Thursday, April 3, 2014

Spring is making an Appearance

With all the snow and low temperatures the Winter of 2013-14 seemed like it would never end.  But looking back at photos from this time last year, native plant growth is only a week or so behind 2013.  I almost did not venture out into the woods for an informal survey, but I'm glad I did.  While only a few native species were in bloom, many have broken ground and are forming flower buds.  Here are some photos of the highlights.

When walking through the woods, it pays to look up once in a while.
Many of the native spring wild flowers most active while the tree canopy is open.  Now they have have enough light to photosynthesize and store up energy.  Once the trees leaf out there is not enough light for these plants to continue to grow so many of them shut down for the summer.  These plants are known as the spring ephemerals.  

The first plants I noticed were the Virginia Bluebells, Mertensia virginica.  These first appear as purplish-gray buds through the leaf litter.  If last year is a guide they should be blooming in about 2 weeks.
As the leaves of these Virginia Bluebells mature they lose the purplish blush.

I was surprised to see the Spring Beauties in bloom.  There are only a few of them now.  Their number should continue to increase into May.  These grow from corms, so technically they are native bulbs.  If I happen to dig up any later this spring I will move them up into the bulb gardens closer to the house.  
These blooms are mostly white, pinkish ones appear later in the season.

The finely divided foliage of Dutchman's Breeches, Dicentra cucullaria, is also making an appearance.  I don't know if this species can be distinguished from Squirrel Corn, D. canadensis, just by the foliage.  I am making the assignment based on only seeing the former species last year.

The new foliage of all 3 eastern Dicentra species is very similar.
Off to the right are some leaves from Spring Beauties.

White Avens, Geum canadense, will bloom until later in the summer, but it is producing fresh foliage now.  It is recognizable by its deeply divided gray-green foliage.

One of the large basal leaves of White Avens  is at the lower right in the photo above.  

I saw a lot of leaves of Toothwort, Cardamine diphylla, and a few with flower buds. I also saw some leaves of cut-leaved Toothwort, C. laciniata.  These have similar coloration, but the leaves are deeply cut into five or more fingers.  These species were formally classified in the genus Dentaria.

You can see a mauve-colored flower stalk just left of center, above.

I purchased a couple of Golden Ragwort, Packera aurea, at a native plant sale last fall.  You can see that they over wintered well and it looks like they have already begun to spread.
Golden Ragwort should produce yellow daisy-like flowers on
long stems through spring and summer.

It's amazing that these little flowers will go on
to produce a couple of hazelnuts

The new growth was not limited to the perennials.  The shrubs are also beginning to bloom.  I got this American Hazelnut, Corylus americana, last fall.  It was bearing several nut clusters which grew to maturity last season.  This spring I only noticed the small red female flowers.  There were no male catkins on the shrub.  I don't know if their absence is due to the cold, or the deer.

I would have missed seeing the buds forming on this Yellowroot, Xanthorhiza simplicissima, if I had not remembered where it was planted.  The tops of the plant had been 'cut' back a bit.  Again, I don't know if this was from frost damage or deer browse.  
The flower buds of Spicebush, Lindera benzoin, are about to burst.  The flowering time of Spicebush is similar to Forsythia, but the color of the Spicebush is much more delicate.  In a week or so this area will be in a yellow haze of Spicebush flowers.  
Close examination of a Spicebush branch shows that the flower buds occur in pairs.
This helps with plant ID.

 All the new activity in the woods was not limited to the plants.  A small red speck racing along a a branch caught my attention.  It measured about 1/4 inch long and is 8 legged, like a spider.  Comparing images on a Google search for 'little red spider' led me to tentatively identify this as a Velvet Mite.  This is a predatory species feeding primarily on Arthropods.

This looks like it could be a Red Velvet Mite.  It moved very quickly for an insect so small.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Tree Rings

Our last winter storm (Feb 12th) just brought us a bunch of snow, but no damage to trees or structures.  That was not the case for the ice storm a just over a week before (Feb. 4-5).  Besides losing power for a couple of days we lost a number of trees in the surrounding woods.  Some were standing snags, but a number were live trees.  Also, a lot of branches fell out of the White Pines. 

