It is hard to see the forest for the trees! Chances are, if you are older than 40, you have heard this saying applied to a variety of circumstances. After visiting the woodland garden of a colleague, I want to explore a literal interpretation of this idiom.
Much of this region is naturally forested. Imagine a walk through the woods. When we enter the forest, we instinctively look up to view the beauty of the canopy. We first notice an array of towering Pines (Pinus spp.) and majestic Oaks (Quercus spp.). As we continue deeper, we recognize the distinctive exfoliating bark of the Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the thin, peeling bark of the paper birch (Betula papyrifera). The Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) is a spring southern mainstay — with its beautifully sculpted flowers. The autumn forest flaunts the brilliant foliage of the Southern Sugar Maples (Acer barbatum), Mockernut Hickory (Carya tomentosa) and Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). We may even stumble on ancient Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) and Pecan (Carya illinoensis) groves from times past — where the forest has reclaimed its space through succession. The sheer size of the Big Leaf Magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) foliage astounds us.
As we continue to look up through the canopy, we find pockets of color — pink and white Dogwoods (Cornus florida rubra and C. florida), Eastern Redbuds (Cercis Canadensis), and mimosa (Albizia julibrissin) trees. It is hard to miss the wispy Flame Azalea (Rhododendron calendulaceum) and its native sisters (R. austrinum and R. prunifolium). Expanses of Catawba Rosebay (Rhododendron catawbiense) and Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) cover the ridgeline. Cherry laurel (Prunus caroliniana), Sassafras (Sassafras albidum), American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana), and Sumac (Rhus glabra L.) also add color throughout the year. Witch-Alder (Fothergilla gardenia L.) and Carolina Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera) brighten up the forest, while Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), Trumpet Creeper (Campsis radicans) and American Wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) weave through the trees.
We can stop here and feel totally rewarded, but to see the real beauty of the forest, study the forest floor with a more critical eye. Tufts of Wood Ferns (Dryopteris spp.) and Spleenworts (Asplenium spp.) fill crevices of fallen trees and stone outcroppings. Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea) and Lady Fern (Athyrium asplenioides) line the banks of streams and gullies. Fragile fronds of Southern Maidenhair Ferns (Adiantum capilus-veneris) appear to be artificial. Tiny vibrant blue flowers of Soapwort Gentian, commonly called Harvestbells (Gentiana saponaria) and the delicate white spikes of Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum) softens the green waves of ferns.
As we move farther into the forest, the white spires of Black Cohosh (Actaea racemosa) and Fairywand (Chamaelirium luteum) brighten shady areas, along with Hardy Begonia and Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum). Follow the ants to Trillium, one of the most diverse species found in Georgia forests. Its flowers range from white to red, while the wide variety of leaf patterns will make you question the fact that they are related. The graceful Solomon Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and Foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia) with its heart-shaped leaves also make their home on the forest floor. Both bear delicate white flowers — bell-shaped in the former and star-shaped in the latter. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense), Wild Geranium (Geranium maculatum), Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) and Trout Lily (Erythronium umbilicatum) are just a few of the unusual plants that carpet the forest floor.
When sunlight breaks through the canopy, we may find Rose Mallow (Hibiscus spp.), Columbine (Aquilegia Canadensis), Coral Bells (Heuchera Americana), Indian-pink/Woodland Pinkroot (Spigelia marilandica), and Spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.) Many of these forest plants protect themselves from predators using secondary compounds or other defenses. Others include Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), Wild Ginger (Hexastylis arifolia) and Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima). If these unassuming plants are not remarkable enough — consider the jewelry of the forest! Search for White or Pink Turtlehead (Chelone spp.), Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascene), Blue Mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), Bellflower (Campanula spp.) and Doll’s Eyes (Actaea pachypoda).
We may think we have seen everything. Return the following week — a different season — next year! Every visit to the forest will bring new discoveries!
The Complete Guide to Native Plants for Georgia. Compilation of Bulletins 987, 987-2, 987-3 and 987-4. Reviewed by Bodie Pennisi. August 2017.
Native Plants of North Georgia. Bulletin 1339. Mickey P. Cummings. UGA. March 2017.