As spring advances, signs of renewed life are appearing at the Reserve in each of the four elements. Amphibians have laid their eggs in the water, insects are hatching and beginning to fill the air, buds are swelling along with new growth appearing from the earth and we recently performed the annual prescribed burn of the Wildflower Labyrinth! All of these components of life’s cycles are occurring in line with the vernal equinox.
Of these manifestations of awakening, we focus here on amphibians. The Southeast, recognized as the center of amphibian biodiversity in the United States, supports over 140 species of frogs, toads and salamanders . North Carolina alone is home to more than 60 salamander species (more than anywhere else in the world) with some of those being found only in our state . Two in particular, the northern pigmy salamander (Plethodon organi) and Weller’s salamander (P. welleri), are species of conservation concern dependent upon this ecosystem as habitat. The Reserve is home to several known species (as well as likely many not yet seen and identified): the wood frog (Lithobates sylvaticus), spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum), three-lined salamander (Eurycea guttolineata) and red spotted newt (Notophthalmus viridescens). Newts, the subfamily Pleurodelinae of the family Salamandridae, are semi- or fully-aquatic as adults as opposed to other salamanders that follow the reverse life cycle.
Why Are Amphibians in Decline?
Amphibians as a whole have been in decline for over 20 years, leading all taxonomic groups, with approximately one third of the species listed as threatened on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List. This is due in part to their biphasic life stages, meaning they rely on both aquatic and terrestrial systems. As most alternate between life in the water while juveniles, to adult life on land (some species exhibit the reverse progression) with a return to the water to mate and lay eggs, they are susceptible to adverse conditions of both ecosystems. Their moist, permeable skin not only absorbs most of the water needed for survival, it is also a sensitive respiratory organ, therefore taking in both water and air pollutants. Centrally located in the food web, these consumers of aquatic vegetation, invertebrates and other vertebrates are also prey for fish, snakes, birds and others. Strongly influencing biodiversity and acting as early indicators of ecosystem change, amphibians are considered to be proverbial canaries in the coalmine regarding climate change . Increasingly erratic rainfall patterns with greater deluges and longer periods of drought present impossible obstacles for these creatures that are simultaneously being threatened by habitat loss, disease, invasive species and overexploitation.
USGS scientists found that restoration of degraded, damaged or destroyed wetland hydrology provides the most immediate benefit to frogs and toads , and presumably salamanders. This process involves reestablishing water flow conditions to historic natural states, as we have been doing at the Reserve, and benefits not only amphibians, but all native plant and animal species. Our recent modifications include adding hydra humps with rock outlets, adding turf and rock swales and altering existing swales to better direct the water. We are also constructing step pools and rock check damns within the swales to control water velocity. Finally, we are experimenting with large woody debris (LWD) in a subwatershed to slow sheet-flow across the landscape and prevent valuable soil and nutrient loss.
What You Can Do
If you want to help protect amphibians and their habitat because you value biodiversity, for ethical reasons or perhaps because you have warm memories of sitting on a back porch being gently eased into the evening hours by a chorus of frogs, we have some additional suggested places to begin.
Leave ground cover such as dead wood, leaf litter and rocks in your yard to provide moist shelter
Avoid pesticide and fertilizer use
Plant native species that are more resilient against disease and pests
Fertilize with manure and compost
Buy organic food
Build a pond with gently sloping sides and vegetation along the edges
Choose native plants that help support amphibian life
Do not stock with fish
If you have wetlands on your property, you can even participate in the USDA Wetland Reserve Program offering landowners the opportunity to protect, restore and enhance wetlands voluntarily. These sites have been found to host more species and more individuals of those species of amphibians than neighboring land, so the efforts work . So, as always with conservation, protection and the overall health of our planet, it is in the hands of us all.
I always eagerly await this time of year when leaves emerge and plants begin to flaunt their flowers. A truly magical transformation happens all around us. This is also the perfect time to dig into gardening and get plants in the ground and established for several reasons. First, the ground has thawed after the harsh winter months. Also, the rainfall is typically plentiful, lightening the workload of irrigation required during dry spells. Finally, early planting allows ample time for roots to ground down before cooler weather sets in, leading to better survival rates through the first winter. This is what we have been doing in the Core Park as well as in preparation for the annual Native Plant Sale, which will be August 23 this year.
We have been fortunate to have volunteer Robb Turner joining us frequently in the nursery to help pot up two-month-old native azalea seedlings (Rhododendron vaseyi, calendulaceum and Gregory Bald) into larger pots where they will remain and grow for one year. They will then be moved up once more for the final stage of growth that will bring them to an adequate size to be sold (and planted in your yard) the following fall. Red spruce are also being moved up from 2” to one-gallon Rootmaker pots and will be ready for sale and planting (some at the Reserve and some in your yard) in two years. This does not mean, though, that we won’t have any for sale until then; this is simply one stage of the ongoing cycle of propagation, and we always have another batch of young trees mature enough to begin their journey in their new homes.
