Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Europe -- Natural History Resources

Europe's natural history interests me and I hope to study it firsthand some day. The flowering, as it were, of wildlife gardening and amateur biological study in Great Britain has been an influence in my life.

BioImages - Virtual Field-Guide (UK) -- runs the gamut of the five kingdoms of biota, with photographs of "natural history objects, mostly British" -- everything from purple sulfur bacteria to highland cattle -- 44,494 images as of today! Even so, many more remain to to be illustrated. The site includes an impressive set of European biological links, especially for the UK or for those interested in any of many discussion groups.

Flora of Europe -- a photographic herbarium, taxonomically arranged.

The Postcode Plants Database -- a project of Flora-for-Fauna, hosted by the Natural History Museum in London. It models what I'd like to see everywhere! Enter your postcode and find out what plants are native to your area and the animals each species serves -- marvelous support for the wildlife gardener!

Natural History Book Service -- this British bookseller carries an extensive selection of European natural history books in English. I love a lot of the British books and booklets.

Outstanding up-to-date field guides from Princeton University Press:

Butterflies of Europe -- lavishly illustrated, the most comprehensive field guide to European butterflies.

Reptiles and Amphibians of Europe -- most recent, comprehensive and best illustrated field guide.

Birds of Europe -- praised as the ultimate field guide for European birds, lavishly illustrated.

Mammals of Europe -- an excellent recent field guide, abundantly and beautifully illustrated, with much more natural history information than is usually found in field guides.

Princeton University Press offers several other excellent European natural history titles, including Where to Watch Birds in Europe and Russia.

Web sites:

Biological Inventories of the World’s Protected Areas -- species lists, mostly plants and vertebrate animals, for parks and preserves all over the world – get an idea of what you can find there before you go!

Araneae – Spiders of North-West Europe – includes over 700 photographs of 220 common species!

Dragonflies and Damselflies of Europe – an extensive site.

Captain’s European Butterfly Guide – especially good for the UK, lots of links for all of Europe.

Moths and Butterflies of Europe and North Africa – impressive photographs and information! Click on the species names on the navigation bar.

Silkmoths of Europe – the Saturnidae, the largest moths; photographs and much information. Huge collection of links for silkmoths and hawkmoths of the world!

Sphingidae of the Western Palearctic – aka Hawkmoths of Europe --very informative.

Amphibians and Reptiles of Europe – wealth of beautiful photographs, organized taxonomically.

Herp Index -- see Regional Herping and Societies and Organizations pages for European herpetological sites.

The Snakes of Europe – download a free pdf copy of a book written in 1913 by a noted herpetologist, 113 pages, from this page.

The Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society -- plenty of information about Gibraltar natural history, including a complete flora, and links for much of Europe, especially for birds.

The Bat Conservation Trust – located in the United Kingdom.

The Shrew Site – by an Austrian enthusiast. The world’s most complete Internet source for shrew information!

The Hedgehogz Home Page – about hedgehogs, quintessential European mammals. Informative and enjoyable!

The European Polecat – a French project, presented in English here.

Badgers on the Web -- ultimate site for the European badger, and other types of badgers worldwide. Go to the Badger Pages by Steve Jackson first.

Hoof Prints – for people interested in European ungulates.

Deer-UK – learn all about British deer.

European Bison – an informative account of this fascinating bovine.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Oak Woodland Bird Conservation Plan

The California Oak Foundation sponsored this popular book:

Their latest offering is:
The Oak Woodland Bird Conservation Plan

by Dr. Steve Zack and published by California Oak Foundation
California oak woodlands rank among the top three habitat types in North America for bird richness. This book is a guide for conservation policy and action on behalf of oak woodland habitats and wildlife. 126 pages
Paperback, $12.00, Members $10.80.
Don't forget to add local tax and shipping and handling of $5.25.

I learned about it from the February issue of their free-on-request email newsletter. As described on their Home page:

The California Oak Report
Our Current Issues page features a monthly report that provides information to the general public to help them better understand the biological role of California's oak woodlands in the landscape and the planning processes applicable to oak woodland habitats. Automatic electronic mailings of the California Oak Report are available upon request by contacting oakstaff@californiaoaks.org.

Contact information:
California Oak Foundation
1212 Broadway, Suite 810
Oakland, CA 94612
Tel: (510) 763-0282
Fax: (510) 208-4435
E-mail: oakstaff@californiaoaks.org

The new book and many other interesting items are available from their Merchandise page.

I haven't seen a copy of this new book, but their other materials I have seen are excellent.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Native Plants in Landscaping -- Philosophy of Use

What is the key to the appeal of indigenous plants?

"Notes on Development of a Philosophy For Use of Native Plants in the Landscape (An uncompleted paper evolving in development)" is an obscure article written by the great plantsman J. C. Raulston. It appeared in Newsletter #5 (May 1982) of the then North Carolina State University Arboretum, now known as the JC Raulston Arboretum. I'm not sure he ever developed it any further.

For openers he asserts:

"Native plant as a concept for use in landscaping is normally important more as a philosophical statement of the user than as a biological reality." Native is an indefinite concept: "Geographic and political boundaries have no relation to native ranges or adaptability. Palmettos and Carolina hemlock are both N.C. natives and neither is suitable for Raleigh."

Raulston refutes the often cited justification: "natives are better adapted to an area and are insect and disease free". He notes: "Many of our most aggressive weed plants are exotics that vastly outperform (in growth) native materials - can these be considered less adapted?" Exotic diseases and pests sometimes ravage native plants! Most areas where "landscaping" is carried out are grossly disturbed: "many problems are "site" problems that affect exotics and natives equally - poor drainage, heat loads, air pollution, etc."

