Weeding Out

A classic weedy species – the common yellow dandelion – deliberately left to flower at The Farm Between in Jeffersonville, Vermont, to provide food for honeybees and other pollinators. Nearly every part of the dandelion is edible (and, just as important, palatable) at some point during the plant’s life cycle.

It’s hard to find someone with a kind words for weeds. Home owners pay big bucks to spray the dandelions out of their lawns. Farmers uproot them without mercy. And even in a crowd of people who care passionately about the minutiae of plants, you won’t find many fans. For better or worse, botanists focus on plants they consider “interesting”–which usually translates to “showy,” “rare,”, “obscure,” “native,” or some combination of the above. Weeds, almost by definition, belong to none of those groups. They literally slip through the cracks.

Instead, weeds tend towards the small, the quick, the omnipresent, with flowers that can be euphemistically “insignificant” at best, and downright ugly at worst. Like most of us, they tend to come from somewhere else, landing here by quirks of fate in search of a better life. They are also fantastically successful, dominating suburbs and cities, wetlands and waterways, farm fields and roadside right-of-ways with vim and vigor. Think about the last time you saw one. It was probably the last time you stepped outside, right?

But the conquest of the landscapes of our daily life comes at a steep price for so-called weeds. They are deeply, deeply, unpopular, easy targets to hate, subject to perpetual calls for total extermination sponsored by botanic gardens and pesticide manufacturers alike. Instead of being a gateway to the natural world, we refuse to celebrate their existence, no matter how many pollinators they host or “ecosystem services” they provide. No matter how many generations they’ve lived here, they will always be foreigners, perpetual outcasts, never quite fitting in. Weeds bring out our darker side – we spray, burn, cut, pull, curse. And still the weeds return.

So what is a weed, exactly? That depends on who you ask. Perhaps, like pornography, you know one when you see it. Perhaps it is the wrong plant in the wrong place, usually right where you don’t want it, or where you’d rather something else grew instead. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously called a weed “a plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered”. Sometimes “invasive” is used interchangeably with “weed,” but that label’s not quite accurate: a scattering of dandelions doesn’t ruthlessly eliminate grass and clover the way that kudzu might smother trees. Most invasive species tend to be non-native, but that’s not always true, either: cattails are often considered to be weeds in wetlands, for example, and black locusts and blackberries can be “weedy” in park edges and power line right-of-ways.

In an attempt to eliminate confusion with all of these conflicting buzzwords, botanists invented a new one. Most of the classically weedy species are also “ruderal” – particularly well-adapted to thrive in disturbed areas. In other words, every time we plow a field or bulldoze a forest to build a subdivision, we are creating exactly the right habitat for these so-called weeds to thrive. We are subsidizing the very species we love to hate with most of our activities – and then getting frustrated when they respond so well to our efforts to destroy them! It’s a vicious cycle.

As it turns out, though, Emerson was onto something. The very qualities that we love to hate in weeds — their sheer ubiquity and tenacity — are the very qualities that make them useful to me as an urban forager. No matter where I am in the human-dominated landscape, no matter what I’m doing, I can usually spot at least one edible ruderal species to harvest in abundance. Perhaps it’s a crowd of garlic mustard in the forest understory. Burdock along the roadsides.  Japanese knotweed in the floodplain. Pigweed in the summer field. Even in places where collecting is ostensibly forbidden, no one thinks twice if you pull up a dandelion for a spring salad. Call it “weeding,” “invasive species removal,” or “dinner,” – everyone walks away feeling like a winner. Try and pull that stunt with a beloved native plant in a city park, and you can get into a lot of trouble.

It’s no secret that wild plants tend to be more nutritious than their cultivated cousins. In search of larger sizes or thicker skins to survive cross-country travel, we’ve inadvertently bred the taste and nutrients right out of most of our food plants. Just compare the taste and texture of a tiny wild New England strawberry to the supermarket behemoths, and you’ll get an idea of the intense changes that the horticultural whizzes have wrought. Sometimes that gets us wonders – sugary sweet corn, ruby-red grapefruits, tomatoes that can weather the apocalypse without bruising – but sometimes that leads us into trouble. What survives in the Darwinian system of our food supply may not always be the best of for us.

Forget the pricey supermarket superfoods from South America. The real wonders may be growing just outside your door – for those with the eyes to see them and the willingness to stop, listen, learn and harvest when the time is right. In permaculture circles, “waste” isn’t really waste – just a resource waiting to be tapped – and this transformation is especially vivid with weeds. Suddenly, that curly dock on the side of the road isn’t an ecological blight – it’s a literal free lunch, a garden you didn’t have to plant, tend or pay for.

On my part, I try to eat something wild at least once a week, just to add some spice and excitement to my life. Most of the time, that just means harvesting the chickweed, purslane, or lambsquarter coming up amidst my collards. and raspberries. Other times that means field trips to local farms and parks for a foraging tour. Although I make a point to always ask landowner permission, most of the time, people are happy to have these species gone, and seem surprised that I even bother to ask. Still, it’s good etiquette and a great conversation starter.

Foraging, of course, is not without its hazards. Like any human task, it functions best as part of a larger cultural framework, with hands-on learning and teaching-by-example to prevent mistakes that might cause harm. It’s important to be absolutely sure of your plant IDs because you’re literally betting your life on them – plants are “all natural” but that doesn’t mean necessarily mean “harmless”. And some challenges are situational: just because there’s chickweed growing out of the sidewalk crack or plantain in the sewer line right-of-way doesn’t mean that you should eat that particular plant. Herbicide sprays aren’t something you want on your salad, so not every place that weeds grow is a great place to harvest. But good judgement, common sense, trustworthy mentors and a healthy dose of experience has made me a comfortable.