In the landscape, we are planting in all garden rooms to enhance color for our visitors and pollinators alike, provide screening and replace dead or dying plants. We also continue our water mitigation efforts by installing 37 new LWDs (large woody debris) as well as more river rock and wood chips to slow the pace of water runoff and prevent erosion in various areas. We turn our attention to detail on beds, edging adjacent turf for greater definition and distinct boundaries prior to mulching. Locust logs are also being installed along Azalea Walk trail edges to retain bed integrity and define trail material from bed mulch.
Pesky azalea bud gall persists, so our annual ritual of removal from flame and Gregory Bald azaleas is at its peak. This diminishes the spread of the fungus and prevents energy from being wasted on gall tissue rather than flower growth. Our location adjacent to Panthertown Valley’s native rosebay rhododendrons covered in gall makes it almost impossible to prevent spread to the Reserve without spraying fungicide on buds. Dedicated to conservation, we choose to manually remove the disease rather than risking the larger detriment from harmful chemicals. While a slower process, it is worth the benefit to the ecosystem–and it’s free!
In late spring and early summer, we prune evergreen trees and shrubs, such as rhododendrons, after they have completely finished flowering. Late bloomers, rosebay rhododendrons flower later than all other species, so they are the last to be pruned. This not only allows time for the plants to grow back and fill in, but also to form flower buds prompted by the detection of shorter days later in the year. So, the sooner after flowering that you prune, the better chances you have for abundant flowers next year!
Written by Matt Sprouse, PLA, Sitework Studios – Principal and Amy Fahmy, PLA, Sitework Studios – Landscape Architect
This past year brought us to Southern Highlands Reserve to talk about water. We were eager to once again revel in this wonderful garden, designed to inspire appreciation for the diversity of native plants of the highlands. No better example exists of a man-made landscape that blurs the lines seamlessly with the surrounding ecosystem. Yet change is always present, and as with gardens everywhere, a constant effort is required to maintain the displays amid the forces of nature. SHR works tirelessly to maintain the vision and beauty of the gardens and for the past few years this has included a mighty struggle with water.
Six months into 2019, SHR has already experienced two 100-year storm events. These storms overwhelm the existing drainage infrastructure, cutting new channels on the steep slopes and eroding plantings. Kelly and her staff hold their breath with each storm, waiting to see what losses they’ve sustained. After each storm, SHR staff work to quickly bring the garden back to a presentable state. Washed out paths, fallen trees, and uprooted plants are a weekly challenge. A garden is one of the few places where we traditionally appreciate and expect change – the change of seasons, the evolving sequence of blooms, the transition from seedling to mature specimen. SHR is now working to bring a new aesthetic component to the changes wrought by stormwater. If excessive rainfall is the new normal, can that 100-year event occur within a designed erosion management system that has both efficiency and beauty for visitors to appreciate?
Let’s consider what SHR is up against this summer. Southern Highlands Reserve rests at 4,500 feet above sea level in one of the few temperate rainforests in the Eastern U.S. The highland area of Transylvania and Jackson Counties, including Toxaway Mountain, sees some of the highest recorded rainfall in the region. Temperate rain forest classification is a minimum of 60 inches of rainfall in a year. Last year’s rain fall measurement at Southern Highlands Reserve was 130 inches. Precipitation is a constant at the Reserve. Low cloud cover, rising fog, and the constant movement of ground water up through the trees and out the leaves (transpiration) fills the air with moisture. As the sun warms the moist summer air, cumulonimbus clouds rapidly form over the mountain and blue skies change to ominous dark gray in a matter of minutes.
Excessive rain events are with us for the foreseeable future. Through design, exciting possibilities exist to bring the wild forces of weather and the cultivated beauty of the garden together. The design of beautiful stormwater systems sounds like an oxymoron but progress is underway. It is now conventional wisdom that man-made drainage systems should recharge groundwater locally rather than dumping concentrated flow downhill. To achieve this with recurring 100-year storm events, we must fully understand the natural drainage system within the soils, rocks, and plants that hold a garden together. We can then evaluate which plants have the potential to be introduced into this local ecosystem as partners in erosion control, and from this we can move towards plant choices with nice flowers, contrasting textures, and form – classic garden design techniques. Swales, level spreaders, and catchment basins are examples of effective functional systems that disperse water near the point of origin. Filling a catchment basin with masses of plants that can thrive in wildly fluctuating water levels is an example of the new landscape aesthetic. Another is germination blankets or coir logs with planting holes that support gorgeous wildflowers on highly erodible slopes. Live stakes from shrubs with stoloniferous roots can create both fibrous root mats on stream banks and fabulous blooms for visitors.