Native plant ranges are not a guide to potential adaptability. Some with very restricted "natural" ranges are widely adaptable, such as the Monterey cypress and Torrey pine "grown as superb ornamentals and forest lumber trees in many areas of the world." Propagation constraints restrict many species. Some with tiny seeds, such as willows, must germinate in nature in wet areas, but if artificially propagated can perform well when planted out in dryer places than where they "naturally" grow. The Florida torreya is native only along two miles of a river in Florida yet is hardy to at least minus 5 degrees F. as grown in New York.

People erroneously think of wildflower plantings as "a simple, easy way to landscape or plant low-maintenance areas. In reality most attempts [based on this naive philosophy!] are total failures. Research by [Nancy] Doubrava at NCSU showed that site preparation and care is as essential for natives as exotics" -- which accords with my experience. Along California freeways we commonly see signs that say "Wildflowers by ..." with nothing but weeds in evidence!

Then Raulston comes up with his theory for the REAL reason for choosing natives ... the subconscious motivation. The real, unrealized motivation:

"apparently, most often is a practical way to handle the problems of dealing with the sheer bewildering volume and variety of information existing on all plants that could be potentially used. The world of plants is indeed terrifying and intimidating to a beginner. If one can arbitrarily decide that 95% of the available material is totally unacceptable, the mastering of information becomes much more approachable and one does not need to take the time, effort and energy to evaluate plant individuals - much the same way that we all often deal with life and society by making blanket decisions that 'all (name your pet category) businessmen, students, women, Italians, government officials, gays, lawyers, blacks, landscape architects, etc. are ____ (fill in your own value judgment)' - in reality sometimes true, sometimes not - and normally not even used by the user in a malicious manner but just as a coping device of simplifying the staggering array of value judgments that must continually be made by everyone - plants simply have become one more. Ideally one would look at the potentials and adaptability of each plant available - but this is difficult and the information often is simply not available anywhere.

"None of the above is to imply native plants should not be used for I strongly promote the use of many superb native plants ...


Reasons to use native plants

1. To maintain the "character" of a "natural" site (often a decision on what time period of that site is necessary; but "character" can also be handled by exotics of similar appearance that are indistinguishable to any but extreme specialists).
2. To fit the psychological needs of the client who has a strong value judgment on the subject.
3. Because of the highly desirable plant characteristics and adaptations of the individual plants - foliage, flowers, bark, fruit, shape, season, tolerances, etc. (Half the plants on my "plants needed in the N.C. nursery industry" reference sheets are native and dozens more should be produced and used)."

Among desirable native plant characteristics Raulston doesn't mention, their generally much greater value to native animals is foremost in my mind. Non-native plant species also have value for native animals, but typically for a much narrower spectrum of animal species.
Note: words in brackets in the quotes were added by me. Nancy Doubrava is now Interpretive Specialist at JC Raulston Arboretum.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Rootbound Plants

"Suburban plant junk" is one of my stock phrases. It aptly characterizes most residential neighborhood landscapes. I picked it up from Judith Larner Lowry, author of Gardening with a Wild Heart: restoring California's native landscapes at home.

To the discerning eye most woody plants in Californian suburbia look somewhat unhealthy -- and so they are. Most began life in containers. I believe almost all of them -- before ever being planted out in the landscape -- were seriously compromised by that initial container confinement.

It has long been my custom, whenever I dig up a dead or unwanted plant, to take some time to study its root system, especially near the crown. Almost invariably its original container confinement has left its lasting mark -- revealing itself as a prime cause of poor health or death. I highly recommend conducting a post-mortem inspection of the roots on every dead or "dud" plant! Crippling container confinement is often in evidence!

Getting overgrown at the 2" or 4" container stage compromises a plant for life. Sometimes the critical confinement is the gallon or 5 gallon stage. Not uncommonly, I suspect, a plant's root system is compromised, slightly or severely, at every stage of its containerized existence!

A plant's severely kinked or tightly twisted roots impinge upon themselves as they grow. They self-strangulate -- when thus a significant portion of the root system is "cut off" from the exchange of sap, stunting or death ensues. Sometimes a small twisting root girdles a major root; or two or more major roots girdle each other; or the whole root system may simply twist so tightly as to preclude its expansion in girth beyond a certain point. Common outcomes are less than optimum vigor, early decline or death. A compromised specimen often grows just so large and then stalls, permanently stunted.

Some plants with twisted roots yield a twisted top, as if to balance what lies below. When aerial portions of a plant display poor conformation, the roots are often worse! Woody plants should taper out into the ground all around the crown. Lack of taper on one side indicates a girdling root, often evident even in gallon or five gallon specimens.

Some naive growers assume a plant's root system will "straighten itself out". Not so, especially for woody species. "As the twig is bent, so it grows" is true for roots, too.

For many species, an extensive well-formed root system is the prime mechanism of drought tolerance -- an impossible outcome for crippled root structures. Root-crippled plants require more irrigation. It may not be possible to wean root-crippled specimens of even normally quite drought-tolerant species off of irrigation.

The aerial portions of a plant may look acceptable even though its roots are largely dead. Not uncommonly people pick up small plants at a discount outlet, not realizing that most of the roots died from poor care while awaiting sale. Hint: fine roots that are brown inside and out are usually a bad sign! Savvy buyers often inspect the roots.

A lot of plants get off to a slow start in the landscape because they are in poor condition at the time of planting. Cripped to begin with, many will never attain optimum growth or health.