15-21 March 2006

Installment #308---
Visitor #Web Page Counters

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)


This week--at 1:26 p.m. EST on 20 March--the sun passed directly over the Earth's equator, meaning hours of light and darkness were about equal on that date. Although the vernal equinox is celebrated as the first day of spring across the Northern Hemisphere, here at Hilton Pond Center signs of spring have been evident for at least six weeks. It all started 'way back in late January when Hazel Alder cones started making pollen, followed by February when the yellow blooms of Jonquils--now long gone--sprang from cold earth.

Like most folks, our spirits are rejuvenated by spring blossoms and the diversity of green as terminal buds pop open on trees and shrubs and herbs. With longer daylight and warmer temperatures stimulating all sorts of activity, new growth is everywhere around us this week, particularly among plant life dormant during winter's cold. Considering the agricultural history of the Center itself--a hundred years of row-cropping and livestock grazing--much of our local flora is invasive rather than native, but for a few brief days each spring we glory in what beauty those interlopers have to offer before scheming once again to eliminate them from the property. In honor of the spring equinox, this week we offer a portfolio of plant portraits--some exotic and some native--as unmistakable "Signs of Spring 2006."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Of all the native trees at Hilton Pond Center, Flowering Dogwood, Cornus florida, may be our spring favorite--not only because of its showy white floral display but for the delicate yellow-green of its newly emerging foliage. Edged in fine fuzz and marked by parallel veins (above), to us these fast-growing leaves are a real symbol of rebirth each spring. We deeply regret that many of our mature understory dogwoods have died in recent years, possibly because of a dreaded anthracnose blight that is decimating colonies across the eastern U.S.

Not all spring leaves are pale green like those of dogwoods. In Nandina domestica (AKA Heavenly Bamboo) new growth is deep pink-red. Eventually these fresh compound leaves--which in warmer climes stay on the shrub at least a year--turn shiny green with red edges, as seen in the background of the photo above. Nandina, native to East Asia and India, produces large red berries that allow it to propagate in its adopted homeland, but it seldom is invasive--at least not in the Carolina Piedmont. (Sean McCool tells us in the Florida Panhandle's Red Hills region it's nearly as bad as Kudzu; entire ravines in northern Tallahassee have been choked by Nandina.) Curiously, berries remain on Nandina shrubs at Hilton Pond all winter and often turn brown; birds and mammals seem to ignore them, so we suspect they taste bad and/or have little nutritional value. (NOTE: A study published in 2010 in Veterinary Medicine International reported that Nandina berries eaten in large quantities by Cedar Waxwings apparently can lead to death from cyanide poisoning. As a result, we have eradicated all non-native Nandina plants at Hilton Pond Center.)

For some observers, the bright yellow blossoms of various species of Forsythia (above) are THE true signs of spring. At Hilton Pond a variety of this rangy shrub produces flowers on bare reddish stems a week or more before leaves appear. Although not particularly invasive, Forsythia (AKA Golden-Bells or Yellow-Bells) is found across the Carolina Piedmont and much of the U.S. and can produce sizable thickets if left unchecked. One of its pluses is it provides ideal shelter for ground-nesting birds, including Eastern Towhees.

Call it what you like, Periwinkle or Running Myrtle or Vinca minor has attractive waxy-green foliage and showy purple-blue blossoms (above). Just the same, we wish this Old World species had NEVER made its way into North America and onto Hilton Pond property. Slowly but surely, it has been laying a carpet of green across the local landscape, and little we have done to eradicate it has been successful. We don't own a goat, haven't enough hours in the day to pull all our Periwinkle by its roots, and choose not to use herbicides and nuclear devices, but we're open to other workable solutions folks might have for keeping this pernicious vine from crowding out more desirable vegetation. (NOTE: Outdoors writer Jim Casada tells us mountain folk call Periwinkle "Graveyard Ivy" because when you find it in the woods it's a sure sign of an old graveyard or homestead.)

On Honeylocust twigs, locations called "nodes" are very busy places. Not only is a node the spot where new leaves are produced in spring, it's also where spines are formed (above). Honeylocusts, Gleditsia triacanthos, are native trees that originally occurred in just a few places at Hilton Pond Center--specifically within old fields where cattle once grazed. It seems those big fleshy lips and tongues on a cow don't get along very well with the prickly spines of the Honeylocust, so the tree was seldom stunted or killed by twig-browsing. (Botanical note: The sharp things on Honeylocusts are spines rather than thorns, since the latter are modified stems arising at places other than nodes.)

If you have an Eastern Redbud in your yard, it's a given the pinkish-purple flowers of this giant legume are a sign of spring (above). Eastern Redbuds, Cercis canadensis, are native trees that didn't occur at Hilton Pond Center when we first arrived in 1982. However, because of our habit of "stealing" bags of leaves from curbside after industrious citizens of York SC had raked their autumn lawns, we undoubtedly brought in and disseminated enough redbud peapods to establish a thriving colony that now adorns the understory of our woods. The redbud's blossoms are unusual in that they seem to sprout in clusters directly from the bark of twigs and trunks.