The design of these hybrid storm water solutions requires the same artistic, creative, and inventive principles as those developed over the centuries for beautiful gardens. If “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder” the more we understand about the ecology underpinning our existence the more we find it beautiful. Take Lurie Gardens in Chicago or the High Line Park in New York City, both are “wild” meadows in the center of urban places. Both gardens would once have been visually unacceptable, but the new landscape aesthetic is clearly evident in these gardens. Each garden’s function is as beautiful to their communities as is the flowering season. As a haven for pollinators, the rough and unkempt phases of the gardens are appreciated for seed heads, nesting sites, and insect overwintering.
Southern Highlands Reserve is working to understand stormwater as an asset in the garden. Their solutions can tap man-made structures that function in harmony with natural systems. No one said it would be easy, but Southern Highlands Reserve is on the right track.
Southern gardens are known for their big charismatic flowers: sugar-pink rhododendrons, peppermint domed mountain laurels, wedding cake layers of American dogwood, giant lemon-scented magnolias. These flowers are exciting, but don’t forget to look down at what’s growing closer to ground level.
When I was a kid in the Ozarks, I learned that the first signs of spring weren’t to be found up in the branches of the forest or out in the sunny meadows. Spring came first to the forest floor.
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) was the earliest to appear. Its tiny daisy-like flowers, with yellow centers and white rays, only lasted for a day or two. Next, we’d get a wave of violets – both the common purple (Viola odora) and downy yellow (Viola pubescens). A week or two later, the woodland phlox (Phlox divaricata) would bring drumettes of powder blue to hilltops – we’d gather the flowers in fistfuls and shove them into mason jars, filling the house with sweet scent. While the phlox was bright on the hilltops, sessile trillium (Trillium sessile) would carpet the ground in lower areas, mottled foliage topped with flecks of burgundy flower. Once spring had really arrived, the shooting stars (Dodecatheon meadia) and puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) would send up flowers in the flickering shade of a new season’s foliage. Every week, something fresh fluttered into bloom – to be overcome the next week by a new glory.
When I visited the Reserve last spring, I kept moving slowly – camera snapping, barely inching my way along – because I was fascinated by the wonderful tapestry of ephemerals covering the ground. Old favorites from my childhood, like Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and herb robert (Geranium maculatum) achieved fairy-tale sizes in the soft weather and abundant rain of the mountaintop. Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) lifted happy umbrellas above the forest floor. I’d never seen some of these plants thriving at lower elevations – rosy wake-robin (Trillium catesbaei) and lady’s slippers – both the pink (Cypripedium acaule) and yellow (Cypripedium parviflorum).
The garden team at the Reserve is doing a phenomenal job of fostering existing woodland plant populations while also enhancing them with strategic new plantings. One genius strategy that Kelly’s using is to plant intermingled drifts of differently-colored selections of the same species (such as woodland phlox, Phlox stolonifera) to create beautiful color variations within mass plantings. I’m excited to see how these ephemeral plant communities continue to evolve.
Even if you don’t have the existing root and seed bank of the Reserve, you can make a dynamic woodland garden of your own. Find an area with with light shade – beneath the canopy of deep-rooted trees or in bright building shadow is great. Keep the soil stabilized with a groundcover that leafs out late – ferns or sedges are great options. Then, choose a handful of different woodland ephemeral species and try them throughout your chosen location. I’d just plant a few to begin with – maybe a dozen of each – and spread them across the site to see how they do. After 2-3 years, you’ll see how they’re settling in. Make some mass plantings of the ones that do well. In just a few years, you too will be doing a spring shuffle as you gaze down at your ever-changing carpet of woodland delights.
Much of this season at the Reserve has been spent inside enhancing our digital plant database in preparation for it to be shared with the public, as well as making plans for the coming growing season. On warmer days, we have been able to get outside for some much-needed landscape maintenance including cleanup after winter storm Diego swept through. Several top-heavy rhododendrons were uprooted and toppled over from harsh winds and the added weight of ice and snow during the storm. We have replanted, staked and covered them with horse manure for extra protection while they become reestablished. We also top-dressed beds, shrubs and small trees that had been recently planted. The Wildflower Labyrinth is one exception with regards to manure because excess nitrogen will cause these plants to become leggy and fall over.
