October Notes 2017

I’m waiting. Waiting for the birds to get where they are going, the squirrels to finish the chestnuts, the rabbits to hunker down in their warm holes for the winter. Then I will come out of my hole and get to work planting not so native seeds for spring, trimming sick elderberries, cleaning up the vegetable beds, collecting chestnut husks for the fire, planting winter rye and harvesting the sweet potatoes. For now I’m picking okra which is kind of like an Easter egg hunt. The part you eat is the seed pod and it has a way of hiding itself. If you don’t get it at the perfect time it get’s big and tough. I’m also continuing my quest for knowledge about this mysterious plant world around me.

On the blog, Awkward BotanyI’ve found that maybe weeds aren’t so bad. That in cities they are a big help with erosion, carbon sequestering as well as water, soil and air filtration. Who knows maybe people will someday be lining up for the latest cultivar of prickly lettuce.

Is the pinkish plant caught by the light a weed or a good garden plant? I’m going for the good garden plant.

My plan for buying local ecotype seeds from Ernst Seeds  didn’t quite pan out. They only sell seeds by the ounce or more and didn’t have the ones I was looking for but I haven’t written them off and their hard copy catalog, while not much to look at photo wise has some really good information, lots of seed variety and it’s great for getting me off the internet. I ended up buying non local ecotype seeds from Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota where I could get them in the small quantities I needed. I’ll go into that more when I plant them next month.

I also ventured out into the field or in my case woods in search of local ecotype seeds and what I found, low and behold, was seeds. The place is just down the hill, it’s actually the riparian area along a creek known as Sligo Creek where a 10 mile narrow strip of land has been allowed to turn back into woods made up of a good number of most likely true native plants or local ecotypes as well as non natives. Yes, there are the usual native trees such as beech, tulip poplar, and oak but I was surprised at the variety of herbaceous plants, kind of hard to believe given the large deer populations and other aggressive non native plants (mostly lesser celandine, bush honeysuckle and English ivy). The herbaceous plants I found are unassuming plants but the way they grow together somehow fits the scene. Some form large healthy stands while others are scattered, just a few here and there. Each has interesting qualities especially as a community.

Asters are scattered in with other most likely native flora.

It just so happens an actual botanist lives in the area and in 2003 tried to record all of the plants along Sligo CreekIt’s an impressively long list with all kinds of names I’ve never heard of. Bosc’s panic grass, straw-colored cyperus, stellate sedge, glomerate sedge, Willdenow’s sedge, carrion flower, arrow-leaved tearthumb, hog peanut, pencil flower, brushy aster, Florida blue lettuce, wild licorice, cleavers. I could go on and on.

Bottlebrush grass highlights the background of this flood plain along Sligo Creek.

I know the world is changing fast. 2003 is a long time ago, but as I walked through this woods, I noticed a good number of plants I’d never seen before and a few such as bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix) I’ve seen in Prairie Moon’s catalog from Minnesota. I gathered a few seeds from the bottlebrush grass as well as some from something I think is called honewort and a few others but I think the point I’m making here is that if local ecotypes can survive in a place so disturbed as this, imagine what else is still out there in places not so disturbed. In other words, I have hope. Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem. Maybe there is something still worth preserving. Maybe all is not lost. Not that I’m against change or anything. Not that I’m a hopeless romantic longing for past forgotten times.

Could this be a thornless hawthorn tree?

I also discovered a grove of trees, some with red and some with yellow berries. After doing various online searches I decided they must be some form of hawthorn but they didn’t have thorns so I’m left wondering. I’m not done yet. I took a few berries and planted them around my garden.

I wonder if plants growing even as close as Sligo Creek which is no more than half a mile from my garden are even suitable to grow in my garden which is not a riparian area although it does catch runoff from my roof and other nearby hardscapes. I realize I probably shouldn’t be picking too many seeds from Silgo Creek as there aren’t huge populations of these plants and the ones there probably have a hard enough time surviving without me messing with their natural reproduction process. But it’s good to to notice what is there.

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Honeyvine, Milkweed and Monarchs

honeyvine-and-monarch

I pull bindweed with a vengeance. I don’t attempt to get the roots because I know it will be in vain. The roots can go 20 feet down or more. With mosquitoes massacring me, I crouch in crazy, awkward positions under an elderberry to pull one vine. But the other day I noticed a monarch landing on one of these vines. The next day I saw another land on the same vine. I inspected it more closely and realized it had clusters of tiny white flowers, like so many other insect attracting weeds in my garden. The other similar vine that also likes my garden is hedge bindweed but it has large, white, morning glory like flowers.

honeyvine-moth
Silver-spotted Skipper on honeyvine flowers

After doing some research, I found out the plant with the tiny white flowers is known as honeyvine or sand vine. It’s in the milkweed family which would explain why the monarch was landing on it. It is also, like common milkweed, considered a noxious weed  due to its aggressive attributes and toxicity if ingested by farm animals.

