All posts by Michael

The Planning commission vote on 55-Hopson

At the Tuesday, October 12th meeting the Planning Commission voted 12-0 against recommending the Industrial Light rezoning around the intersection of Hopson Road and 55, bordering RTP and extending west, south across Northeast Creek from several communities.  Members of the public had about 3 minutes each to comment and a few neighbors and I spoke. As I recall the comments were generally questions or negative on the proposed rezoning and there were not any ringing endorsements.  I  wasn’t the only person to bring up light pollution and I think noise was an issue at the community consultation meeting in January if not on the 12th.  One or more neighbors mentioned concern for wildlife, and mentioned seeing a bald eagle in their yard, but without noting that the adjacent gameland was inventoried by the NC Natural Heritage Program as an important natural area in Durham County and greater Jordan Lake that ideally should not be disturbed further and is also used for hunting and fishing.  There was a proposal to move to a text-only development plan addressing some of the concerns brought up at the hearing, to be heard again in 60 days, but the original application was voted upon in the end.  Despite this negative recommendation by the Commission the proposed rezoning could soon go to City Council.  So far nothing has been announced. 

The applicant said that their plan is to build a business park housing valuable biomedical companies, but I wonder if the research and development component of an Industrial Light zoning would allow large greenhouses, similar to those on TW Alexander Drive and Davis Drive.  When there are low clouds light reflected from large greenhouses is conspicuous for miles and when it is clear the light isn’t so obvious but still contributes to light pollution obscuring the night sky over the Triangle.  Humanity has been able to look up and see the Milky Way as well as other galaxies for thousands of years,  but I’m not sure if I have ever been able to see our greater galaxy from the Triangle or anywhere. An Industrial Light zoning allows many uses, including warehouses, recycling centers, junkyards, wholesale trade, etc.  Some of these uses would probably increase windbown litter, traffic, noise, and air pollution. 

Would there be a risk of hazardous material spills?  Early in the applicant’s presentation to the Commission the relatively large distance between this site and neighborhoods to the north was compared with the distance between the nearby Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant on 55 and the neighborhoods.  Not so long ago the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant used chlorine for disinfection, leaving Northeast Creek with a chlorinated smell far downstream, so presumably there was a supply of chlorine gas on site.  If there had been a leak houses were probably dangerously nearby and today houses have been built even closer.  The rezoning application predicts additional residential building just west of the site, along Grandale.  It should also be noted that while houses are relatively far, Northeast Creek is very close to parts of the site and is the reason there is a buffer of forest between the site and the north neighborhoods. 

Besides whatever noise would come from the construction and operation of whatever is built, a large area would hear and maybe feel the blasting and earthmoving necessary to cut through the ridge at the corner of 55 and Hopson and other hills for a new road. The DOT would probably want a road similar to Hopson, which has four divided lanes cutting through a ridge on the east side of 55.  Earlier this month the BBC talked about the climate change impact of new building construction, and here is a plan to build a major new road when there are already roads connecting 55 to Grandale. Ignoring the impact on wildlife, would a new road significantly reduce traffic on existing roads and would that be the end of major road building along Northeast Creek at the very south margin of Durham County? A railroad, which is probably less carbon-intensive than trucking, is on the other side of 55 from the majority of the site.  Local governments claim to be trying to reduce Durham’s contributions to climate change. 

There is very little information about what would actually be built and where and the opportunity for regular public input ends once the City Council approves a rezoning.   

55-Hopson and MLK rezoning hearings at the planning commission tonight

Tonight (October 12th) at 5:30 the Planning Commission will hear two rezoning requests in the Northeast Creek basin, a large Industrial Light project proposed along the edge of the County around the intersection of Highway 55 and Hopson Road and apartments at the northeast corner of Fayetteville Road and Martin Luther King Jr Parkway.  I have been paying the most attention to the 55-Hopson proposal, but I did not realize its full significance until a few days ago, so this post is at the last minute.  Tonight is not the final hearing.  There are or have been some other rezoning requests along the Creek this year.  This will be an online meeting through Zoom; registration is at:

zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_Az71ESRRSPumnJMjRXPEMg

More information about participating:

durhamnc.gov/4062/Participate-in-a-Virtual-Public-Hearing

The application, referenced below, is available in the agenda posted at: 

durhamnc.gov/AgendaCenter/Planning-Commission-15

See also Durham’s new supplemental Social PinPoint system:

durham.mysocialpinpoint.com/land-use/map#/sidebar/tab/about

I wrote about this and some other proposals earlier in the year at:

www.northeastcreek.org/wordpress/where-the-red-fire-pink-blows-and-other-campions-in-the-triangle/

After the Planning Commission there would be a hearing before the City Council.  Below are some comments.  

Hopson-55 rezoning 

The staff report incorrectly said this site is in the Neuse River basin, but I think this is being corrected to the Haw and ultimately Cape Fear basin.  Legal definitions must be being used at the bottom of page 4, because there are obviously plants, animals, communities, and ecosystems on the site, since it is a location on the living Earth (though after mass grading the site would like more like a tract on a lifeless celestial body).  It is very easy to not find any rare or protected species or historical relevance.   The report lists many items that might be good to have in the planning process, but then they are rendered useless by saying that they do not apply in the absence of a development plan.

There are references to extending Hopson Road west of 55 on page 32, etc.  The rezoning request only covers part of the area discussed at the community meeting, but obviously the applicant must intend to build in the entire area, looking at page 34, etc.   The clearcutting over the last 10 years from 55 to Grandale leads me to suspect that all of this land is being sold, so does the applicant have plans or know something the public doesn’t know?  It’s possible the logging was done so they could then say on page 53 that the communities discussed in the NC Natural Heritage Program reports no longer exist, and without committed elements there are no guarantees about where building would be done on the site.  The area north of the powerline was also clearcut, but they say it will not be built upon.  When was there a hearing on building a new connecting road from 55 to Grandale?  I also heard a rumor late last week that the DOT wants to enlarge Grandale.  I have since been informed that the Durham-Chapel Hill-Carrboro Comprehensive Transportation Plan calls for a “major thoroughfare” from the Hopson and 55 intersection to Grandale, but nothing is listed in the State Transportation Improvement Program from now to 2033.  The NC NHP repeatedly surveyed the public lands along Northeast Creek immediately bordering the proposed rezoning site and recommends that new utility easements not be built (Jordan Lake Inventory 1999) and that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority” (Durham County Inventory 1995).  It seems like building a major new road would have a worse impact on the environment than new utillity easements and there is already a lot of roadkill on Grandale Road around the bridge over Northeast Creek as it is, especially in late spring/early summer.  When was or will the public given an opportunity to comment on road plans?  How much blasting would have to be done to extend Hopson, given that it currently ends at a steep slope, on one of the highest hills in the area?  Will the DOT then want to extend a road across one of the wildest parts of Northeast Creek and the Tobacco Trail to 751?  There is already a connecting route from 55 to Grandale, made harder to use when the intersection was moved north, and the area around the old claypit can be accessed from the existing road.

As I said before, the application includes very little information about what is actually planned.  At the community meeting (see page 41) they said the plan was for office-type biomedical buildings, but Industrial Light allows many applications, including recycling centers, warehouses, freight facilities, junkyards, wholesale, etc.  It is possible a junkyard would actually be more environmentally benign than office buildings, parking lots, and lawn.  Freight or recycling would probably increase roadkill and litter and have other impacts.  What would be done to limit harmful chemical releases?  Would the buildings be built where they would have maximum impact on the adjacent gamelands, and Parkwood and Audubon Park would also be impacted since they aren’t that far away? 

What about the impact on hunting?  If hunting is limited by building, there could be over-population of deer in Parkwood.  Wildlife such as turkeys, wood ducks, prothonotary warblers, beavers (a subject of concern east of Parkwood this year), and possibly otters live adjacent to this site, while further away I saw a breeding female chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill, and I thought such birds had been driving out of the Triangle, like bobwhites.  

Would IL zoning allow greenhouses, under research?  I live miles from TW Alexander Drive, but I am already impacted by the light pollution from large greenhouses there, along with the new blue-white streetlights installed this year.  It is less obvious, but I can probably see light pollution from the Southpoint Mall area as well.  Light pollution is very obvious when there are low clouds, such as last weekend, but it reflects off dust, etc, and muddies the sky even on clear nights, so the Milky Way, which should be easy to see is barely if at all visible.  Closer to the site buildings and parking lots would no doubt be lit all night and there would probably be light trespass from poorly shielded lights into the gameland.  If a large greenhouse were built close to Parkwood it would probably be very bright on nearby streets when it is cloudy, and during the winter, even though there is a forested buffer, as happens at the Stonesthrow Apartments, by Burdens Creek.

