The good, the bad, and the ugly. A reply.

Ginny Stibolt of the Florida Native Plant Society recently posted Native Plant Issues: The good, the bad and the ugly, featuring me as the ugly.  I posted a reply on her post, which I include here.  To keep things in context, I encourage you to read her post first.

Enjoy your weekend!

Hi Ginny:

Some comments and a few points of clarification.

On the first item, as a Federal agency the USDA is bound by the Executive Order on Invasive Species which defines natives as species that occur in an ecosystem “other than as a result of an introduction”.  I suspect they tried to simplify the language for the National Planting day release when they substituted ‘naturally occurring’.

On the Arbor Day Foundation, I am fairly certain they use contract nurseries in various locations for their tree sales.  In any event, they have plenty of trained foresters on their staff that understand the importance of provenance and they would not send trees from northern seed sources to Florida or vice versa.  But I certainly can’t fault the idea of supporting the Arbor Foundation, declining their trees, and buying trees from a local nursery.

On the Google + Hangout discussion no one was ‘booted off’.  These were straight and simple technical issues.  If people watch the Youtube video, the audio sounds like Neil Armstrong on the moon.  This is a new technology for most of us and we are dealing with some growing pains.  I would have much preferred even numbers on each side.  Having an imbalanced debate can work against the majority, too.  As Wilt Chamberlain famously observed, “Nobody roots for Goliath.”  That said, we did have a lively and cordial debate and I hope people will bear with the grainy images and tinny audio and take a look.

Kentucky coffeetree

I haven’t watched the video but I don’t think I said there were no natives that could be used as street trees here in Michigan.  If I did, I misspoke.  That might be true for Linda in the Northwest – if you look at the native tree list for King county you’d be hard pressed to find anything that could be recommended in good conscience as a street tree.  We have a few more options here in Michigan.  If we were looking for a street tree for Lansing or Detroit the list could include hackberry, honeylocust, Kentucky coffeetree, tulip poplar, swamp white oak, and red maple.  But even this list makes urban foresters cringe because they think red maples are already over-planted, tulip poplar is weak-wooded, and hackberry is difficult to transplant.  With regards to Mary Wilson’s comments, there is a distinction between street trees and landscape trees.  Landscape trees could be anywhere on a residential or commercial landscape where they could receive irrigation or other care so there is broader list, in contrast to street trees found on street sides in tree lawns or tree pits.  Street trees are subject to the ‘worst of the worst’ in terms of environmental conditions; minimal rooting volume, compacted soils, road salt, and reflected heat load; but they provided the ‘biggest bang’ in ecosystem services, especially cooling buildings and sidewalks.

Swamp white oak

This has been an interesting discussion and clearly I have touched a nerve.  I have to confess I have never been vilified so much in my life, which has been a little discomforting but also strangely flattering.  When I met with Jeff and Linda earlier this week Jeff commented, “Wow, I’ve never been able to sit across the table from the devil incarnate before!”  Fortunately, I work in academia where we spend most of our days telling one another how stupid the other is.  People that seek to avoid criticism generally don’t do well in this line of work.  Peer review forces us to critically examine our statements and sharpen our arguments.  I was pleased and gratified to see some of the changes proposed for FNPS website and literature – why leave ‘low hanging fruit’ around for critics?  While I didn’t appreciate some the comments made about me, if I’ve caused this group and others to strengthen their arguments and re-examine some of their assertions regarding natives, then the slings and arrows I’ve taken these past couple weeks haven’t been in vain.

Poisoned bird seed and trust

Over the years I’ve said some nice things about Scotts Miracle-gro products, such as one of their potting soils, and some not so nice things, such as with their Round-up resistant Kentucky bluegrass. I’ve never thought of them as a particularly good or particularly bad company, just a company trying to do the best it could while being reasonably honest about what it was doing (You could argue that they tried to pull something fancy with the Round-up resistant Kentucky bluegrass, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and say they were just exploiting an obvious governments loophole – not exactly good, but hey, it’s a dog eat dog world out there).

But then the news broke that they had applied insecticides illegally to their wild bird food products, falsified pesticide regulation documents, distributed pesticides with misleading and unapproved labels and distributed unregistered pesticides.  If you haven’t seen the article yet you need to look here.


Anyone who has read much of what I write knows that I try to tell the truth about products to the best of my ability, to do this I rely on a lot of different sources of information, including information provided by the company itself.  I trust that, for the most part, companies try to do what they say they’re doing (or not doing) in terms of letting us know what’s in their products.  At the least I assume that they follow the government’s rules and regulations.

This is a serious breach of my trust.

How am I supposed to deliver the facts about Scotts Miracle-Gro products when I can’t trust them to do what they say they’re doing?

I mean really?  How can I talk about their products again?  I have no idea what’s in there.

I’m trying to think of something pithy to say next – but I’ve got nothing.  I’m deeply disturbed that this could happen, and, at least for the time being, I just can’t, in good conscience, trust this company or its products.   Sure, the company is saying all the right things now, but that’s not enough.