While beautiful, the ice from this storm stuck to the trees and caused a lot of damage.

Last spring I used available branches
 to build tomato supports.
I've just started cleaning up the mess and am imagining what can be done with all this fallen trees and branches.  I have been setting aside some of the straighter pine limbs to use as vertical supports in the vegetable garden (tepees for beans and cucumbers and trellises for tomatoes).  I am leaving the pine boughs out now in hopes that the deer will eat them, rather than go after my Rhododendrons and Yews.

The Black Cherry with its scaly bark is on the left.
On the right is the Black Locust with deeply furrowed bark.
This Locust was more than 40' tall.
The main use for the fallen trees will be as firewood.  The fallen snags could be used this year, but the live trees will need to be cut and aged for at least a season to dry out.  One of the trees that came down was a  20-30 year old black cherry easily identified by its bark, the lenticels on the branches and the unpleasant  odor where the bark had been stripped off.  I needed to do a little reading to ID the other tree.  I assumed it was one of the many red oak trees here, but the branches had thorns on them. 

Thorns on Black Locust are paired up.  
That suggested some type of locust tree.  Turns out it is a Black (aka Yellow) Locust, Robinia pseudoacacia.  The bark is deeply furrowed and the smaller branches are armed with pairs of thorns.  The 'yellow' part of the common name became evident as I was using the chain saw.  The wood chips had a definite yellow color to them.

Black Locust is considered an invasive species in New England, but here in the Mountains of Maryland we are within its native range.  The trees are subject to wind throw (as happened here) and the wood is weak and brittle.  On the plus side it is very rot resistant, so the old branches could be good supports in the garden.  As the wood burns very hot,  it will also make good firewood.

This section of the truck was growing horizontally.  Note how far off-center the growth rings are.
The wood under the greater tension is more compact (top) compared to the bottom side.

This section taken from straight portion of the truck shows even growth.

As I sawed through the twisty parts of the upper leader I noticed how the growth rings were off center.  This reminded me of a talk given at New England Grows in 2012 by E. F. Gilman from the University of Florida on Advanced Pruning Strategies.  They had done studies on how different pruning methods would affect the mechanical stress on trees.  Check out this link to the work.  In that presentation he showed that wood under tension, known as reaction wood, has thicker cell walls and is denser than wood on the opposite side of a branch.  By comparison, the growth rings on the straight trunk are well centered and evenly sized.

Can you help me identify this tree?

I was not able to identify the dead tree that was knocked down.  It has light colored bark that is generally smooth, but cracked into smaller pieces.  The interior wood is evenly white and it was very easy to split. There were no smaller limbs remaining to see the branching pattern.  I welcome any suggestions as to what this might be.  I think there are additional specimens out there which I will check out once the snow melts.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

New Seeds for 2014

Since I have been focusing on buying more native perennials from local sources I have scaled back on the number of plants I am starting from seed.  I felt a little guilty about not starting any seeds, then remembered, what about native annuals.  There are quite a few annuals in the nursery trade with native parentage, but in general  finding seed for wild-type annuals can be a challenge. 

Most of the native-derived annuals are from the southern parts of North America, particularly the tropical regions.  The past few years I have mostly been using annuals with North American origins in pots on our deck.
Other than the Ivy Geraniums all these annuals have North American heritage:
Lantana camera, Melanopodium divaricatum, Zinnia 'Profusion' series, Salvia farinacea.

Last year I planted out some native annuals that are also found naturally in the Mid-Atlandtic region, Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) and American Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegiodes) as well as some short lived perennials Rudbeckia hirta and Monarda punctata which I started from seed.  I will be watching to see if these will reseed successfully.  What I like about the indigenous annuals is that if they find suitable conditions, they will reseed and fill in gaps in the garden and add spontaneity to the landscape that is lacking with plants that only spread vegetatively.

My first choice is to plant regionally native annuals and biennials.  If suited to the site, these plants will naturally spread to fill open gaps between shrubs and perennials.  My second choice is to use visually appealing annuals from tropical North America like Zinnias and Cosmos, that have a low risk of spreading out of control.  Some of these may reseed in protected locations, but they are unlikely to escape into the wild.  I avoid using North American annuals from other regions (or any plants for that matter) with a high risk of spreading.  You can identify many of those on the USDA Plants database by checking under the 'Legal Status' tab for a given plant.  An example is that California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ) is listed as an invasive weed in Tennessee.  You can also check the Invasive Plant Atlas.