That seemingly insignificant blob of green at the bases of three seedpod stems of this Rose-of-Sharon (above) is actually of vital importance. The blob is made up of newly emerging leaves that very soon will be carrying out photosynthesis that makes food that nurtures the shrub and allows it to bloom and produce nectar that attracts insects or hummingbirds that cross-pollinate the blooms and cause this year's seed pods to be formed (whew!). Rose-of-Sharon, Hibiscus syriacus, is a non-native shrub whose three-inch saucer-shaped blossoms of blue or white or pink turn out to be very good attractants for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. Although its pods make a multitude of seeds that sprout readily, Rose-of-Sharon (AKA Shrub Althaea) is easily controlled by mowing and pruning.

One of the most eye-pleasing spring spectacles at Hilton Pond is a patch of Violets that appeared about a decade ago and gets a little larger every year (above). The bed is a mix of flowers that are dark, solid blue and those that have pale petals with intricate blue venation (below). It's almost impossible to look at these harbingers of spring and NOT smile. The Carolinas are host to several native species of Viola, but others have been imported, escaped cultivation, and now grow freely in suitable habitats; in some parts of the world Violet escapees are considered to be invasive, but that seems not to be the case with the unnamed species here at Hilton Pond Center. Our Violets sprout each March, producing flowers that last a few weeks. In the meantime, heart-shaped leaves appear and continue to grow until mid-summer days become too hot. Then the Violet foliage wilts and disappears, only to show up again the following March as one of our ever-dependable "Signs of Spring."

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

Comments or questions about this week's installment?
Please send an E-mail message to INFO.

Thanks to the following fine folks for recent gifts in support of Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History and/or Operation RubyThroat: The Hummingbird Project. Your contributions allow us to continue writing, photographing, and sharing "This Week at Hilton Pond."

  • Henderson County Bird Club
  • Alice Slisher

Be sure to scroll down for an account of all birds banded or recaptured during the week, plus other nature notes of interest.

"This Week at Hilton Pond" is written & photographed
by Bill Hilton Jr., executive director of
Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.

You may wish to consult our Index of all nature topics covered since February 2000. You can also use the on-line Search Engine at the bottom of this page.

For a free, non-fattening, on-line subscription to "This Week at Hilton Pond," just send us an E-mail with SUBSCRIBE in the Subject line. Please be sure to configure your spam filter to accept E-mails from

If you enjoy "This Week at Hilton Pond,"
please help

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History.
It's painless, and YOU can make a difference!

Just CLICK on a logo below.

Make direct donations on-line through
Network for Good:
Donate a portion of your purchase price from 500+ top on-line stores via iGive:
Use your PayPal account
to make direct donations:


15-21 March 2006

American Goldfinch--11
Chipping Sparrow--9
Pine Warbler--1
Purple Finch--45
Brown Thrasher--1

* = New species for 2006

5 species
77 individuals

13 species
591 individuals

(since 28 June 1982)
124 species
47,173 individuals

(with original banding date, sex, and current age)
House Finch (3)
12/10/02--after 5th year female
03/21/03--after 4th year male
03/11/05--after 2nd year male

Tufted Titmouse (1)
06/29/05--2nd year unknown

Purple Finch (2)
02/14/02--after 5th year female
02/16/04--4th year male

Mourning Dove (1)
01/06/04--after 3rd year male

--Although Purple Finches and Amnerican Goldfinches did finally show up in good numbers at Hilton Pond Center, we have been surprised and chagrined by the near-absence of White-throated Sparrows. Since 1982 we have banded an average of 74 white-throats per year; we've had only EIGHT this winter. we wonder whether bird counts and other backyard observations found a similar decline elsewhere in the Southeast.

--Eastern Gray Squirrels have been active on and off for most of the winter at Hilton Pond Center. But our population of Eastern Chipmunks has been nearly invisible. We suspect some chipmunks that were out and about last autumn fell victim to the hunting skills of our local tribe of Red-shouldered Hawks, but there are probably still some around in their subterranean burrows--just waiting for a really warm spring day before they venture forth in search of a snack.

All text & photos © Hilton Pond Center

This Week at Hilton Pond
is part of the

Please report your
sightings of
Ruby-throated Hummingbirds

(Back to Preceding Week; on to Next Week)

Up to Top of Page

Back to This Week at Hilton Pond Center

Current Weather Conditions at Hilton Pond Center

You can also
post questions for
The Piedmont Naturalist

Search Engine for
Hilton Pond Center

Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History is a non-profit research & education organization in York, South Carolina USA; phone (803) 684-5852. Directed by Bill Hilton Jr., aka The Piedmont Naturalist, it is the parent organization for Operation RubyThroat. Contents of this Web site--including articles and photos--may NOT be duplicated, modified, or used in any way except with the express written permission of Hilton Pond Center. All rights reserved worldwide. To obtain permission for use or for further assistance on accessing this Web site, contact the Webmaster.