), which you might mistake it for as you whiz down the road. Crown vetch, though, was imported from Europe and used to stabilize hillsides (hence its appearance next to highways). Though it’s an invasive import, I still like it better than the other vine imported to stabilize hillsides, kudzu. Not only is crown vetch prettier, but it’s not eating the entire southeast the way kudzu is!

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara).  It is a member of the nightshade family  introduced from Europe.  Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn't trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

One more pretty poison is in blossom right now, the bittersweet nightshade vine (Solanum dulcamara). It is a member of the nightshade family
introduced from Europe. Europeans first colonizing the Americas were treated to two wonderful, edible members of the nightshade family, tomatoes and potatoes, which they didn’t trust at first because their experience with nightshade included the many poisonous plants of the family.

Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower.  I just can't get over its color - more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time.  And, if that weren't enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee - very popular in the deep south).  If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

Saved the best for last!  Chicory (Cichorium intybus) is, perhaps, my favorite wildflower. I just can’t get over its color – more blue than purple, more bright than pastel, delicate and powerful all at the same time. And, if that weren’t enough, the chicory root can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute (or blended with regular coffee – very popular in the deep south).

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower - I know you'll love it, too!

If you see a blue haze of flowers floating over a pasture nearby in the next couple of months, stop to look up close at a chicory flower – I know you’ll love it, too!