As one thing leads to another, which happens so often in gardening, my discovery of honeyvine led me to wondering about monarchs. I knew their numbers were down (by around 80%) and I wanted to know if this honeyvine might help them. As if my one little, opportunistic vine could actually help the monarch plight. Well, it turns out, as with so much these days, the monarch plight is indeed grim and very complicated. The monarch has evolved to lead a very finicky life. It not only relies on plants in the milkweed family to lay its eggs but its life cycle or cycles seem to include one trip to one tiny spot in Mexico before returning north in the spring to lay eggs on milkweed again. After reading about ten articles on the subject, I confess, still being completely confused. If interested in the life cycle of monarchs, monarch-butterfly.com explains it much better than I can.

Anyhow, monarchs also rely on milkweed for nectar which it needs throughout the season and is especially important during its migration period. It can drink nectar from other flowers besides milkweed but milkweed flowers seems to be the preference. So, as the prairies have turned into crop lands and pesticides have been effective at killing milkweed, the pesky plant is not so pesky, or much less abundant at least, for now. And there is also something going on in Mexico. I’m not really sure of the details but it involves destruction of trees in the one tiny spot where the monarchs congregate during winter. Simply put, it’s very bad for monarchs. Ellen Sharp, an environmental non-profit director living at the entry of Mexico’s Monarch Butterfly Reserve wrote a good article describing how bad it is.

The real reason I wanted to know all this was because I was wondering how long during a season do monarchs rely on milkweed. Is it just spring, or is it all summer and fall? Honeyvine milkweed as well as common milkweed can look a bit on the “wild” side. Common milkweed also begins to look unsightly as it awkwardly pops up in strange areas like the middle of the front walk. If you want to grow common milkweed, one plant is all it takes for a colony to create itself. When it dies, it turns an ugly yellow color and often flops over. So, do I need to keep all this unsightly stuff around all season and everywhere?

In my last post, I mentioned my excitement at witnessing a monarch caterpillar on a milkweed plant. That was September so I’m guessing it probably is best to leave the milkweed alone as much as I can stand it and as ugly as it is. Common milkweed doesn’t look too bad when it’s mixed with other plants and grasses. I place whatever milkweed I have to cut in an inconspicuous spot in my garden and don’t throw it in the trash. I mow over anything coming up in a path or lawn before it can grow. Honeyvine doesn’t grow all that fast and I’ll let a few vines grow. I’ll throw out any seed pods so it doesn’t get out of control. Also, there are many other varieties of less aggressive milkweed available, the most popular being butterfly weed and swamp milkweed.

Maybe my garden isn’t the most tidy place. I hope no one minds if a few awkward looking plants stick out, look ugly or flop across borders. More and more, gardening for me is not so much about beauty or maybe I just need to look closer to see it. After all, what could be more beautiful than a monarch?

White Snakeroot

white snake root

White Snakeroot (Ageratina altissima)

I stand corrected. White snakeroot surpasses the Grape as the ultimate double edged sword of plants. According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, it killed Abraham Lincoln’s mother and about half of the population of early settlers in the U.S. who died from drinking milk from cows who ate this toxic plant. I guess there’s plenty good reason to call this plant a weed. But since I don’t have cows or children, I consider it an asset. When I first noticed the seedling of this plant I thought it might be a coneflower or something of the sort, so I let it grow. By the end of the summer it became a thick, five foot wall, completely blocking my view of the neighbors driveway. The air above this wall shimmered with bees, hundreds of them, going for the tiny white flowers. This plant transfers its toxins to tiger moth caterpillars, who eat it and become not so delectable to predators. Now, when I find a seedling, I let it grow into a great wall of life.

young white snakeroot
Young white snakeroot plant

Grape

summer grape

Grape (Vitis)

I have such fond memories of grape, or grapevine, as I always knew it. As a kid, I used to swing from a thick old vine off a forested hillside. My parents diligently spent entire summers cutting the base of these vines to save young trees. I was never quite sure if I liked the sweet Muscadine grapes my Grandfather and Aunts grew but now when I eat them they the take me back to long summer days, running around barefoot without a care in the world.