Here’s a thought – maybe they could publicly state that they’re not going to release the Round-up resistant Kentucky bluegrass – you know – to prove that they really are serious about avoiding doing things that might disturb the environment.  And then actually do it.  Yes – that would be a good start.

A plant riddle for you

This week Jeff, Bert and I are brainstorming new and exciting ways that The Garden Professors can invade…I mean integrate into…the gardening world. (We’re channeling Holly, who had a conflict with another even this week.)  We’ll leave discussion of the particulars for another day.  But that’s my segue into my text-short but picture-perfect invasive plant story.

Earlier this spring I was in Palm Desert and spotted a large clumb of purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) in a landscape:

So here is the riddle: Why did the fountain grass cross the road?

To get to the other side.

Wandering in the Woods

This past week a friend of mine, Carol Reese, an Extension Specialist at the University of Tennessee (and one of my favorite speakers), told me that she’d like to post a little something about natives.  I said sure, no problem, just send it along.  And she did.  But before posting it sometime next week, I thought I’d post another article that she sent along — one that isn’t quite so sciency and which will let you get to know Carol before you hear what she has to say about natives.

As a side note — Carol was bitten by a copperhead in the foot this past year — had to be given 10 units of anti-venom.  From what she’s told me she has recovered to almost 100%.

Wandering in the Woods

by Carol Reese

Every morning at dawn, my dog Junebug jumps on the bed and approaches my sleeping form.  My eyes slit open to see her just inches away, staring intently at my face. The instant we meet eyes, she bounds happily off the bed and runs around the bedroom, loudly rousting the rest of the dogs, who thump their tails, stretch, yawn, and come to the edge of the bed to see if Junebug is telling the truth about me being awake.  I’m allowed one quick cup of microwave coffee, though the flapping of the dog door drives me crazy as they run in and out staring at me impatiently.  Why they won’t go on without me isn’t fully understood, but for some reason, they want their slow two footed friend to go, too.
I live on an old farm, and though it’s not mine, I feel as though I’m kin to this land.  I am, I guess, since, if I were to fall and molder into this ground, my flesh would be recycled into the plants and the animals that feed on them.  That thought makes me comfortable most anywhere, but here, there’s more to make me feel at home. Old farms like this have a lingering sense of long-gone eras and of the people who lived here before.  The old Ford Jubilee tractor still sits in an outbuilding, looking identical to the one on the farm in Mississippi where I was raised.  Predating that, is a large horse collar hanging in the old barn. The kinfolks tell me it was worn by a Percheron, used for pulling logs from the woods.  I imagine the old days, the big horse comfortable in the rolling green pasture, woods for shade, and a lake for drinking.
The dogs and I are drenched by dew these spring mornings. The woodland phlox are almost finished blooming along the edge of the woods, and the bearded tongue (Penstemon) is just beginning to peak. Wild azaleas and dogwood were blooming earlier, but now it’s the bell-like clusters of the tree huckleberry, the tallest member of the blueberry family.  The many native ferns are hitting their glory days, and along a sunny creek bank, I come across American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens) and a native clematis (Clematis crispa) This clematis will have wiry blue hanging blooms with four pointed petals that curl back like a rolled up hat brim.  Further, in a sunny field, I find oxeye daisies and coreopsis.  Though the milkweed and butterfly weed is not blooming yet, I see two monarchs cartwheel among them.  Looks like butterfly hanky panky to me, and I will look
here later in the summer for the bold striped monarch caterpillars that feed on those species.. 
Grinch, my little schnauzer mix, suddenly arches high up off the ground and comes down with both front paws in perfect diving form.  Dirt sprays as she digs ferociously at the ground where a mole made the earth bulge.  Nearby, I notice several clumps of foliage that were covered with little light pink striped flowers earlier this spring.  It’s Claytonia virginica, or spring beauty. With a sharp stick, I pry up the tuber beneath the foliage.  It’s one of the wild foods that I find pretty good, either raw or cooked, tasting to me like a cross between water chestnut and boiled peanut. (My brother says they taste like dirt to him!) The dogs assume I must know something they don’t, like the whereabouts of the mole, so they jostle up next to me, ears pricked. A couple of them are willing to help me dig, but don’t take offense when I refuse the offer. I get a pocket full
and we ramble on to more important business. There’s a blue grosbeak nest I’m keeping free of cow bird eggs.
The dogs’ tails sink with disappointment when I turn back, except for the old ones, who have taken to plodding along behind me instead of ranging as they did in years past.  One day I’ll have to bury them and let their bodies enrich the meadows they so enjoyed exploring.  Another day in the future, some other person will walk this farm and rediscover the pleasures in these fields. It’s a kind of immortality, isn’t it?


So that’s why they’re called blister beetles…

I’ve had several discussions with gardening folks in the region on one of our more annoying pests, the blister beetles.  Big appetite, eats lots of things we value, and darned hard to get rid of.  Someone invariable says “yep, they bite, too” and “be careful – you’ll get blistered.” However, I’ve yet to hear any first-hand experience with the personal-injury aspect of blister beetles.