I've sorted my North American annuals for this year into two groups, those native to or naturalized in Maryland and those not found growing naturally in Maryland.

Native annuals found in Maryland
Plains Coreopsis, Coreopsis tinctoria, is originally from the centrals plains but has escaped and is now found growing across most of the US.  It tolerates a range of soil conditions in full to part sunlight.  It is a good nectar source and is reportedly deer resistant!  The long blooming season (June-Sept.) of golden flowers with red centers makes it a good filler plant.  I have not grown this species before, but from what I've read it looks to be easy to grow. 

This Beach Sunflower grew to about 4 ft in a pot.
Beach Sunflower, Helianthus debilis 'Pan'  is native to coastal areas from Texas to North Carolina but has spread as far north as New England.  It would not be found growing naturally in mountainous part of Maryland where I am located.  This annual sunflower differs from the Common Sunflower (H. annuus) in that it is highly branched and, although the stems are long, at 5-7 feet, it tends bend over and weave into neighboring plants.  The branches are usually mottled with purple or white.  The flower is of the typical sunflower form, though smaller, measuring 2-4 inches across and blooming is from July into October.  It likes full sun and well drained soils.  As expected for the beach, this plant will tolerate salty soils.  It performed nicely for me in pots up in Boston.  This species likes warmer soil for germination which is more easily achieved in planter pots or a raised bed. 

These Sulfur Cosmos are competing
for space with some culinary mint.
Sulfur Cosmos, Cosmos sulphureus  is native to Northern and Central Mexico where it is found in open areas along roads and rivers, in forest openings and pastures.  It has escaped cultivation in the United States and populations have been found from Texas to New York and Connecticut and in California.  This species is listed in as a pest plant in Tennessee and Florida.  In my experience in Boston, this species will reseed itself for a couple of years, then fade out unless some new plants are brought in.  What I like about this Cosmos is that it comes into bloom very early in the summer and that it does not flop over as bad as Garden Cosmos, C. bipinnatus.

After blooming the flowers of this Sneezeweed turn white
and disappear into the foliage. These did reseed
 into the pot the following year.
Sneezeweed, Helenium amarum 'Dakota Gold' grows to about a foot in height and is covered with self-cleaning yellow flowers from early summer to frost.  It is originally a native of the Ozarks but has spread throughout the southeast and as far to the northeast as Massachusetts.  It tolerates dry soils and is also resistant to deer.  When I tried these a few years ago I had excellent germination without any pretreatment of the seed.  The small size and intensity of bloom make this a good candidate for the front edge of a border.

The native ranges of these next two plants actually include the Mid-Atlantic region.

Adlumia blooms from late June to frost.  The shiny black seeds
are easily collected by shaking the dried flowers on the vine.
Allegheny Vine, Adlumia fungosa  is a biennial vine, native to mountain woods of the American East.  I have blogged about this plant in the past.  It's one of my favorites.  This is a true biennial, the first year is spent as a tight rosette of finely divided leaves.  The second year the vine climbs about 10 feet and it blooms with pale pink dangling heart-shaped flowers.  The vine is rather delicate so it needs support and not too much sun.  I have lost some due to the wind causing the plant to twist.  In its native state it often climbs over rocks, rather than scaling trees.  

Miami Mist, Phacelia purshii, is a winter annual that is native to Mid-Atlantic states and lower Mid-West.  It has small, fringed lavender-colored flowers that bloom in spring.  As a winter annual, it needs to get its start in the fall, as temperatures cool and moisture increases.  From what I have read, the seed should be exposed to warm summer temperatures to break the seed dormancy.  So I will direct sow some of these in June and also put some outside in small pots where I can keep an eye on them.  They overwinter as a rosette of leaves, then put forth a flowering stalk the following spring.

North American Annuals Not Hardy in Maryland
These last three plants have not been found growing in the wild in Maryland.

