Nature’s notebook

Bring the beach to the Piedmont

Wax-myrtle at the edge of a maritime forest. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

Summer is winding down. Kids are heading back to school. Days will soon be shorter than nights.  Labor Day weekend marks the end of peak season at the beach, but birders and fishermen flock to the coast in fall. If you plan to visit Kitty Hawk, Hatteras or Bald Head Island in the coming weeks, take advantage of the opportunity to explore the exemplary maritime forests at one of our state’s coastal reserves.

Stacked with layers of evergreen vegetation, these woods can seem impenetrable, yet gaps in the canopy allow patches of sun to spotlight the forest floor. These are magical places, both ethereal and resilient enough to withstand the brunt of hurricanes. Sprawling live oaks shelter a host of other species with their loving arms.  

Several are common to the Piedmont landscape – red cedar, American holly, loblolly pine, muscadine, poison ivy and smilax – but they are surrounded by a constellation of trees and shrubs that gives these maritime forests their distinct look. While these species are native to the coastal plain, a surprising number will thrive in Piedmont gardens.  

The unassuming yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) is the progenitor of shrubs in the nursery trade with an astounding range of colors and forms. Dwarf forms adapt well to shearing, making them a much sturdier – and cheaper – replacement for boxwoods. Unfortunately, they lack the most compelling feature of the species – the bright, almost translucent, red fruits. Weeping forms are especially interesting, as long as the bottoms aren’t cropped in a straight line a few feet off the ground, which creates an effect reminiscent of a Fudgsicle.

Dwarf yaupon holly for sale at Blackhawk Gardens in Charlotte. Photo: Ruth Ann Grissom

On the other hand, Larry Mellichamp, former director of the UNC Charlotte Botanical Garden, sees a need for more interesting selections of the Carolina cherry-laurel (Prunus caroliniana). He notes this handsome small tree with glossy evergreen leaves is related to the popular English cherry-laurel, and it’s adaptable to a wide range of conditions. The showy white flowers are fragrant, and they produce dark, fleshy fruits which persist into winter, providing sustenance for songbirds when other sources of food are scarce. Unfortunately, this seed dispersal contributes to the Carolina cherry-laurel’s weedy nature.

The fine, medium-green leaves of wax-myrtle (Morella cerifera) are backed with a hint of soft gold, giving the shrub a distinct color and texture among other evergreens.  When crushed, they emit the fragrance of bayberry candles. Females bear clusters of tiny, waxy blue-gray berries that are so beloved by yellow-rumped warblers, the birds are also known as myrtle warblers. These winter residents arrive in the Piedmont just as the berries ripen. Wax-myrtle is fast-growing and can be kept sheared as a hedge or pruned into a compelling specimen.  

Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) adds a deciduous component to a mostly evergreen forest. A large, sprawling shrub with coarsely toothed leaves, beautyberry isn’t particularly pretty. In summer, it’s easy to miss the clusters of tiny pink flowers adorning the branches, but in fall, all is forgiven when the leaves drop and the berries turn bright purple. For better or worse, once the birds find them, they don’t last long. Beautyberry’s natural range reaches into the Piedmont.

Beautyberries in October. Photo: Crystal Cockman

Dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) is fan-shaped and stemless. It hugs the forest floor, colonizing to form a groundcover. In ideal locations, they can grow 5 to 10 feet tall, but here, beyond their natural range, they will stay much smaller. One of our most cold-hardy palms, they can withstand our Piedmont winters as well as a range of conditions. That said, they will benefit from a blanket of light mulch in cold weather until they are well-established. It’s worth the effort to achieve the enchanting look of a maritime forest.

If you can’t get to the beach, use these adaptable species to bring the look of coastal vegetation to the Piedmont. These plants would seem right at home in the Uwharries under the high canopy of mature loblolly, longleaf or shortleaf pines. (In fact, wax-myrtle has been found on a conservation property in Randolph County, and dwarf palmetto occurs on a protected tract in Anson County.) A dense planting of these species could create a lively twist on the typical evergreen screen. And if salt shrub (Baccharis halimifolia) shows up – as it’s apt to do these days – it will fit right in.