Thursday, October 30, 2008

Paving over paradise

Back in May, I wrote about an ongoing plant rescue taking place at the site of a future road extension project in Raleigh. Local conservationists and plant lovers were granted permission from city and state officials to dig and claim plants from the forested site—from diminutive spring wildflowers to larger shrubs and trees. Over a period of a few years, hundreds of people did just that. Tom Harville of the North Carolina Native Plant Society has compiled a list of at least 70 species of native plants that were collected. Tom took this photo of the site this week, where construction of the road is finally under way.

"I am saddened by this loss for many reasons, but I take a bit of solace in the fact that we did move thousands of native plants that would otherwise be gone," he says. "It also reinforces the idea that when we find a site like this, we should not procrastinate. If you know of a site that is going to be developed, let me know—please!" (You may contact Tom at

I'd like to use this forum to thank Tom for his tireless efforts throughout the project—for showing up mornings and afternoons to help us navigate the woods (in all seasons, rain or shine); for locating, identifying and pointing out specimens; for retrieving lost trowels, gloves and keys; and not least of all, for securing permission from the proper authorities and seamlessly coordinating the effort. He must be a real smooth talker to convince landowners that we're not all a bunch of loonies!

Black River, Sampson County, North Carolina

This is where I grew up. I'm a little bit homesick.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Willow-leaved sunflower

I took a quick snapshot of my perennial sunflowers before I went on vacation. I'd hoped to get a better photo when I returned, but most of them have flopped and gone to seed now. The willow-leaved sunflower, Helianthus salicifolius, is among several native perennial sunflowers that are, as garden author Peter Loewer puts it, “akin to many American originals: tough, rugged and, like the American skyscraper, tall and bold.”

The North Carolina Botanical Garden selected a cousin of the willow-leaved sunflower, the swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius), as the 2007 Wildflower of the Year, calling it “the giant exclamation point at the end of the growing season.” As its name suggests, swamp sunflower lives in the wild in swamps, marshes and savannas, but it will thrive in wet to average soil.

In exchange for a self-addressed stamped envelope, the Botanical Garden will give you free seeds of its Wildflower of the Year selections. The 2008 flower is white wood-aster. Send your request with SASE to: 2008 NCWFOY, North Carolina Botanical Garden, CB 3375 Totten Center, UNC-CH, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3375. I don't know whether they still have any sunflower seed, but it wouldn't hurt to ask. You can e-mail them at

Monday, October 27, 2008

Please press rewind

Back to work today. Sigh.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Happy camper

Husband. Flounder. 10/23/08. Lea Island, N.C.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Black skimmers ...

... at the south end of Lea Island tonight before sunset. According to Audubon North Carolina, there are 50-75 breeding pairs of black skimmers here during nesting season, along with the greatest number of least terns on the North Carolina coast. As best I can tell from The Google, Audubon and cooperating conservation groups are in negotion to buy this private island. I kayaked along the marsh side today and explored the beach on foot. Found two nice whelk shells, a sand dollar and an olive for Mama. Paddled back toward the inlet late afternoon, against a healthy wind, and met up with my brother and husband, who were fishing at the inlet. Shortly after I beached the boat, Ian caught a nice flounder and my brother followed suit with a bluefish. After sunset, we headed back to the cottage in the skiff (with my kayak as a hood ornament). Choppy and cold. Wet pants. Wet sneakers. Daddy had homemade shrimp gumbo waiting. Perfect. Tomorrow's our last full day. Sad. But a high of 71 is forecast, so at least it should be a nice one. And we have all vowed not to let another five years pass before taking a weeklong vacation. What were we thinking?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The stuff I don't know

Dad and I were on the little bike path again today and I saw two peculiar seed pods on a yucca plant I couldn't identify. They were eggplanty/brownish in color, sort of like a cucumber in shape, with three flat sides, about 5 inches in length. Of course, I stole one of them, brought it home and cut it into slices to see the insides. It smelled rank, and I didn't taste it, even though I have this bad habit of sampling wild plants. Once, I was on a field trip with a busload of naturalists. I saw a wildflower that had umbels, like something in the parsley family but not Queen Anne's lace. So I snapped a stem and touched the tip of my tongue to it. It did taste rather parsley-esque. Back on the bus, I raided the stash of field guides. The mystery plant was Conium maculatum: poison hemlock, which is said to cause respiratory collapse and death when consumed in any quantity. Yet I survived.

Before sunset I watched a heron in the marsh for a solid half hour through the scope. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for it to strike a fish. I was going to give it 5 minutes, which turned into 10, and then 20. I felt that if the bird could wait, so could I. In a half hour it never moved a leg. First my neck started to hurt, then my shoulders, then my feet. And I was cold. And hungry. I gave up. Now here's the thing. You'd think as much time as I spent staring at that damn bird, I'd be able to identify it handily with a field guide. If I had to lay money, I'd say an adult little blue heron. But boy, do I feel ignorant.

