Wildflower Greenway

We should  extend a thank you to the Mecklenburg County Parks and Rec Department in conjunction with Charlotte Water Department for the sorta secret wildflower greenway walk adjacent to McAlpine Creek Park. From what I understand, when Charlotte Water was installing a relief sewer line along the creek,  a seed mix was planted in this recently disturbed area to hold the soil.


Catherine Luckenbaugh, currently Currator of the Mecklenburg County Herbarium located at Reedy Creek Nature Preserve shared this:

“I spent several years of my career in private industry working out the right species mix and percent composition to achieve a native mix that would provide the nearly instantaneous erosion control properties that Charlotte Water needs…sounded easy when I started the project, but it did take some monitoring and trial and error to get what they needed. I’m just glad they’re still using it.”

This wildflower creekbank/greenway is also an example of plant communities, as discussed by Lisa Tompkins at the recent NCNPS Annual Picnic at Hagenstone Park. Drawing from the ideas in the recent book by Claudia West and Thomas Ranier, Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Lisa described the various layers found in  plant communities, from green “mulch” to medium and tall wildflowers and grasses.

Do you ever find yourself wondering about some lovely wildflower you happened on in a Mecklenburg County park? Try this link to MeckFlora, a new and growing online tool for plant identification. It is organized by park, by flower color and plant type.

Our family has made it a point to wander this portion of the McAlpine Creek Greenway on a regular basis to see what is in bloom. These photos are from the greenway in mid June 2017, and the Rudbeckia display appears  to be at peak performance.


IMG_5294Park at the Sardis Road parking lot (110 Old Bell Road Charlotte, NC 28270) and turn left from the parking lot access trial instead of right toward McAlpine Park. This unpaved, dirt trail wanders adjacent to McAlpine Creek toward Providence Road. Because of the recent sewer work, it remains sunny and open. And one note….please take home only photos….and leave the wildflowers in the park for others to enjoy.

Are You a Bee or Are You a Fly?

Spend a little time watching native plants in bloom and you are likely to witness a diverse array of colorful flying insects of all sizes, shapes, and colors.  Most  are seeking nectar, pollen, or both. Some will inadvertently transport pollen from one blossom to another.   Exactly what the native plant had in mind!

Some of these insects are likely to belong to our 4,000 species of native bees.   Others may be wasps.   A third and generally less well-known group are colorfully marked flies visiting flowers in search of nectar and pollen.    All three groups are important pollinators of native plants. A first step in identifying any one pollinator is deciding whether it is a bee, a wasp, or a fly.  And that is not always easy!

All 3 groups have bodies divided into a head, a thorax, and an abdomen.  All 3 groups have 6 legs and pairs of wings attached to the thorax.   Members of all 3 groups can be very colorful with intricate markings.  Bees tend to be hairy/fuzzy and wasps less so.

A carpenter bee and a Vespid wasp visit Titi blossoms.  Both have 2 pairs of wings.

Check the Wings and Wing Position

A fundamental difference between bees and flies is their number of wings.  Flies belong to the order Diptera and have a single pair of wings.   Bees and wasps have 2 pairs of wings, but the wings on either side of the body are linked.  In many cases, bees will rest with wings aligned on top of their abdomens while flies usually land with wings angled away from their bodies.

A flower fly, Helophilus, visits a fall aster.

Check the Antennae

A second and very useful clue is the size and shape of antennae.  Bees have long, slender antennae while flies have short, stubby antennae.  Compare the very short antennae on the above flower fly to the long, slender antennae of the below “polyester bee”.   Also take a moment to compare the “resting” wing position on the flower fly and the bee.

Colletes species emerge in early spring.  They line underground nests with a waterproof cellophane-like secretion and are often called “plasterer” bees.

Check the Size and Position of the Eyes

A third clue is the size and position of the eyes.  Bees have eyes on the sides of their heads. Flies have larger, forward-facing eyes.   Eristalis tenax, below, has large, forward facing eyes, stubby antennae, and a single pair of outward angled wings.

Eristalis is a commonly seen genus of flower fly.

Check for Pollen Sacs

Fourth, bees have specially adapted hairs on their legs or abdomens used to transport pollen to their nests.  If you see bulging pollen sacs, you are looking at a bee.  Both our native Mellisodes dentiventris (left) and the European honey bee (right) have specially adapted hairs on their legs to transport pollen.

Flies are considered second only to bees in their importance in pollinating our native plants.  With a little practice, these 4 tips may help you to decide, bee or fly?

Taking the “Pollinator Plunge”

After a decade of photographing native plants and native birds, I have decided to take the “pollinator plunge”.  Why?  Plants unable to reproduce will not persist over time.  A few of our native plants can self-pollinate but most depend upon a butterfly, a bee, a fly, or a wasp to carry grains of pollen to another blossom, resulting in fruits and seeds.

