Blue Ridge Naturalist: Nature Camp

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A mass of native Touch-me-nots (Impatiens capensis) carpets the ground on the west side of the author’s home. Native or not, any plant can behave invasively. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

Many children attend nature camp during summer vacation. In a way, I did too.

By weeding my nature-friendly garden in early morning before it got too humid, I was able to comfortably observe the natural world. Although weeding is usually considered by most folks to be a chore and pure drudgery, I think of it as an excuse to stay outdoors where I can really get to see what’s happening out there.

For example, as I was in my front garden one day, a Gray Fox intent upon getting to wherever it was going trotted right by me, less than 10 feet away! It didn’t realize I was there until I stood up, when it then briefly looked at me curiously as if it was wondering where I’d suddenly come from. Then it ran off into the forest.

Another time as I came around the north side of the house, I inadvertently scared a small (young) bear from the back yard. It zoomed across my path at full speed into the woods, the poor creature terrified that a human had suddenly appeared and was so close. Its mama had taught it well how to behave in the presence of people!

It’s especially useful to be outside to learn about local bird species. This summer my male Eastern Phoebe did something extremely unusual for a phoebe—he took two mates!

Although polygyny (a zoological term referring to a male animal that has more than one mate) is common and well known in some species of birds, that’s not the case for phoebes.

I discovered this situation after I’d heard a commotion. I could tell by the sounds being made that phoebes were fighting, but I couldn’t understand why. The female of the pair was incubating a clutch of eggs at the time, and the male would usually be nearby, keeping a lookout for predators in the area.

In all of my years of watching phoebes, I’d never witnessed a pair engaging in a fight with each other, so I was puzzled as to what could possibly be going on. When I started to hear the male making nesting sounds (his way of suggesting to his mate possible locations where she might want to build her nest), I was really stumped.  After all, his mate had already built a nest and was already on eggs! I wondered if my male phoebe had “lost it.”

But the next time I was gardening, I found out not only why there had been fighting, but why the male was making nesting sounds. To my surprise, there were three phoebes in the yard, rather than just the two!

Undoubtedly the fighting that had taken place was between two females as the resident female tried to chase off the intruder female. But the nesting sounds indicated that the male had accepted the second female into his territory and was willing to mate with her (which he later did in the Photinia by our deck as my husband and I were sitting at our kitchen table one morning).

I knew things were progressing when the second female began to build a nest on our southwest gutter pipe, something I never could have noticed if I hadn’t been outside.  But I don’t just learn about wildlife by weeding; I also learn about plants.

For example, people have been given the idea that native plants are, for the most part, well behaved. In other words, these plants supposedly don’t spread far and wide, moving away from their original location to “invade” other areas.

But this “fact” simply isn’t true, which makes sense. Plants are plants. Just because a plant is nonnative doesn’t mean it is somehow endowed with traits that native plants don’t possess. Truth be told, any plant can be considered invasive given the proper environmental conditions.

For instance, this year my yard was a mass of Touch-me-not plants (also known as Jewelweed, Impatiens capensis), undoubtedly the result of the abundance of rain we had going into summer. It was phenomenal and was the main instigator of my almost daily weeding activities.

Although this native species prefers damp, shady areas, it was on every side of my house—even in sunny areas with soil that dried out quickly, leaving the Touch-me-nots looking awful (drooping sadly) in the heat of the day. Yet even in what you would think were inhospitable locations, these plants managed to survive to produce flowers, and then seeds, for next year’s crop.

If Touch-me-not were nonnative, there’s no doubt in my mind that folks would label it a problematic invasive following such an experience. Unlike yours truly, who doesn’t mind in the least thinning out plants, most gardeners don’t like to weed. Yet this activity is one of the most educational and enjoyable activities that I engage in.

Other native plants, such as False Nettle (Boehmeria cylindrical) and Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), have also spread throughout my yard, albeit not quite so spectacularly. But what’s especially interesting about the spread of any herbaceous plant species around my home, whether they be native, nonnative, or designated invasives, is that they often disappear on their own in subsequent years. That makes sense too.

As the physical conditions of a site changes, they may not suit particular plants.  Consequently, my yard never looks the same from one year to the next. The shrubs and trees stand as anchors, but the herbaceous plants come and go. I can have a gazillion plants of one species one year, and hardly any of them the next.

The one constant battle I face is the annual intrusion of native trees. Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera); Red Maple (Acer rubrum); Oak (Quercus spp.); and even American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) seedlings keep trying to convert my yard to forest. If they were nonnative species, people would accuse them of invasiveness rather than recognizing ecological succession in action—a natural process.

Weeding is an activity that helps you to become very familiar with your yard, the organisms that dwell there, and how the natural world truly works. So the next time you need to weed and you’re thinking, “Ugh!”—please don’t. Look at it as a grand-yet-free course in the study of nature. And isn’t that the reason kids go to nature camp?

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