Sitting on the table in front of me is a slab of a tri-color confection. I can quickly and easily identify it as Banana Split Fudge. Much tastier than poison hemlock. Decidedly less dangerous.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Postcards from the edge

These are the steps leading to the beach at high tide. Crazy, huh? We like to live dangerously. What is this thing they call vacation? It seems familiar. Like maybe in another lifetime we were here.

Ian has caught two bluefish in the surf, one yesterday and a larger one today. We baked the one from yesterday and shared it among the four of us. It was maybe 12-14 inches long. We are light eaters. Hah. Today he caught the smallest flounder he'd ever seen, about the size of a sand dollar. Needless to say, he sent that little fella back to its home.

Dad and I rode the beach cruisers yesterday and today. There are few things that make you feel more like a child than riding a bike with coaster brakes. The first time I rode, I forgot to tie my laces and one got hung in the pedal axle. That was a blast from the past. Daddy has a few aches and pains but he is spry at 78. I think he gets more exercise than I do.

It has been warm (for the season) and sunny so far. Yesterday, the high was about 69. Before sunset I took a swim. Bracing! I tried again today but I seized up from the cold. Hightailed it right back out of there.

As for birding, I'm way out of my depth. All those gulls and terns and plovers and sandpipers just confuse the hell out of me. Winter and summer plumages, juveniles and adults, males and females. The sanderlings are well-known to me though. They are in winter plumage. Is it too soon for that? I guess it will be winter soon.

I sneezed all day today, though according to the weather channel the pollen count is low. Mama gave me a Zyrtec tablet but I think it must have been a sugar pill. Tomorrow will be cooler but still sunny. There is a public kayak launch three blocks away. I think I see a marsh outing in the near future.
(Daddy just looked over my shoulder and asked me what this was. I said it was my blog. He said, "What's a blog?" I said it's like a diary without a key. I told him he was in it. He said that was fine, that I could write anything about him that I wanted to. Hmmm. I will have to ask Mama to tell me a scandalous story from his past.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Prize jams and jellies

I'm on vacation this week, so I'll miss the annual State Fair. I found these photos I took of the food judging a few years ago. I had a "press pass" so I was allowed to come in and observe. Fifty judges put their taste buds to work sampling homemade canned vegetables, preserves, cakes, cookies, breads, pies, mincemeat, salsa, pickles, ketchup and other edibles in nearly 500 categories.

Culinary superintendent Charlotte Wyatt told me the staff keeps plenty of cold water, coffee, celery and saltines on hand to help judges cleanse their palates between bites. Sometimes the cake tasters will give a few of their leftovers to the "pickle people" and vice versa, "just to give them a little change in their taste," she says. Unfortunately, some foods aren't in their ideal state. "I admire the judges who judge a cold biscuit," said Wyatt, with a laugh. No exhibitors or other people are present for the judging, although Wyatt says there's been some talk of letting the culinary exhibitors watch the judging from behind glass.

I took these photos back before I had a decent camera. Also, the flash issue was a problem. Still, I like the image of the ladies, all in a row, sampling the cakes and cookies. Yum.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Mrs. Rosa's dahlias

This is the daughter of Mrs. Rosa Hicks of Banner Elk, N.C., standing next to her mother's dahlias at a family reunion. Rosa is the widow of famed storyteller Ray Hicks. Mrs. Hicks and her flowers are a treasure. I interviewed her for a 2007 magazine article, excerpted here:
Rosa Hicks, 76, who has lived her life in the high country of Avery County, was one of the North Carolina farm women immortalized in Lawrence's book "Gardening for Love: The Market Bulletins," published after the author's death. Hicks has advertised in the N.C. Agricultural Review for more than 50 years, and still sells dahlias through the mail and at her house on Old Mountain Road in Banner Elk. Her offerings from the 1950s and 60s read like an encyclopedia of North Carolina's treasured wildflowers: Dutchman's breeches, Ladyslippers, trilliums, bellworts, trout lilies, mayapples and galax.

"Mostly all the flowers we advertised were around the house on our place," she said. "But some we had to go to the woods to get." Back then, Hicks swapped plants with "other flower lovers" and sometimes bartered for printed feed sacks, which she used to sew pillowslips and children's shirts and dresses. Though she enjoyed trading plants and says it sometimes felt like a hobby, the money she earned was—and still is—a vital source of household income.