These Bluebonnets were growing at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas.
I doubt I will have such good results in Maryland, but I'll try.
Texas Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis  is a Texas native and my wife's favorite flower.  I have tried these once before with limited success.  This is due at least in part to the very different growing conditions in the Northeast.  Besides soil composition, it takes much longer for the northern soils to warm up relative to Texas.  On doing a little more reading, I found that it is helpful to inoculate the seeds with the correct bacteria to help with nitrogen fixation.  I found that Prairie Moon Nursery offers a variety of  inoculum for different legumes in small packets at a reasonable price.  Also, the Bluebonnets are winter annuals, like the Phacelia above.  I will plant some seeds this spring, like regular annuals and I will hold some back for fall planting.  My concern is that our winters may be a bit too cold for them to survive.  Anyway, we have a little garden for Texas plants (south-facing, drier soils) and we'll see what happens. 

Spanish FlagIpomoea lobata, is an annual vine from Mexico that grows to 5-10 feet.  I found no records that show it to be self-sustaining in the contiguous US.  It produces racemes of tubular flowers in mid-to-late summer that change from red to orange and then white as they mature.  These flowers are favored by hummingbirds.  I've seen  this vine used to quickly cover a chain-link fence.  When starting from seed, scarification and presoaking in warm water is recommended.

Texas Sage blooms from late July to frost.
Texas or Hummingbird Sage, Salvia coccinea, is native to the southern states. But I've had it reseed in Boston for several years in protected locations. I've grown it successfully in both pots and in a raised bed.  I like the taller more open form of this red Salvia compared to the heavier dense blooms found on the commonly available annual Scarlet Sage, S. splendens.  

As I recall, bumble bees would get nectar by landing on the top of the flower and sticking their tongues into the calyx tube at the base of the flower.  It will be interesting to see how our hummingbirds approach this flower.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Native Plant Wish List for 2014

With a new planting season approaching I am planning on continuing my crusade to replace  the invasive species with native, mostly indigenous, plants.  I have another round of brush clearing to do this winter, especially the removal of some Autumn Olive tree/shrubs.  I am also looking to reduce the number of Butterfly bushes and Forsythia on the property and replace them with higher value native shrubs. 

Over Christmas I took the time to finish reading Designing Gardens with Flora of the American East, by Carolyn Summers.   The chapter on 'showy substitutes for invasive plants' was very inspirational in making up my plant list for this season.  This book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in designing native plant gardens.  There is sound reasoning behind each of the recommendations in this book.  I found this to be  much more useful than just a list of what should or should not be done when designing a garden or landscape.   To enhance the wildlife value of our property I am trying to  use a combination of plants that have something in bloom throughout the season for the pollinators as well as berries and fruits for the birds and small mammals.

Anyway, here's a list of my target plants for 2014:

Pussy Willow, Salix discolor.  I was surprised that this is a native species.  I is used so commonly in early spring decor that I figured it had to be imported.  The catkins swell in very early spring, first as white, silky buds, then opening to reveal either yellow (male) or greenish (female) flowers.  Pussy Willows are dioecous, male and female flowers are borne on separate plants.  My plan is to use the pussy willows as replacements for Forsythia.  The color intensity will be much less, but the wildlife value will be so much higher with the willow.  For all its flowers, I have seen very few bees visiting a forsythia in bloom.    Pussy Willows like full to part sun and prefer moist soils but will tolerate some dryness.  They are larval hosts for Viceroy and Mourning Cloak butterflies and they tolerate deer.  
I'm not sure of the exact species.  This photo is from the end of March in Boston.
I took this photo of a shrubby willow at the Arnold Arboretum about 5 years ago.  I did not record the name at the time.  As I was trying to find out more info about it, I went to the arboretum's web site and found that they have actually made an Internet accessible map of their plantings.  Using that map and my memory of where I took the photo, the willow in question is either the native Bebb's Willow, S. bebbiana, or an introduced Black Willow, S. gracilistyla 'Melanostachys'.  Based on the light color of the catkins, I guess that it's the former.

Another substitute for Forsythia is Spicebush, Lindera benzoin.  Its flowers impart a yellow haze to the forest understory about the same time as the Forsythia are in bloom.   It grows better in shadier situations than either Pussy Willow or Forsythia. 