In preparation for the completion of our new Nursery Complex trail, we transplanted several cinnamon ferns from the path to nearby locations a few feet away. Our water mitigation efforts continue as we have added oak and maple logs—LWDs (large woody debris)—to woodland areas along topographic lines where elevation changes. This is the first stage of a multi-step process to create bio-swales that will help prevent erosion. Later we will revisit those logs to partially bury them in the soil, and then dig out an adjacent area uphill and refill it with small woody debris like wood chips. This will hold the water in the basin and allow it to slowly seep into the ground rather than quickly run off. The woody debris will also gradually break down into a rich organic matter and provide added nutrients to the surrounding plants and soil.
Inside, we have been laying the groundwork for additions to the gardens. Seed stratification is a naturally occurring process of long periods of cold temperatures breaking seed dormancy and beginning germination. Natural forces throughout the seasons deteriorate the seed’s external coating, allowing water and light to reach the embryo. Horticulturalists mimic those natural forces indoors for propagation. We place the seeds in moist mediums like sand, peat moss or a paper towel in airtight containers inside the seed storage refrigerator for 1 – 12 months depending on the requirements of each species. Some seeds require double dormancy; one cold period is not enough for these slowly germinating species. After the first few months in the refrigerator, they need to warm up for a couple more months and then go through a second cold cycle. The seeds are then ready to be planted in warm soil after the last frost date in spring. It is possible to follow nature’s process more directly and sow seeds outside either in-ground or in containers during the fall, but be aware that they are not as protected from being eaten by animals or killed by a late freeze.
At the Reserve, we start the process in our seed chamber with a system that can be easily set up at home for horticultural enthusiasts using a baker’s rack, UV lights and heat mats. Right now, we are stratifying milkweed, hibiscus, lobelia, Turk’s cap lily, magnolia and strawberry bush among others. We are also germinating native azalea seeds (pinkshell and Gregory Bald hybrids), red spruce as well as other native plants for our annual Plant Sale in the fall. This early start will provide a longer growing season than naturally occurs at our high elevation.
For those of you eager to stay connected with your garden throughout the year, we offer some timely tips for chilly days:
It has been said that some of the best gardens are built in the winter by a fire. We suggest you spend some time simply walking through and around your garden during this bare-bones season to observe at the deeper level, and then warm up inside while you sow your plans for the coming growing season.
Make note of what worked and what didn’t during the last season so that you can have a more fruitful garden in the coming year.
Meet with an arborist to learn more about how to best care for your trees and consider winter pruning of crossing branches, damaged limbs or canopy release.
It’s a great time for grading projects should you want to transform the lay of the land for improved water flow (away from your foundation), erosion control or simply for an enhanced design.
Winter is also a fine time to remove invasive species, especially English ivy. No mosquitos will bother you and the robust workout you get from tugging at those tough roots will keep you warm.
Finally, when you’ve had all you can take of the cold, it’s nice to warm up back inside and peruse catalogues for seeds, bulbs, tubers and anything else you plan to add this spring.
Southern Highlands Reserve is pleased to announce the 2018 Volunteers of the Year! Volunteers are vital to our success as a growing non-profit organization and we’re pleased to honor these individuals for their exceptional commitment and support of our mission. The Volunteer of the Year Award recognizes an outstanding volunteer for his or her valuable and selfless dedication and contribution to enhancing efficiency within the organization as well as spreading awareness throughout the community.
This year, we had a tie! Two shining members of SHR’s extended team stood out equally. We are pleased to recognize Molly Tartt of Brevard, NC and Paul Cooper of Lake Toxaway, NC as the 2018 Volunteers of the Year.
As a member of the Waighstill Avery Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), Molly Tartt worked with her group to find a long-forgotten red spruce forest originally planted by the DAR in the 1940’s near Devil’s Courthouse off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Deeply inspired by this history, she became a strong supporter of our red spruce restoration work. Molly works in our Nursery Complex repotting young red spruce and is an avid supporter of us within the community.
Paul Cooper is a long-time volunteer at the Reserve. A resident of Lake Toxaway Community and a nature enthusiast, Paul holds a special affinity for the Reserve. Each year, he logs more hours than any other volunteer. His love of story-telling and the Reserve make him a natural fit as our Visitors’ Days docent!
We are so grateful to all volunteers who helped us make 2018 a successful year.
Contact us to learn about becoming a Southern Highlands Reserve volunteer in 2019.
“It won’t bite. It just needs a launch point,” I say. The flying squirrel scurries up the front of the kid’s sweatshirt to his shoulder, pauses to gather itself, then launches into the air. In its panic, it lands short of the nearest tree trunk but scrambles the last few feet, bolting behind it, then dashes up the trunk. From a branch it peers down, its big black eyes blinking at us.
