Fall in Peabody Park at UNCG
A fall natural history calendar for Peabody Park at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina.
IN THE PEABODY PARK FIELDS during September watch for a wide variety of Fall flowers to come into bloom. Two species of Smartweed, Pennsylvania Smartweed (Polygonum pensylvanicum) and Long-bristled Smartweed (Polygonum cespitosum), are abundant along the golf course creeks and in other disturbed, open habitats at this time of year. The less common Arrow-leaved Tearthumb (Polygonum sagittatum) may also be found along the golf course creek margins in September, but be sure to handle its spiny stem with care or, as its name suggests, it will tear your thumb. Also look for Common Nightshade (Solanum americanum), a member of the tomato family, the yellow-flowered Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis), the small Violet Wood Sorrel (Oxalis violacea), and the blue and white Asiatic Dayflower (Commelina communis).
In the Park woods in September look for the bright orange and red fruits of the Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus). The Strawberry Bush blooms inconspicuously in May, but it is in the Fall that the shrub attracts attention with its large, colorful fruits. Also in the Park woods look for the fruits of the Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) and False Solomon’s-Seal (Smilacina racemosa), two native plants common on the shaded forest floor. If you look carefully, you might also find one of the most beautiful fungi of the Park woods, the delicate pink and white Coral Woodcrust (Merulius incarnatus).
Fall is hurricane season in the eastern United States, and although Greensboro is many miles inland, hurricanes sometimes have devastating effects in the Park. On the night of 6–7 September 1996 Hurricane Fran came through Peabody Park and threw down several canopy trees that were nearly 100 years old. The canopy gaps created by windthrows such as these let sunlight down to the forest floor, and a race begins among the sapling oaks and hickories to see which will be the first to shade out the others and fill in the canopy gap over the next thirty to forty years. Eventually, through the process called ecological succession, the gap is completely repaired and the forest floor returns to its mature or “climax” condition.
In late September and early October Monarch Butterflies (Danaus plexippus) migrate south through the Carolina Piedmont on their way to the Gulf Coast and Central America. On a good day you can see as many as one per minute passing by you if you sit out in the Park fields and keep your eyes on the northern horizon. But don’t be fooled by the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus), the Monarch’s evolutionary mimic, which looks almost identical. The Viceroy can be distinguished by the thin black line that crosses its hind wing.
The strange, stick-like Beech-drops (Epifagus virginiana) flower in the Peabody Park woods in October. These remarkable but inconspicuous plants look like little more than a bundle of dead twigs, even when they are in full bloom. Unlike most flowering plants, Beech-drops have no chlorophyll, and they survive as parasites on the roots of Beech trees (Fagus grandifolia). The dark purple and green leaves of the Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor) also emerge on the forest floor in October, some weeks after the flowers have gone by. This is the only orchid species that grows in Peabody Park. The Crane-fly Orchid’s leaves will over-winter, and then wither the following summer just before the delicate flower spikes emerge.
In the Park fields in October look for the spiny, white-flowered Horsenettle (Solanum carolinense), another member of the tomato family, and an occasional Crimson-eyed Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos) along the creek margins. Beggar Ticks (Bidens frondosa) inconspicuously bloom in disturbed areas of the Park in October; a little later in the season they are easier to find when their two-hooked seeds, sometimes called “pitchforks,” stick to your clothes as you brush by them.
Black-throated Blue Warblers (Dendroica caerulsecens) and many other song birds pass through the Park on their southward migrations during October, and Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura) and other hawks can often be seen travelling overhead on their way to their winter quarters. Chimney Swifts (Chaetura pelagica), a familiar sight in the Park’s skies during summer, depart the campus toward the end of October and their twittering calls will not be heard overhead again until they return in April of the following year.
Russula mushrooms (Brittlegills) appear commonly in the Park woods during the Fall, as do many species of bracket fungi such as the fuzzy yellow Nestcap (Phyllotopsis nidulans). If you are especially observant you might come across the Pea Rock fungus or “Dead Man’s Foot” (Pisolithus tinctorius), an unappealing brown ball that looks like a rotted fruit. Like many fungi, the Pea Rock has a symbiotic relationship with certain species of trees (in this case pines), and as its cells intertwine with the roots of the trees it supplies nutrients to them while it receives other nutrients in return, allowing both the tree and the fungus to grow better. The brown-pigmented flesh of the Pea Rock has been used as a fabric colorant, hence the specific name “tinctorius” and another common name of the Pea Rock, “Dye-ball.”
The peak color for fall foliage in Peabody Park is typically reached during the first two weeks of November. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and Red Maple (Acer rubrum) are the brightest species to be seen, but the golden-yellow of the abundant hickories (Carya sp.) and the deep wine-red of the White Oaks (Quercus alba) are the principal colors of the Park woods. With a little practice you can learn to recognise the Park’s tree species from a distance just by the color of their autumn leaves.
The striking Bearded Hedgehog fungus (Hericium erinaceus) can occasionally be found sprouting from the trunks of old trees this time of year, and growing near old stumps a careful observer may find another strange fungus, the Varnish Shelf or Ling Chi (Ganoderma lucidum), prized in Asia for its medicinal properties.
Along the borders of the Park’s fields the leaves of the Shining Sumac (Rhus copallina) turn a beautiful deep maroon, and even the Shining Sumac’s less-beloved relative, Poison Ivy (Rhus toxicodendron), puts on a very respectable display of yellow and orange. Although contact with the leaves of Poison Ivy causes an itchy rash in humans, the Poison Ivy’s berries are a valuable source of winter food for many species of birds.
Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), a common winter sparrow of the Park fields, return to campus during November from their breeding grounds farther north. Their slate-gray bodies and white tail margins make them easy to identify as they scratch among the fallen leaves looking for food. White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis) will also flock together in the Park for the remainder of the winter, and can often be found in the company of Juncos, hopping through thickets and scratching through the leaf litter around the edges of the Park fields.
Night-time sky-watchers should look for the Leonid meteor shower which typically peaks each year around November 17th, appearing to radiate from the lion-shaped constellation Leo.
[Last major revision: May 2002]
© RJO 1995–2016