Friday, October 10, 2014

Plants on the Offensive! by Tina Clinefelter

Most of us grow plants that we consider to be either delicious or beautiful, or at least, useful in some way. Following is a selection of Mother Nature’s more dubious gifts – some well-known and some that intend to become that way…

Let’s begin with what my field guide describes as one of the most troublesome weeds in the whole world – bindweed – sometimes called convolvulus or morningglory. Blessed is the gardener who does NOT have a problem with this vigorous, climbing perennial bad-boy. Its most splendid property is the ability to regenerate from the teeniest-tiny speck of root left in the soil after 99% successful eradication efforts. Constant vigilance is the gardener’s best defense!

Another plant that seems to be on the increase is pokeweed. It is happy in the hedgerow and field borders, but birds help to introduce it to the home garden, notably the Gray Catbird, Cardinal, Brown Thrasher and the Mockingbird. Thanks to them we now can enjoy a plant that grows upwards of 6 feet tall with roots down to China any part of which can re-shoot after being cut to the ground or dying back in winter. All parts of pokeweed are poisonous – berries the least, leaves and stems more so and the roots the most toxic; the sap can also cause a contact dermatitis so wear gloves if handling this imposing weed. Giant Hogweed is another dangerous plant that should never be tolerated in the home landscape – brochures on the special gifts of Hogweed can be obtained from the Extension Office and will be included in other articles at a later date.
Earlier this week I had a nasty encounter with the fruits of Burcucumber, a viny annual weed that is becoming more and more widespread each year clambering rampantly over anything in its path. The encounter was nasty because I forgot the inference of the ‘bur’ in the name. The tiny barbed hairs on the fruit went through my gloves, into my skin, and had to be picked off individually. The gloves were pitched into the trash! My skin still itches. This reminded me of attempts to grow Prickly pear cactus – gorgeous flowers but with tiny barbed hairs called ‘glochids’ that penetrate the skin in a similar manner. Some plant are downright vicious!
This brings me to today’s ‘piece de resistance’ a ‘fairly-new-to-this-area’ noxious weed called mile-a-minute weed. This is a summer annual vine on steroids; don’t stand still in front of it – it will grow right over your head, or a shrub, or a tree, or a house – the kudzu of the north! To add to the talents of this plant we need look no further than checking out its other common name – ‘tear-thumb’! Every stem is adorned with reflexed prickles that will certainly get your attention if you grab a hand-full! As mentioned, this is a noxious weed (state and federal) and as such should not be propagated, transported, sold and planted, but actively eradicated with all enthusiasm. I understand that pre-emergents applied in the spring are somewhat effective, and there are some insects that will dine upon it, but it may come to slash and burn tactics to make any impression at all!
Well, space is running out and we never got to poison ivy or stinging nettles. I guess I’ll leave these for later; that’s enough doom and gloom for one day!

I just want to remind you to keep watering your shrubs before winter sets in. We have been terribly dry lately and these plants need to go into dormancy well hydrated. They typically need an inch of water a week and Mother Nature sure has been a bit stingy with the rain-drops…keep falling on my head…ear-worm!

…For What it’s Worth…Folklore, by Tina Clinefelter

While driving home this afternoon I had to make a U-turn (only slightly illegally) and go back for a photo of the black-faced hornets’ nest so conveniently located on the side of the road within easy reach. According to folk-lore, the close-to-the-ground nest indicates a stormy winter ahead – the wise wasps ‘know’ to build at a safe height to prevent wind damage but as the nest will be empty by winter it is more of an indicator of weather past than future. Yes indeed, we had some blustery days this past summer and we are probably due for some more when the infamous ‘polar vortex’ unleashes its Arctic air over the Commonwealth. Here are some more examples of weather prognostications to watch for as fall progresses.

Let’s begin with everyone’s favorite – the woolly bear (or woolly worm); this is the caterpillar of the Isabella tiger moth and it can be seen scurrying across the lawn or across the road looking for a nice warm, protected place to over-winter. Next spring it will complete its life cycle and become a moth, but this fall we anxiously check out the width of the brown band around the caterpillar’s middle to determine the harshness (or lack of it) of this coming winter. A wide band assures us that the winter will be mild…A college-type gentleman spent some time studying this phenomenon and declared with tongue firmly in cheek that it was correct 80% of the time! The test results were never replicated.

On a more mundane level, onion-skins are said to be thicker when the upcoming winter will be very cold; squirrels are much more active in their nut-gathering forays; pigs gather leaves and straw – huh? I cannot attest to this but I read it on the Internet so it must be true…When moles dig down to 2.5 feet the weather will be excruciatingly cold; if they only dig to 2 feet it will be merely cold, and if they only manage 1 foot of depth – put away the snow shovel and the woolly underwear. Does anyone believe this stuff?

Here’s something a lot more scientific – cut a persimmon seed lengthwise – if a spoon-shaped pattern is seen we will have a heavy, wet, snowy winter; if a knife-shape is seen we will have cutting winds (should’ve seen that one coming), and a fork-shape predicts a mild season. Just be sure the persimmon is locally-grown, or the prediction may be off a little.

