Monday, June 29, 2009


I spent several hours this past weekend at Blooms Days, a garden festival held at UT Gardens on Neyland Drive every year. Special thanks to the Garden Girls and Andy for inviting me. If you have never been to these gardens, stop what you are doing and go now!

This past weekend was unseasonably hot. One very bold exotic plant seemed right at home; it reminiscently caught my eye.

The canna lily, originally from the West Indies, i.e. the New World, tropical America, has remarkable foliage. Gardeners have cultivated this bold relative of bananas into a large-flowered, dare we say, brash and sometimes gaudy garden plant. It’s like a New Orleans’ Mardi Gras float, it commands attention, wherever it is.

I remember as a boy, cannas became quite a fad. It seemed everyone in the neighborhood had at least one in their yard.

-Photo taken at UT Gardens

Friday, June 26, 2009

book talk

I will be one of the guest speakers at this weekend's Blooms Days on the ag campus of the University of Tennessee.

I'll be talking about my book, "Natural Histories: Stories from the Tennessee Valley" and autographing copies.

University of Tennessee Gardens on Neyland Drive

My talk times:
June 27 at 1:30 p.m.
June 28 at 1 p.m.

Stop by and say hello!

For more information go to Blooms Days.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

owlet's visit

The juvenile barred owl in the photo–still looking lean and covered with natal down–seemed as captivated by Tom Mallory as Tom was of the young owlet, each being new to the other.

For a complete account of what Tom saw go to the farragutpress website: Barred owls make appearance.

- Photo taken by Tom Mallory.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

what's the buzz?

The first French settlers in Louisiana called it “Pique-bois jaune.” (I think that means something like lance-wooden yellow. N'est-ce pas?)

And early American naturalists simply called it “Golden-winged.”

Today we know it as the Northern flicker, the one woodpecker in the east with a golden hue. Black, white and red is the norm.

A pair of flickers raised a family in a tree near my home on Chapman Ridge this past spring. The nest hole was 20 to 30 feet above the ground. I saw them come and go occasionally but didn’t get to spend much time watching them. The tree was basically branchless, so sneaking a peak would have been difficult.

According to Donald Kroodsma author of “The Singing Life of Birds,” a clutch of flicker nestlings make a buzzing noise that sounds like a swarm of bees to scare away would-be predators. Bees. That would work. A marauding raccoon reaching inside the nest cavity to plunder a chick would probably reexamine his appetite, maybe opt for a green-leafy salad instead or perhaps a bacon and cheese quiche.

Growing up in the mountains, my dad was a beekeeper so I know the buzzing sound. It's pretty frightening, even if you are wearing an apiculturist's veil.

–Thanks, Karen Sue.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

orange again

Continuing the milkweed thread I started two days ago, I have something of a conspicuous ardor for orange flowers, in part, because there are so few of them. Nature seems to prefer red, yellow and blue.

I'll often stop the car to investigate one growing by the roadside, particularly if I have my camera. A second member of the milkweed family is now in bloom east of the nature center along Island Home Avenue and other roads.

-Photo taken along Magazine Road in South Knoxville.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Boom Boom

This will really date me but what did Freddy "Boom Boom" Cannon sing in 1965?

"Oh, baby come on, let me take you where the action is."

I do not think that "Boom Boom" has ever been to Ijams Nature Center but his song is apropos, especially on the plaza. There continues to be hordes, i.e. swarms of insects. The colony of common milkweed in front of the Visitor Center is attracting waves of six-legged wildlife: bugs, beetles and bees (bumbles in the genus Bombus and otherwise).

Boom. Boom. Boom.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

plant sucker

The common milkweed growing in front of the Visitor Center at Ijams is now attracting hordes of insects. Hordes. Yesterday after work it was swarming with six-legged life.

Milkweed bugs (Oncopeltus fasciatus) are yet another insect in the order Hemiptera, the so-called “true bugs.” The Hemis do not have mouths for biting or even chewing their food. They have built-in straws, tube-like beaks to pierce and then suck out the plant fluids.

They also have few predators; a good thing because who wants to be eaten alive? They concentrate the bad tasting compounds found in the sap of milkweed plants in their bodies. (Monarch butterflies do the same.) The bugs use the bright coloration to advertise their unpalatability. Inexperienced birds that eat their first milkweed bug are unlikely to try another orange and black insect.

Some insects that do not taste bad use similar color patterns to fool birds. These are known as mimics.

-Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

swift rescued

A charcoal gray chimney swift fell past the open damper into the dark, sooty fireplace.

Rachael and Karen Sue chased the frightened bird around and around the living room until they were able to safely catch it with a dishcloth and take it outside.