What about the scientific significance of the claypit?  I can’t remember the details now, but I think paleontologists at local universities have excavated significant fossils there.  I have found plant fossils elsewhere where the sedimentary bedrock has been exposed a few miles away.  The application says there are not any steep slopes or wetlands, but is this true of the entire area they want to build on, from 55 to near Grandale Road?  The aerial photos show water in the old claypit and there are marshes in places under the powerlines, while it seems likely that there would be steep slopes around the claypit and 55.   

There is a small cemetery southeast of the claypit by the road and it is likely that there are archaeological remains where ancient people could overlook the floodplain and watch for game.  There is an old road of some near 55, but I don’t know of any ruins there.    

Even though there is preserved land, development nearby could still cause local extinctions, for example if species are bothered by light, noise, or water pollution; needed the upland habitat on private land as well as the public bottomlands; if they need a larger area of forest than just what is preserved; or if they are harmed by non-native species such as cats, dogs, Norway rats, or English ivy that could come with increased human activity.  

Some but not all of the woods in this area were clearcut over the past 10 years, but young trees have since grown back and species such as deer and red-tailed hawks have probably benefitted, and bobwhites might also like such habitat. Unlike what the application says, when I would go by over 10 years ago it seemed like the claypit was surrounded by forest, though it was relatively young, and some remains.

Apparently tree planting is a significant way to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, as the City of Durham supposedly desires, but Durham probably has fewer trees now than it did in 1995, at least in this section (though the amount of forest is probably greater than when agriculture was more prominent in Durham).  Building a new road, instead of using what already exists, and relying on cars, would also contribute to climate change.

I’m not necessarily against building something and I actually find new construction interesting, but very little information is being offered, what would this project mean for nearby “vacant” land, and suddenly there is talk of a new connecting road and expanding Grandale. I am generally against making Grandale a major road and there is already too much roadkill and dangerous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists along Grandale and on Scott King Road, where an elementary school is planned. The speed limit is high, and people speed, coming on to the curved and narrow bridge over the Creek, at one time a one-lane wooden bridge on a long gravel road.  Increased traffic might potentially drive off the huge numbers of  turkey and black vultures that sometimes roost, though it might increase their food supply. The only benefit is that the risk of people being harassed by over-zealous neighborhood watch types and even deputies while doing legal activities might be reduced, as well as illegal dumping, though littering might increase. It might be good to have better parking by the bridge. On the other hand, given that people like or liked to joyride ATVs in the area, including on the site in question, and it borders parkland, maybe it would become Durham’s next Ellis Research Center (on the south side of Ellis Road east of 147), which has private metal signs saying “No Stopping, No Standing, No Parking” along a public road, which reflects badly on Durham and is a threat to the public.

518 Martin Luther King Jr Parkway

I am not very familiar with this site except passing by, but it is in the headwaters of Northeast Creek’s north branch and it would be good if woods were preserved, especially along the roads, the Tobacco Trail, and any streams; native plants used in landscaping; light pollution limited, etc. The woods might not be very old, but a rare pink ladyslipper orchid grew in young pinewoods where Woodcroft Parkway was extended across Fayetteville and some species prefer young or otherwise piney woods. There is already a lot of traffic at the intersection to consider and the ATT has crossings in the area. If there are steep slopes, people might throw their trash over the edge if it is made convenient and without consequences for them. It is good that the applicants say they will preserve some existing trees and include a park, though these probably aren’t binding commitments and it would be good to keep the trees along the roads. The maps show a hill on the site and it might have a good view if cleared, as did the ridge at 54 and Barbee Road, which is the watershed separating the Northeast Creek and Crooked Creek basins.  This area has also become much more densely built-up in recent years, but much of it is in the Third Fork and Crooked creek basins. 

Late summer soothsayers

In late July or early August last year I walked under a hackberry sapling in my backyard and thought, surely I won’t look up and see an arboreal rough green snake. Instead I was surprised to find a large green and brown mantis, and it was there almost every day through mid-September. The hackberry attracted a species of large, blueish-gray plant-sucking true bug, and the mantis ate those, and then cicadas, putting on weight. It stalked large dragonflies that perched on dead twigs but I never saw it catch one (it also stalked small katydids, but I’m not sure if it caught any). At night it rested, often upside down, its ‘beady’ green eyes turning black. Earlier that summer I saw a beautiful green nymph that might have been the same mantis. The adult was probably a female Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), but it could have been a narrow-winged or Japanese mantis (Tenodera augustipennis), or a praying or European mantis, which is actually only one kind (Mantis religiosa). Later I found an eggcase, resembling that of a Chinese mantis, on a low plant nearby and nymphs are around again this year. There were also Carolina mantises (Stagomantis carolina), a small, mottled gray species with bright orange markings. One spent a night just before Halloween on a red maple snag covered with morning glories vines. There are more than 2500 species, and over 11 in the USA (and introduced species might be harming native mantises). Mantises or mantids were classified with grasshoppers as orthopterans and then given their own order, Mantodea. Mantises are closest to cockroaches and termites, and they can all be grouped together as dicytopterans.

Also in the area there are much smaller but also predaceous mantisflies, which resemble a cross between a mantis and a wasp or fly, but they are neuropterans like lacewings and antlions.

Mantis comes from Greek for prophet, and mantises are charismatic creatures worldwide. Here they have been called soothsayers, rearhorses, devil-horses (god-horse in the Caribbean), praying locusts, and mulekillers, because their dark saliva was thought to be poisonous (and blinding). In the Southwest they were called campomoche and cortón, rezadora, or just mantis in Spanish. A Japanese name is kamakiri, which appears to combine sickle and “to cut,” but this is a guess about the etymology. Another name is tōrō. T. augustipennis is called Chōsen [Korea] kamakiri in Japanese while T. sinensis is ōkamakiri (presumably big mantis). Praying mantis is la mante religieuse or prie-Dieu in French and Gottesanbeterin in German. A dictionary from ancient Assyria calls them necromancer or soothsayer-grasshoppers. In ancient Egypt the bird-fly was thought to guide the dead and in ancient Greece mantids directed lost travellers. The Southern Africa trickster god !Kaggen could appear as a mantis inspiring an Afrikaans word for mantis, Hottentotsgot. Mantids were apparently more closely observed in East Asia than in Europe and inspired two Chinese martial arts. Mantises appear on ancient Greek coins and in modern monster movies. People today talk about being abducted by mantislike beings. The Carolina mantis is South Carolina’s state insect while Connecticut’s is the praying mantis. Mantises are also popular as insect pets.

This is an excerpt from my article in the July – August issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, available at many libraries, public gardens, and gardening-related stores in the Triangle and posted online at: www.trianglegardener.com

Some resources:

A key to the mantises of Florida, but useful elsewhere:

entnemdept.ufl.edu/choate/mantid_key2_03.pdf

Carolina mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/4821

Praying mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Chinese mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/12409 

Narrow-winged mantises:

bugguide.net/node/view/22947

Asian jumping mantises (recently found in Virginia and north apparently):

bugguide.net/node/view/1738253

animaldiversity.org/site/accounts/information/Stagmomantis_carolina.html/ (Carolina mantis)

animaldiversity.org/accounts/Tenodera_aridifolia/ (Chinese mantis listed under an old classification or a closely related species)

“Praying mantids of the United Statesn, native and introduced,” a detailed article in the 1950 Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/page/8787514#page/408/mode/1up

“Another Oriental mantis well established in the United States” in the 1933 Entomological News:

www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/20315#page/9/mode/1up

Japanese insect website with many photos:

www.insects.jp/konbunkama.htm

The remarkable “Bark Flowers”

In the early 90’s an educational website, I think associated with NOVA and on the Prodigy service, had a series of possibly tongue-in-cheek articles about the abilities of a hypothetical pet slime mold, so I wanted to find one of these strange creatures. Several years later first saw one, on an old stump in deep shade along Crooked Creek near what is now Southpoint Mall. More recently in late May one year I saw some on shredded wood or bark mulch in front of the Raleigh Convention Center, in a very built-up area of downtown Raleigh. This mulch, and possibly old pine logs, seem to be favored habitats. I usually see them around now, when it is warm but still moist. There was enough rain last summer that I found some later than usual and for the first time in my yard. All of these might have been bright yellow scrambled-egg slimes (Fuligo septica), once called bark flowers and unusual in extreme bioaccumulation of zinc, used in a pigment. The many-headed slime (Physarum polycephalum) is a stereotypical slime mold popular in research. I might have seen light red wolf’s-milk or wood-loving slimes (Lycogala epidendrum) on a pine log at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. I’m not sure if I saw a fungus or chocolate tube slime, also called pipecleaner or deep-brown slime (Stemonitis splendens) and others, on pine logs at Jordan Lake State Recreation Area. There are hundreds of species in North America but there might be around 50 in a given region, many described in the Audubon mushroom guide. Diversity is highest in temperate areas, and slimes can live in the treetops, snow, underwater, and even in deserts. They are no longer consider fungi and don’t seem particularly slimey. Despite their sometimes loud colors, slimes are usually inconspicuous organisms, but still have cultural connections to humans and other ecological connections. A plasmodial slime mold is basically a giant cell, without nerves or muscles, but since the 90’s their mental abilities have been uncovered and they get mentioned in surprising places, from geography to astronomy.