For a partly shady area I would like to try replacing the Forsythia with Red Osier Dogwood, Cornus sericea.  This plant is in bloom from mid-late May and follows up with nutritious berries in mid-late summer.   Besides the flowers and fruits this dogwood also has purplish fall foliage and red-colored stems in winter, features definitely lacking in the one-trick pony, Forsythia.  Species plants can get large (6-10') but there are compact cultivars like 'Isanti' and 'Arctic Fire'.  A big problem with dogwood is that deer find most of the plant pretty tasty, but I have seen large plantings doing well along the roadsides.  This dogwood serves as the larval host for the Spring Azure butterfly.

This 'Isanti' cultivar is in full bloom at the end of May and should grow to about 6 feet.
Cutting back the older growth each year will keep the size down
and give more new red stems in the winter.

As far as replacing the Butterfly Bushes, Buddleia davidii, a multi-shrub approach may be needed.  Butterfly Bush has a long period of bloom and is very attractive to pollinators.  But it's like candy.  The plant does not act as a host for any native insects.  Thus, as it displaces native species, it excludes useful host plants, and degrades the habitat value of the garden.
The seed heads of Sumac make them easy to spot.  Not sure which species this is.
The stems of R. glabra are smooth, while those of R. typhina are hairy.
For the early part of the summer I am looking to Smooth Sumac, Rhus glabra.  This is also a common roadside plant, but not so common in the nursery trade.  It's chartreuse panicles do not stand out to humans, but they do to butterflies.  What is most noticeable in this shrub is the scarlet fall foliage and the deep red berries through the fall and winter.  It grows to about 15 feet, similar to many of the mature butterfly bushes around here. The larvae of the Hairstreak butterfly use Sumac as host plants.

For  the second part of the season I will put in some American Elder, Sambucas nigra ssp. canadensis (often S. canadensis).  American Elder likes medium to moist soils and part to full sunshine.  I have seen this growing in roadside ditches covered  with white umbels in the middle of summer.  Dark, palatable berries follow in early fall.   This shrub does not have a neat compact form, but neither do most forms of Butterfly Bush.  I am somewhat concerned about deer browsing on the young plants, so some protection will be needed. 

This native Spiraea blooms throughout the summer
and is a magnet for bees.

Other shrubs that provide mid and late summer flowers which  I put in last year include dense St. John's Wort, Hypericum densiflorum, and Meadowsweet, Spiraea alba var. latifolia (this one blooms all summer long).

In the areas where I have cut down the Autumn Olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, I am looking for native plants to provide lots of mid-summer  flowers, a large crop of fruits, and fairly dense branching to provide cover for birds.  Cockspur Hawthorn, Crataegus crus-galli, looks to be a good fit.  It blooms through mid-June and has lots of berries from late summer into winter.  It has dense horizontal branching and long thorn that provide a lot of protection for birds.  (For use closer to people there is a naturally thornless variety, var. inermis.

I would also consider Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, while blooming earlier, it is faster growing and has fewer disease problems.  Chokecherry lacks the thorns of Hawthorn, but can form a thicket-like colony.  Looking in Douglas Tallamy's book Bringing Nature Home,  the cherries are near the top of the list as far as their ability to support butterfly species.  Hawthorns come in 12th, both way ahead of an invasive species like Elaeagnus. 

'Blue Muffin' is noted for it's sapphire berries,
as long as there is another Arrowwood around for pollination.
The other shrub that I will be putting in place of the olives is Arrowwood Viburnum, Viburnum dentatum.   These bloom in late May through mid-June and produce dark blue berries from late summer through autumn.  As I have mentioned before in this blog, Viburnums are self-sterile, so you need to have more than one genetic individual of each species to get berries.  Fortunately a local nursery is offering seed grown, wild-type plants so I won't have to worry about self incompatibility.  Wild-type Viburnums can get too large for many landscaping situations.  There are a number of more compact cultivars for garden use, such as the 'Blue Muffin' (aka 'Christom') shown here.  Together the Viburnums and the Hawthorn or Chokecherry will provide a nice edge habitat for with both food and shelter for wildlife.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Making a Holiday Swag

The past two years we have passed over the circular evergreen wreathes at the garden center and opted for something home made.  We thought about making our own wreath using a wire form.  But this requires a lot of careful weaving and/or wiring the evergreen boughs to the form.  Instead we have been making swags.