Native bees raise their young on stores of nectar and pollen they gather from flowering plants.  That’s why  bees are so busy.  All our native birds need nesting sites and all depend upon pollinators to raise their young.

Plants need pollinators.  Pollinators need plants.  And birds need both.  It is both very simple and wonderfully complicated.

The great majority of pollinators are insects, all of which have complex life cycles.  Butterflies require native hosts, plants that feed their caterpillars.  Bee larvae need pollen as food.  Flowers produce an excess of pollen, most consumed by insects.  A tiny fraction of pollen is incidentally deposited on another blossom.  Many pollinators have very specific dependencies on native plants. Think milkweeds and monarchs.  Flower shape often limits suitable pollinators.  Tubular flowers such as honeysuckle need pollinators with long tongues including hummingbirds.

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird Male Visits Native Honeysuckle.

So where to start?  Chickasaw plum is one of our early blooming native shrubs.  In early spring bright white blossoms decorate open fields  As you approach a Chickasaw plum in full bloom you can hear the activity as butterflies and bees mob the shrubs.

A Chickasaw Plum in Full Bloom in a Sandhills Field.

Field sparrows overwinter on a diet of grass seeds but as spring unfolds, insects become an important part of their diet.  As with other native birds, field sparrow chicks will be raised on a parent-supplied stream of insects and spiders.

A Field Sparrow Visits a Chickasaw Plum in mid-March.

By mid-May, the fruit of Chickasaw plums begin to ripen and provide food to birds and other wildlife, including Summer Tanagers.

A Female Summer Tanager with a Ripening Chickasaw Plum.

As spring arrives, I look forward to the blossoms of our native Chickasaw plum.  They mark the start of a new season of native plants, nesting birds, and the pollinators that make it all possible.

Over time, I hope to share some pollinator anecdotes.  Short stories about a native plant, a native pollinator, and maybe a bird.  Most of my posts will raise more questions than they answer.  Questions that provide a good excuse for another outing.  And an excuse for me to share another story.


Sunday Jan. 8, 2017 – The Butterfly Highway

NCNPS-Southern Piedmont Chapter January Meeting

Angel Hjarding will share the Butterfly Highway creation story, and explore how NCNPS members can become more involved in our local communities. Angel is in the process of completing her doctoral degree in Geography from the University of North Carolina Charlotte. As a part of her doctoral research, she conceptualized the Butterfly Highway as a way to bring beautification to underserved urban neighborhoods and create opportunities for residents to reconnect with nature. Since joining NCWF, the Butterfly Highway has grown from 50 residential gardens to over 1,300 gardens across NC. To learn more about the many projects Butterfly Highway has completed this year visit the Butterfly Highway page on the NCWF website or follow The Butterfly Highway on Facebook.


Angel will have Butterfly Highway custom seed mix packets for sale, $5.00 each. You can learn more about the seeds in these packets at the NC Wildlife Federation website.


Date: Sunday, January 8

Time: 2:00-4:00

Location: Reedy Creek Nature Center,2900 Rocky River Rd. Charlotte, NC 28215

RSVP: ncnpsspchapter@gmail.com

News and Upcoming events:

If you are looking for any recent copies of the Bird Friendly Native Plant of the Month flyer, they are all listed in our blog to give you great ideas while you sit inside this winter dreaming of where to put your shovel in your garden next spring! It’s too early to plant, but not too early to plan!!

Mecklenburg County Soil and Water Conservation District Tree and Seedling Sale 2017

Leslie Vanden Herick and her team at MCSWCD always have a great selection of native trees and shrubs to offer at really affordable prices. And if you pre-order you can skip the line and pick them up Friday, Feb. 24. More details and order forms are on our new Southern Piedmont Chapter blog. Or you can go directly to the MCSWCD to find the form.

Volunteer Opportunties in 2017!

NCNPS-Southern Piedmont Chapter is enthusiastically making plans to engage with our communities in 2017 and we need you! Our biggest volunteer need is Earth Day, April 22, when our chapter participates in numerous festivals and events throughout the region. Please mark your calendars now and plan to help us out to staff a table or booth. Materials are provided, and our community loves to talk about NC native plants!

Our first local event is staffing a table at the MCSWCD Tree Seedling Distribution on Saturday, Feb. 25, 9-12 Noon  at the Hal Marshall Center in uptown Charlotte. We need 2-3 people to cover half shifts. If you have time to volunteer please email ncnpsspchapter@gmail.com.

UNCC Certificate in Native Plant Studies

Don’t miss this opportunity to enroll in Botany for Gardeners and Naturalists, Jan. 28-29, the introductory course and pre-requisite for many of the other courses throughout the year. Visit the UNCC Botanical Gardens website for more details and to sign up online. You may know the instructor….our very own NCNPS President, Dr. Larry Mellichamp!