The rest of this article is in the May-June issue of Triangle Gardener magazine, distributed at Durham County libraries, which I think are reopening now, and at other locations, and it is available online at www.trianglegardener.com

Where the red fire pink blows and other campions in the Triangle

Fire pinks seem to be very rare wildflowers in and around the Northeast Creek basin and possibly throughout the Triangle. I have only come across these bright red flowers with five deeply notched “pink” type petals at two locations in southern Durham County, on the edge of RTP. Fire pinks were the North Carolina Botanical Garden’s 2015 Wildflower of the Year, and free seeds were offered at the time ( ncbg.unc.edu/plants/nc-wildflower-of-the-year/ ; this year’s plant is the American beautyberry), so some might grow near the visitor center, but I haven’t seen them there myself. The first time I came across one of these unusual flowers might have been in May or possibly June off of South Alston not far from the border with Wake County, between the basins of tributaries Burdens Creek and Kit Creek. It might have been on a Sunday morning in late May 2001, also memorable because Sheriff deputies had a roadblock up the road, though there wasn’t much traffic. I stepped off the road along a rocky brook I think of as azalea brook in a somewhat open forest of pines and deciduous trees with sort of ‘dry’ soil where abandoned farmland was reverting back to forest on a late spring/early summer morning. I was familiar with the area because my Dad used to unicycle on a curcuit through the area on Saturday mornings and I sometimes joined by bicycle. The brook flows over slabs of solid bedrock, and the unusual igneous rock intrusions in the area might be the reason fire pinks and other rare flowers have grown there. On a high bank above a sharp bend there was an unusual wildflower maybe 1 to 3 feet high, probably bent over, with sparse leaves and striking red flowers that were sticky on the outside. On another occasion, maybe in the summer, I saw a single small fire pink on the edge of lawn on So Hi Drive near the Creek (maybe this was actually the first one I saw). Several years ago many fire pinks grew in a ditch at the edge of the woods across “Solutions Drive,” former South Alston, from what is now the back gate of the Social Security Administration’s secretive printing facility at 3604 Louis Stephens Drive, but more recently I have only seen yellow Jerusalem artichokes there (native flowers, despite the name). Wildflowers of North Carolina (Second Edition) calls fire pinks “weak perennials” and individual plants don’t seem to live very long. I went back to see the first plant I mentioned one or a few years later and there was no sign of it. I haven’t seen a fire pink in many years; possibly I haven’t been in the right habitat in the right season, but I think they must really be rare or I would come across them more often. They seem to prefer well-drained possibly poor soil with at least part-sun, and being shaded out by trees might be one reason individuals don’t live very long. They might benefit from periodic burning so they can get more sunlight.

Fire pinks (it seems like they could be called firepinks, but at most guides just hyphenate the name), also called Indian pinks and red or scarlet catchflies, are in the pink, campion, or carnation family (the Caryophyllaceae), as is star chickweed, a somewhat common early spring woodland wildflower, and several other sometimes showy flowers that should be found in the Triangle, though I haven’t encountered them myself. Like carnations and other pinks, fire pinks have opposite (paired) leaves and the stems are swollen at these nodes. The leaves are rounded and without serrations and when not in flower the plant is a clump of basal leaves. Fire pinks and related flowers often have a swollen calyx (the green sepals around the base of a flower) to varying degrees. Pink refers to their deeply notched petals, sometimes so deeply notched that they appear to have many petals, as is the case with star chickweed, not to their sometimes pink or red colors. “Pink” probably relates to pinking, as in pinking shears, scissors that make a zigzag cut in cloth, similar to the petal shape of many pinks. Catchfly refers to the stickiness of many of these species, not always around the flowers.

Fire pink’s scientific name is Silene virginica; it is unclear whether the generic name Silene refers to the Greek mythological figure Silenus, chief of the woodland satyrs and foster father and teacher of Dionysus, the god of wine, or to saliva (sialon in Greek), because of the stickiness. Both interpretations could be correct. The eFloras website says these flowers were or are called seilenos in Greek, possibly because Silenus got drunk and foaming. All About Alabama Wildflowers, an informative book that covers propagating and growing many wildflowers, compares distinctive projections low on the petals to hooves, satyrs sometimes sometimes being described as hooved. Both the genus and this species were named by Carl Linnaeus.

There are several species of native and introduced Silene in North Carolina, as well as less closely related flowers. Silene that might be found in the Triangle include the starry campion, also called star silene or widow’s frill (S. stellata); bladder campion or maiden’s-tears (S. cucubalus); sleepy catchfly (S. antirrhina); wild pink (S. caroliniana; it can hybridize with the fire pink); and night-flowering catchfly or sticky cockle (S. noctiflora). None are bright red, but in the Midwest royal catchfly, also called wild pink (S. regia), is another bright red Silene, and there are related flowers in the West that have been called Indian or fire pinks. Non-native bladder campions are named for their very enlarged calyx, and have also been called bird’s-eggs, fairy-potatoes, and rattle-bags. Also in the Triangle there might be non-native corn-cockles (Agrostemma githago) and mullein pink or dusty-miller (Lychnis coronaria). Lychnis comes from the Greek for flame, lamp, or light, another fiery color reference. White campion, also called evening lychnis or white cockle (L. alba), can be found elsewhere in the Carolinas. Species of Lychnis and Silene are very similar and are sometimes classified in one genus. There could also be soapwort or bouncing bet (Saponaria officinalis), both names related to how it produces a soapy lather in water (bouncing bets were washerwomen).

There are many related native and non-native chickweeds, in more than one genus, and while they are probably best known as household weeds star chickweed is a bright white wildflower blooming in older woodlands along Northeast Creek around now, and stands out as the forest floor is cast into shade later this month. Its scientific name is Stellaria pubera; the generic name refers to stars and the specific name might refer to its minute fuzziness or puberulence. It is also called giant or great chickweed, wood starwort (some other chickweeds are also called starworts), winterweed, and birdseed and has five petals, but they are so deeply notched that five seems to be ten. Introduced common chickweed or starwort, S. media, is eaten by chickens and other birds (and so it has been called “the hen’s inheritance,” according to A Sampler of Wayside Herbs), and there is grass-leaf chickweed, also called lesser or common stitchwort, S. graminea, another non-native, as well as native and non-native mouse-ear chickweeds in the genus Cerastium.

Related Dianthus, such as carnations (D. caryophyllus), sweet william (D. barbatus), and the (garden) pink (D. plumarius) are common ornamental relatives from the Old World with many cultural associations around the world, including with International Workers’ Day (May 1st, labor day in many countries), International Women’s Day (March 8th), Mother’s Day (May 9th this year), both weddings and funerals, and carnations are one of January’s birth flowers. Sweet william and pinks grow wild in parts of the Carolinas, and Deptford pinks or grass pinks (D. armeria), another European introduction, can be found in the Triangle, according to the Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas. D. superbus, native from Europe to Japan, is called nadeshiko in Japanese, and Yamato nadeshiko refers to Japan’s traditional feminine ideal (Yamato is one of the many old names for Japan) and the national women’s soccer team is nicknamed Nadeshiko Japan.

A fire pink flower has five petals (with distinctive projections around the flower’s green throat), five sepals, ten male stamens, three female styles, and the deep tubular throat of the flower is ribbed longitudinally. The flowers are arranged in a wide and loose cluster called a cyme, in which the center flowers open first, and a fire pink probably has blooms over several weeks, producing flowers and ripe seedheads at the same time. Each flower can yield several brown seeds, in a bell-shaped capsule with six teeth at the top. There doesn’t seem to be any special means to spread the seeds, yet they seemed to spread far along that stretch of South Alston in only a few years, though there might have been more plants than I knew about.