The rest of the students, giggling a few seconds ago, are now hushed with mouths agape, staring back at it. Someone steps closer with a camera and the flying squirrel jumps, floating off in a slow glide down the mountainside. Demonstrating remarkable maneuverability, it banks a hard left to sail past a tree branch and out of sight. The whole course of its glide, which lasts seconds, is accompanied by a chorus of “whoa!” and “that was awesome” and awed laughter.
It is like that every time. There’s something magical about a flying squirrel. No wonder its folk name is “Fairy Diddle.” I prefer to call them “flyers.”
I turn back to the class of aspiring wildlife biologists who attend Haywood Community College. They are helping me check squirrel boxes in the Great Balsams, just up the road from their campus in Clyde. I had just finished measuring and tagging this flying squirrel and put it back in its nest box. I can’t make a scurrying sciurid stay put though. This one busted out and dropped to the forest floor right smack in the middle of 20 students, cueing a teachable moment.
“Flying squirrels aren’t capable of powered flight,” I say. “They glide by pushing off with powerful hindquarters, extending their fore and hind legs, and spreading out their patagium.” I demonstrate the patagium (or “wing” membrane) with my arms wide. “To do this, they need a tree for launching.” I turn
to the student who served as a human launch beam. His expression lies halfway between amused and embarrassed. “Or something tall that serves the same function. An Endangered species just used you as a launch tree. Consider yourself lucky.”
Actually, each student was fortunate that day. Sometimes we check boxes without finding any squirrels. Just 10 percent of the roughly 350 boxes checked each winter are occupied. This is no ordinary flying squirrel. It’s the Carolina Northern flying squirrel, a critter you are only likely to see if you’re really looking for it.
North Carolina is home to two species of flying squirrels. Both species of these gliding tree squirrels are nocturnal cavity-dwellers. The smaller, grayish-brown Southern flying squirrel is found throughout North Carolina at mid to low elevations, where it subsists on nuts and seeds. The rarer Carolina Northern flying squirrel dons a cinnamon-brown coat and is found only on 13 massifs in North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia’s highest mountains.
In 1985, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Carolina Northern flying squirrel as Endangered, due to its limited and discontinuous range making it vulnerable to habitat destruction, fragmentation or alteration. Biologists noted particular concerns about past and future clearing of forests, introduced insect pests such as the Balsam woolly adelgid, recreation and other development, pollution (heavy metals, pesticides and acid rain) and the potential for global warming further limiting its range.
Despite their similar appearance and ability to glide, North Carolina’s two flying squirrels differ in key aspects of their ecology. The Carolina Northern flying squirrel lives in North Carolina’s so called boreal forest zone, selecting cool, moist, north-facing slopes. Its haunts are the dark spruce, fir and birch forests above 4,500 feet elevation. There, it consumes truffles, buds, fruits, lichens and anything from bird eggs to nestlings to crayfish.
Our acoustic surveys and radio-telemetry tracking data have made it clear that Northern flying squirrels prefer mature conifers. In fact, according to research by Dr. Cordie Diggins and Dr. Mark Ford of Virginia Tech, Carolina Northern flying squirrels have smaller home ranges in high-quality habitat of taller conifers, foraging nightly in the spruce and fir. Why so? The answer may have something to do with the truffles they eat.
As if its gliding ability was not captivating enough, this flying squirrel’s role in forest dynamics is also fascinating. At night, they parachute down from the trees to dig for truffles, the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi associated with the roots of spruce trees. The mycorrhizae form a fibrous net around the roots of the tree, helping the tree capture water and nutrients. The fungus in turn obtains sugar from the tree.
To a flying squirrel, the tasty, nutritious part of the truffle is the tough outer skin. However, they inadvertently ingest some of the spores at the center of a truffle. The undigested spores are dispersed across the forest floor in the flying squirrel’s droppings. Other small mammals, such as red-backed voles, do much of the same. However, the flying squirrel’s unique gliding locomotion enables it to cover larger areas, dispersing spores broadly. Thus, Dr. Peter Weigl, the preeminent authority on the Carolina Northern flying squirrel, noted that it effectively perpetuates its own habitat. But in some parts of their range, where past land use has drastically altered the forest, the flying squirrels can’t do it alone. They need our help.
Changing Times and Trees
On a chilly mountain morning in June, my crew is parked at Black Balsam, donning winter coats and hats. Joining us is volunteer Julie Wade, a wildlife student at Haywood. I fit Julie with an external frame backpack to which I have strapped three ammo cans housing devices that will record the vocalizations of flying squirrels. We’re collecting baseline data on flying squirrels in an area slated for habitat restoration. In a few months, we’ll be planting nearly 1,000 red spruce seedlings with the help of Julie and her classmates.
