One of my favorite wildflowers

I’m on annual leave this week, enjoying a family reunion in Sun River, Oregon. I’ve been coming here off and on for decades, and one of the first things I do is hunt down my favorite eastern Oregon plant. Forests in this part of Oregon are dominated by Ponderosa and other pine species, and beneath these trees you might find tall brown flower spikes which many people assume are dead. Actually, they are alive and kicking and fascinating. Meet Pterospora andromedea, otherwise known as pinedrops.

If you look at the flowers closely, their shape might remind you of some other flowers – perhaps blueberries or salal or andromeda. They’re all members of the Ericaceae, and pinedrops are the only member of the Pterospera.

What’s fascinating about this plant is that it spends most of its life underground as a parasite, siphoning food from mycorrhizal fungi (which are connected to nearby roots of pines and other photosynthetic plants). In the summer, it sends up huge reddish-brown flower spikes, with sticky, bell-shaped flowers.

Pinedrops are threatened or endangered in some midwestern and eastern states, and should never be dug from the wild.  It doesn’t transplant well, anyway, so take pictures instead – they’ll last longer!

Worth seeking out – Silphium perfoliatum

A couple of years ago (have we been blogging for that long?!) I wrote a bit on defining our terms – beyond simply native, non-native, invasive.  One of my points was that natives can be overly-vigorous, but some people take exception with the term "invasive" when used with native plants.   I chose "passive-aggressive" as a way to describe certain mild-mannered natives that end up reseeding rampantly. 

One example: Silphium perfoliatum – Cup Plant.

Climbing right out of the garden and onto our deck.

The genus Silphium is comprised of fifteen (+) (at the moment) species, often grouped under the common name "Rosinweed."  I’d not paid much attention to the genus until a trip to a bit of tall grass prairie in 2004 got me hooked on these towering lovelies.  I’ve grown S. terebinthaceum, S. trifoliatum,  and S. laciniatum.  All seem much better behaved than S. perfoliatum; but not as fun.  The coarse, square stems; perfoliate water-holding leaves, and overall grand scale makes  cup plant perfect for back of the border or scattered throughout a meadow planting.

Silphium perfoliatum
ranges up through eastern N. America from Louisiana  to  Quebec and west to Nebraska and Kansas.    Big, round buds give way to golden yellow flowers – yet another “yellow daisy thingy” or YDT  The YDT designation is a totally non-scientific teaching term for the yellow-flowered Asteraceae clan that grace the mid- and late-summer garden.

Honeybees and butterflies love the ring of oversize, nectar-filled disk florets and bees collect pollen from the stamen. The ray florets are fertile and a flower head can set copious amount of seed. Once ripe, the achene floats away on a breeze (if not scarfed up by a goldfinch)…to land and germinate in some part of your garden not intended for a 9’ tall yellow daisy thingy.  Hence the aggressive part.  Weed out the unwanted early on, when those first coarse leaves appear; wait too long and the tap root will make it tough to pull. I say this from recent experience (last night) when I upended myself trying to yank some unyielding Silphium from a clump of unsuspecting Echinacea. Ended up chopping the huge stems off at the base -possibly to be used as firewood.

Bagging Fruit

One of the recommendations that I always make when I discuss organic methods that work is bagging fruit.  If you’ve never heard of it then here’s the story.  By placing a bag of some sort around your fruit, such as apples or peaches, when they’re young you can protect them from insects and disease.  I used to recommend plastic ziplock bags (up here in the North anyway), and I still do, they’re cheap and work well.  You can also purchase Japanese fruit bags that will work.  But recently I was introduced to a more streamlined product which I really like — a cloth pocket with a cord to close off the top.  Since it’s made out of cloth it probably won’t protect against disease as well as plastic bags or Japanese fruit bags, but if insects are your main concern then I think these might be just perfect for you — if you don’t mind paying a few dollars for them (they are reusable!)