According to Wildflowers of North Carolina, fire pinks can bloom April – July. The Illinois Wildflowers website ( www.illinoiswildflowers.info/woodland/plants/firepink.htm ) hypothesizes that they are pollinated by ruby-throated hummingbirds and larger butterflies, which would make sense given their bright red color and tubular shape. It seems surprising that these relatively small flowers growing in dry soil would produce enough nectar to satisfy a hummingbird. The stickiness should deter ants and other insects from stealing the nectar without transferring pollen, as well as deterring pests. Bees can steal nectar by biting through the sides of flowers, such as morning glories and probably also coral honeysuckles, another red spring and summer flower, but fire pinks might be toughened against this. A Field Book of American Wild Flowers (first printed in 1902) says white starry campions attract clouded sulphurs, a medium-sized yellow butterfly, and moths. Some related campions, such as night-flowering catchfly and white campion, as well as soapwort, are stark white and fragrant, to attract moths, specifically including sphinx moths in the case of soapwort (according to A Naturalist’s Guide to Field Plants).

Fire pink flowers have both male and female parts (a perfect flower), but other Silene species have been used in the study of the genetic determination of sex in plants (and they have sex chromosomes similar to our own, though the phenotypic results can be much more complex than just producing male or female flowers) and they suffer from a sexually transmitted fungal disease that causes sterility. Some species of Silene also have exceptionally large or even the largest known mitochondrial genomes (these genes control a eukaryotic cell’s powerplants, the mitochondria, which might have originally been free-living prokaryotic cells).

I haven’t come across any information about herbivores of fire pinks. There are also seemingly few recorded cultural uses or associations with fire pinks. Fire pinks were apparently considered poisonous by some Indian groups, possibly because fire pinks were conflated with pink-root (Spigelia marilandica), also called Indian pink, a five-petalled red and cream-colored flower related to the early spring-blooming and poisonous (if eaten) yellow jessamine vine, South Carolina’s state flower. Pink-root and possibly fire pink were used to drive out intestinal worms. For some reason starry campion was once used to treat copperhead and rattlesnake bites, but this treatment has long been called useless. Old World campions, including bladder campion, were thought to have the power to stun scorpions and neutralize their stings, and maybe this idea was transferred to snakes. The leaves of both bladder campion and chickweeds can be eaten after boiling (some chickweeds are eaten raw). Reportedly people on the Spanish Mediterranean island of Minorca lived on bladder campion after locusts consumed their crops. Chickweed is or was even considered “a delicacy” in Europe, sold in markets and substituted for spinach (according to Wildflowers of the Blue Ridge Parkway). Several of these plants contain saponins, ranging from a poisonous level in soapwort to just adding a little bitterness in bladder campion. Saponins are surfactants and soapwort really can be used for cleaning, and has been called fuller’s herb for its use in the fulling (cleaning and thickening) of wool cloth.

The reason to think about fire pinks early this spring is because three rezoning requests will probably be coming up near where fire pinks have been found. First, a few years ago Durham County bought the large flat field bordered by NC 55, TW Alexander Drive, and two stubs of what was South Alston, “Solutions Drive” and “Experiment Drive.” Until about 13 years ago this was a large hill covered with a young pine forest; a house near the top had a commanding view up and down 55, with a few mimosas, sumacs, black locusts, or the like and winged elms over grass and herbs down to the highway, while blackberries bloomed along TW Alexander in April. The hill was blasted away day and night, reportedly trucked away as fill for NC’s first modern toll road and whatever was left was deposited in the abandoned claypit a short distance southwest across 55, on what was the continuation of South Alston into Wake County. I remember hearing it from miles away on balmy late spring or early summer evenings. When I went by the corner in late May it had already been mostly levelled, with a whitish or pale cliff at the south end. I think they were reported to the police several times for noise heard further west. Blasting the igneous and sedimentary innards of the hill might have rattled the County’s Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant, across 55 and dumping into Northeast Creek. There were plans for residential construction or a commercial strip mall at the corner, shown on some maps, but nothing was ever built. The site, about 40 acres, is addressed as 451 TW Alexander, 6001 NC 55, and 6026 Experiment Drive, probably where the farm’s driveway was (these parcels can be searched for through Durham’s Interactive Maps durhamnc.gov/1455/Interactive-Maps ). I thought management at the Triangle Wastewater Treatment Plant wanted the land for a sludge-drying facility, a valuable feature the plant currently lacks, but a community virtual meeting February 18th was about rezoning the site to Office and Industrial (from residential, commercial, and office zonings) for “a new Durham County Public Works Administration Building.” I was the only person who ‘attended’ the meeting. The presenters gave basically no information beyond what was in the brief Planning Department announcement about the meeting. I said what needed to be said, but I had a feeling that I had been insulted and there seemed to be little point to the meeting. Based on the very little that was said, I don’t have an objection to building an office building, but as I said then, it would be good if the landscaping fit with the unique features of the site, or if wildflowers were allowed to colonize the site naturally, and it seems likely that an office building wouldn’t take up all of the land. I haven’t seen any fire pinks at the site, but they could be there. Buttercups and probably Lespedeza or bush clover are abundant in the field and woodland spring ephemerals are currently blooming along a rock-lined stream I could call cane stream. The field used to be mown periodically, but even after that ended trees have been slow to return, and probably little real soil was left after the hill and its topsoil was carried away.

Business interests want to rezone a vast area of Triangle Brick Company land a short distance south of the above site, extending from the east side off 55, just south of the intersection of the new Hopson Road and 55, through the abandoned claypit off Greenlevel Church Road (formerly South Alston), as far west as the top of the ridge that can be seen from the Grandale Road bridge over Northeast Creek, a site that could be in all more than a mile across. Some of the land might not be in Durham County, but I think the proposal calls for building only in Durham. I’m suspicious about what such a project would mean for the land owned by the Wrenn family further west, along Grandale and Wake roads. Both of these vast areas were clearcut, the Triangle Brick Co.’s land around summer 2010 and the Wrenn land maybe in 2018 or before. The land immediately around Northeast Creek is owned by the Federal government and managed by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission as gameland and on the west side of 55 a large area is owned by Durham County. I think I was one of only two community members ‘attending’ the virtual meeting on January 26th, but the well-known lawyer Patrick Byker, the main presenter, must not have known I was there. I think the figure given was that this “assemblage” is in all 241 acres, and they want it all rezoned Light Industrial (some of it is currently Rural Residential) and annexed by the City of Durham, to build a business park with five to six short office or industrial buildings (similar to those built recently at the corner of Hopson and 54, I think it was said by the same company), with construction in stages, starting in the spring of 2022. These low-lying gamelands are NC Natural Heritage Program inventory sites, and this discouraged residential construction on Scott King Road near the Tobacco Trail about ten years ago (but a DPS elementary school will soon be built at the “Scott Mill” site). The bottomlands periodically inundated by Jordan Lake for flood control are protected as public lands, but species living on the protected land could be lost if they also need the surrounding rural uplands to live or if they require a larger habitat than just what is preserved on the government lands. A stark example is provided by two very large woodpeckers. Pileated woodpeckers don’t seem to like built up areas, but I often hear their calls along Northeast Creek and elsewhere in the Triangle and occasionally see one, while ivory-billed woodpeckers, which are much larger but similar in appearance, are now more like rumors or apparitions than living birds and might be completely extinct. The related Cuban ivory-billed woodpecker, a subspecies or a separate species, might also be extinct, as might the related imperial woodpecker of Mexico, apparently the largest woodpecker in the world if it still exists. I saw something like a breeding chuck-will’s-widow or whippoorwill in a scrap of woods at the school site on Scott King Road, rural birds that I thought had been driven out of the region (the bird, I assume a hen, was obviously trying to lead me away from a nest or chicks hidden nearby). The NHP inventory reports note nesting black-and-white warblers and probably nesting sharp-shinned hawks and the presence of ribbon snakes as rare animal species in the area, as well as Douglass’ bittercress and other state or regionally rare or unusual plants, and there were otters and mink along the Creek, but the area hasn’t been surveyed since 1999. The most recent Durham report recommends that “Preservation of upland buffers along the edges of the bottomlands should be given a high priority. These slopes provide denning areas for terrestrial species, as well as refuges during periods of high water” while the 1999 Jordan Lake Inventory recommends that “No more utility corridors should be allowed in the area” along Northeast Creek between 55 and 751, and a project south of the Creek there would probably require new Durham water and sewer connections and lift stations to get over the hills, and maybe new electrical infrastructure as well. I think there was discussion of building a utility easement through here for 751 South at one point and earlier there was discussion of a road extension.