First, we want to see if Northern flying squirrels persist here. I have my doubts because the habitat is degraded. Between 1905 and 1920, spruce was logged from every corner of Haywood County’s high mountains reachable by railroad. The extraction did not employ the sustainable practices used today. In several areas, including the forest we’re about to survey, the slash caught fire. Raging fires in 1925 and 1942 incinerated soil and led to erosion during storms and freeze-thaw cycles. Thus, the loss of habitat that led to the Carolina Northern being listed as Endangered happened over a discrete window of a mere few decades. Mind you, no one even knew about the Carolina Northern flying squirrel back then. It wasn’t discovered in North Carolina until 1953.
Across this moonscape of eroded soils, a forest began to recover, only it was not the same forest as before. The spruce-fir forest is not a fire-adapted community. The normal forest dynamics here occur at the scale of individual tree fall gaps. In this newly cleared, soil-depleted setting, acres of blackberry and pioneer hardwoods like fire cherry replaced the spruce and fir that had once grown alongside yellow birch and sugar maple. The forest we now survey features a canopy of 70-year-old yellow birch, with mid-story birch, sugar maple and buckeye. Spruce occurs in small clumps, with some individuals reaching the canopy, but the majority in the mid-story shaded by hardwoods.
That spruce and Carolina Northern flying squirrels persist here seems unlikely. But they have, thanks to flexibility in their life histories. For example, the Northern flying squirrel is not restricted to conifer forests or a diet of truffles; they will use Northern hardwood stands in the absence of conifers and eat a varied diet. Likewise, while red spruce grows faster in the sun, it is not restricted to open areas. Spruce is remarkably shade tolerant. Individuals sometimes sit in the shade of hardwoods for 50 to 100 years ready to grow into the next tree fall gap. And so both remain, but over a much shrunken range and in a heavily altered forest.
But their plasticity has its limits. One threat the Northern flying squirrel faces is upslope encroachment by the Southern flying squirrel. Unlike the Northern flying squirrel, which can subsist on the nutritious oils of Usnea lichens when the snow piles up, the Southern flying squirrel’s small body size demands a constant, cacheable supply of nuts and seeds to survive winter’s cold. The lack of such a source of hard mast in the spruce zone seems to limit Southerns from becoming established there as a year-round resident. Warmer winters may increase contact between the two species, as the Southern flying squirrel ventures upslope, bringing with it the parasitic intestinal worm Strongyloides robustus. The Southern flying squirrel fares well when infested by this parasite, but the Northern flying squirrel does not.
Planting for the Future
A healthy, robust Northern flying squirrel population needs high-quality, well-connected forest habitat. Restoration of this forest community is the mission of the Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI), which formed in 2012 and is a partnership among agency biologists, non-governmental organizations, university researchers and nonprofits. SASRI partners guide restoration objectives and propagation, planting and monitoring efforts. One of SASRI’s objectives is to restore conifers to hardwood-dominated stands, creating a mixed forest. Another goal is to restore connectivity between patches of high-quality habitat to enable dispersal of the squirrels.
In some areas, large swaths of blackberries separating forest patches exceed the flyer’s glide distance (and tall students are unlikely to be standing at the ready as squirrel launch pads). Squirrel-sponsored spore spreading may achieve these objectives, but at a snail’s pace and only in those areas having a spruce seed source. Biologists and foresters can speed up the process by planting spruce seedlings where they are scarce and releasing existing seedlings to sunlight to accelerate growth. Release is accomplished by selectively cutting hardwood trees shading vigorous spruce trees in the understory.
First though, we need seedlings—preferably locally-sourced seedlings. The nearest are in West Virginia, so we grow our own. Each autumn, I find myself crouched beneath towering spruce trees, picking fresh red cones off the forest floor and dropping them into brown paper bags. Fingers sticky with sap, I leave the cool mountain top to deliver my cone haul to The Southern Highlands Reserve, a native plant arboretum and research facility on Toxaway Mountain in Transylvania County. Their small staff have grown spruce for 10 years and are experts at extracting seed from cones, cataloging the germinating plants and growing such vigorous seedlings that they prefer to call them small trees.
Since 2013, spruce has veritably taken over the Reserve’s nursery space. The four restoration efforts implemented thus far clear out the nursery in a matter of hours as partners load trucks and trailers with trees bound for the woods. The experience leaves Southern Highlands Reserve Director Kelly Holdbrooks reeling with a mix of excitement for contributing to conservation and sadness to see the trees go. Her sadness is short-lived as she turns around to start the next batch of seedlings that will be needed.