Eating the weeds transformed my relationship with them. No longer are they nuisances to bemoan, ignore or eliminate. Suddenly, I’m happy to see them, even when I’m not particularly hungry – like encountering old friends or familiar faces in the landscape. Even if I don’t harvest them in the moment, it’s comforting to know that I could, and I feel the abundance all around me. What most people dismiss as trash has become my treasure. And, frankly, their loss is my gain. But given the sheer fecundity of weeds, I don’t think I’ll need to worry about running out soon. Even if “wild” dandelions become the next big health craze, I’m sure there will be more than enough for everyone.

Salad Days

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Iceberg lettuce no longer reigns supreme, but from a botanical perspective things still look pretty sparse at the salad bar when it comes to leafy greens. Despite the growing popularity of upstarts like kale and spinach, chances are that when you think about salad, you’re probably thinking about lettuce, full stop. Certainly things have gotten more interesting on the lettuce front in recent years—a quick stroll at the local farmer’s market will introduce novices to cascades of ruffled oakleaves and colorful romaines with evocative names like Deer Tongue, Red Salad Bowl, and my personal favorite, Flashy Trout Back. With so many choices, it’s easy to forget that all of this diversity derives from just one species: the edible lettuce, Lactuca sativa, the foundation for the majority of salads as we know them.

But lettuce, it turns out, is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (so to speak). Historically, salads encompassed a wider range of botanical possibilities—so much so that John Evelyn, a famous Restoration garden writer, devoted an entire treatise on the subject. Published in October 1699, Acteria: A Discourse of Sallets proves once and for all that monotony is not destiny when it comes to dinner.

Salads might seem like a frivolous choice for a formal write-up, but they offer a unique window on the potent intersection of human culture and the natural world. As Evelyn argues in the book’s dedication to John Somers, the president of the Royal Society of London (the most distinguished body of scientists at the time), “My Lord, this Subject, as low and despicable as it appears, challenges a Part of Natural History, and the Greatest Princes have thought it no Disgrace, not only to make it their Diversion, but their Care”. In Evelyn’s eyes, the lowliest hyssop as no less worthy of study than the famous cedars of Lebanon—“but my Reputation is in danger….should Your Lordship hence suspect that one could never write so much of dressing Sallets, who minded anything serious”. The end result is, in Evelyn’s words, “Part of Natural History, the Product of Horticulture, and the Field” as well of “Part of Philosophy” and a tour of classical literary and culinary history to boot.

Many of Evelyn’s ingredients are familiar denizens of the supermarket produce aisle—basil, beets, radishes and scallions. His artichaux, sellery and sparagus are still recognizable to our tables even though their historical spellings are not. Other vegetables—skirret, orach, scorzonera and sea-kale— are commonly eaten in Europe, but only available from specialty seed catalogues in the US. Then there are ingredients whose names grace our weed lists instead of our menus, untasted by all but the most adventurous foragers—horse parsley, English daisy, wood sorrel, stonecrop, dock, mallow, nettles, cleavers, and sow-thistle, to name just a few. Evelyn’s Jack-by-the-Hedge is “eaten as other Sallets, especially by Country People growing wild under their Banks and Hedges”; we know it as garlic mustard, and bemoan its encroachment across wide swathes of land in New England. Other plants, like sampier and scurvy-grass, have not traveled much outside of Europe and remain relatively obscure.

Of course, no treatise on salad would be complete without mention of lettuce, and Evelyn does not disappoint on that score. Lettuce “still continues the principal Foundation of the universal Tribe of Sallets…of Nature more cold and moist than any of the rest; yet less astringent, and so harmless it may be safely eaten raw in Fevers…. [it] conciliates Sleep, mitigates Pain” and improves temperance and chastity to boot. “In a word, we meet with nothing among all our crude Materials and Sallet store, so proper to mingle with any of the rest, nor so wholsome to be eaten alone, or in Composition, moderately, and with the usual Oxeloeum of Vinegar, Pepper and Oyl &tc.” Or, to put it a different way, the reason why lettuce is so popular is that it goes with everything and doesn’t necessarily taste like anything in itself. It is the perfect neutral player of the vegetable kingdom.

Evelyn is not an impartial commentator. A firm believer in the doctrine of four humors popular at the time, his notes reflect a preoccupation with the medicinal benefits of his meals and their effects on moral character. (A quick flip through popular magazines suggests this obsession will always be with us.) His prejudices, however, do not always conform to modern tastes. Raw spinach, for instance, is “of old not us’d in Sallets, and the oftener kept out the better” but redeems itself when “boil’d to a Pult…with Butter, Vinegar, or Limon, for almost all sorts of boil’d flesh, and may accompany a Sick Man’s Diet”. Purslane is best “in moderation, as having been sometimes found to corrupt in the stomach, which being Pickl’d ’tis not so apt to do so”. He weighs in on a furious debate about mushrooms—“I think them tolerable only (at least in this Climate) if being fresh and skillfully chosen, they are accommodated with the nicest Care and Circumspection” yet acknowledges there is “something malignant and noxious in them” responsible for “the many sad Examples, frequent Mischiefs, and funest Accidents they have produc’d, not only to particular Persons, but whole Families”. He’s partial to elderberry flowers pickled in vinegar, and a big fan of melons, lauding them “Paragon with the noblest Productions of the Garden”  if grown under the right conditions.

