Ask a Botanist

January 6th, 2021

Long-time Reflection Riding volunteer Dr. Charlie Belin is ready to answer your questions in our occasional "Ask a Botanist" series. Charlie is a retired professor of ecology, an expert botanist, and essentially runs a clinic in his home greenhouse for dying plants people give him. Send him your questions and he'll do his best to help you out!

Dear Dr. Charlie,

I have attached photos of grass that grows along the trail to Edward’s Point, Signal Mountain. It turns a beautiful deep yellow in late November/early December. That is the best time to see the extent of the patches. Can you identify this for me?

Thank you, 


Hi Carol,

Charlie and our horticulture team had to put their heads together for this one. Dylan identified it as Arundinaria gigantea, also known as giant cane or river cane. Scotty also suggested Arundinaria tecta as a possibility. Either way, what you have there isn't just a grass — it's actually the one genus of bamboo native to North America!  

Arundinaria has been used by Native American tribes in the Southeastern Woodlands for a wide variety of things, from basket weaving and flute construction to utilizing the roots for their painkilling properties. 

If you want to identify a plant, we always recommend using iNaturalist. There is a huge community of specialists and enthusiasts that can help you figure it out; plus, you're contributing to a collective of citizen scientists with your data! 

Thanks for your question,

Bess + the Reflection Riding Horticulture team

Edit: our Botanist in the Attic, Zach Irick, has weighed in as well! He says it is A. appalachiana, a cryptic species of the cane that grows stunted up on the plateau. 

Dear Charlie,

My husband and I recently moved into our first home. The back yard used to be a lovely garden, but it hasn’t been seriously cared for in likely over a decade. (Our main focus to date has been removing the poison ivy). It’s pretty overgrown, and we’ll need to take out at least one dead tree. 

I’d love some advice on how to begin to move forward with caring for our yard and making selected improvements in an eco-friendly (and affordable) way that’s good for our toddler to play in but doesn’t involve just turning the place into a lawn. Is this something that you could help us with? Perhaps with some recommendations of native plants that would be good to look into? Or, do you know of an ecologically-thoughtful landscaping company who we might want to consult with? We also may try to level it out a bit to deal with some of the erosion and add a retaining wall and fence. We’d be grateful for any and all advice and recommendations you may have. Thank you so much!

Best wishes,


Hi Lisa;

I was in your same situation about three and a half years ago with the home we moved into here in Chattanooga. The grounds had not seen any care in many years. After our experiences, I’m going to give you a staged series of ideas for the renovation of your yard. Please remember that this total process will take probably 3 - 5 years to achieve, but the final product will be very satisfying.

First of all, try to envision what the yard will be used for over the years. Will it be used for kids and games? Will it be used for just communing? Will it be used for some kind of crops? You might consider a landscape architect to help you develop a plan.

Second, take soil samples from several places in the yard in order to determine what you are dealing with. These samples can be sent to UTK for a few dollars for analysis, and it will help you plan for your goals.

Third, you should prepare a site plan that will incorporate the ideas for your yard that you have developed. You may want to divide your yard work into phases or stages that will make the work not only more affordable, but will also break out the work and species into groups.

Fourth, concerning the plant species you can insert into the yard, you really have come to the best place. Native plants you can purchase from Reflection Riding are already acclimated to our climate, region, and geography. Our experts (Scotty, Dylan, and Hannah) can guide you in your selections. Please take your plan with you when you visit so that they can see what you have in mind and help you even further.

Next, prepare for some dirty, aching work digging up weeds (the best way to get rid of weeds is to dig them up, not clip them at the surface). Please don’t work too hard or too long. That would just be counterproductive, and would turn you off of further efforts.

Concerning species of grass to insert into your yard, you have several species or hybrids to choose from. Fescues, zoysia, etc. are just some of them, but you might choose a reasonable landscape firm to help you. There are many around here that are great, but I would suggest you contact some of your neighbors who may have ideas. I would provide your selected landscaper with your plan so they may understand your ideas. Get them to grade your yard if needed prior to laying sod or spreading seed. They should also guide you when to work with grass. Now is NOT the time to either add sod or to seed a lawn.

Good luck, and have fun with your developing yard.


