Category Archives: Environmental Education

Northeast Creek Streamwatch provides environmental education opportunities and programs

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.

What a Thirteen Years It Has Been

In February 2006, I and ten others gathered at the Grandale Road bridge over Northeast Creek to do stream monitoring and go on a hike to see spring ephemerals. Michael Pollock had a water sampling kit from City of Durham Stormwater Services, and after we tested samples from the west side of the bridge, led us on a hike.

Walking along the Corps of Engineers boundary trail on the south side of Northeast Creek, we saw trout lilies and foamflowers that had just begun blooming. Walking up the natural gas easement back to Grandale Road, we could look northwest across the creek valley to where the gas easement crossed Scott King Road.

In April we tested Northeast Creek at an accessible meander just north of Sedwick Road. And then we went for a hike to see the budding trees and the spring flowers. The red maples glowed pink; the oaks were light green; some of the trees had a bluish cast. Stepping along the soggy ground of the sewer easement was challenging, but the world of the Parkwood wetland that we were walking alongside offered more natural beauty to explore.

In May, we tested again at the Grandale Road bridge. This hike explored the east side of Grandale Road and up the powerline maintenance access road. Toward the top of that hill, we crossed over to the Northeast Creek stream channel, which we viewed from rock bluffs on the south edge of Parkwood.

I was hooked. Northeast Creek Streamwatch was the organization that understood what my wife and myself had seen in 1993 behind the Food Lion store on NC 55. We had seen a wetland with submerged trees and saplings. A great blue heron was perched on one of the saplings; a green heron perched on a slightly larger sapling nearby. That swamp has now become an open pond in flood times, most of the trees drowned. Beavers and property owners have re-engineered the water flow many times over the last 25 years. And I have become committed to preserving our Triassic Basin wetlands, their flora, and fauna for my grandchildren’s grandchildren’s grandchildren to be able to appreciate.

In the 13 years since then, the “we” that is the evolving association of people identifying with Northeast Creek Streamwatch have seen:
• Regular participation in the Parkwood Christmas Parade by puppets of a great blue heron, beavers, an opossum, and frogs.
• Spring and fall clean-ups of creeks that result in piles of dumped items for Durham Solid Waste to pick up the next week after Earth Day, Big Sweep or Creek Week.
• A class at Parkwood Elementary School about sand, clay, and silt and third graders planting and labeling native plants for a WaterWise garden.
• Library programs on the native plants of Northeast Creek and the techniques of rainwater harvesting.
• A kayak touring company that did trips up from the mouth of Northeast Creek at the NC 751 bridge almost to Panther Creek in Chatham County.
• Hikes along a Jurassic diabase dike formation to the ruins of Sears Mill, an old mill on Panther Creek.
• Testing at Northeast Creek crossing of Grandale Road, Sedwick Road, Ellis Road, and in Meridian Center.
• An umbrella magnolia by Northeast Creek at Ellis Road bridge.
• The descent of a source of Northeast Creek down a steep slope by the Durham Freeway as the creek crosses under the bridge on Glover Road, passes through a steep gully and crosses under the Durham Freeway.
• The seep behind an office near NC55 and Riddle Road that is one of the sources of the prong of Northeast Creek that flows just west of NC 55 down to Meridian Park.
• The runoff from US70 north of Miami Boulevard that flows through the parking lot of pawn shop and into woods into the back yards of folks on Peyton Avenue, yet another source of Northeast Creek; this tributary flows through Bethesda Park..
• A dump site adjacent to the creek of over 50 years duration that is grown up with red cedars, winged elm, and oodles of vines.
• Sandstone caves beneath a bluff supporting leatherwood.
• The wetlands at Ellis and So-Hi roads that extend through the RTP properties of major companies and warehouse complexes.
• The main stream of Northeast Creek in flood at the NC 54, Sedwick, and Grandale bridges.
• A crew from Hillside New Technology cleaning the litter from the blackberry growth next to the NC 54 bridge over Northeast Creek during Big Sweep.
• A mother who brought her son from their neighborhood in North Durham to participate in a clean-up of the creek that feeds Parkwood Lake because she wanted to teach him a service ethic.
• The awarding of Durham’s Distinguished Tree designation to a white ash in Parkwood and a scarlet oak on the Lowes Grove Middle School property near the creek.
• The effects of the 2007 drought at the mouth of Northeast Creek, the appearance of a prairie of grass mat strewn with large mussel shells.
• Snow and ice in the Parkwood wetlands in a picturesque meander that Durham Water and Sewer later repaired with a culvert..
• Neighbors and their acquaintances reporting sewer leaks and stormwater issues to us and we getting to see that they are indeed efficiently handled.
• The Creek Critters Puppets marching as the Krewe de Creek in the Durham Mardi Gras Parade and promoting the 2016 Durham Creek Week.
• The Monarch Caterpillar art project from Fayetteville Street Elementary School at the Monarch Festival along with the students that made it and their parents.
• The recognition as Durham Soil and Water Conservation District’s Urban Conservationist of the Year in 2016.
• The support of some 40 volunteers in the construction of Parkwood Village Association’s Wiggly Trail , erosion control, and native plant garden. Completing this project with volunteer labor and donations in-kind to match a $2500 City of Durham neighborhood improvement project grant.
• Continued collaboration with Parkwood Village Assocation, Parkwood Homeowners Association, Christus Victor Lutheran Church, Lowes Grove Middle School, Parkwood Elementary School, South Durham Regional Library, South Durham Farmers Market, and local scouts as well as many longstanding individual partners.