For Evelyn, assembling a salad requires skills that should not be taken lightly or ignored. The most important is basic botanical knowledge. “How many fatal Mistakes have been committed by those who took the deadly Cicuta, Hemlocks, Aconits, &tc for Garden Persley and Parsneps,” Evelyn bemoans. Even today, people die from the same errors. Yet the effort is worth making, not only to show one’s skills as a gardener, but because salads are so healthful, nourishing and tasty when constructed correctly.

Furthermore, salads are a model for harmony and art in Evelyn’s universe. “Every Plant should come to bear its part, without being over-power’d by some Herb of stronger Taste, so as to endanger the native Sapor and vertue of the rest; but fall into their places like the Notes in Music, in which there should be nothing harsh or grating,” he comments. The dressing offers the final touch in an ultimately pleasing composition, bringing the dish together. Looking good is important, but the real definition of success is how it balances on the palate and how it nourishes body and spirit alike.

For all his quirks and eccentricities from a modern perspective, I find Evelyn refreshing. He’s so earnest and emphatic—or earnest and emphatic, I should say—that it is impossible not to be throughly charm’d by his Writing, no matter how humble or obscure his Subject Matter. Not only does he included detailed descriptions of seventy-three distinct ingredients, often encompassing multiple species in each entry, he provides readers with separate denoted which ingredients are best blanched versus raw, and when they should be harvested in the garden. There’s even a three-page description of how to make the perfect salad dressing. As someone whose life goals include consuming as many different (edible) plant species as possible, I find Evelyn’s treatise especially fascinating. I’ve always been one to pause in line at the salad bar, and Acetaria continues to inspire me to look more closely at what I’m eating and examine my own preoccupations and prejudices about food. What have I been missing out on all these years? What other culinary delights await me on that fruitful edge between the wild and the cultivated? What exactly is it that makes a really good meal? Perhaps most importantly, what should I have for lunch?

Inspired by Evelyn’s musings on the botanical and culinary arts, this morning I took meal creation to a new height. I shredded cabbage, mixed it with a little wild chickweed I found emerging from the vegetable beds in the garden, and sprinkled chopped apples, walnuts and pumpkin seeds on top. I mixed up an impromptu dressing of freshly ground mustard seeds, vinegar and a smattering of honey with enough olive oil to transform a dense paste to a passable liquid, and doused my concoction liberally. Before I picked up my fork, I studied the character of my salad and judged it pleasing and harmonious to the eye. My palate agreed: this botanical smörgåsbord tasted good, too. John Evelyn, I thought, would have approved—of the approach, at least, if not all the particulars.

Acorns Keep Falling On My Head

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White oak acorns cover the ground near Durham, North Carolina. Photo by Jane S. Richardson of Duke University, licensed by Creative Commons.

Forget peak oil. Right now, I’m more worried about peak acorn. There are five large white oaks outside my door and the acorns are falling with vigor. Every few minutes, they tumble to earth with a clatter—muffled if they hit the ground, with a thud or clang if they encounter patio or metal lawn furniture on the way down. And that’s when conditions are calm. If there’s even the slightest hint of breeze, the trickle of plant hailstones turns into a cascade. I don’t look up when I leave the house—I get out of the danger zone, fast. I’d run, but when there are so many acorns loose on the ground, moving quickly is a recipe for a quick fall and a trip to the emergency room. So instead I saunter quickly—but with purpose.

This isn’t even a mast year, a time when the oak trees conspire among themselves and go all out in a nonstop orgy of acorn production. 2014 was the last mast year in North Carolina, where just venturing outside in September and October was a hazardous activity requiring a hardhat. I learned from an experience that when a small projectile like an acorn falls on your unprotected scalp at high speeds, it hurts enough to necessitate some serious swearing. Unlike Isaac Newton, who allegedly faced a similar problem with apples, I did not go onto to invent the calculus when this happened to me—my contributions to humanity were significantly less coherent.

During the fall of 2014, the acorns fell in an endless rain. Even when I could avoid them from above, they lay so thick on the ground like so many ball bearings that I needed to tread carefully. Camping in the mountains, I strategically sited my tent to avoid getting woken by an acorn to the face in the night. The squirrels, always busy, ramped up into overtime mode. The deer were happy, too, and more of them survived the winter than usual, even when a January polar vortex sent the temperatures plummeting to eight degrees in the central Piedmont.

There were so many acorns outside, I decided to imitate the animals and consume them for myself. Reading My Side of the Mountain as a child, I dreamed of imitating teenage mountain man Sam Gribley’s feasts of acorn pancakes and maple syrup on cold winter days in the Catskills of New York. If he could do it and enjoy it, I could do it, too. But how to go about it?

Collecting acorns in buckets was easy enough—there were so many on the ground, after all. Even so, I still needed to exercise discernment. Ripe acorns are brown and slip out of their caps easily, with little fuss, and they only fall of their own accord when ripe. Unripe acorns might be green, brown or some combination of the two, and cling fiercely to their caps. They sometimes get knocked out of trees by strong winds or impatient squirrels. I learned to quickly let those be, along with obviously empty, damaged, or rotten ones.