Lastly, during this economic crisis there is a rezoning proposal at the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and So Hi Drive (2102 So Hi Drive, on the south, RTP side of the intersection), near the Triangle Curling Club building and extending towards the intersection of Northeast Creek Parkway and East Cornwallis Road. Northeast Creek flows through this large, long undisturbed wooded site and the site also includes a small amount of land on the north side of the Parkway. It is owned by Parmer Woodlands 3 LLC, with an address in Carlsbad, California. Similarly named LLCs with the same address own much of the north end of RTP and March 23rd there was a Board of Adjustment hearing over rear parking lot landscaping at a very large project already being built a short distance beyond the Creek, but hidden by the forest (it has the addresses 2152 and 2362 So Hi Drive and 224 Northeast Creek Parkway, but doesn’t seem to connect, at least for now). I must have been the only person ‘attending’ the community meeting, which was also the evening of February 18th. They want the site rezoned as Science Research Park, from Rural Residential, to build two office buildings, but it was not entirely clear if the proposal is to build along the road, so Northeast Creek wouldn’t be crossed. I have seen many locally rare plants nearby, including horsetails, liverwort (the non-flowering plant), toothworts, Hepatica (a pale blue early spring flower sometimes called liverleaf or liverwort), star chickweed, at least one large Catawba Rhododendron (it is unclear if someone planted it long ago or if it really is the last of its kind along Northeast Creek, and a few years ago it was narrowly missed by a logging road), serviceberries (probably done blooming by now; their fruit is apparently a favorite food of chuck-will’s-widows), spicebushes, Penstemons, and umbrellatrees, deciduous magnolias with huge leaves that usually bloom by the start of May. Umbrellatrees seem to be much more common in Wake County than west, and perhaps fire pinks are also more common in the Neuse River basin. There are numerous beaver ponds, some visible from Northeast Creek Parkway near Cornwallis. These two ends of RTP where fire pinks grow (or grew) are also some of the few places where there are pinxterflowers, deciduous native azaleas a bit more common than fire pinks, with elegant honeysuckle-like nearly white to light pink or purple, fragrant flowers in late April, another sight to see before the Silene’s fiery red as summer’s heat begins.

A tree full of stars

The largest tree beyond my door, and one of the largest trees in the immediate neighborhood, is a sweetgum. It probably isn’t that old and there are larger trees around, but it is still about 2′ in diameter and roughly 90 to 100′ tall, with furrowed light gray bark dappled with patches of a white crustose lichen on its trunk and pale green lichen on its branches (not as luxuriantly lichen covered as nearby oaks). Young sweetgums growing in a field have a conical, Christmas tree shape, and sweetgums actually have several ties to Christmas (this article was originally written for December). A sweetgum’s canopy usually becomes rounded with age, as is the case with this tree, and lower limbs growing into utility lines have been cut occasionally, so most of its great boughs are high in the air. It is a very exuberant tree. Many years ago it was surrounded by a grove of small sweetgums, at least some suckers from large exposed roots, and more still sprout. Some of the limbs of the big sweetgum develop vertical shoots that look just like large saplings several feet tall, later bending outward. Sweetgums probably aren’t meant to have a spreading form, and this tree has long had open space on most sides. Large sweetgums often have limbs that angle upward a short distance, with limbs closer to vertical branching off from the ends, and I might have seen how this form comes about. One calm summer evening a few years ago I was standing by a window when there was a whooshing sound and a huge, leafy limb fell, almost on our residential powerline. The top has been snapped off by lightning or wind at least once. Recently large pieces of a partially dead limb have fallen and there might be more dead branches than usual after the prolonged drought last summer and fall. At one time there was a very large squirrel nest made of leafy twigs in the principal fork high in the canopy, and hawk pairs have seemed to consider nesting in late winter. Birds often perch at the very top and during the winter some pry seeds out of the prickly ‘gumballs.’ Virginia creeper climbs up the wide trunk. Sweetgums might seem commonplace, but they have ecological and historical depths now largely forgotten.

Sweetgums are probably very familiar. In many places they are one of the first and most abundant woody pioneers to sprout in abandoned fields, joining other early successional trees like loblolly pines, cedars, winged elms, and ashes. Sweetgums bear large star-shaped leaves with five (sometimes seven or three) sharp, triangular points with slightly serrated edges, on very long petioles (leaf stems), and are often clustered on short side twigs. Along the west wall of UNC’s Coker Arboretum there is an unusual specimen whose leaves have five rounded points, an example of the Rotundiloba or roundleaf cultivar, apparently discovered in North Carolina in the 30’s and sterile. This tree is the state’s largest roundleaf sweetgum (90′ tall), according to the NC Forest Service, and there are others in the Arboretum. When bruised a sweetgum’s relatively thick leaves give off a characteristic, resinous fragrance reminiscent of pines. The leaves alternate along relatively thick twigs, green to bronze when young, spotted with pale lenticels, pores that allow the woody tissues to breathe, and sometimes corky growths. These warty growths can grow into “wings,” like those along the more delicate twigs of winged elms, which also grow in open areas and young woods, but sweetgums usually have smaller wings, if any, and have more robust twigs and buds than elms. Sweetgum twigs are supposed to have star-shaped pith in cross section, but I haven’t seen this so far. The furrowed but relatively soft pale gray bark, up to an inch or more thick, is one reason for the rare common name alligatorwood. The big sweetgum has light gray bark, very light gray on the south side (I wondered if the color was due to lichen, but it looks like bare bark), while a smaller sweetgum nearby has darker grayish bark.

The big, glossy greenish to bronze-colored terminal buds and smaller lateral buds, covered in a few large hair-fringed scales, glint in the wane winter sun, and it is a sign of spring when they begin to swell outside my window. It feels like no sooner do these big buds open, leaving pale yellowish bud scales littering the ground, then the spent male flowers also drop. Each monoecious tree produces flowers of both sexes, the yellowish green clusters of male flowers form spheres on stalks about 1 ½” tall, held upright at the twig tips as the shiny, vaguely spidery new leaves begin to unfold, while the female flower clusters hang as spiky green balls, much smaller than the mature fruit, each flower producing up to two seeds. The two styles of each flower become long spikes or beaks on the gumballs.

The dark brown mature ‘spiny’ gumballs can be seen dangling high in the air against the bracing skies of winter. They could be confused with the light brown balls of windborne seeds hanging on American sycamores, but sycamores have unmistakable pale bark, brown and flaking low on the trunk, becoming dappled green and then stark white at the treetops. In early winter I hear bits of pale grit falling on the leaf litter, and I think this come from the sweetgum, but their seeds are actually dark and resemble tiny miniature ash keys. Gumballs carpet the ground and a neighboring driveway by late winter, and help develop calluses when walked on bare foot the rest of the year, though they eventually wear down to merely rough balls.

In the fall sweetgums are valued for color, with leaves turning light yellow, red, and purple, sometimes nearly black.

As pioneers, sweetgums dislike shade and put on height quickly to keep their place in the sun. They can grow up to 150′ tall and 5′ across or more. The NC Forest Service lists two champion American sweetgums, a 134′ tall tree at Merchants Millpond State Park and a tree 138′ tall, but with the same circumference, in Wilson County. There are two national champion sweetgums, in Virginia and Texas. Two large sweetgums near the corner of Lawson and Lincoln streets at NCCU might be the largest I have seen by some inches, and pretty large sweetgums are common in the bottomlands along Northeast Creek. Reportedly a sweetgum can live for 400 years.

Sweetgum has been known as liquidamber, bilsted, red gum, star gum, and American storax. Its scientific name is Liquidambar styraciflua, coined by Linnaeus in 1753; the generic name meaning “liquid amber” while the specific name means “flowing with styrax (storax).” Earlier, in 1686, English naturalist John Ray had termed it Styrax liquida. Depending on the system, sweetgums are in their own family or are classified with witch hazels, uncommon woodland shrubs that bloom in winter on steep hillsides above Northeast Creek and elsewhere in the Triangle.