In September, we’re back at the Black Balsam parking lot having just cleared out the Reserve’s seedling stock. The restoration site is 1 mile from the parking lot. Volunteers from hiking clubs and trail maintenance crews spend two days hauling seedlings down the trail. Haywood instructor Shannon Rabby distributes hard hats and shovels to his forestry students. Everybody leaves the parking lot with a sack of red spruce seedlings. The seedlings are freshly watered, weighing that much more.
The students bring enthusiasm to the planting days, despite having never seen a Carolina Northern flying squirrel. They plant the trees quickly (hoping to exceed the number planted by Warren Wilson College’s forestry crew which will plant later that week) but they plant with care. Throughout, they pepper me with questions and ideas about release work and monitoring. Their forestry education comes to life with each seedling they bury in the ground. A few muse that they want to see these trees in 30 years. And of course, they all want to see a Carolina Northern flying squirrel. So, I invite them back to help me check squirrel boxes in the winter. I can’t promise we’ll catch any Northern flying squirrels, but if we do, maybe someone will be lucky enough to serve as a launch pad.
The Southern Appalachian Spruce Restoration Initiative (SASRI) 2018 annual meeting took place on Thursday, November 8 at the Bent Creek Experimental Forest outside of Asheville, North Carolina.
This partnership of people from diverse interests was formed in 2013 for the common goal of restoring spruce-fir ecosystems across high elevation landscapes of the Southern Blue Ridge. Referred to as “Islands in the Sky”, these pocket ecosystems at one time covered vast expanses of mountain landscape, but are now only found sparsely in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee and southwest Virginia.
After the Everglades in South Florida, spruce-fir forests are the second most endangered ecosystem in the United States. Over the last century, they have been greatly reduced across the southern Appalachians largely due to logging. Adding insult to injury, severe slash fires 100 years ago were followed by rains washing away the seed and soil profile necessary for species regeneration. Growth is slow at high elevations making the regeneration that much more of a challenge. Most red spruce present today were planted in the 1940s as a restoration effort after those fires, with current restoration efforts still attempting to replace what was lost then. Today the spruce-fir forests face increased pressure from acid rain, rising temperatures, poor management and drought.
Red spruce was chosen as the best species for restoration because it is the conifer least in decline. Another significant motivating factor for choosing red spruce was to help the Carolina northern flying squirrel, a federally endangered species. This squirrel feeds on mycorrhizal fungi, or truffles, that grow at the roots of red spruce. Also, southern Carolina flying squirrels carry a harmful gut parasite that they pass along to northern Carolina flying squirrels where their territories overlap. The oil from red spruce staminate cones that the squirrels feed on suppresses that parasite, protecting their overall health. Not only home to the northern Carolina flying squirrels, these forests also support the federally endangered spruce-fir moss spider as well as other species of conservation concern such as the norther saw-whet owl, black-capped chickadee and several salamander species.
SASRI, comprised of private, state, federal and non-governmental organizations, recognizes the importance of this ecosystem for its ecological, aesthetic, recreational, economic and cultural values. Some of the other organizations involved include the US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, NC Wildlife Resources Commission, Blue Ridge Discovery Center, Grandfather Mountain Foundation, NC Forest Service and Appalachian Mountain Joint Venture. As a founding organization and continuing Steering Committee and Planting and Propagation Committee members, we spent the day with our partners and interested parties discussing updates and findings from the past year. SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks and Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel gave a presentation on the status of our red spruce propagation and discussed some of the coming projects to propagate for new public land sites.
In the spirit of the Reserve’s mission to protect and conserve native plants and their ecosystems, we are dedicated to helping reverse the decline and reinvigorate the vitality of spruce-fir forests in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Due to our high-elevation location, our Nursery Complex is uniquely poised to grow red spruce seedlings successfully. Currently, there is no other facility in the southeastern US growing red spruce for restoration, which makes the Reserve’s ability to continue these propagation efforts for this partnership very important.
Southern Highlands Reserve recently had the opportunity to assist in a local native plant rescue at the historic High Hampton Resort in Cashiers, NC. A redesign of its golf course by award-winning course designer Tom Fazio involved expansion into previously wooded and undeveloped areas. As such, a wide variety of native plants and wildflowers needed to be cleared.
In June, while hiking through the areas for future golf greens and admiring the flora, homeowners Sally Price and Beth Preston, along with High Hampton Vice President Owen Schultz, began discussing the possibility of saving many of these plants prior to construction. Price, who holds a native plant studies certificate from Birmingham Botanical Gardens, and Preston quickly volunteered to lead the effort so that residents would be able to collect plants and relocate them to their private properties—a benefit not only to the homeowners, but also to the overall ecosystem at the Resort. Able to increase their individual plant populations and potentially gain new species, these good stewards of the community also helped preserve the system’s existing state of balance.
