March 3rd, 2021

Panicum virgatum

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a native ornamental of the grass (Poaceae) family found pretty much throughout central and eastern North America in hardiness zones 5 through 9. It achieves a height of 3-6 feet tall and a width of 2-3 feet. Switchgrass blooms from July through February with a light pink flower; the autumnal color is a pale yellow. It requires medium to wet soil conditions and full to nearly full sunlight. Because of its wide environmental needs, it is a rather forgiving plant able to withstand many yard and garden situations. It tolerates drought, erosion, dry soils, and air pollution. Switchgrass is a clump-forming type of grass and gradually radiates out in its area via rhizomes.

Habitat Value

Switchgrass is actively sought by many species of birds after it has bloomed. It provides the small seeds that finches, sparrows, and chickadees, among others, seek. Switchgrass is generally noted for its stiff, columnar form, and often retains its vertical shape throughout the growing season.

No serious diseases or insects are associated with this species. Some fungal diseases, such as rust and crown or root rot, are found either when switchgrass is improperly planted or when hot, humid, summer conditions arrive.

Landscape value

Switchgrass is an increasingly utilized tallgrass prairie species in garden landscapes. Desired for its erect and sturdy habit, switchgrass is extremely versatile and can withstand flopping even when wet. Additionally, it is a suitable replacement for non-native grass species like Miscanthus. Whether planted in masses, as a single specimen, or for screening, the durability of this plant makes it especially reliable in a variety of growing conditions. In addition to its utility, switchgrass offers aesthetic interest throughout the year. Its profuse, airy panicles display hues of red and pink, and its foliage ranges from deep green and powder blue to golden yellow and deep burgundy. With over 20 commercially available cultivars, there are several options depending on the desired intent behind a planting design.

Written by Hayden Hammons for WM Whitaker & Associates

interesting information

The genus name of switchgrass, Panicum, is a Latin name for millet. It also refers to the shape of the inflorescence, a panicle. The species epithet, virgatum, means twiggy in Latin.

Charlie is a retired professor and Biological Oceanographer. He taught five courses in the University of Georgia System for many years from his home base in Savannah, Georgia.  

Charlie loves hiking at Reflection Riding, teaching children about the ecology of the area, and interacting with the Reflection Riding staff. They are GREAT!

Posted by Charlie Belin  | Category: native plants

American Witch Hazel

February 24th, 2021

Hamamelis virginiana

American witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) is native to North America growing from Canada to Georgia westward often to Kansas and Louisiana. It does well in hardiness zones 3 through 8. This species is a flowering, deciduous shrub and blooms very late in the season, usually flowering between October and December. Depending on local conditions, this blooming time may be pushed further into the new year. It provides a distinctive fragrant, yellow flower. It grows to approximately 15 to 20 feet tall and needs a drip area of approximately 20 feet. The oval to obovate leaves are approximately 6 inches long and have a dentate margin. These leaves turn a bright yellow in the autumn.

Witch hazel is in the Hamamelidaceae family, being closely related to the sweet gum tree which we also have in the Chattanooga area.

This species needs full sun but will do well in partial shade requiring at least 4 hours of direct sun each day. It also needs medium well-drained soil. This species is rather easy to grow, especially here in the Chattanooga area.

habitat value

Witch hazel is found in woodland areas often near streams.  Witch hazel has no major disease or insect problems; however, insect galls are sometimes found on the leaves.  Japanese beetles are known to chew the leaves.

landscape value

Written by Matt Whitaker

H. virginiana falls in the small tree/large shrub category and is tolerant of a variety of landscape conditions (sun/shade and medium moist soils), however, dry soils should be avoided. Most landscape plantings will not exceed 15-feet and in full sun this species tends to send up multiple leaders to form a dense clump. It can be used as a specimen, in a natural grouping, or hedge with spacing as tight at 3-4-feet on center. Fall color is variable but it tends to be a rich yellow and hold amber/brown leaves through winter to provide moderate screening. Its rapid growth, hardy nature, and screening abilities make it an excellent candidate to replace the short list of ubiquitous, finicky, and problematic evergreens that are overused such as the non-native Leyland Cypress that loses its lower limbs/screening abilities in 5 years. An extract from the young twigs and roots of this species is used for a variety of medicinal properties including anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, and as an astringent. This plant is deer resistant.

Interesting information

The genus name means “together with fruit” and, as such, is the only tree or shrub in North America which is found at times of the year with not only the flower on the stem but also next year’s bud as well as this year’s fruit.

Charlie is a retired professor and Biological Oceanographer. He taught five courses in the University of Georgia System for many years from his home base in Savannah, Georgia.  

Charlie loves hiking at Reflection Riding, teaching children about the ecology of the area, and interacting with the Reflection Riding staff. They are GREAT!

Posted by Charlie Belin  | Category: native plants

How We Protect Red Wolves

February 23rd, 2021

The American red wolf is the most endangered canid in the world. With the 10 known wild red wolves roaming a single recovery release site in northeastern North Carolina and approximately 250 in captivity, breeding is critical to this species’ survival.

Reflection Riding is a breeding and exhibit facility for red wolves and has been since its membership in the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (RWSSP) began in 1996. We’ve had litters in 2007, 2011, 2016, and 2020.

So, what’s the big deal? Why is red wolf breeding a concern? 

In 1980, the American red wolf was forced into extinction in the wild to conserve the last 17 remaining red wolves. Of these 17, only 14 were strong enough to begin a captive breeding program. That’s a really small gene pool! 

When breeding an endangered species in captivity, it is critical to maintain genetic diversity and grow the family tree. That means maintaining hyper-vigilance over the breeding coefficient and selecting red wolves that are the least genetically alike to breed. Luckily, RWSSP has a geneticist to direct us and a software program that tracks each red wolf’s pedigree — a road map of who’s closely related and who’s less related. Red wolves only breed one time per year, adding another variable to the equation.

Red wolves and coyotes can also interbreed. This causes a serious dilution of genes resulting in hybrid offspring. Hybridization can quickly kill the family tree.

What do we do with all this information?

As an institutional representative and management team member, I attend a summit meeting each summer to determine who’s going to breed with whom based on the needs of the population. We must determine how many litters need to be produced to maintain or grow the population (whichever is deemed necessary for that breeding season) and refer to the mean kinship list (a measure of the importance of an animal). We then begin the process of matchmaking. 

We’ve transferred red wolves to breed at our facility from as far away as Sioux Falls, SD. Once the red wolf arrives at its new facility, there is usually an acclimation period (we call it “Hey, howdy! time”) where the red wolves are separated by fencing and have limited visual sight and physical proximity. After about a week of this introduction, the red wolves are placed in the same enclosure, and with a little luck, they like each other and the relationship begins.

Red wolf breeding season is January through March, with the most northwestern facilities typically breeding last. After a 63-day gestation period, pups are born in April and May. Litters can range from a single pup to a litter of nine. Eyes and ears open after two weeks, and pups begin to wander out of the birthing place after about five weeks.

In some cases when a genetically valuable red wolf has not bred, artificial insemination can be an option. Reflection Riding was fortunate enough to participate in this research. Males’ sperm is collected and cryopreserved for future use. The research team that worked on this project consisted of our veterinarian, Dr. Chris Keller, his team from Mountain Hospital for Animals, and two post-doc students.

Luckily, red wolves breed fairly well in the wild and in captivity once they have found the right mate and are of breeding age. Reflection Riding has been fortunate enough to have successful pairs and has two breeding pairs this 2021 season. As a very involved cooperator in the RWSSP, it’s our duty to support this program and this magnificent species.

Posted by Tish Gailmard  | Category: wildlife

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