Sweetgums of some kind have been around for at least 99 million years and once grew across the Northern Hemisphere, but today there are only three other species: L. orientalis in Turkey and two species in East Asia, L. formosana and L. acalycina. American sweetgums range from southwest Connecticut through much of Eastern North America, south to Nicaragua. According to the Tropicos floral database, sweetgums are known as tzo-te in Chiapas and Guatemala, quiramba in Guatemala, and liquidambar in Belize, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

The Spanish recognized sweetgum by its fragrance when they first encountered it in the New World. The Old World’s storax or styrax, a fragrant resin, was used in incense, perfumes, medicines, added to wine, and applied to hair but the source was mysterious in Europe, beyond vendors in places like Constantinople. Linnaeus gave the name Styrax to a genus of small trees, some found here, thinking that one of them was the source, but today classical storax (or rosemalles) is thought to come from Turkish sweetgums, originally harvested by Turkey’s Yuruks, a nomadic Turkic group. This traditional industry is reportedly endangered. Apparently the Turkish sweetgum was scientifically described only in the mid-19th century. In his first hand account of the 16th century conquest of Mexico conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo describes the feasts presented to Aztec emperor Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. Included were “three tubes much painted and gilded, which held liquidambar [apparently called xochiocotzoquahuitl in native Nahuatl, referring to the pinelike fragrance] mixed with certain herbs which they call tobaco.” After eating the emperor would inhale a little smoke and sleep, a reported effect of storax. The Spanish might have first encountered American storax used in incense a few years earlier further down the coast of Central America. Several years after the war in Mexico, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca encountered sweetgums growing near Appalachicola in Florida during the Narváez expedition.

American storax, also called copalm balm, was described as a heal all by 16th century Spanish herbalist Francisco Hernández de Toledo, who spent several years researching in Mexico and Central America. John Banister is credited with introducing sweetgums to Europe in 1681. In 1839 styrene was first distilled from storax, and about a century later styrofoam was made from polystyrene. Storax was used to treat illnesses such as dysentery during the Civil War. An American storax industry developed during WWI, but was subsequently abandoned in favor of cheaper storax from abroad, only to be reactivated around WWII when the supply from the Japanese-held Taiwan was cut off. Apparently the expertise was only retained in Clarke County in southwest Alabama, making it the center of the wartime industry. A sweetgum there produces only ½ to one pound per year, and the amount is supposed to depend on the amount of foliage and increases going south.

In recent times storax has been used in salves, adhesives, fragrance, perfuming powders, perfume fixative, soap, and tobacco flavoring. It has been smoked for sleep, chewed for sore throat, colds, diarrhea, ringworm, catarrah, and applied to sores, wounds, piles, etc. It was used to clear mucous, and as an anti-septic and anti-inflammatory. Sweetgum leaf essential oil is chemically similar to Australian tea tree oil. The inner bark was boiled with milk to alleviate diarrhea. The resin has long been a chewing gum and teeth cleaner. Storax (not necessarily American) is supposed to be a component of commercially available compound tincture of benzoin.

Sweetgumballs are or were painted and hung on Christmas trees. They could probably also be used in crafting and if nothing else cats chase them. Chinese sweetgum balls, apparently called lu lu tong in Mandarin and softer than our gumballs, are used herbally.

Sweetgums are a prominent source of lumber, with heavy and strong but not very flexible wood. After about 60 years trees develop reddish heartwood below the white sapwood. Sometimes the sapwood was sold as sap gum and the heartwood as red gum. Unesteemed “gum wood” was often called satin walnut or hazelwood and could even be passed off as exotic Circassian walnut, rosewood, and mahogany. The wood polishes and stains well and the heartwood can display interesting figures. Sweetgum has been used in furniture, indoor trim, veneer, flooring, crates, cigar boxes, toys. barrels, boats, chopsticks, woodenware, plywood, railroad ties, and for pulp.

Many bird species, squirrels, and chipmunks feed on sweetgum seeds, while beavers eat the bark. Larvae of a sweetgum bark beetle bore in living and dead wood. Many moths eat the leaves as caterpillars, including several common geometers (inchworms), luna moths, promothea or spicebush silkmoths, hickory horned devils (the impressive caterpillars of regal walnut moths), imperial moths, sweetgum leafrollers, and the large Paectes. The big, ethereal light green to yellowish, long tailed luna moth, once known as the pale empress of the night, is relatively common and its caterpillars can feed on several tree species, but their abundance seems to vary greatly across the Triangle. They seem to be abundant around Falls Lake; a few years ago I would often notice the large black barrellike droppings of caterpillars under sweetgums and look up to see the thick green accordion-shaped caterpillars with yellow markings hidden high overhead. Luna moths might also be common around NCSU. On the other hand I’ve seen few around Jordan Lake or in Chapel Hill and Durham, though sweetgums are common there too (but tuliptrees might be the more common deciduous pioneer in Chapel Hill).

The not-so-familiar black walnut

Black walnuts are familiar yet very unusual and valuable trees, and quite rare growing wild around here. At Jordan Lake State Recreation Area’s Seaforth access there are several exceptionally large trees of various kinds, including a black walnut. It’s spreading boughs are shaggy with resurrection ferns, verdant green after rain, contrasting with the yellowish-green of the walnut leaves, and appear dead at other times. The walnut is partially hollow and has dead branches, so it seems precarious and I wonder if the raised water table and/or heavy summer foot traffic is harming it. There are several much younger walnuts nearby. Near UNC’s Friday Center there is a black walnut about 2′ across, with a plaque saying it sprouted circa 1880. Large walnuts line paths at Durham’s West Point on the Eno. There are a few walnuts in the Northeast Creek basin. A tall tree more than a foot across grows at the base of a moist northwest facing slope near tributary Burdens Creek. It is a mystery how it got there. A few miles away there are spindly but nut-producing walnuts growing wild by a road in Chatham County connected only to Durham and Wake.

Their large nuts, classified botanically as drupes, fall around October, later than acorns and hickory nuts. An unusual feature is their smooth, relatively soft, fragrant, yellowish-green changing to black, staining husks, resembling a lemon more than a nut such as a pecan. Last fall there were unusually few walnuts under the Burdens Creek tree, whether because of the drought or because production varies yearly. On the other hand smallish nuts covered the ground under the Chapel Hill tree last October, and squirrels were gathered when I visited.

Black walnuts have dark, regularly furrowed bark and are tall and narrow in forests but short and very broad without competition. Giants can grow to 150′ tall and 6′ across, but walnut wood is valuable, so valuable that trickery and poaching occurs, and many were cut. They have large pinnately compound leaves up to 2′ long and 6” wide, with 9 to 23 long-pointed and serrated leaflets in pairs, smaller at the ends of the leaf, and usually there isn’t a leaflet at the tip. The leaflets have very short stems (petiolules) and the compound leaves alternate along the twigs. There is some hairiness on the underside of the leaflets and the leaf stem, called a rachis. Broken leaves and husks have a distinctive smell, lemony to me. Their leaves turn yellow early, contrasting with the dark trunks.

Several trees have similar leaves. White walnuts or butternuts, native in the Smokies, and introduced here, have oblong nuts, fewer leaflets (but usually with a terminal leaflet), and while both walnuts have chambered pith inside their twigs, it is darker brown in butternuts. Both species have grayish buds and the leaves fall to reveal three-lobed leaf scars, but there is a hairy spot only in butternuts and their buds are elongated. Hickories, such as bitternuts and pecans, are in the walnut family, but typically have fewer leaflets per leaf, a terminal leaflet, buds covered in scales, pith without chambers, and their nuts are usually dehiscent, opening along sutures. Locusts and Ailanthus also have pinnate compound leaves but are often small trees with multiple trunks growing in open areas. Ailanthus have very large leaves and leaf scars, a distinctive smell, and are most common in built-up areas while black locusts are thorny and produce fragrant white pealike flowers in late April.

Black walnuts seem to like well-drained soil and usually grow far from waterways. They grow fast, but are long-lived and don’t like shade, and they have a way to preserve their sunlight.

Black walnuts produce wind-pollinated catkins before leafing, each tree having both sexes. The dangling male catkins are 3 – 5” long. The female flowers are in clusters of 2-5 near the twig tips. The male and female flowers open at different times, but self-pollination is possible. A sapling can produce nuts after only five years, but few until age 10 – 15. The huge nuts are covered in a smooth husk, surrounding a seed with very thick, irregular wooden walls. ‘Everyone’ eats the nuts, yet I often find many left under wild trees and it takes a lot of effort to get inside. Apparently walnuts need a long cold period to sprout, and squirrels can steal planted nuts.

Black walnuts are known botanically as Juglans nigra, the generic name being an abbreviation for Latin Jovis glans, the acorn or nut of Jupiter (it was said people once lived on acorns while the gods ate walnuts). The word walnut originally referred to Persian walnuts, and is supposed to be a combination of the Anglo-Saxon for Welsh or Celtic, signifying foreign, and nut, wealh hnutu, as opposed to hazelnuts. Walnuts are honored in many place names, such as Cary’s Walnut Creek.