Getting back to some things we may have some control over, fall clean-up is approaching and decisions need to be made about whether to be neat and tidy over the winter or leave it until spring. Cleaning up and disposing of all diseased plant material is a given, but maybe leaving some flower seed-heads and stalks would provide food and shelter for some of our wild-life. I know it will provide some volunteers for next year as most of my marigolds and celosias are gifts from last year’s plants. Chopping fall leaves and top-dressing the garden beds with a thick blanket is the nicest way to put things to sleep for the winter months.
Incidentally, if rabbits are seen to be fat in October and November we are in for a long, cold winter – but I know it’s only because they dined too well on my lettuce!

Fine Fennel: by Tina Clinefelter

Up until about an hour ago what I knew about fennel could be written on the head of a pin with enough room to add the Encyclopedia Britannica. I thought it was a vegetable along the lines of a kohlrabi and that’s not far wrong, but it is also regarded as an herb with both culinary and medicinal uses.

We’ll begin with the Romans (as usual) who ate the stems as a vegetable, but used it medically to treat a couple of dozen complaints according to Pliny the Elder; the Greek physician Hippocrates was fond of recommending fennel to stimulate the production of breast milk, but mostly throughout history fennel’s best attribute has been the settling of gastric disorders including colic in babies (think ‘gripe water’). On occasion it has been used to fend off witches and gained a reputation for helping to curb hunger pangs in those who needed to lose a few pounds- (William Coles,17th century botanical writer, reported that it helped the unwieldy to become gaunt and lank!) Some of these properties are still employed today in modern herbal medicine, especially the ones pertaining to breast milk production in nursing mothers, stomach disorders and skin disorders such as conjunctivitis.

This powerhouse cousin of celery is an excellent source of vitamin C and dietary fiber, plus packing a punch of potassium, molybdenum, manganese, copper, phosphorus, folate, calcium, pantothenic acid, magnesium, iron and niacin! Kinda makes you want to throw away all your multi-vitamins and dash out to buy fennel, doesn’t it? Well now is a good time as it’s best available in fall to early spring.

And what to do with it when you have purchased it? Use the base (bulb) sliced, diced, julienned, and raw or sautéed, baked, grilled or braised; use the leaves minced as an herb topping, and add the stalks to soups and stocks. The seeds should be stored in the refrigerator to maintain the maximum freshness and flavor, and that brings us to the flavor…

Anise (licorice) but very mild and light – it goes well with fish, stir-fry and rice. Sautéed fennel and onions makes a nice side-dish; add a slice of raw fennel to a sandwich with lettuce and tomato, and a salad of thinly sliced fennel with avocados and oranges makes a stimulating change of pace. Do I have you convinced yet?

Here’s how to make an appetite suppressing, before meal drink: pour 1 cup of boiling water over 1 tsp. crushed fennel seeds; cover and steep for 5 minutes; strain and add a slice of orange; cool and drink.
Now, if you wish to grow-your-own, fennel is easy to grow from seed in well-drained sandy soil in full sun. It does not like clay soils, and requires plenty of water to swell the bulb to cooking proportions. It can grow to 6’ tall with lovely feathery foliage and yellow flowers. The seeds are harvested in fall.

After all this research I must admit though, the only food tasting of anise that will pass these lips is Basset’s Licorice All-Sorts, except the pimply ones – I don’t like the pimply ones…

Funky Fungus: by Tina Clinefelter

Where in the great scheme of things does the malodorous mushroom called an elegant stinkhorn perform a useful function, you may ask? It is not edible or decorative and not poisonous (although it may cause an upset tummy if anyone were brave (stupid) enough to introduce one into the digestive tract), but current damp weather conditions and the time of year (late summer/early fall) have caused multiple eruptions of devil’s dipsticks to appear in my mulch. Great for photo ops, but what else?

After a certain amount of Googling and perusing various mushrooming books it appears that this fungus has not been studied greatly and, as it is inedible, rarely included in identification guides except in passing. Here’s what I know:
• Stinkhorns are saprophytes – they obtain nutrition from woody plant material (mulch).
• In appearance stinkhorns resemble a wet, slimy orange finger topped with a black cap – and that’s as descriptive as I’m going to get…
• Their fragrance is of rotting meat to attract the flies that help spread the spores after feeding on the flesh of the ‘shroom.
• Reputed to be poisonous to dogs, but I found no evidence this is true except for the abovementioned upset stomach.
• The botanical name for the stinkhorn is Mutinus elegans which makes me think the taxonomists were smoking other fungi prior to naming this one, as there is nothing elegant about this ugly duckling.
• Fungus gnats are among the types of flies attracted to stinkhorns.

If eradication of stinkhorns is on your work agenda, it is recommended to either pull them out or knock them over – but by waiting a day or two they generally dry up and die of their own accord. Suggestions of using bleach, salt or Listerine to wage war will result in sterilized soil – not the desired effect I assume!
On the plus side (and there usually is one if one looks hard enough) saprophytes help to decompose wood and in doing so add nutrients to the soil; they are also good for demonstration purposes and to add another item to your unusual fungus file – along with the dog-vomit fungus (another truly descriptive oddity).

In closing, I want to share a story about Charles Darwin’s daughter, Etty, who had a bee in her bonnet about stinkhorns. She is reported to have diligently gathered and burned every stinkhorn in her neck of the woods to protect the morals of the local maids – I’ll leave you to figure the reason why…