Elizabeth Lawrence also wrote a passage about Ray Hicks and his thoughts on snakebite.
"People don't understand snakebite," he said. "There are herbs for it, but turpentine and whiskey are the surest cures." He knows a man who has three scars on his face and twelve on his legs from being bitten when he was gathering ginseng. "He never goes where snakes are without taking three bottles of turpentine and a pint of pure good whiskey with him. When a snake strikes he pours the turpentine on the wound, a bottle at a time, until all the poison is drawn out. Then he drinks the whiskey and lies down. If you drink the whiskey first it will kill you."
You can read some of the memories of Ray and Rosa Hicks here.

Mrs. Hicks' flower trade is pretty informal. There are no fancy catalogs. I mailed her $15 last year and asked her to send me as many dahlia tubers as she'd like for that price. I received quite a few fat ones in great condition. They were mixed, so I had to wait for them to bloom to see how they'd look. I know that's not for everyone, but I like to be surprised. And knowing how long they've been in her family makes it extra special.

Should you wish, you may write to her to inquire about her flower sales: Rosa Hicks, 218 Old Mountain Road, Banner Elk, NC 28604.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Cecropia moth caterpillar

This is one of several caterpillars I raised on sweetgum leaves a few summers ago. Wish I had gotten a better photo, but at least you can see the beautiful colors. An entomologist offered to give me some this year, but they'd already been started on sour cherry and were large enough that he doubted they'd make the transition to sweetgum. I didn't have access to cherry. I'll let you in on a little secret. I don't have a sweetgum tree either. But there's one behind a fast food restaurant not too far from here. That's where I "borrowed" the branches when I was raising this guy. There's a much better and more dramatic photo of a cat here and an adult here.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Armchair traveler: the Canadian Rockies

My friend Tracy likes to live large. While on a business trip to Calgary last week, he took a spur trail to Banff National Park and points beyond.

Word of the Day: "katabatic wind," which means, says he, "a [expletive] cold wind that blows off a glacier"!

Photos, copyright 2008, Tracy Fulghum
[top] Sunrise in Banff from the 9-1/2 floor of Banff Springs Inn
[bottom] Lake Agnes (he thinks) near Lake Louise

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Abandoned macaque finds a friend

I think this might be one of the most poignant photos I've ever seen. Click on the image for the whole story.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Grandfather Mountain still in good hands

One of the biggest environmental success stories in North Carolina this year is the announcement Monday that Grandfather Mountain has been purchased by the state. Put up for sale recently by the heirs of Hugh Morton, the mountain and surrounding wilderness areas will become the home of North Carolina's newest state park—2,601 acres!

A steal at $12 million, Grandfather Mountain is not only a state treasure, it is a national and world treasure. Designated an International Biosphere Reserve, the mountain and its backcountry contain 16 distinct ecological communities and 73 rare and endangered species, including the Rafinesque's big-eared bat, Carolina northern flying squirrel, bog turtle and Appalachian yellow-bellied sapsucker.

Tourists know Grandfather Mountain for its most famous attraction, Morton's Mile High Swinging Bridge. When I was a tot, that bridge scared the daylights out of me, but on my most recent visit, I was able to walk (with trepidation) to the middle before turning back. Another beloved attraction was the late Mildred the Bear. The Morton family will continue to operate the tourist attraction through a nonprofit organization supported by money from the sale.

We have Hugh Morton to thank for his conservation ethic and stewardship of Grandfather Mountain. And we have his heirs to thank for selling to the State of North Carolina, at a bargain, a chunk of land that would make billionaire developers weak in the knees.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


I know many of my wonderful neighbors, but I'm not always aware of all their unique talents. Yesterday I discovered that Debra, who lives down the street from us, makes and sells beautiful handmade paper goods. An artist and ecologist, she creates whimsical cards, albums, journals and other crafts with nature themes. You can view (and purchase) Debra's wonderful work via her Web site, Paperbird. She also does custom designs and orders. Pop in for a visit. I think you'll like it!

Eastern bluebird
copyright 2008
Debra Shore

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gulf fritillary caterpillar

Found this gulf fritillary caterpillar crawling on my hops vine one night last week. The passionflower vine—the host plant for the larvae of gulf fritillary butterflies—is nearby. I had not realized that anything was feeding on it (we're talking serious vine traffic jam—moonflower, hops, passionflower and butterfly vine), so I was excited to find this caterpillar looking for a place to make that final molt (they usually travel away from the host plant once they're "full up").

.... and so ......... the next day I found the caterpillar in its "J" stage—hanging underneath our front porch awning. If you click to enlarge the photo, you'll see something going on around its head. I think these guys shed head-first, so I figured this was the beginning of the molt (or a serious case of the ick). We had a cold snap and it stayed like this for about a day.