The next step was to outwit the acorn weevil (Curculio sp.) and the other critters that feed on acorns and make them unpalatable for consumption. In the case of the acorn weevil, the female drills a hole in the acorn using her impressive snout and lays her egg at the center. By the time I got to the acorns, the eggs had long since hatched and a white, wiggling grub had consumed much of the nutmeat, leaving a scattered trail of black feces behind. Sometimes the grub had drilled hole in the shell, and wiggled out into the ground to pupate, other times it was still in the acorn when I found it. How to separate out the weevil-damaged nuts without examining every acorn individually?

Living in California, I learned the secret of sorting acorns courtesy of a massive live oak that would scatter leaves and acorns into a nearby swimming pool. Good acorns sank, rolled around around at the bottom of the pool and need to be fished out with a net; non-viable acorns floated and need to be fished out with a net. Good acorns would occasionally send out little bubbles, swell up, and sprout if you got to them before the chlorine killed them; bad acorns had holes in the shells, a grub inside, or proved to be hollow and empty when you picked them up. Buoyed by this knowledge in 2014, I hosed down my buckets of acorns and skimmed off the ones that floated to the surface. Easy.

Cracking the acorns was more tedious and time-consuming. Lacking a machine, I did it the way Sam Gribley did it—by hand. It was relaxing to sit outside in the crisp fall air, cracking the nuts, peeling back the shells, and tossing the contents into a bowl, but it took a long time to process a few pounds even when I got into the groove.

But I still wasn’t done yet. Acorns are bitter, full of tannins that must be removed if they are to be even remotely palatable. Acorn lore said that white oaks tended to have fewer tannins than red oaks, and that the exact amount varied from tree to tree, but I was still going to have to soak my shelled acorns in order to leech the soluble tannins out in the water, and change the water frequently over time.

Every forager on the Internet has their own preferred methods for leeching acorns, and the array of practices was dizzying. Do you grind first and then soak, or soak first and then grind? The former is easier because the tannins leach faster from a greater surface area. In the interest of science, though, I tried both. How long do you soak, and how often do you change the water? My method was to change the water every few hours until I got tired of doing it, and let the results dry on a cookie sheet. Then I poured the resulting flour—the color and consistency of instant hot chocolate mix—into a jar, shoved it into the back of the freezer and completely forgot about it.

I found that acorn flour from 2014 a few weeks ago while cleaning out the freezer, just as a fresh crop of acorns was starting to fall. What better way to celebrate than to finally make the pancakes and taste the results of my labors?

I mixed the acorn flour with water, added a few beaten eggs and mashed bananas to hold everything together, and cooked them on a cast iron skillet. The results were flat and dense, chocolate-brown and crumbly in consistency, barely holding together. They were ugly but delicious, with a dense, rich taste that was nutty and flour-y at the same time, no doubt full of terroir—or terre-oak, I should say. A few of the undercooked pancakes had a faint trace of the slippery, bitter tannins, but that taste vanished when I toasted them. Tasty and filling, I ate them with maple syrup (of course) with a little jam on the side. I only had enough flour for a few batches, but overall my first venture into acorn cooking was a wonderful, if laborious, success.

I won’t be harvesting acorns this fall. So far, I consider it a success just to have avoided being hit on the head. But I suspect that when the next mast year is upon us, I’ll be convinced by the sheer weight of edible food outside my door to give it another shot. The exact cause and trigger of masting is a mystery—it’s difficult to predict exactly when that will be. With any luck, by the time the next mast year is upon us, I’ll have mast-ered the system of acorn processing, ready to feast again on the abundance. If I can’t dodge the acorn strikes, at least I’ll have way to get even.

A Prairie Home Companion

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Grasses do not have a reputation for sexy among gardeners. In May, a chance encounter left me with dozens of leftover plants in need of a home, rejects from a sale at a local organization. It was immediately clear to me why they hadn’t sold: they were scraggly bits of green stuffed into plastic pots, primarily perennial bunchgrasses with a handful of obscure wildflowers thrown into the mix. For those who could read botanical Latin, however, the labels promised treasures: Virginia wildrye, wild quinine, purpletop greasegrass, scaly blazing-star, eastern gamma-grass, little bluestem, tall switchgrass, white doll’s daisy, redtop panicgrass. Just like at a cocktail party, I recognized most of the names, but I was hazy on the details; nevertheless, I recognized the call to adventure when I found it. And as it happened, I knew just the place to put them.

At first glance, the rain garden that came with my sister’s house was just a big hole in the ground. It wasn’t until we found the intake pipe, buried under rocks and clogged with debris, and connected it back to the gutters on the house that we realized it was a rain garden at all. Even though it was perfectly functional, catching and filtering runoff from the roof before it entered the creek on the edge of the property, it needed some work if it was going to be anything more than an eyesore.

The previous owners had their hearts in the right place, but landscaping was not their forte. There were some nondescript evergreen boxwood bushes around the edge of the pit that never flowered, a few irises in the late spring, and that was it for most of the year. In early fall, a cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) popped up out of nowhere and made us popular with the local hummingbird before he migrated to Mexico. I stuffed some spindly leftover wild hibiscus I’d grown from locally collected seed into the pit and completely forgot about them. Life chugged along and the rain garden, well, just went with the flow.

I had no idea if the species from the plant sale were appropriate for a rain garden. But free plants and empty spaces bring out boldness in me. I planted randomly, mixing up species, colors and textures as best I could, until the entire pit was covered with tiny fluffs of green. They were up against the heat of summer and my Darwinian approach to gardening: whatever survived would do it on its own merits, without much coddling from me.