At a master gardener conference I recently attended one of the vendors handed me some of her Startbagging fruit bags to test on tomatoes.  I say test because, while these bags have been pretty effective at protecting tree fruits, they haven’t been used much for veggies (OK, OK, a tomato is technically a fruit).  To be honest though, I’m not as worried about insects on tomatoes as I am deer.  The deer near me don’t seem to care for the plants themselves, but they just love to pick the tomatoes off when they’re almost, but not quite ripe.  Jerks. 

Here are a few bags on a tomato plant.

Here’s a closeup of one of the bags.

I’ve only had these bags on the plant for about a week now — so far so good.  The company producing these bags is a small start-up.  From what I understand these bags are patent pending.  I wish this company well because I think this is organic pest control at its best — reusable products that don’t utilize chemicals.  If you have any interest you can go to to take a look (the website is a little basic right now — hopefully they’ll fix that soon!).

Hangin’ with the conifer cognoscenti…

Just a little bit of show and tell today.  The week before last the Central Region of the American Conifer Society (ACS) hosted the National ACS meeting here in Michigan.  Over 300 conferites gathered to discuss their favorite plants and share their conifer addiction.

The highlight of the meeting was a field trip to the Harper Collection of Rare and Dwarf Conifers at Michigan State University’s Hidden Lake Gardens.  The Harper collection, which was donated to MSU by noted plantsman Justin ‘Chub’ Harper is a world-class assemblage of conifers and includes over 550 plants displayed in a wonderfully-designed layout.

To add a little fun to the outing, each ACS member was give three pink pin-flags and asked to mark their three favorite conifers.  Tough to choose just three from this collection. 

ACS members descend on the Harper Collection

Adrian Bloom adds his vote to Metasequoia glytostraboides ‘Gold rush’

The elephant tree. Pinus strobus ‘Pendula’

Got my vote but wasn’t the winner: Taxodium distichum ‘Pendens’.  If the meeting had been in October when this tree is in fall color, this would have won hands down.

And the winner is… Abies concolor ‘Blue cloak’

Cool website with info on amendments

Not to horn in on Bert’s posting day….but I was just sent this link to Iowa State’s compendium of research reports on nontraditional materials. Though this database is targeted towards crop production methods, there may be nuggets of information relevant to home gardens as well. And it includes a product list if you’re not sure what to put into the search box.

Unfortunately, the collection is focused on north central USA, but look at the filter a report or article has to go through to make it onto the site:

Criteria for inclusion of a research report or abstract in the compendium includes: 1) at least two site-years of research, with multiple crops or varieties substituting for a site-year; 2) authors listed; 3) replicated with statistical analysis; 4) reasonably applicable to north central USA crop production; 5) reference source available; and 6) author permission.

It’s a great start to building a credible database on the topic. Let us know if you find relevant gardening information by posting a comment below.

A Tip from Jerry Baker

Linda’s posting this week made me nostalgic for some good old garden guru advice, so I couldn’t help but zip on over to Jerry Baker’s web site ( to see if he had anything interesting to tell me.  I wasn’t disappointed!  Here is one of his recommendations:

Three-minute eggshells

“Place eggshells in the microwave for three minutes, remove, crush into a fine powder, and place them in a cloth sachet. Then drop the sachet into your houseplant watering can to give your indoor plants a nice nitrogen-boost.”

Wow! how about that! Eggshells for a nitrogen boost!  Who woulda thought….  Anyway, after I saw this, I got to thinking, maybe, just maybe, there might be some nitrogen there…..

So I microwaved four eggshells, crushed them, and put them into a half-liter of water, then let them sit in the water for about 9 hours.  Then I filtered the water off and ran that water (along with a control sample) over to our soils lab to be tested.

And wouldn’t you know it?  That water DID have nitrogen in it!  About 5 parts per million!  Which is about 1/10th of what I would consider even close to a fertilizer application….So then if we do the math, that would mean that eighty egg shells per liter (about a quart) would make a decent shot of nitrogen.