An unusual feature of black walnuts is their allelopathy. The walnut near Burdens Creek grows in a mature deciduous forest, but is in a sunnier glade. Around now toothworts and other early wildflowers bloom around it, joined by pink redbuds, an understory tree in the pea family, and in summer other peas cover the ground. Legumes often carpet the ground under walnuts in summer. Black walnuts produce hydrojuglone, which oxidizes into juglone and washes into the soil, to poison competitors, though ash, legumes, etc. seem immune. Some soil bacteria seem to be able to live on juglone.

Despite poisoning other plants, walnuts are edible to many animals. Squirrels, white footed-mice, and chipmunks disperse the nuts. In winter rabbits and deer nibble saplings. On the other hand walnut is harmful to horses and fish. Many insects feed on walnuts, including a curculio weevil, woodboring beetles, the walnut lace bug, stinkbugs, and aphids. Walnut fruitflies are supposed to develop in the husks, but I haven’t seen any. Many lepidopterans consume walnut, including one small butterfly, the banded hairstreak. Moths include gigantic hickory horned devils (caterpillars of the royal or regal walnut moth), related imperial moths, luna moths, walnut caterpillars and other Datanas, monkey slugs, walnut sphinx moths, curved-tooth geometers (a relatively large dark brown moth common at lights around April or May), American dagger moths and relatives, salt marsh caterpillars, fall webworms, walnut shoot moths, and several more.

Walnuts have a lot of versatility for humanity. Nuts are gathered from the ground and the nutmeat can be eaten raw, ground into flour, or boiled for oil used for cooking, fuel, and as polish (butternuts are more famous for oil). The trees can be taped like sugar maples. The husks produce a dye used to color cloth and even hair, and as ink. Walnut is supposed to repeal bedbugs and other insects, and I have wondered if the husks could be used to treat wood. Pulverized nuts are used in abrasives, filters, tires, composted, etc. The beautiful smooth wood was also used in furniture, paneling, veneer, cabinets, carriages, sewing machines, appliances, musical instruments, and for both cradles and caskets. During wars it went for gunstocks and airplane propellers. Walnut resists decay, so it was used for rail fences and railroad ties.

The leaves and husks have been known to cause dermatitis, but there are many herbal uses. The bark was used for toothaches; husks were used for ringworm, external inflammation, and to cause sleep; leaves were used for insect repellant and reportedly for sunscreen; and various parts were used to treat gastrointestinal problems. Juglone could be useful as a sedative and cancer inhibitor.

Thousand canker disease is an emerging threat for walnuts, though still far from here. Unlike other new catastrophic forest maladies like emerald ash borer and laurel wilt, thousand canker disease is native to North America, but was apparently unknown in the East until it reached Knoxville around 2010, so black walnuts still lack resistance. Thousand canker disease is caused by a recently discovered fungus spread by the walnut twig beetle, native in the Southwest and Mexico. In fall 2012 the disease was found in Haywood County, bordering Tennessee, but it is not known to have spread elsewhere in North Carolina since. The disease is present in several Western states, but only four Eastern states. Butternuts are susceptible and also face a canker noticed in 1967, probably from Asia. So walnut is another wood to be careful about moving over distances.

Beautiful hibiscus

This is based on an article I wrote for the July issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. There were some website issues, so I haven’t posted in a few months. Hibiscus are probably still blooming; they were still in bloom in the Coker Arboretum last week, but it is getting late in the season for them, so now is the time to go to your local pond.

Parkwood Lake Hibiscus

Hibiscus or mallows are the showiest natives growing along the margins of Parkwood Lake and local beaver ponds in midsummer. The most common species is a small bush with soft, dark green leaves and huge white 5-petalled flowers with dark red or purplish centers, each flower lasting one day. I think this is Hibiscus moscheutos, or H. palustris, but they seem to be considered the same species now. The other Hibiscus is a rare species with bright red flowers, probably H. coccineus, native to Georgia, Florida, and Alabama, but apparently introduced in North Carolina relatively recently, since it doesn’t appear in the comprehensive Manual of the Vascular Flora of the Carolinas written in the 60’s. There were some small Hibiscus at the Clermont end of the Lake before it was deepened last year, and I thought they were killed, despite the ribbons I tied on them, but there are still a few small Hibiscus there. They aren’t flowering, possibly because they get too much shade, or they were cut back, or maybe they sprouted recently. Elsewhere in Parkwood there are rose-of-Sharon (H. syriacus), a tree-sized Old World Hibiscus. Hibiscus are in the mallow family (Malvaceae) with marsh mallows (Althea officinalis, a European plant found in North Carolina whose roots were used to make the first marshmallows), okra, hollyhocks, and cotton.

I’m not completely sure what the white Hibiscus are. Both H. moscheutos and H. palustris have been called swamp rose mallows, and the former has also been called wild cotton (but don’t look for a cotton boll), breast root, and crimson-eyed rose-mallow. Both can have pink flowers, but H. moscheutos is usually white and I only see white flowers around here. The name would make more sense if the rose in rose-mallow just means rose-like. The Greek word for mallow is hibiscus and moscheutos refers to the smell of musk roses, another relative. These plants are perennials, but their tough stalks seem to regrow from the base each year. I usually see hibiscus growing around 2 to 4 feet tall, but they can reach 8 feet. They have oval to three pointed, red maple-like leaves alternating along the stalks. The leaves don’t look particularly fuzzy, but they still have a soft texture. The large flower buds are surrounded by an array of needlelike, but soft green bracts and larger sepals that extend after flowering to protect the developing fruit. The petals have a soft, pleated appearance and the male and female parts are united to form a structure like a radio tower jutting from the center, like other Hibiscuses. The flower gives way to a dry capsule that opens in the fall or winter, releasing many seeds. Hibiscus don’t produce fibers, but the fruit resembles an unopened cotton boll. These mallows like to grow in marshes and beside ponds in full sun, but yards with moist soil and those around Parkwood Lake should be able to grow them.

H. coccineus is called rose, scarlet, or brilliant mallow, and scarlet mallow comes closest to describing the color. Supposedly it is also called Texas star, but it shouldn’t grow there naturally. This species can grow up to 10 feet tall and has palmate, or hand-like, leaves with three to five points. There must be some red Hibiscus in yards around the Lake, and they self-seeded into the marshy ground along Clermont, or someone planted them there, because I’ve never seen them naturalized elsewhere. These plants seem more lofty and airy than the white Hibiscus and very tall examples can be seen waving over the flowerbeds along the central brick path at UNC’s Coker Arboretum.

Hibiscus are supposed to attract butterflies and ruby-throated hummingbirds, but I mainly see bees visit them. I also don’t see many insects eating the leaves, but Japanese beetles and the spiny caterpillars of Io moths, one of the smaller giant silk moths, can eat Hibiscus, and common checkered-skippers, painted ladies, and gray hairstreak butterfly caterpillars, eat plants in the mallow family and this might include Hibiscus. Cooks can use Hibiscus leaves as a thickener like okra and as cooked greens. Hibiscus, especially H. moscheutos, leaves and roots are mucilaginous and were used herbally to soothe and soften tissue and H. moscheutos was used against breast cancer.

If you look for Hibiscus at the Lake, you will probably notice the color of the water. At the start of July the Lake was opaque yellow with silt eroded from the Meadows at Southpoint construction site at the corner of 54 and Barbee Road, the headwaters of the stream feeding the Lake. Durham Stormwater Services investigated and said there weren’t any big problems with the erosion controls and the contractor was very cooperative. This is how the Lake fills with muck, but soil also bleeds from yards with every rain and much of Parkwood drains into the Lake, so when people pile leaves and logs in the streams, this is also usually where they are heading. I’m not sure how much of a problem the recent runoff is for aquatic life, but excessive siltiness is harmful for some organisms. Further downstream a beaver pond bordered by Hibiscus, roses, dogbane, spotted jewelweed, and beds of brilliant green knotweed is still the color of tea, naturally dyed by decaying vegetation. Northeast Creek turned brown with the recent storms, hopefully not only because of the massive grading at sites just north of RTP. The poor water quality tolerant carp are jumping in the Creek, and they are the subject of my article in the latest issue of Chatham County Line (www.chathamcountyline.org).

Eastern Cottonwood: the Rarest Tree in Parkwood

Below is an article I wrote for the April issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out.