When I came back in August after months on the road, the barren pit had been transformed into a lush, overgrown jungle courtesy of a series of conveniently timed thunderstorms rolling through in the afternoons. The spindly hibiscus had managed to survive after all, the cardinal flower had come back for a second round, the wild quinine blooms had flopped over from their own weight, and the grasses had swelled both horizontally and vertically into massive clumps. Some had even sent out flowering plumes. “It needs to be mowed,” my father quipped. Meanwhile, as a student of botany, I saw the rain garden through new eyes now that the plants had matured. Inadvertently, unintentionally, almost completely by accident, I had re-created a patch of one of the state’s rarer ecosystems in my sister’s backyard: the Piedmont prairie.

Prior to European settlement in North Carolina, the uplands were patchworks of shady forest and open fields, grazed by bison, elk and white-tailed deer. Prairie meadows formed in areas where the soil was too poor to support trees, maintained by periodic fires. Unlike the annual grasses that make up most modern lawns, the Piedmont prairies were dominated by perennial bunchgrasses and specialized wildflowers. Once Europeans arrived, however, they cleared the land for agriculture and fires were suppressed. The patchwork prairies vanished, except along roadsides and utility right-of-ways where periodic mowing and spraying kept the trees from taking over again.

These days, the few remaining prairie remnants look remarkably ordinary—just another overgrown field—until you take a closer look within the sea of green. Those seemingly random species I had acquired from the plant sale were actually prime representatives of this fragmented and vanishing ecosystem. None of them were rare in and of themselves—but having all of them together in one place was unusual, a hearkening back to a not-so-distant past.

My tiny patch of prairie isn’t a perfect representation of what used to be here—we’re heavy on grasses, but missing many of the charismatic wildflowers like smooth coneflower and starry rosinweed that are now significantly rare in the state. That said, there’s only so many species you can cram into a few square feet, and the few anomalies grandfathered in just add to the garden’s own special character.

Ironically, my father was right—periodic mowing (or perhaps scything, in our case) is the way to go to maintain a prairie in the long run. Unlike the lawn grasses that grow scruffy after two or three weeks, though, the prairie can get by with one mowing every two or three years, unless an errant bison wanders by and trims it for us. Until then, I sit out on the porch and survey my tiny empire of grass. In the evening, after the afternoon thunderstorm passes through, I swear I can see them growing.

A Passionate Pollinator

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A typical maypop pollination sequence in action. Note the shiny abdomen of the carpenter bee, and the oblong yellow anthers smearing pollen over the bee’s thorax. The round green stigmas, slightly above the anthers, will be jostled when the bee is preparing to move to another flower. Photo by the author.

Summer blockbusters at the multiplex are big and bold, but equally dramatic spectacles are happening outside as plants send up blooms to attract insect pollinators. While sunflowers and zinnias command quite a following, and anise hyssop and bee balm have their charms, the best show in town right now in central North Carolina is at the maypop—also known as the purple passionflower—hands down.

Colorful and vivid, with a curtain of tye-dyed strips surrounding a pillar of five anthers perched below three ovaries, any of the five hundred plus species of passionflower would fit right into a bouquet designed by Dr. Seuss. Some see the flowers as strangely clock-like; others view it as living metaphor full of religious symbolism. Despite its exotic appearance, however, the delights of passionflowers aren’t limited to the tropics. Five species can be found growing throughout the southeastern United States, and the maypop (Passiflora incarnata) is one of the hardiest of the lot, ranging as far north as Pennsylvania in the wild.

Unlike many native perennials, which need specialized environments in order to thrive, the maypop is not fussy about its living space. It’s aggressive and vigorous, flourishing in full sun and disturbed areas, even in years with little rainfall. It clamors up over other plants in a race to get ahead, twining tendrils and pulling no punches, to the point where it’s occasionally listed as an agricultural weed. It can grow as much as fifteen feet in a season before dying back to the ground with the frost. This drive to survive at all costs, coupled with its showy purple and white blooms and edible fruit, has made it a beloved staple of Southern gardens. And with it come the pollinators.

Eastern carpenter bees (Xylocopa virginica) look and act much like their bumblebee cousins, with a few twists: bigger, buzzier, and boasting black and shiny abdomens. Aside from the occasional misstep of burrowing into wooden structures, they rarely bother humans. Like all bees, they are important pollinators for flowers—except when they “cheat” by nipping flowers at the base to get a quick hit of nectar.

The maypop, however, has an ingenious mechanism to foil cheaters. Instead of having a curled base for nectar storage, all of the good stuff is located at center of the flower’s disk. In order to reach it, however, the bee has to brush against at least one of the five stamens—conveniently located just the right height for a carpenter bee—which smear pollen all over the bee’s head. Once the bee is finished at the first flower, it will have to rub up against the receptive stigmas of the next flower in order to drink more nectar, thus ensuring successful pollination. I’ve never seen any of them stop at just one flower! Occasionally, a tiny wasp or a Japanese beetle might slip in to steal some nectar, but the vast majority of insects I see on maypop flowers are carpenter bees, obliviously pollinating away while they gorge on nectar.

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Not ripe yet…. but getting there! Photo by the author

And thus arises the other wonder of the maypop—namely, its fruit, which closely resembles its commercially grown tropical cousins in size and taste. You may think you’ve never tasted a passion fruit, but guess again—its distinctive flavor adds a kick to the popular fruit drink Hawaiian Punch. The egg-sized fruits—technically berries—fall to the ground when ripe, and can be eaten out of hand. They can also be used in jams and jellies, although I’ve never met anyone who’s managed to make it that far with them.

Dinner and a show—who could ask for anything more on a hot summer day?