But wait, the story does not end there.

For the complete account go to the farragutpress website: Swift spends night indoors.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

you say potato

This odd little plant, known as “varahi” in Sanskrit, is a vine with heart-shaped leaves. Native to Asia and Africa, it has become widespread throughout southeastern North America.

Scientifically known as Dioscorea bulbifera; it’s a member of the yam family most noted for the bulbils that form in the leaf axils along the twining vine. The plant uses these organs to store carbohydrates, i.e. plant sugars.

Here’s where it gets curious. The bulbils look like very small Irish potatoes, which leads to the plant’s most common name in this country: air potato.

I said it was an odd little plant. Bulbils? That’s a another good Scrabble word.

-Photo taken near Baskins Creek in Gatlinburg.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

velvety leaves

Rosebay rhododendron (Rhododendron maximum) is one of the most prevalent plants in the Great Smoky Mountains. The new foliage is beginning to appear at mid-level elevations. Unlike the mature glossy, dark green leaves, the nascent foliage is soft and velvety, covered with down-like substance called tomentum. It gives them a powdered sugar look.

Henry David Thoreau was duly fond of the shrub but it wasn't native to his Concord. In fact, he noted their introduction—at 25 cents each—into his neighborhood in his journal. I have no idea if they are still there.

Thoreau wrote: “Saturday. The date of the introduction of the Rhododendron maximum into Concord is worth preserving, May 16th, 1853. They were small plants, one to four feet high, some with large flower-buds, twenty-five cents apiece; and I noticed the next day one or more in every front yard on each side of the street, and the inhabitants out watering them.”

- Photo taken on the trail to Groto Falls in the Great Smokies

Friday, June 12, 2009


I recently learned that author and legendary walking man Colin Fletcher died on this date two years ago. I’ve read several of his books and feel that I’ve lost an old walking companion.

In 2001, Fletcher was struck and seriously injured by an SUV while walking to a town meeting near his home in Monterey County, California. Although he recovered and resumed his daily walks, ultimately living another six years, he died as a result of complications from a head injury sustained in that accident.

Born in Wales in 1922. Fletcher moved to the U.S. in 1956 and his book, "The Thousand-Mile Summer" is a chronicle of his first big-time walk in this country: a 1958 hike in desert and high sierra along the entire eastern edge of California. The book was published in 1964 and I discovered it over 30 years later. Sadly, I think it is now out of print. Here’s an excerpt:

“And all at once I understood how lucky I was. For the first time I saw quite clearly that what mattered in The Walk were the simple things—snow and vivid light and sharp-grained bobcat tracks. My exhilaration swelled up and overflowed. And when at last I walked on past the two juniper trees toward the far side of the plateau I found I was feeling sorry for any man who was not free to abandon whatever futility detained him and to walk away into the desert morning with a pack on his back.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

flame on

Very few orange flowers exist. Very few. There are lots and lots of red and yellow ones, but when it comes to orange. Zip. For some reason nature avoids it. (I do not look that good in the color myself.)

Even fewer orange-flowered shrubs are out there. In fact, I can only think of one in my part of the world. But, it's spectacular. Flame azalea is now in bloom in the Smokies.

During his travels through the southeast in 1773, early American naturalist William Bartram wrote about flame azalea. He scribed, “The fiery Azalea, flaming on the ascending hills or wavy surface of the gliding brooks...The appearance of it in flower, which are in general of the colour of the finest red lead, orange and bright gold, as well as yellow and cream colour; these various splendid colours are not only in separate plants, but frequently all the varieties and shades are seen in separate branches on the same plant, and the clusters of the blossoms cover the shrubs in such incredible profusion on the hill sides, that suddenly opening to view from dark shades, we are alarmed with the apprehension of the hills being set on fire.”

This photo of the fiery shrub was taken near Twin Creeks in the LeConte Creek watershed just south of Gatlinburg early last Sunday morning.

Monday, June 8, 2009

mystery solved

One month ago, I posted on box elder bugs, noting that they feed on the female box elder trees and not the males. I did not know why.

Sheila Goforth from Ijams recently got a wonderful new book, "Bringing Nature Home" by Douglas Tallamy into our gift shop. The answer to the riddle was inside.

Tallamy writes, "Because these insects primarily eat seedpods, they favor the female trees, which routinely produce copious amounts of seeds. Females lay their eggs in the spring near piles of box elder seeds from the previous fall."

But, of course. And it turns out they are a little more specialized than I originally believed.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

native rosa

“I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty.” *

* From “Nature” published in 1836 by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Photo taken at Ijams Nature Center of a native Carolina rose (Rosa Carolina) also called pasture rose in some books.