Grape can be aggressive but in a mature forest it is much less intimidating. I’m not sure how the thick old vines find their way up these old trees but somehow they manage, loosely wrapping themselves around branches in a harmonious way. In a young forest or field they will overtake trees and shrubs, eventually killing them. Since mature forests are rare these days, the wild grape has gotten a bad rap as an aggressive tree killer.

I had to rewrite this post after realizing I’m not sure what kind of grape or grapes are growing in my garden. It turns out there are many varieties native to my area as well as an invasive known as the Porcelain-berry. Identifying them is tricky enough without adding an invasive grape from Asia to the mix. This site about plants native to Georgia and the Carolinas has some excellent images and info to help with identification. The Delaware Department of Agriculture has an excellent source for deciphering invasives from natives in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region.

It never really occurred to me that this intimidating plant might have other values besides recreation. Who would have thought Concord grape, the one used to make jelly and juice, is derived from the native Fox grape.

Native grapes are a critical food source for many birds and animals. In my own garden, as I write this, what must be thousands of pollinators are swarming around a mound of this vine. They must be attracted to the tiny white flowers, so delicate for such an obtrusive plant. Nevertheless, the Grape should win first prize as the ultimate double edged sword of plants.

Violet

violets

Common Blue Violet (Viola sororia) or Marsh Blue Violet (Viola cucullata)

I’m not sure just when I discovered the value of this plant but somewhere along the line it went from most annoying to one of my most valuable assets. Let’s just say, it’s a lot easier to join forces than fight it. Violets love my garden. I used to work up quite a sweat trying to unearth their bulbous roots from my vegetable beds but once I discovered their value, I started doing a lot less weeding. It turned out that if I allied myself with these plants, they did most of the weeding for me, competing with tough weeds like ground ivy and bermudagrass.

Violets distract foragers like deer and rabbits who prefer them to my vegetables. They provide the first pretty blue flowers of spring and protect and build the soil. They are basically indestructible, edible and highly valuable to insects, birds, rabbits, deer and squirrels.

The opportunistic violet spreads by underground rhizomes and seed. It spreads its seeds in several creative ways. One is through flowers that grow close to the ground but never fully open. These flowers shoot seeds out like a cannon. Another way is by ants who find the seed coating delicious. After eating the coating they plant the seed.

I sure am glad I joined forces with the violet. Without it, I and many others would be in a bad way.

A few notes about violets. They transplant well. I’ve found the best way to dig them up is with a garden fork when the soil is moist. To learn more about violets the PennState Extension has some good information on this undervalued plant.

White Avens

 

There’s a lot of information out there about native plants, like why they are important, how to select them, how to grow them and where to buy them but I never find much or really anything about native plants that come up on their own, naturally. That is without help from humans. I did hear it mentioned somewhere but I thought, “nah, that can’t be possible.” I guess I was thinking about the more showy ones like wild bergamot, false indigo or butterfly weed. Like that would ever happen. Really.

The first time it actually occurred that it might be possible was when I noticed a unique plant, one that wasn’t like all the weeds I’d come to know. It came up on the side of a drainage ditch I’d made and it really wasn’t anything that special. I’m not even sure what made me notice it in the first place. After doing some research, I concluded it was a native shrub called ninebark but the next year it didn’t seem to be growing into a shrub. With so much more to do, I gave up trying to identify it but it was a turning point for me. I think it was the point I began stand back and watch instead of always just doing. It was a realization that nature could and should play a role in the development of my garden. And I could kind of help it along.

As the years went by I began to notice other unique plants. I allowed them to grow, identifying them when I got around to it. Now there are many native plants in my garden. Or at least I’m pretty sure they’re native. Plants that were planted by birds or animals or the wind. I feel like they are the plants that belong most in my garden. They may not be the most exotic or rare things. Some of them are stately, others may be considered weeds, but they are all tough, ecologically useful plants.

In the coming posts, categorized as What Comes Up, I’ll talk about these plants and what makes them special. As it turns out, I finally identified that plant that opened my eyes. It was white avens and that’s where I’ll start.

White Avens (Geum canadense)

After spending too much time searching the internet for this plant, I finally sent a few pictures to my local gardening extension and I had my answer within days. This is an interesting plant. It starts growing in winter with a bouquet of pretty leaves that spread out very close to the ground called basal leaves. In spring, a new set of bright green leaves grow on stems. Then come these tiny white flowers in late spring and finally, little burs by late summer. The Arkansas Native Plant Society has some great pictures and information about this plant. Bees, wasps, flies and aphids enjoy its flowers. I enjoy just knowing what it is.

white avens