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

Chestnut Oak

December 22nd, 2020

Quercus montana

This easily-grown deciduous member of the beech family (Fagaceae) is native to the eastern third of the United States from Maine to Mississippi and southward to northern Florida, with another outlying population in Michigan. The chestnut oak is a medium-tall tree that achieves a total height of 50 to (occasionally) 100 feet and a drip diameter of 50 to 70 feet.

physical description

This tree has large leaves that are dark green on top, and slightly hairy and gray-green on the bottom. In the springtime, separate male (catkins) and female (pistillate) flowers develop and mature to acorns suitable for harvesting in mid-autumn by many animal species, including many species of birds, and mammals such as squirrels and deer.


This species grows best in average, dry to medium moist, well-drained soils in full sun. The chestnut oak will do well in less productive soils and it is rather drought tolerant. It is found from hardiness zones 4 through 8 and therefore will do well in Chattanooga, which is in zone 7.  While many oaks are susceptible to various insect and fungal diseases, the chestnut oak is considered low maintenance.


The chestnut oak would make a good specimen tree for a moderately large lawn area.  It is also frequently used as a shade tree in yards.

interesting information

The species epithet indicates its frequently found near mountains in nature.

The common name refers to the bark, which some observers thought looked like the bark of the American chestnut tree.

The wood of this species is considered highly desirable due to its straight, compact grain, slow growth, and tall height.  

In the past, this species’ lumber was used as fence posts, railroad ties, fire fuel, and as the source of tannins for processing or coloring leather. The wood is often incorrectly marketed as “white oak” for this species.

The chestnut oak is often preyed upon by insects that sting the leaves and then lay their eggs on the leaf surface.  The tree responds by curling and making a protected area for the eggs to develop. This process is not injurious to the tree.

Chestnut oaks are grown and available at the nursery of the Reflection Riding Arboretum and Nature Center.

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

Question 1

Hello Charlie,

What are some resources for a botanist to learn how to ID grasses and sedges? I have books, I've taken a couple workshops, I try to ID them on my own, but it's just not enough. I am ready to take it to the next level.

Thank you!

Obsessed with Grasses


Hi Obsessed with Grasses,

Sedges and grasses are notoriously difficult to identify to the species because of the very small differences in their structures that are used to identify them. Some native grasses can only be identified at certain times of the year, like when they just start to set their flowers, and some sedges are only able to be identified by the relative length of some of their parts, like the length of the coverings around the seed head. Some of the identifying structures can only be observed with either a microscope or at least a magnifying glass.

The best texts used to identify the sedges were written in the early 20th century in German, which is not that helpful for many of us.

There are two fellows at the Missouri Botanical Garden that are quite good at grass identification and they have provided an online plant finder. The Hamilton County Master Gardener program also has several keys to various plants; two deal with grasses.

If you’re still convinced you must identify the grasses and sedges, send me an email and we’ll discuss this further. Good Luck!

Question 2

Dear Charlie,

I have a lemon tree in a pot. I've tried several solid fertilizers, because I've heard lemon trees use a lot of nutrients. It seemed to be doing pretty well and producing a lot of flowers and fruits.  None of the fruits made it larger than a black bean. I figured it was just because it was my first year with the tree and it was stressed from the transplanting. After the first few failed fruits, I tried to pinch off the buds so the plant could focus more on rooting and foliage. Now, almost all the leaves have fallen off. The plant is still growing, but it just keeps putting out flower buds, not any new leaves. I'm trying to pinch them off, but I'm not sure how to stimulate foliage growth and discourage flowers.

I have a grow light on it, and I shortened the amount of sunlight, figuring this would emulate winter and stop the flowers, but it hasn't. I know nitrogen is good for foliage, but is there a better fertilizer than solids?  I'm trying not to overwater the plant, but that means I usually only water it once a week or every 10 days.  I don't think the fertilizer gets released as well under these conditions.


Longing for Lemons


No need to pinch off any leaves, especially at this time of the year. This is your lemon tree’s food source and it needs all of them. 

In our climate here in the Chattanooga area, the members of the Citrus genus don’t do very well. It sounds like what you are doing is good. With a few suggestions, you will be on the way to better lemons.

First of all, lemons do need incredible amounts of nutrients. You may want to try using a liquid fertilizer for a few weeks. But it sounds to me that of the three basic needs of most plants (sunlight, water and nutrients) your lemon tree is not getting enough light. Remember that most citrus trees in Florida use as much sunlight as they can get. Even with a grow-light they still may not be getting adequate light.  This conclusion is based on the abortion of most of the buds prior to ripening.

My suggestion is to place the tree in an area where it can get as much light as possible.  If you put a grow-light on the tree, simulate a photoperiod of 8 hours sunlight and 16 hours dark, or nearly so. Good luck!

Posted by Charlie Belin  | Category: botanical

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