Southern Comfort

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The Southern magnolia flower in bloom. Photo by DavetheMage. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

The grande dame of its family, the southern magnolia dominates the landscape. There is simply no overlooking its stately elegance, especially when it is in full bloom. Bearing flowers as wide as your face—worthy of the epithet grandiflora, “big-flowered,” indeed—a southern magnolia is no mere tree. A southern magnolia is an experience.

Let’s start with the blooms. Following a design ancient by evolutionary standards, they are similar in structure to the first flowers that appeared in the Jurassic era millions of years ago, a testament to success. Large simple petals, pearly in color and texture, fold over a bizarre-looking yellow cone-like structure at the center. Yellow stamens fall like matchsticks from the base of each cone—actually compendium of simple pistils—and collect in the folds of the petals. Once the flowers have been fertilized, the petals fall back in a brown and crinkled heap as fleshy red fruits dangle on tiny white threads from the now-green and black cone. Until that happens, though, the scent is heavenly—alternately described as lemon, citronella, or jasmine—as an enticement to its beetle pollinators.

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The fruit, seeds and cone in all their bizarre glory. Photo by Pmsyyz. Image licensed under creative commons by wikipedia.com.

Meanwhile, the rest of the tree is equally impressive. The leaves are stiff and papery, green and waxy above and fuzzy brown velvet beneath. Typically boasting a single trunk, each tree stretches into a classic pyramid, broad at the base and narrowing to a single point at its apex. Given enough time and space to reach mature size, each magnolia tree becomes its own island, its lower branches hovering just above the ground, the evergreen leaves above form a dense canopy under which nothing else can grow. Blocking out the sounds and view of the world outside, each tree becomes a miniature oasis. A grove of mature trees forms a graceful archipelago—truly a sight to behold. Even in winter, the southern magnolia bears the occasional snowfall or ice storm with grace.

With the possible exception of live oaks, no trees are more evocative of the archetypal South than the southern magnolias. Yet they are true natives only to a swathe of the southern Carolinas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida. Known colloquially as “bull bay,” they join their cousin Magnolia virginica, the sweetbay, and the unrelated redbay and loblolly-bay to grace the swamps and pocosins with their presence. Left to their own devices, they would never have made it further into the uplands. Fortunately for gardeners everywhere, the southern magnolia thrives outside of its natural range, even when pushed to its limits. One such specimen can be found in Burlington, in the courtyard of Marsh Life Science building on the University of Vermont campus, where sheltered walls and a south-facing aspect create a microclimate warm enough for this southern tree to survive harsh New England winters.

Moreover, the southern magnolia is versatile in the human-dominated landscape: I have also seen it growing as a street tree in Monterey, California and lining parking lots and new developments in Cary, North Carolina. However, most of the trees used in the modern horticultural trade are dwarf cultivars that will never reach the width and stature the species is capable of. Although my heart is gladdened to see them, I cannot help feeling wistful, as if something important has also been lost.

Climbing those older, giant trees was an essential staple of my childhood. The wide, thick limbs were easy to scramble up with the ease of a squirrel, offering real height and perspective. For a time, I was removed from the cares of the world and fully immersed in the world offered by the trees. Attending college along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the southern magnolias grove tucked away in a sheltered courtyard soothed my soul during times of anxiety and change. The arbiter of student discipline, the Assistant Dean, had an office directly facing those trees, so I never found the courage to climb them. Still, I valued those trees for the reminder that I was not too far, ecologically speaking, from home.

It’s May now, and the southern magnolias are blooming again in the gardens of my hometown in North Carolina. When I breathe in the scent of its blossoms, I am in my childhood again, that long golden summer where anything is possible and no height is unattainable.

The Noble Sporophyte

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Moss sporophytes emerging from a clump of moss. By Bob Blaylock. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Moss sporophytes are tiny, slender structures that pop out of moss in droves. Their beauty, diversity, fun-factor, and cute little caps continually amaze me. Like a big buzz cut, they tickle my hand as I graze them. If I am lucky, they are ripe and release their spores in a small flurry, sending a miniature cloud of dust eight inches forwards. The spores melt away into the air, quickly invisible to the naked eye. Usually, I brush the clump again and again, and the sporophytes repeat the trick until the caps are emptied of their spore dust. Eventually, some of the spores will germinate to grow new moss plants.

Once the caps pop off the sporophytes, you can tell they are ripe or almost ripe. By Hermann Schachner. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Over the five years that I earned my living teaching outdoor programs, I taught several hundred people about sporophytes. I would have the group help me find a promising patch of moss, and with reverent enthusiasm, I would show my students the petite sporophytes. Then, I would share the three reasons that sporophytes had captured my heart to become one of my favorite things in the forest.

First of all, I didn’t know that they existed until I was in my 20s, and once I knew to look for them, I saw them almost everywhere there was moss. This was an astounding discovery, and one of the most poignant, eye-opening experiences of my college years. I had been oblivious to the ubiquitous and entertaining sporophytes all around me, and it was amazing to have my eyes opened just by learning to look for them.

An example of moss sporophyte diversity and elegance. By Vaelta. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

An example of moss sporophyte diversity and elegance. By Vaelta. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Next, I would demonstrate the gorgeous diversity of the sporophytes. The stalks are often iridescent, and many of them exhibit a gradient of hues. For example, some range from gold to deep, metallic purple.The spores are also often brightly colored, sometimes in surprising ways. I have dissected sporophytes that revealed bright orange, white, or dayglow green spores. And the stalks are always fine and flexible, which means that they “boing” in a tactilely-satisfying way.