These are essentially a bundle of greens and other decorative items tied together at one end and hung on a door or wall.  The hard work is getting the pieces to stay in place.  The fun part is going out in nature to gather the parts for your swag.  As a matter of courtesy, you should not harvest cuttings from your neighbor's lands without permission.

The composition of the swag is entirely up to you.  I usually make a background of evergreens that are tied together at one end.  Then I tie in other interesting items, singly or in bunches.

Step One:  Get out into Nature.  We actually did not find a lot of interesting flowers in the woods themselves.  Most of the neat things were growing along the edges and in the meadows.  We did find some invasive barberry in the woods.  While I cringed a little when I collected them, I make a point of bagging these and putting in the trash when I 'm done with them.  At least these seeds aren’t being spread around in the woods.

We started in the woods, but found a lot more stuff along the edges.

Step Two:  Pick a variety of interesting things.  This includes dried flowers, seed heads and pods, grasses as well as the obligatory evergreens.  Bags with wide openings and non-snagging insides are easier to fill and empty.    I like to feature native plants, but for this project I look for almost anything interesting.

Some things we collected are  (from left) White Vervain, White Pine, Tree Peony, Sweet Everlasting, Rose of Sharon, Thistle, Foxtails, a Wineberry stem, Oakleaf Hydrangea and Yew branches. 

Some examples of common plants that you can use in a swag are listed below.  I grouped these into
  • Evergreens, like Pine, Spruce, Juniper, Fir, and Thuja
  • Broad Leaf Evergreens, like Rhododendron, Mountain Laurel, Boxwood, Photina, and Hollies
  • Berries such as Hollies, Aronia, Dogwood, Crabapples, Bayberry, Rose hips, and Cotoneasters as well as invasives like Barberry and Bittersweet (unless you have the native one).    
  • Dried flowers/seed heads, like Everlastings (pearly and sweet*), White Vervain, Asters, Goldenrods, Thistles, Agastache, Ironweed, Hydrangea, Dock, Lunaria, Coneflowers, Teasel, Pennyroyal*, and Beebalm.*
  • Seed Pods, like Baptisia, Tree Peony, Lotus pods, Sumac, Pine cones and Milkweeds.
  • Grasses such as Little Blue Stem, Panic grass, Dropseed, Riveroats, and Foxtails.
  • Ferns with interesting winter structures include Ostrich, Sensitive Fern.
  • Interesting stems like Red Raspberry stems, Red Twig Dogwood, grape vines, and crooked branches from Witchhazel and Fothergilla.
You could also use persistent leaves like those of Oaks and Beech trees.  You can get some unusual textures by using interesting stems.  A recent post at 'My Weeds are Very Sorry' shows many of these plants in a well made wildlife garden.

*Some of these have an aromatic aroma that adds another dimension to the swag.

Step Three:  Clear a work Surface.  You will make a mess with seeds and leaves flying around.  Also, all these things will stick together so the more space the better to keep the pieces from snagging.

Cover the work surface with paper.  Besides seeds you will want
to contain any sap from the evergreens.  
Also its handy to have a trash can ready for all the extra stems and what not.  When we were done most of the debris was still on the newspapers so we just folded them carefully and poured the mess into the trash.

Step Four:  Assemble

It's a good idea to wear a glove or two when handling some of these materials.
Even with the gloves we decided the thistle and raspberry stems were too difficult to work with.
We had a lot of other stuff to work with anyway.
Assembly is the creative part.  We usually use steel or copper wire to tie the pieces together. These are stiff enough to push through the bundles of stems.  You could also use fishing line if you need an invisible tie.  Don't use your pruners to cut the wire, you could ruin the edge.  Use wire cutters or pliers instead.

As I mentioned, I usually assemble a bunch of evergreens as a background.  These can be a mixture of textures (e.g. juniper, pine and yew) or all one type.  Then I add layers of of other materials to add color and form.  I finished off with decorative pieces to hide the wire where the bundle is tied together.

