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.  http://biology.appstate.edu/fall-colors .  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.