Finally, I would show the participants, adult or child, how fun sporophytes are by running my hand through the tuft. If I judged the clump well, and was lucky, a cloud of spores would gently whiff from the cluster of stalks. Everyone would take turns helping the spores fly free. Invariably, some excited participants would spend the rest of the program looking for other clusters of ripe moss sporophytes.

A close-up of a sporophyte capsule. By Bernard DuPont from France. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

A close-up of a sporophyte capsule. By Bernard DuPont from France. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

Moss sporophytes illustrate some of the most important reasons that humans need the natural world. They invoke wonder, are beautiful and fun, boggle minds with their diversity and scale, and inspire curiosity. For those who have never really noticed them, they encourage humility by reminding us how little we see and understand each day, even when it’s right in front of us. Moss sporophytes provide an opportunity for people to interact with nature in a hands-on way, and in doing so, people help the little plants send their spores into the wind. The experience is tactile, guilt-free, and doesn’t require any special equipment.

As the spring rains feed the forests, fields, and yards around you, keep an eye on your local moss patches. The mossy marvel of a ripe sporophyte might be waiting at your feet.

The moss life cycle. The green moss is the gametophyte, which gives rise to sperm and eggs, which combine to grow a sporophyte from the tip of the gametophyte. The spores germinate to grow more gametophytes (the green moss). By Htpaul. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

The moss life cycle. The green moss is the gametophyte, which gives rise to sperm and eggs, which combine to grow a sporophyte from the tip of the gametophyte. The spores germinate to grow more gametophytes (the green moss). By Htpaul. Image licensed under creative commons by Wikipedia.

The Colors of Faoilleach

We’re in the middle of faoilleach – the Gaelic season comprising the last three weeks of winter and first three weeks of spring. Before you groan over the absence of green, and wish yourself in the lime lighting of a June forest, take time to notice and celebrate other colors that hint to the great awakenings of spring.

Magenta

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Beneath their pearly coats, the emerging catkins (spikes of single-sex, drooping, petal-less flowers) of the pussy willow glow magenta. Their presence is a cherished ritual of the seasons, Sigurd Olson writes, “In a world seething with mistrust, suspicion and clashing ideologies, pussy willows may be vital to the welfare of man and his serenity”.

Burgundy

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Look for the deep burgundy color in the male catkins of speckled alder as their flowers begin to develop. As the male catkins begin to expand, the color brightens. Eventually the burgundy shifts toward yellow as the pollen develops. Note the smaller scarlet female catkins nubs above (these will transform into the cone-like structures that persist throughout the winter).

Ivory

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Ivory hairs gleam in newly opened shadbush buds. They help insulate the flowers from spring cold snaps. Soon clusters of 5-petaled propeller-like white flowers will emerge. The flowering time is an important seasonal clock – marking when shad swim upstream to spawn (hence the name) and the period when colonists who died over the winter were buried, hence another name—serviceberry.

Auburn

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Look for the bursting auburn flowers of silver maples lining streets and rivers, especially noticeable against a bluebird sky. This fast-growing and short-lived species carries its male and female flowers separately, although sometimes on the same tree.

Silver

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Catkin tips shine silver as they emerge from flower buds of trembling aspen. Male and female catkins are found on separate trees. Despite millions of fluffy seeds produced, strict germinating constraints limit the success of these seeds. Thus aspens rely on root sprouting clones to earn their title of most widely distributed tree in North America.

Crimson

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Spring sun vividly reddens Red Osier Dogwood in early spring. The brilliance of color, generated by anthocyanin pigments in the bark, is determined by light intensity. In shaded areas, its stems and branches still grow, yet in greener tones.

If you’re impatient for the mints and emeralds, limes and jades, you can force the color. Simply place a twig in a jar with water near a window and be comforted by the return of green that will reveal itself outside in time.

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Ellen Gawarkiewicz is a first-year graduate student in the Field Naturalist Program.

Restoring the American Elm

An arborist harvests flower buds from an American elm in Charlotte, Vermont. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, The Nature Conservancy.

The flower buds from Mrs. Waters’ elm tree are 35,000 feet up in the stratosphere on an express flight to Ohio. The goal is to get them there before they dry up. When they arrive, scientists will lay them on wax paper, collect their pollen as it falls from the stamens, and use it to hand-pollinate the flowers of Ohio elms that are receptive and waiting in the lab. These buds may be the key to restoring the American elm to dominance in the floodplain forests of the Eastern United States, a focal project of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and floodplain ecologist Christian Marks.

The buds’ progenitor, a four-foot diameter American elm in Charlotte, Vermont, named Henrietta, has beat the odds. Located merely a stone’s throw from four other elms, all of which have succumbed to Dutch elm disease (DED), Henrietta is noticeably larger and healthier. Though she (also a he—American elms bear “perfect” flowers, with both male and female parts) has signs of DED on two branches, the remainder of the tree is healthy enough to produce flowering buds, a luxury that the sick elms around it cannot afford. Normally, trees exposed to DED die within a year of exposure[i]. That this one has not– and that it continues to flower—suggests it may possess some degree of resistance.

After scientists cross-pollinate the Vermont and Ohio elms, they will tend the branches until they set seed. When the seeds mature into small, wafer-like samaras, evolved for wind dispersal, the Ohio scientists will airmail them back to Marks (wind dispersal by mechanized means) who will then grow them to seedlings and plant them in one of TNC’s floodplain forest restoration preserves. But that’s not all. What’s to say those young seedlings won’t succumb to the same fate as their not-so-fortunate relatives?