They contacted local native plant experts, including SHR Executive Director Kelly Holdbrooks and Director of Horticulture Eric Kimbrel, along with Adam Bigelow of the Jackson-Macon Conservation Alliance, Jeff Zahner of Chattooga Gardens in Cashiers and Preston Montague of The Native Plant Podcast. With various backgrounds related to native plants of the region, this group came together to help identify species valuable for relocation and educate homeowners on best practices for plant transport and replanting to ensure long-term survival. In return, High Hampton Resort generously allowed SHR to harvest and transplant a total of 100 new plants— including trilliums, jack-in-the-pulpits, yellow lady slippers, orchids, shining club moss, fawn’s breath, wild ginger, partridgeberry and featherbells—to the Reserve.
Global deforestation and loss of habitat is ever increasing from human activities such as large-scale agriculture, logging, mining and infrastructure construction. A record was set in 2016 with 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres) of global tree cover loss . We are grateful to the High Hampton Resort members who had the awareness to conserve and preserve within their own community when the opportunity arose.
Autumn, marked by cooler weather and shortening days as Earth’s axis begins to tilt away from the sun, transitions us from summer’s lush abundance to winter’s quiet dormancy, and refers in its origins to the passing of the year. Once commonly referred to as harvest, western cultures have lost that broader association with the land since becoming predominantly urban.
At the Reserve we are, of course, still very tied to nature and its rhythms, and are working on timely tasks dictated by the Earth’s rotation and the seasons it creates. Harvest, autumn or (the preferred term in the United States) fall, has us collecting those fallen leaves to shred for leaf mulch in beds and bare spots. While hardwood mulch is preferable for trails, we use leaf mulch elsewhere because it is naturally occurring, native to the location, produces a lower carbon footprint and helps build mycorrhizal fungi which symbiotically partners with plants to provide a secondary root system and sustainable nutrition .
Of course, weeding continues, but now is an especially important time to remove aggressive weeds before they produce seeds. Some of the problematic plants that you may want to keep an eye out for in your garden are Pennsylvania smartweed, garlic mustard, stilt grass, chickweed, henbit and dead nettle. Concurrently, we are also collecting and storing the seeds of the plants we prefer—non-invasive natives—which we will propagate later this year or next. Recently, we have been planting perennials, red spruce and plants rescued from nearby High Hampton Resort . In our turf areas, we have been aerating and over-seeding as regular annual maintenance for overall turf health and enhancement. We also had our soils tested recently to identify needs for optimal turf health in the next growing season, carefully adhering to our organic protocol.
Our water mitigation efforts continue along with the rain, and we have focused on erosion prevention. After working with Sitework Studios and Robinson Associates Consulting Engineers last spring to research and develop best practices for water mitigation, we have begun implementing recommended landscape treatments. First, we mapped the sites, and then began ground truthing the water as it traveled across the Reserve. We are monitoring both sheet and channel flow of rain water during storms to evaluate varying storm intensities and the effects on our landscape. The modifications include adding hydra humps with rock outlets, adding turf and rock swales, and altering existing swales to better direct the water. We are also constructing step pools and rock check damns within the swales to control water velocity. Finally, we are experimenting with large woody debris (LWD) in a subwatershed to slow sheet-flow across the landscape and prevent valuable soil and nutrient loss.
If you have not yet tended to any of these tasks relevant for your home and garden, there is still time. In preparation for the coming winter, we have some seasonal suggestions:
Top dress trees, shrubs and perennials with a layer of composted or aged cow or horse manure. Doing this during the winter months enables the nutrients to stay in place longer and make their way down into the soil to the roots.
Prune deciduous trees and shrubs. You can better see the branching structure in the winter. Additionally, dormancy prevents tissue regeneration until spring, meaning the plant will not suffer from energy loss or sap flow.
Sow wildflower and other native plant seeds. This provides the cold period necessary for some seeds to germinate in the spring.
Plant spring flowering bulbs that will generate roots and come up in the spring.
Dig up dahlia roots after a frost or two and place them on top of mulch. Once the roots dry out, store them in peat moss inside cardboard boxes in a cool, dark location. They will be ready to replant in the spring after the last frost.
Transplant trees, shrubs and perennials to preferred locations. Transplanting while dormant keeps plants from going into shock.
Collect leaves from turf areas and move to wooded areas for compost. This is preferable to burning, which adds pollutants to the air and increases respiratory health issues.
Prevent snow from accumulating on evergreen trees and shrubs to avoid bending and breaking of branches.
Winterize any irrigation pipes that may be in danger of freezing.