Summer in Peabody Park at UNCG
A summer natural history calendar for Peabody Park at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, in the Piedmont region of central North Carolina.
AS SUMMER BEGINS the canopy of leaves in the Peabody Park woods closes over, shading the forest floor, and very few flowers bloom in the woods for the remainder of the season. One that does bloom is the Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculata), a tiny plant with mottled, leathery leaves that stay green all year round. Its waxy white flowers rise up on thin stalks that nod over at the end. Also in bloom along the Park’s woodland streams in June is the Rosebay Rhododendron or Great Laurel (Rhododendron maximum). The Rosebay is one of North Carolina’s most beautiful native shrubs, a representative of a large and diverse group with hundreds of species around the world, many of them prized as ornamentals.
Several species of dragonflies patrol the branches of Buffalo Creek in the summer, among them the dramatic Black-winged Damselfly (the Black Prince, Calopteryx maculata) which prefers the shaded creek branches in the Park woods. Its iridescent green body and translucent black wings, along with its butterfly-like flight make it unmistakable. Dragonflies and damselflies lay their eggs in streams and ponds, and so are rarely seen far from water. Their larvae are aggressive aquatic predators, and when mature they crawl up a grass or reed stem and metamorphose into winged adults.
Barn Swallows (Hirundo rustica) may be seen aerially “grazing” for flying insects over the golf course fields during the early summer, and many of the birds that commonly breed in the Park—Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottus), Common Grackles (Quiscalus quiscula), Brown Thrashers (Toxostoma rufum), and others—appear on the Park’s lawns in June searching for food with their noisy fledglings following along behind.
In the open areas of the Park during June the ornamental Catalpa trees (Catalpa speciosa) come into bloom, along with two very different members of the pea or legume family: the exotic Mimosa or Silk Tree (Albizia julibrissin) with its pink, tuft-like flowers, and the abundant White Sweet Clover (Melilotus alba), a spindly herb of the stream edges. The pink and white flowers of the Crown Vetch (Coronilla varia), another member of the pea family, also appear along the edges of the streams in June. The members of the pea family are well-known for their ability to enrich the soil with nitrogen, an essential plant nutrient, and Sweet Clover is often planted in fallow farm fields to act as a natural fertilizing agent.
Peabody Park was established in June of 1901 when the University received $10,000 from George Foster Peabody, half of which was designated by President McIver for an educational park of 125 acres. Peabody’s gift was but a small part of his distinguished record of philanthropy that continues to benefit educational institutions across the American South today.
In mid-summer the pulsating buzz of cicadas (Cicadidae) echos through the Park woods every day. Cicadas spend most of their lives underground as nymphs feeding on the roots of trees, and then every few years they emerge as adults to sing, reproduce, and die. The empty shells of the larvae, from which winged adults emerged, can often be found attached to tree trunks in the Park. Different cicada species reproduce at different intervals ranging from three to seventeen years. At night in mid-summer the similar but more repetitive call of katydids—a group of large, green, arboreal grasshoppers—may be heard in the Park.
In mid-summer the ecological differences between the Park’s two main habitats, the woods and the fields, can be most readily understood. In summer the woodland floor is cool, moist, and shaded, while the Park fields are often hot, dry, and sunny. Because of this simple difference, the two areas are home to very different communities of plants, and because the plants differ many of the animals do as well. The Park woods are representative of the native environment that would have covered the entire Piedmont hundreds of years ago, while the open fields represent what biologists call a “disturbed” environment that is kept open by continued human intervention. If the fields were to be abandoned they would, over a century or two, revert to forest through a process known as “ecological succession.”
Mud-dauber Wasps (Sceliphron caementarium) can be readily observed constructing their nests on the sides of buildings in the vicinity of the Park during July. Each nest requires many trips back and forth from a mud supply (usually Buffalo Creek), and on each trip another dollop of mud is added to the structure. Organ-pipe mud-daubers (Trypoxyloninae) can also be seen building nests in July. In contrast to typical Mud-daubers, their nests are composed of a series of tall pipe-like tubes. All these wasps provision their nests with paralyzed spiders so that their young have a fresh food supply when they hatch. The larvae develop in the mud tubes, and when they have metamorphosed into adults they chew their way out and fly away.
On July 27th, 1852, George Foster Peabody, the benefactor of Peabody Park, was born in Columbus, Georgia, the first child of George Henry and Elvira (Canfield) Peabody. The family’s merchant business was destroyed in the next decade during the Civil War, and young George moved north to New York with his parents where they opened a new dry goods business and started their lives over. From this point on success followed success, and Peabody grew to become one of the most influential financiers and philanthropists of his generation.
Early in August look for Crane-fly Orchids (Tipularia discolor) in bloom in the Park woods. The only species of orchid growing on the campus, Crane-fly Orchids produce a small spike of delicate maroon and yellow flowers that are very easily overlooked on the shaded forest floor. The one or two dark green and purple leaves of the plant do not appear until even later in the season, and they overwinter intact after the flower spike has long-since withered away. In the early years of Peabody Park, Lady’s-slipper orchids (Cypripedium) reportedly grew in the Park woods, but these seem to have been exterminated.
Late summer and fall is the time for fungi, and many different species may be found in the Park’s woods and fields, especially after rains. Fungi are important decomposers in nearly every terrestrial environment. They take dead plant and animal matter and break it down into elementary nutrients that are returned to the soil, providing natural fertilizer for the next generation of plants.
In the Park’s fields during August Queen Anne’s Lace (the Wild Carrot, Daucus carota) comes into bloom. The first flowers of Spotted Jewelweed (Impatiens pallida) also appear in the fields along the margins of the streams. The pendant orange flowers of the Jewelweed are a favorite feeding stop for Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris), and Jewelweed seed capsules spring open explosively when ripe, giving the plant its other common name, Touch-me-not.
The annual Perseid meteor shower peaks around August 11th, appearing to radiate from the constellation Perseus. The Park’s fields provide many opportunities for astronomical viewing.
The large purple flowers of the spiny thistles (Cirsium) go to seed late in August providing downy nest material for the late-breeding American Goldfinches (Carduelis tristis). Male goldfinches, with their brilliant yellow and black plumage, can often be seen dipping across the Park fields in late summer whistling their clear, repetitive song.
[Last major revision: May 2002]
© RJO 1995–2016