In the coming year the wildness will continue as we seek to grow participation in these initiatives:

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors – The grassroots network of property owners and residents working on their own to conserve their own part of the Northeast Creek basin. Opportunities and tools to serve them are rainwater retention ideas, planting native plants, removing invasive plants, local creek clean-ups, adopting storm drains, adopting stream segments, adopting highways for cleaning litter. Citizen science activities include Audubon’s Backyard Bird Count, iNature.org, and many others. For additional citizen science opportunities, contact the NC Botanical Garden and the NC Museum of Natural Science.

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors serves as a network to involve local schools and churches at the local level in local projects, which over the 47 square miles of the Northeast Creek basin means that seemingly small local efforts can result in large results on Lake Jordan’s quality just as small amounts of negligence have added up to a large excess nutrient problem for Lake Jordan.

Water Stewardship Network – The supporting network of schools, churches, government agencies, businesses, and voluntary associations that have an impact on Northeast Creek and ally with similar groups in other watersheds. These institutions support individual efforts as part of Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors. These are the locations of events, demonstration projects like gardens or rainwater treatments, and educational programs. They are Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors for their own property. Northeast Creek Streamwatch’s water stewardship network can tie into the North Carolina Watershed Stewardship Network (http://wsnet.renci.org/huc_report/index.html?huc=030300020605).

Creek Week and Big Sweep Events – The twice a year momentum builder for local efforts. They get people out into the stream environment and wetlands, show the natural beauty, and get something tangible accomplished with a very short commitment of time. This year’s Creek Week is March 17-23, 2019. Start planning local events for March 15 -23 and notifying colleen@northeastcreek.org.

Upstream Neighbors/Downstream Neighbors

Hurricane Joaquin highlighted the effect that upstream water retention has on downstream currents and flooding. It makes us more aware of being upstream neighbors of coastal areas like the Cape Fear region and also our immediate neighbors downstream.

The water that Joaquin dumped on our roofs and flowed down our gutters and downspouts and across our yards into tributaries of Northeast Creek will eventually join water that fell on roofs in Guilford County and flowed down the Haw River. Then it will collect the water that has fallen more recently on roofs in Sanford and Fayetteville before it reaches that bridge. The large area of the Cape Fear River drainage basin includes a lot of neighborhoods, with water flowing from upstream neighbors to downstream neighbors, affecting the use of water and the condition of the stream boundaries along the way.

Closer in, the water from Northeast Creek flows into Jordan Lake, which is the water supply for a number of neighborhoods as well as the towns of Cary and Morrisville. The Town of Cary in turn will supply additional water to the City of Durham during drought conditions.

More local, the water that runs off all at once from roofs, sidewalks, driveways, and streets (surfaces designed not to allow the water to soak in, called “impervious surfaces”) can erode downstream neighbors’ yards. The collecting of rapid runoff at creek junctions can back up into yards and threaten to flood under houses.

As homeowners, we can extend the principle of catching and holding rainwater to restrain how much water and how fast its flows downstream during a rainstorm. These actions can affect the amount of erosion of stream banks in downstream neighbors’ yards and reduce flooding of downstream neighbors’ property. We can also save back some of that water for dry spells, hold it long enough to recharge the water table here instead running rapidly the length of the Cape Fear River, and create more habitat for pollinators.

A reasonable goal is to capture the first inch of rainfall from the square feet that your property has as impervious surfaces and hold it for up to three days. There are a variety of ways to do this; the county Soil and Water Conservation District (in Chatham, Durham, and Wake counties for Northeast Creek) can provide technical assistance and tips for beginning your plan of rain saving. And you need not hit the goal of “one-inch saving for at least three days” all at once; you can try different combinations of techniques on your property to see what works best.

Cory Quammen, a resident of Grandale Forest on the headwaters of “Tributary D” of Northeast Creek, is holding a gathering of his upstream and downstream neighbors, Saturday, October 24, 9am – 11am to show some examples of problems caused by excessive runoff as well as some rain-saving measures that have been installed on his property.. Invitations will go to the neighbors within his local creek basin in advance of the meeting. Contact cquammen@gmail.com for further information.

Monarchs Fly at Sandy Creek Park

Teacher photographing students by a monarch caterpillar art project
Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert, art teacher at Fayetteville Street Elementary School (on Third Fork Creek) photographing students by the caterpillar the Fayetteville Street art students made for the Monarch Festival at Sandy Creek Park, Durham

The Northeast Creek Streamwatch Puppet and Parade unit participated in the organization of the Durham Monarch Festival 2015 along with conservation organizations from throughout Durham County. As part of the festival, schools were encouraged to participate, and Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Nancy Lambert turned her art class at Fayetteville Street Elementary School into creating art representing the life cycle of the monarch butterfly. The big burlap sculpture that the class made of a monarch caterpillar was a big hit.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch member Colleen Haithcock painted the large monarch butterfly banners and some of the signs used for festival operations. The grand parade for releasing the monarchs was led by a stylized milkweed floral spray that Colleen made.