For Marks to know that Henrietta is a stalwart, he must subject her offspring to a potentially fatal injection of DED when they reach one inch in diameter. Though it will be some time before we find out if Henrietta is truly resistant, the offspring of buds collected from other trees in 2011 and 2012 are approaching the requisite diameter for testing. And while “absolute resistance” is the stuff of science fiction, previous studies conducted through Guelph University in Canada found a heightened level of resistance in 25% of lab-pollinated offspring reared from large, healthy elms[ii]. Marks is hopeful for a similar (or better) result from his Vermont/Ohio crosses, which were selected not only for their size, but also for their proximity to elms that have succumbed to DED.

If Marks and his colleagues succeed in cultivating a DED-resistant American elm, this stately canopy tree may eventually be restored to its position in the highest strata of the floodplain forests in the Eastern United States and Canada. And though we may not be alive to see it regain canopy dominance, we can celebrate that the elm’s capacity for water uptake may reduce the severity of future flooding events, bald eagles may return to nest in its branches, and our children will once again walk to school beneath trees for which many American streets were named.

Perhaps this dream begins with the plump red buds bound – at this moment – for Ohio.

American elm flower buds. Photo credit: Gus Goodwin, TNC.

[i][ii] Christian Marks, personal communication, 9 March 2016.


Hannah Phillips is a first-year graduate student in the Ecological Planning Program. She is grateful to Christian Marks, Gus Goodwin, and The Nature Conservancy-Vermont, for welcoming her on this outing, to Mrs. Waters for offering samples from her tree, and to Chea Waters Evans for cleverly naming the tree Henrietta (after Henrietta Lacks).


Evergreen and Everlasting: The Long March of the Lycophytes

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

Artist’s rendering of a Carboniferous swamp. From “The World Before the Deluge” by Eduard Riou, 1872. Public domain work of art.

In the murky, humid forests of the Carboniferous Period, organisms grew to remarkable size. Dragonflies as big as Cooper’s hawks ruled the air and three-foot-long scorpions prowled the earth. The swampy water concealed beasts like the dawn tadpole, a predatory amphibian as long as a pickup truck. The canopy showcased elegant tree precursors: spore-bearing lycophytes a hundred feet tall.

Today, dragonflies are rarely any bigger than a clothespin. Tadpoles are tiny and harmless, and scorpions could fit in your palm (not that you’d want them there). This widespread diminution may be related to a dramatic decrease in atmospheric oxygen concentration since the Carboniferous. Even the lycophytes have had to shrink to survive. Yet three hundred million years after their age of supremacy, lycophytes persist in forests from the poles to the tropics. We call them clubmosses. They are usually less than four inches tall.

In early November, clubmosses leap into view on the forest floor, bright green runners in a matrix of brown. These evergreen plants are not actually mosses, but true vascular plants more similar to ferns and horsetails. At first glance they are easily mistaken for conifer seedlings; hence the common names ground pine and ground cedar. Lateral stems called rhizomes carry them across the ground. Periodically they send up vertical shoots, which emerge out of the leaf litter to capture sunlight. Having evolved before the seed, clubmosses disperse by means of spores, which most species carry in tiny kidney-shaped pouches packed together on a club-like appendage called a strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Ground pine (Lycopodium obscurum) with strobilus.

Wind-borne clubmoss spores are easily dispersed, but they have a long road and two life phases ahead of them. After germination, spores develop into tiny, often subterranean organisms called gametophytes. The gametophyte phase is responsible for the production of sex cells, which join at fertilization to form embryos. The embryos develop into the second life phase: sporophytes, charged with the production of new spores. This is the more familiar life phase we see above ground. Note, however, that not every clubmoss has a club: years may pass before sporophytes are capable of manufacturing new spores. Development from the gametophyte to the mature, strobilus-endowed sporophyte can take between six and fifteen years.

Clubmoss spores ripen in the fall, when a light tap to the strobilus is enough to release them. If you stroll through a miniature forest of lycophytes at this time of year your feet will stir up a cloud of gold. This fine powder has been put to use in a litany of applications: as a wood-filler in violins and guitars, a lubricant on condoms and surgical gloves, a hydrophobic coating for pills, and a homeopathic remedy for intestinal disorders. Crime scene investigators once used the spores to dust for fingerprints. The powder is highly flammable; early flash photography relied on the ignition of clubmoss spores. We have incorporated the spores into fireworks and magic tricks, theatrical productions and military operations. For more routine combustion, we turn back to the clubmoss’s progenitors: the giant lycophytes that ruled the swamps of the Carboniferous are burned today as coal.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Ground cedar (Diphasiastrum digitatum) with branched strobili.

Vermont’s woods can seem a little dull this time of year. Perhaps it will enliven your walk if you pause to remember that you are in the presence of prehistory. The tiny clubmosses at your feet have thrived on earth for hundreds of millions of years. With every step you are releasing spores that could have sealed a violin or cured a stomachache or solved a crime. Instead, because of you, they’ll go on to form a new generation of this enduring lineage.

Information gathered from Cathy Paris, Bernd Heinrich’s The Trees in My Forest, Mary Holland’s Naturally Curious, Encyclopaedia Britannica (retrieved from http://www.britannica.com/science), and Biology of Plants by Peter H. Raven, Ray F. Evert, and Susan E. Eichhorn.

Julia Runcie is a first-year student in the Ecological Planning program.

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