Finally, hang it up and admire your work:

This swag features evergreen holly, spruce cones, ostrich fern, barberry,
and oakleaf hydrangea over layers of pine, yew and little bluestem grass.

When its time to take your swag down most of it can be composted or used as a winter mulch.  If you used any invasive plant materials like barberries or bittersweet, separate those out and put them in the trash so they won't end up back in nature.

This swag starts with tree peony pods, evergreen holly, oakleaf hydrangea,
foxtails and sweet everlasting over a spray of Norway Spruce.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Finding a Mate for My Plants

Berries of Winterberry Holly persist into well into winter
 when they provide late season food for birds.

Shortly after we moved into to our new place I identified a nice looking Winterberry Holly (Ilex verticillata) growing near the front door.  It was mid fall and I didn't see any berries on the shrub.  This meant that either it was a male plant or that there were no compatible males within 100 feet to provide pollen.  The bright red berries of Winterberry are its main ornamental and ecological feature. 

Female flowers have a large central ovary surrounded by undeveloped
stamen-like structures (lacking anthers).  This plant was blooming in early June.

I had to wait until the following June to get a good look at the flowers.  After careful examination it turned out that this plant was in fact a female.  The solution was to find a suitable mate, that is one with a similar bloom time.  I found a male cultivar at a nearby nursery called ‘Jim Dandy’.  I sat him next to the established female for a few days while I located a nearby spot to plant him.  

Male flowers have well developed stamen and a very small ovary-like center.
The male plant seemed to attract smaller sized insects.

By September I noticed a few of red berries on the plant.  Success!  I hope to see more berries next year as there will be a much longer time for pollination to occur. 

These red berries were formed by mid-August.  

One of my goals in designing a landscape is its habitat value.  That is, what does the landscape gives back to wildlife in the form of food and shelter.  So when I select plants I look for ones that produce flowers, fruits and/or seeds that wildlife can use.  When selecting plants from a commercial nursery many of them are cultivars, which are genetically identical.  This becomes an issue in the habitat garden if the plants are single sexed (dioecious).  It is also a problem for plants that have both male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious) or have perfect flowers (both male and female parts in the same flower) if the plants are not self fertile. 

All this plant fertility can have a down side.  In a formal garden production of viable fruits and seeds may lead to increased weeding and spreading of plants out of their designed boundaries.  Also, some consider that the mess that falling fruits create outweighs providing food for birds and other wildlife.  Personally I think of the landscape as a dynamic thing that changes over time.  In the designed landscape plants need to be kept under some degree of control, but I really enjoy seeing native species spreading to new areas where they are happier than in my initial design.

Here are the flowers of a female persimmon.  They have large ovary structures.
Male flowers are narrow at the base.
My experience with the Winterberry Holly has heightened my awareness of dioecious plants.  I want to generate as much natural food for wildlife as possible.  Also I would like to grow some ‘wild’ fruits and berries.  Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana) are dioecious.  My established persimmon is a female, but I have not seen any fruit on it.  I have brought in four more new wild-type plants, at least one of these should be male.  I don’t know of any named male cultivars of persimmon; however there is one called ‘Meader’ that is self-fertile. 

In general female plants need at least one pollen source (male) close enough that pollen can be transferred.  This transfer can be by wind (grasses and many trees) or by insects (vectors) most flowering plants.  For native hollies, like Winterberry, a male should be located with in 50 ft for effective pollination, though pollination over greater distances (100-200 ft) may be possible. 

Female Box Elders are covered with seed pods (samara) in the fall.
I noticed some squirrels eating them right off the tree.

Some other dioecious plants that I have are Box Elders (Acer negundo), Junipers, Tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica), Yews and Goatsbeard (Aruncus diocus). 

Some plants with perfect flowers are not self-fertile.  This may not be convenient for a habitat gardener with limited space for lots of plants. However, it works out on the larger scale to provide the greater genetic diversity adaptation to change and continuation of the species.  I have posted a number of times about the difficulty of getting Viburnums to bear fruit when only a single cultivar was planted.

