A Piece of Paradise


the beach at Kiawah Island
     I spent the last week vacationing with family at the beach.  We were on a barrier island called Kiawah off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.  To us it is a little piece of heaven on earth which we have been visiting every summer for many years.  Its ten-mile length is swathed in native trees, plants and wildlife.

shorebirds on the beach
      It is one of the few islands or east coast beach areas with actual dunes that are covered with native plants instead of high rises or condos.  The dunes are covered with live oaks, wax myrtle thickets, sea oats, prickly pear (yes!), beach evening primrose, and seaside goldenrod.


path through the dunes

The sand on the beach is silky soft and remains that way far into the water.

boardwalk over the dunes

In the maritime forest that covers the island, you can find laurel oak, loblolly pine, sweet gum, magnolia, hickory, and palmetto, with red cedar, wax myrtle and sassafras growing below the tree line.

path through the woods

Spanish moss hangs from many trees.  Other plants I saw were witch hazel, beautyberry, lantana, and ferns.

Spanish moss on tree

palmetto palms

If you walk or bike through the forest paths, you can regularly see deer, squirrels, chipmunks, and lizards.  Alligators can be seen in the swamps, bays and creeks.

deer feeding on the dunes

There are many birds on the island, including:  pelicans, sanderlings, skimmers, herons, gulls, and terns.  The beach is also a loggerhead turtle nesting area.  There are signs along the beach just where the dunes begin to rise warning of nesting areas.

loggerhead  nesting area

Ghost crabs and horseshoe crabs live on the beach.  Scattered along the beach are numerous shells:  bay scallops, cockles, whelks, coquina clams, moon shells, and sundials.

tidal marsh

Tidal marshes cover the west side of the island with spartina grass as the dominant plant.  Many fish, including croaker, flounder, menhaden, mullet and spot, spend the early parts of their lives in these marshes.

The island inspires calm and repose, restfulness and reflection.  Captivated by the rhythms of the sea and wind, enchanted by the animals and plants, overwhelmed by its beauty, I left the island rejuvenated and refreshed.

high tide at sunset

Palms and Olives

     In my front yard I have three olive trees.  They are the fruitless, pollenless Swan Hill variety.  Many communities and homeowner's associations, including ours, prohibit the planting of olive trees because of the pollen and the fruit they drop which causes staining.  I have never seen or grown olive trees before, so I do not know how much of a problem that can be.  The Swan Hill variety is the only variety of olive tree allowed in our neighborhood.  I found out that they have been around for about thirty years, and were patented by the University of California, Davis, CA.

Swan Hill olive tree
We wanted a tree that was evergreen and would grow to thirty feet.  This tree has feather-shaped, gray-green leaves.  This variety does produce small, cream-colored flowers.  But the anther (pollen producing portion of the flower) never opens up so no pollen is released.  We had them planted in front of our bare wall in the front yard.  The Swan Hill olive is grafted to a rootstock that is resistant to verticillium wilt fungus.  They have fewer pests and diseases thatn most fruit trees.  Native to the Mediterranean area, they prefer a long, hot growing season.  They grow well on almost any soil, and can survive extended dry periods.  The only thing I've done is fertilized once at planting.

olive tree leaves

     There are five pygmy date palms (Phoenix roebelenii) growing in our yard, three in the back yard and two along the front of the house.  I discovered that these are a species of date palm native to Southeast Asia.  In the wild, these are usually single-trunked, but here most nurseries plant them as multiples together.  Ours all have three trunks.

Pygmy date palm
   They are a popular landscape tree here because they are slow-growing (can reach 6 to 8 feet), low maintenance, hardy and beautiful.  They tolerate a wide range of soils, are salt tolerant, mildly drought tolerant, resistant to pests, hardy to 20 degrees F, and can be grown in sun or shade.  I've read that although they are native to southwestern China, northern Laos, and northern Vietnam, they are grown in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, southern California, southern Nevada, coastal Texas, Florida, parts of Louisiana, and Arizona.

     Our trees have a dense, graceful crown and dark green leaves that arch to the ground.  I think they give a tropical feel to our dry, desert yard.  They produce small, yellowish flowers that are mostly hidden by the arching leaves, and a small (1 cm) fruit that looks like a thin-fleshed date.  I have been stabbed a time or two by the sharp spines that are present on the leaf where it attaches to the trunk.  I only prune the leaves that die off, and have only fertilized once when planting, but they look like they need it again.  There is some browning of the leaf tips that may signal micronutrient deficiencies.  Browning can also occur because of frost damage, and our trees suffered a small amount of damage this winter when we had the freezes.

Pygmy date palm flowers

     As I conclude this post, here is an interesting tidbit of information about palms and olives.  In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, B.J. Johnson produced a soap in 1898 made entirely of palm and olive oils.  He called it Palmolive and named his company after it.  At the turn of the century, it was the world's best selling soap.  This company is now known as the Colgate-Palmolive Company.

Desert Plant Adaptations

     After moving to the desert southwest and finding it difficult to deal with the blazing hot sun and triple-digit heat, I wondered how the native plants and trees survived here.  After researching, I found that desert plants and trees have devised unique adaptations to survive the intense heat and sun.

tiny leaves - mesquite tree
I noticed that most native trees, bushes and plants have very small, even tiny, leaves.  As I suspected, tiny leaves have limited surface area reducing water requirements.  I also discovered that some plants reduce moisture loss by foregoing traditional leaves.  Cacti spines are actually modified leaf parts with sharp points.  Cacti and other desert plants also reduce water loss through their stomata (pores) by opening them at night when temperatures are cooler.  Another adaptation to reduce moisture loss is a waxy coating found on such plants as creosote and cacti.  When there is an extreme drought, some trees like the palo verde drop their leaves so there is less plant material that needs water.  When rainfall occurs, leaf growth returns.  I have noticed when we have a rainfall, some bushes, like Texas sage, burst into bloom a few days later.

tiny leaves - palo verde tree
To take advantage of any rain that falls, plants such as agave, hesperaloe and yucca use their funnel-like shapes to collect rainwater and direct it to their main stem and roots.  The spines of cacti act as drip tips for the same reason.  I also learned that cacti develop shallow, but wide-ranging root systems to have a better chance of absorbing rainfall.  An example is saguaro roots, which can extend up to 100 feet in all directions.  Also, cacti and other succulents can store water in their roots, stems and fleshy leaves to use during dry spells.

funnel-shaped desert spoon plant

golden barrel cacti spines as drip tips

     One thing particularly noticeable here in the desert southwest is that many trees and plants are not truly green.  Many, like Texas sage, have gray, silver or pale green foliage.  This is a modification that helps reflect sunshine and reduces heat build up on the leaf's surface.

Texas sage gray-green leaves

bush morning glory silver-green leaves

     Other plants, like brittlebush, have fuzzy hairs on their leaves that act as sun reflectors to keep the plant cool.  Some plants, like the jojoba bush, angle their leaves vertically so that surface area exposed to the sun is minimized.

vertical leaves on jojoba bush

vertical leaves on hopseed bush

     Adaptations to reduce moisture loss, harvest rainwater and reduce sun exposure help desert plants thrive.  Since non-native plants do poorly in the intense heat and sun, most homeowners here choose low-maintenance, water-thrifty native adapted plants for the bulk of their landscaping.