Sorry Mr. Baker, I just don’t eat that many eggs.

Upside: he won’t have to mow for a while…

This is old news by now  – I’m surprised Jeff hasn’t pounced!!

Minnesota man accidentally kills entire lawn with herbicide

Sadly, the dead lawn ruined the plans for a charitable fund-raiser, also.

Lots of eye-rolling and sassy comments out there (from "duh" to "d’oh!") berating the guy
for not reading the label. Actually, my first reaction, too (RTFM, as
my Lt. Col. father would say.)

But it’s not so easy sometimes. I was trying to make out the fine print on the
silly peel-off, accordion-fold label on some Spinosad the other day and
it was impossible.  Finally gave up and looked up the application info on the interwebs. Not sure if that was the issue, but tiny, tiny print is a huge pet peeve of mine, so I’m comfy laying a bit of blame there.  

There is, however, readable print on the front label – the words "non-selective" and "glyphosate" and "grasses"  are large enough for even a blind squirrel like me to read. And I don’t know what on earth to think about the garden center employees who "helped" the poor guy.

(Another option: don’t get so worked up over weeds, says she with the
turf-like substance consisting entirely of anything but grass. But hey,
it’s green.)

For “entertainment value” only

So reads the sticky note from my retired entomologist colleague.  It’s affixed to the latest flyer promising the "greenest garden in town" using the "best all-time tips, tricks and tonics."

The entire brochure is ludicrous, and picking it apart is like shooting fish in a barrel. But sometimes it’s fun going for the low-hanging fruit. Here are some of the more memorable claims:

Epsom salts – grow sweeter melons, energize your roses, supercharge your grass seed, grow giant geraniums, bust tomato blight, boost your bulbs, force stubborn shrubs to flower, etc. etc. How does plain old magnesium sulfate do all of these miraculous things? The short answer – it doesn’t. There’s not one speck of science behind any of this nonsense. (On a more amusing note, the garden guru’s chemistry is a little shaky.  He claims Epsom salts will "give bulbs a dose of much-needed nitrogen." Either that or he’s figured out alchemistic transmutation.)

Barbeque forks – "perfect for spot aeration, harvesting root crops, and mole control." Eeew.

Latex paint – "seal up fresh cuts on trees, shrubs and roses." A colorful way to inhibit a plant’s natural ability to seal wounds.

"Stress reliever tonic" for lawns that contains shampoo, tea, mouthwash, and "chewing tobacco juice." Not only is this a toxic mess, but how is one expected to produce the "chewing tobacco juice?"

Salt – it’s not just for slugs anymore!  You can use it on weeds, "bad" worms, poison ivy, and ants.  Somehow the "good" plants and insects are immune to the effects? 

According to the back of the brochure, our guru has "taught" over 32.7 million people how to misuse common household products in their garden.  Incredible.

Blood in the water…

In prepping grad students for their first big talk at a scientific meeting I always tell them everything will be fine – until the first data slide hits the screen.  The audience will nod knowingly during the introductory comments and even during the materials and methods, but data charts and tables are to scientists what chum is to hungry sharks.  So clearly I should have known better than to post figures without error bars in last week’s post.  In my defense, SigmaPlot, my program of choice for scientific graphing, currently resides on my old laptop which is running slower than molasses, so I did the ‘quick and dirty’ and used PowerPoint on my desktop.  Yes, my mother did raise me better than the present a measure of central tendency without an indication of dispersion.

So, duly chastised and humbled, I present the latest (July 12) volumetric soil moisture values from the SoMeDedTREEs.  N=8 for all means *=means are different at p=0.05.  The table below is more complete than last week’s post, which only presented the means from measurements just outside the container root ball.

Mean (std err) volumetric soil moisture of planetrees at MSU Hort farm, with and without 3” of ground red pine mulch

Inside container ball


std. err.

15 cm







45 cm







Outside ball

15 cm







45 cm