I’ve suffered from the heartbreak of blister beetles for two summers in a row.  They’ve eaten ALL the foliage from the fall-blooming Anemone (leaving flowers on a steeck), badly damaged our chard and lettuce, and have turned their attention to the sweet-autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora).

Perp: Epicauta funebris (Margined Blister Beetle) – chock full of Cantharidin, a caustic terpenoid.

With nothing left but a mountain of bare stems, skeletonized leaves, and the occasional flower, the clematis was not adding to the general aesthetics of our home garden (unlike the 7′ tall poke weeds -whoops).  I began gingerly pulling the bazillion vines off the fence, but then thought of you (yes, you).  So what if one bit me or did whatever it does to cause a blister?   I could then speak authoritatively instead of “I heard…”

I went at the vines with gusto, gray and black beetles a-flying.  Sure enough, I mushed one against my arm in gathering up the vines toss in the cart.

Ouch.  First, a burning sensation.  Success! Then I watched with fascination as a bunch of welts popped out, at which point I ran and got my camera. The discomfort persisted through a couple of hours and a glass of wine. But by bedtime, my blisters were gone. No scars remain.

Oooh, lovely!

So there you have it. Yet another example of the things Garden Professors do – so you don’t have to!

One solution to invasive species – assisted succession

For a couple of weeks now we’ve had some animated discussions on introduced plants (invasive or otherwise) and native species.  One of our commenters wondered whether many introduced invasives (those that take advantage of disturbed conditions) would eventually become controlled through succession (which in our part of the country means land dominated by trees and shrubs). And yes, if native species can get a foothold in an infested site, invasive species become less dominant.

To illustrate, I’ll take you on a virtual trip in our neighborhood’s pocket wetland.  In 2000, this tiny triangle was dominated by reed canary grass (RCG) and had been for years; a few blackberries, cattails and nightshade were the only other obvious species.

The triangle in 2000 looking west….

…and east

The city would mow the grass every so often, along with trees that my neighbors had futilely planted.  We decided to take this on as a class project (this was when I was on faculty at University of Washington).

When we began to clear out the vegetation, we were stunned to realize that there was a creek running through what seemed to be a flat chunk of land.

We cleared out as much RCG as possible and mulched the entire area (note that many restoration ecologists recommend taking out soil to a depth of 18″ to remove all the stolons).  We knew the grass would come back, but our task was to jump start the system and get some native plants started.  We installed a single Douglas fir and a single western hemlock (these are large trees at maturity), along with live stakes of native willow, dogwood and snowberry.  We planted a few Oregon grape and other smaller shrubs.

Live stakes planted through coir cloth (used to temporarily hold mulch in place).

The 2001 installation, looking east.  The Douglas fir is next to the group, and the hemlock is in the foreground.

Over the next few years the RCG came back with a vengeance.  We held occasional work parties to keep the grass at bay, but after I took a new position at WSU I no longer had the student work force that allowed me to keep this area partially controlled.  It became a one-family project, and not one that we had a lot of time for.

2003 work party dredging out the creek. You can’t see the natives we installed in 2001, but they’re in there.

Fortunately, nature took over for us.  The willows we had planted grew like weeds, creating a canopy under which RCG doesn’t do so well.

The Douglas fir and hemlock got established, as did the snowberry and one Oregon grape.  For the most part, we were able to weed whack the RCG on the very steep slopes and keep the flatter areas covered with wood chips.

Restoration site in 2009, looking west…

…and east.

Eight year old Douglas fir…

…western hemlock…

…and snowberry.

Will the RCG ever be completely gone?  I doubt it; the seedbank must be incredible, and there are many other RCG colonies upstream. But it no longer dominates the landscape: it’s become assimilated.  And that’s really the point: nature adapts.

[As an aside: I really don’t like the term “restoration.” We’re not taking landscapes back to some pristine original as the term implies.  “Assisted succession” more accurately and realistically describes this process.]

Fearless fall color predictions

Happy Labor Day!   Hopefully everyone had an enjoyable 3-day weekend.  Labor day is the unofficial end of summer, which means fall is just around the corner.  In fact, fall may be a little early this year around these parts.  We are already starting to pick up some fall color – mainly maples, sassafras, and sumac.  I usually get some calls from various media outlets asking for predictions on fall color.  It’s always a dicey proposition.  Weather going into fall is certainly a factor for fall color, but conditions during the fall itself are the final trump card.  As I noted, we’re likely to see an early fall here in the Upper Midwest and, if we don’t start getting some decent rain, I suspect it could be a relatively short season as trees begin to drop leaves early due to continuing drought stress.  Of course, all this can change relatively quickly if we get into a different weather pattern.

July 28, 2012. Sumac in fall color near DeWitt, MI.

Speaking of fall leaf color, the Fall Color Guy (aka Dr. Howard Neufeld, Appalachian State Department of Biology) has started his annual reports. .  This site is a great resource if you’re planning on doing some leaf peeping in the Appalachians.  And even if you aren’t, I still recommend this site as one of the best on the biology of leaf color.