The rarest tree in Parkwood

The big tree between the Parkwood Athletic Association field and the Masjid Ibad Ar-Rahman mosque might seem unremarkable, the quintessential tree, but it is the only Eastern or Carolina cottonwood I know of in Parkwood. Until recently it was the only one I knew of anywhere, but a year or two ago I was at the intersection of 54 and 55 and realized that the tall tree beside a stream between Walgreens and McDonalds is a cottonwood, and I saw a cottonwood of some kind at the Rollingview area of Falls Lake. River Dave once told me there are some along the Eno River and closer afield at New Hope Creek. Next to Parkwood’s cottonwood there used to be a pile of ballfield gravel, which resembles rocks along the Eno, so I wondered if the cottonwood might have come with a load of gravel, but since there is another arone around, maybe it came from this area after all.

Cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) are real poplars (“tulip poplars” are in the magnolia family) and resemble famous relatives like quaking aspens. The name poplar might come from a Latin phrase, arbor populi, the people’s tree, and the deltoides probably refers to the leaf shape. Eastern cottonwoods have large, spade-shaped leaves ending in a long point and with hook-shaped serrated edges. The leaf petioles are long and compressed, and there are glands at the leaf end. With these long stems, the thick leaves flap in a breeze, making a lot of noise. The yellowish twigs have a lumpy profile and have a squarish cross-section where there is a lot of growth. The terminal buds are covered by 6-7 scales and are supposed to be sticky or resinous, but not fragrant. Cottonwood leaves fall early in the season and without much color. Cottonwoods put on height quickly, as much as 13’ their first year, getting about 100’ tall (but higher in the West), sometimes after only 15 years, and develop an ever spreading form similar to broccoli, as can be seen in Parkwood. Our cottonwood has a stout trunk with strong branches starting near the ground and sweeping around, ending in twigs with an upward turn like claws. Cottonwoods have thick bark, but young trees are not very fire-tolerant, one factor limiting where they could grow out on the prairies. As with many fast-growing trees, cottonwoods don’t live very long, only about a century.

Other poplars grow in NC, including swamp cottonwoods (P. heterophylla), but I think our tree is an Eastern cottonwood. The only other poplars I know of in Durham are the very columnar Lombardy poplars, European ornamentals planted in yards, and white poplars, naturalized European trees which have an overall white appearance and form thickets, such as the one behind the former Triangle Nursery.

Long, wind-pollinated catkins (thus the name necklace poplar) emerged on Parkwood’s cottonwood in early March, while the leaves were still in large, conical buds. Each tree produces only one sex of flowers. On female trees small cottony seeds mature later in the spring, and fill the air. Wind dispersal allows cottonwoods to find rare open ground, such as bare banks of streams. The seeds have to drift to suitable ground fast, because they don’t remain viable very long.

In tree-rich Durham, cottonwoods are just another deciduous tree, but they could be called a Laura Ingalls Wilder tree, and were valued out on the prairies, where they were one of the few large trees, usually growing near water. The outer sapwood is wide, whitish, and lightweight, while the heartwood is dark brown. Cottonwood is easy to carve, but inflexible and warps a lot when drying, so it is mainly used for crates, plywood, excelsior (shredded wood, like the mulch on the path to the Hidden Playground), matches, and paper pulp. Indians in the Midwest used cottonwood for poles and started fires with the roots, and reportedly teepees relate to the shape of cottonwood leaves and children played with various tree parts. Cottonwoods are planted as windbreaks and to reclaim mines.

Deer, beavers, rabbits, and mice chew on the twigs and livestock can eat saplings if hay runs out. One guide says tea of the inner bark was used as a “female tonic” and to relieve scurvy, and cottonwoods produce aspirinlike salicin. Purple finches and other birds and squirrels eat the buds and catkins. Bees sometimes harvest the pollen, though the trees don’t rely on animals for pollination. Mourning cloak and red admiral caterpillars might eat the leaves, but around here they have many other choices, so cottonwoods seem to have few herbivores. Cottonwoods frequently develop internal rot, creating cavities for owls and squirrels.

To find out about the black locusts blooming at Parkwood Lake Dam this month and the honeylocusts on the Tobacco Trail, check out my article in the April issue of the Chatham County Line) newspaper.

My article in the May issue covers catalpa trees, such as the southern catalpa on Revere Road and others blooming in a few weeks.

The elms are flowering

This is an article I wrote for the February issue of the Parkwood Inside/Out. We are planning trash cleanups on March 28th and a hike, and will be participating in the costume parade downtown on March 21st and other events for Durham Creek Week 2015. Check this website for announcements and all events will also be posted at:

Creek Week Events

Parkwood’s elms are blooming

Red maples dotting the still bare landscape with blots of crimson are one of the first signs that spring is here, but elms are among the first trees to flower. These prominent trees might be less appreciated because an elm in flower is stormy grey or lime green. Winged elms are the most common species, especially in central Parkwood, but there are slippery elms along the streams and probably American elms, and there are scattered Eurasian ornamentals. The most prominent and beautiful elm I know of in the area is the classically fountain-shaped tree on Highway 54, across from . Because its limbs are all high above the ground, it is hard to identify the species.

Elms, especially American elms, are beloved for the fountain or vaselike shape of mature trees, and there is a graceful symmetry to elms generally. Their leaves and branches alternate, creating an airy lattice effect. The straight veins in their oval leaves, double toothed like a pruning saw, are straight and parallel, but elms also have a very unsymmetric feature – the leaf bases are lopsided, especially in American and slippery elms. Elms have thin, elegant branches, strengthened by very tough wood, and the bark of some species can be twisted into rope. They produce wind pollinated bisexual flowers in early spring, developing into small seeds with a circular flange that drift with the wind several weeks later. The elms generally like moist soil, but winged elms seem to grow in drier soil as well.

The massive, spreading elm in front of Carrboro’s Town Hall could be an American elm (it is big enough for a plaque, yet nothing identifies the species), and I think there are labelled American elms in the Coker Arboretum at UNC. American or white elms are around, but are less common after the arrival of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that came to the US around 1930, and is spread by introduced and native beetles that bore in elms. Many elms have been killed, especially American elms, but this seems to be a little less catastrophic than the introduction of chestnut blight and emerald ash borer beetles, and the disease can be managed. American elms are large trees with furrowed bark, brownish leaf buds, and their leaves and stems aren’t very hairy, or less so than slippery elms. Their seeds have some hairiness, while the seeds of slippery elms lack hairs. Both American and slippery elms have large, sandpaperlike leaves, but American elms have greenish flowers, unlike slippery elms. Because their wood is so strong and resistant to splitting, and grips screws tightly, American elms have been used to make things like sports equipment, boats, flooring, crates, and kitchen cutting blocks. Many were planted for landscaping in the northeast, though they grow throughout the eastern USA. In A Natural History of Trees, botanist and nature writer Donald Culross Peattie wrote “If you want to be recalled for something that you do, you will be well advised to do it under an [American] Elm – a great Elm, for such a tree outlives the generations of men; the burning issues of today are the ashes of tomorrow, but a noble Elm is a verity that does not change with time. And although Elms too are mortal, great ones are remembered as long after they are gone as are great men.”

Slippery elms are similar to American elms, but smaller and less vaselike. They have been called red elms, having hairy, reddish leaf buds and reddish flowers, as well as hairy twigs. Their inner bark is slippery and becomes mucouslike when chewed. This inner bark was used to make tea and flour and was used for a variety of internal and external problems and still has an FDA approved medical use. American elm bark was used medicinally by Native American groups.

Winged elms are named for the cork flanges that line their twigs to varying degrees. Sweetgums usually aren’t as winged as elms and their leaves are very different. Winged elms leaves are smaller, smoother, and more symmetrical than those of other elms, and large trees have light brown bark. I think these are the first elms to flower, with brownish flowers that turn into silvery, hairy seeds. As with most trees, winged elms grow a lot when they first leaf out in spring, delicately etched leaves surging forth from the twig tips at a fast clip. The tiny, silky looking new leaves hang as if limp, but are actually strangely stiff. Snow, ice, and maybe hurricanes smashed many of the spindly young loblollies behind the Fire Station around 2002, leaving winged elms, ash, and a few surviving pines as the dominant tall trees, to be replaced themselves by oaks, hickories, and beech in coming decades.

Many animals chew on elm branches, leaves, and seeds, including opossums, rabbits, and bobwhites. The caterpillars that fed on elms are like a who’s who of moths and butterflies, including many of the moths you might see at your porchlights this spring. Double-toothed prominent moth caterpillars feed only on elms. They bite into a leaf and then rest there, so their jagged backs appear like the missing leaf edge. It is surprising that this camouflage works, since elm leaves are emerald green, but the caterpillars are pale seafoam blue and green.