Monarchs migrate from Canada and the United States to the Michoacan area of Mexico every fall and return north every spring. Each journey represents about three generations of monarchs, which lay their eggs on milkweed plants. Because milkweed plants are toxic to livestock, the habitat for monarchs has been decreased from increased pasture land use and from urban development. Conservationists are encouraging the planting of milkweed as butterfly gardens to increase the monarch population. The familiar yellow, black, and white striped caterpillar is the larva of the monarch; get used to tolerating seeing these on the milkweed that you plant for them.

Tenth Anniversary – Statement of Appreciation for Founder Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock holding up a hub cap during an Earth Day clean up in 2006
Michael Pollock holds up a hub cap cleaned from Northeast Creek at the Grandale bridge on Earth Day, April 22, 2006

At the Parkwood Flea Market in early October 2006, Michael Pollock stood at a table recruiting members for Northeast Creek Streamwatch, an organization to conduct volunteer stream monitoring of Northeast Creek, a tributary of New Hope Creek (Jordan Lake). Michael had responded to publicity from the City of Durham Stormwater Services environmental education office for volunteer stream monitors. It is hard to believe that after ten years Northeast Creek Streamwatch is still here, thanks in part to Michael’s persistence.

Michael Pollock grew up wandering the tributaries of Northeast Creek as a youngster, exploring the nature of the banks and wetlands near his home in the Parkwood subdivision of Durham. As he grew older, he wandered farther, read more, learned more and followed the path of nature writing. Today, Michael still contributes articles to the Parkwood Inside/Out, but he has added the Chatham County Line, and also this site, the blog portion of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch website.

Michael attended the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, where he studied biology and anthropology. He is knowledgeable about the local plants and amphibians of the area, with a special interest in the local salamanders.

When Northeast Creek Streamwatch has an information table at community events, you can generally find Michael showing frogs, a salamander, or whatever he was able to find in the creek that morning or a collection of local rocks that he has picked up over the years.

If you want to explore the main stream of Northeast Creek, you can go on one of Michael’s quarterly stream monitoring visits to the creek or one of his nature hikes. A favorite time is when the spring ephemerals are out in the Corps of Engineers game land along Northeast Creek at Grandale Drive.

The people of Northeast Creek Streamwatch appreciate the fact that Michael Pollock got us going; yes, he’s the founder. We appreciate his sharing his knowledge with us. And we celebrate the ten years that we’ve kept Michael’s project going even as its activities have evolved. Thank you, Michael.

Statement of Appreciation – Mr. Barry Archer

barry archer with fox mask on top of head waiting for beginning of the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
Barry Archer as Creek Critters fox in the 2014 Parkwood Christmas Parade
In March 2014 Northeast Creek Streamwatch participated in the Durham Creek Week stream clean-up by cleaning the banks of the creek that flows into the Parkwood lotus pond and lake. In preparation we had advertised in several local businesses. We set up a table with a banner announcing a creek clean-up, and people came out to participate. Among the folks who helped were several youth, one of whom rode by on his skateboard and went home to change and came back to work. Several of the youth belonged to a local youth group and asked if their youth group could do a another clean-up as they were looking for service projects..These youth were participants in a community leadership training program facilitated by Barry Archer of Barak Source for Learning; they came to the next monthly meeting of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and invited our group to meet with them.

As a result of that meeting, Northeast Creek Streamwatch collaborated with Spring Break enrichment program by locating a speaker from the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association, who spoke about urban creek runoff and the problems of erosion and non-point-source pollution. The group then conducted two days of clean-ups and learned about the hydrology, plants, and animals of a section of Northeast Creek that included blooming paw-paws and spring ephemerals. This section includes meanders and oxbow ponds, which are normal flood plain features in the geography of the Durham Triassic Basin.

In December 2014, this youth group marched as part of the Northeast Creek Streamwatch unit in the Parkwood Christmas Parade, wearing costumes of a great blue heron, deer, and other creek critters.

In January 2015, this youth group helped make costumes of other creek critters in preparation for the Durham Creek Week kickoff parade. In March 2015, they marched as herons, frogs, and other creek critters in the parade. Adult facilitators and parents of the youth marched as a fox, a leaf and ladybug, an opposum, and a beaver.

The leader of this group Mr. Barry Archer trains the youth in leadership skills, and we have been very impressed with the ability of the youth to volunteer and seek out opportunities for service on their own.

Northeast Creek Streamwatch takes this occasion at the end of a summer program put together by Mr. Archer and Mr. John Apel to thank them for their continuing collaboration with the efforts of Northeast Creek Streamwatch and to the greater Parkwood community. We also thank the youth who have been involved in these several programs for their hard work in cleaning up Northeast Creek and their willingness to learn the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills involved in the creek and its care.

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).