There are some practical situations where limiting plant fertility and reproduction is called for.  In urban landscapes Ginkgos are very successful street trees.  The fruits, however, are loaded with butyric acid and smell of dog poo when stepped on.  For this reason most cultivars in the trade are males.  In my last post about Jerusalem Artichokes I noted that these are not self-fertile.  By only using only a single cultivar one limits the risk that this somewhat aggressive native will spread by seed. 

Another issue for some in urban and suburban landscapes is pollen allergies.  In many cases these are due to the (over) use of male cultivars.  Males don’t produce messy fruits, but they still send out their pollen.  This results in a type of air pollution that effects sensitive individuals.  While searching for information about dioecious plants I came across an excellent resource book by Thomas Ogren titled Allergy-Free Gardening.  This book contains a lengthy list of dioecous plants and the sex of individual cultivars.  There is also an allergy rating for a wide variety plants including monoecious plants and those with perfect flowers.  I did not realize that many maples, such as Red and Silver Maples, came as separate male and female plants.  Since I am more interested in facilitating plant fertility for enhancing habitat value I see using this book differently than the author intended.  But, if I had a client with particular allergy problems this book would be an excellent resource for plant selection to design a low-allergen garden.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Fall's First Fruits

We are finally getting some frosty weather here in Knoxville, MD.  That was a signal to take in our first harvest of Jerusalem artichokes.  The flavor of the tubers is supposed to be improved by a little cold weather.  I wasn't sure how many to expect.  From what I've read, yields are high and it is important to dig out all of the tubers; otherwise the plants will spread throughout the garden.

View to South Mountain from the southern end of Pleasant Valley in Maryland in early November.
Foliage is about a week past peak.
A mass of 4 Helianthus tuberosus
'Stampede' in mid-September.  

I selected the cultivar called 'Stampede' (from Oikos) because the tubers stay close to the base of the plant making them easier to harvest.  This was generally the case, however there were a few longer runners with large tubers at the far end.  While this cultivar was supposed to be early maturing, it did not begin to bloom until late summer, a bit later than I expected.  The plants grew to about 12 feet in height.  They were holding themselves up OK until a big storm hit in early October.

As you can see in the photo the yield of tubers from the four plants gave me a wheelbarrow full, well over 20 pounds.  Now we need to find some recipes for how to prepare them.  One caution about these tubers is that the form of starch in them is inulin.  This is not easily digestible by most people, resulting in some gastro-intestinal discomfort (to be discreet).  One article suggested eating small amounts of them at first to help your digestive system adjust.  This is a warning not to serve heaping portion at a dinner party to uninitiated guests.

These tubers will keep for about 3 months if stored in a cool dry location.
We need to find some ways to prepare them soon,
or at least some folks will to take them off our hands.

I've eaten a few slices raw and am surviving.  The taste is slightly sweet and refreshing.  They are crispy like jicama, but much more flavorful.  Soaking them in vinegar keeps them from turning brown like a potato.

As I mentioned above, keeping these plants under control is a concern for the gardener.  They are large and prolific plants that can take over if they escape.  There are a number of things that can be done to control there spread in and around the garden.

First, as already mentioned, harvest all the tubers each year to reduce the number of plants in the ground. Don't allow bits of the tubers to be spread while tilling the soil. Second, Helianthus species are generally not self-fertile.  So if you only have one cultivar (clone) and there are no wild plants growing nearby, you will not get any fertile seeds.  If you do have potential mates, cutting off the flowers before they set seed is the way to go.  Lastly, the deer around here really like to eat the stems and leaves of Jerusalem Artichoke.  I planted a few tubers outside of the garden enclosure and these never got taller than about 8 inches due to deer browsing on the young shoots.  After the deer broke into the garden, they ate all the leaves up as far as they could reach.  So I would expect any plants that escaped the garden to fall to a similar fate.

These seeds from 'Stampede' are really  hollow husks.
If they were viable, the entire seed would be full and firm.
Some other fall vegetables that I hope to harvest soon are from my Collards and Swiss Chard.  These are plants that I started in the spring.  They have survived the beetles and a deer attack and are now putting out some fresh leaves.