hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree

July in Connecticut is an exciting time for me because of all the good wildflowers and insects that abound at this time of year. Insects get more interesting in summer and late summer, especially caterpillars that feed on older leaves. Plus, many birds have fledged their first brood by now, so the young birds are scattering around keeping their parents busy. Flowering trees are few, but in July sumacs, tree-of-heaven and the hardy silk tree bloom from mid to late July.

black walnuts July 2017
Black walnut dropped fruit in July

 

While July is hot and sometimes dry, we have had an abundance of rain so far this year. This is a really good thing because the gypsy moth caterpillars severely defoliated many trees that now need rainfall to help put out new leaves before autumn. We hope next year will have less of these pests, especially since many of the caterpillars were killed by either a fungus or a virus.

bittersweet doing well

Bittersweet decorating a truck

Wildflowers like early goldenrod, swamp milkweed, bouncing bet, monkeyflower and nodding ladies tresses are in bloom now. And the peculiar Indian pipe, Monotropa uniflora, has popped up, especially under white pines. It occurs in rich, damp forests where there is abundant leaf litter. While this plant may appear to be a fungus due to its white color due to a lack of chlorophyll, it is not. It survives in a mutually beneficial relationship with a fungus in the soil where it grows. Blue curls are an interesting wild flower that can form colonies in sandy, infertile soils. Bloom time is normally late July through mid- August. Check out damps areas for stands of swamp milkweed- one of the prettier of the milkweeds, to me. All kinds of butterflies and bees may be seen getting nectar from its flowers.

 

indian pipe

Indian pipe

blue curls Main st power lines August 5, 2012

Blue curls

 

This year Eastern red cedars have put out a bumper crop of fruit, unlike the dismal amount of blue berries produced last year. This is good news for migrating birds like the yellow-rumped warblers that rely of this food as they fly south. And, of course, the cedar waxwings that derived their name from their fondness for cedar fruit, will enjoy any fruit that remains after the migrators have departed.

cedar waxwing fledgling

cedar waxwing just out of the nest

Monarch caterpillars have been spotted, some in later instars, so that is good news for this favorite butterfly. Swallowtail caterpillars are also in later instars, and will have a second generation of butterflies later this summer. Check out small aspens for the caterpillar of the viceroy butterfly. This bird- dropping mimic will win no beauty contests, perhaps, but it is a good find nevertheless. Sphinx and many other moths are flying now, and bats are enjoying them during their night forays. Some of the geometers, or inchworms, have very pretty moths to make up for the drab larval stage.

chickweed geometer moth Bug Week insect hunt Pamm Cooper photo

Chickweed geometer moth

If anyone had their Joe-pye weed leaves chewed badly, it may have been the work of large populations of dusky groundling caterpillars. They are done feeding now, but keep an eye out next year if you had this problem. And aphid populations swell at this time of year as females give birth to live young by the truckloads. Sunflowers and milkweeds are just two of the plants that can have aphid populations that are very high.

dusky groundling joepye

Dgroundling on Joe-pye

Enjoy yourselves out there in the garden, park, or wilds. Look up and down and all around, for things of interest that abound this time of year. And listen for the katydids as they start singing during the hot, summer nights.

Conehead katydid neoconocephalus ssp.

Conehead katydid

 

Pamm Cooper

 

 

IMG_20170702_114322695One of the best things about summer in Connecticut is the easy drive to the Connecticut shore as almost any point in Connecticut is no more than a 1 ½ hour drive to the Long Island Sound. Although Connecticut is the third smallest state area-wise (5543² miles) we are ranked either 17th or 20th in total ocean coastline. The 20th ranking is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which includes tidal inlets and the Great Lakes in its calculations. Our 17th place ranking says that we have 96 miles of coastline while the 20th place gives us a grand total of 618 miles. In fact, if every citizen of Connecticut stood very close (and held our babies and toddlers) we could all stand along that 618-mile coastline! I must admit, as we walked along Sound View Beach over the 4th of July weekend it felt as if that scenario was taking place.

But walking a little further away from the sea of humanity is when the real appeal of the Connecticut shore happens for me. The diversity of the plants and vegetation that can be encountered never ceases to amaze me. Even though hydrangeas grow all over Connecticut, including in our yard in Enfield, they never seem as deeply blue as they do when there is a touch of salt in the air…

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…the honeysuckle smells sweeter…

Honeysuckle 2

…and the beach rose hips are the size of cherry tomatoes!

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The Connecticut coastal region has a longer frost-free season than most of the state of Connecticut, 15-35 days longer depending on where you live. I would love an extra 35 days of growing time for my gardens but I don’t know if I would be willing to exchange those extra days just to worry about the salinity tolerance of my plants, sandy soils that may drain too quickly, or high winds. Those are all a part of the ecoregion along the Connecticut shore and each of those factors play a part in selecting plants for landscaping in that area.

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Salt can affect and potentially kill shoreline plants in two ways; either through salt spray that can damage leaves and plant tissues or through groundwater where salt water is brought in on daily tides. Where the groundwater is highly concentrated with salt water plant tissues can be damaged as with salt spray but additionally they will suffer with water uptake issues. When the concentrations of salt in the soil surrounding the roots of a plant become too high the plant may be forced to accumulate salts in its root cells to compensate for the higher levels outside. Expending energy to facilitate these functions means less energy will be directed toward the growth and vigor of the plant, sometimes causing the roots to go dormant, and resulting in a poor or stunted appearance.

Have you ever noticed how plantings along the shore seem to almost hug the ground? When salt is dissolved in water it separates into equal ratios of its two ions: sodium and chloride. It is the build-up of chloride ions in plant tissues such as the stems and leaves that will present as browned, bronzed, or ‘scorched’, leaf edges.

scorched

Even the slope of the land or whether there is a sea wall present will influence the amount of salt damage that can occur. Within the same property or area several different salinity levels may be present as plants that are on the lower end of a slope may receive twice-daily infiltrations of seawater at high tide. And an area that slopes up will be more affected by salt spray. In fact, unlike the effect of elevated levels of salt in groundwater which tend to be localized, salt spray can reach plants several miles inland.

Fortunately, many species of plants that are native to Connecticut have developed the ability to thrive in these conditions and are categorized as highly salt tolerant, moderately tolerant, and least tolerant. Using plants that are highly tolerant as a buffer to shield less tolerant plants from salt spray, winds, or that simply increase the distance from areas of salty groundwater is a good option. The Connecticut Coastal Planting Guide from Connecticut Sea Grant/UConn has a great listing of trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and groundcovers and their salt tolerance levels. Our recent trip to the shore showed some wonderful examples.

IMG_20170711_112627268   Sassafras

Mountain Laurel     IMG_20170711_115224655_HDR

IMG_20170711_113134395   Viburnum

Trumpet creeper           IMG_20170711_182901348_HDR

Through UConn, the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources has a resource that, through a step-by-step process, will help you prepare your site and choose plants that will have a better chance of survival in the coastal environment, prevent erosion, and provide needed food and protection to coastal wildlife such as this great white heron.

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by Susan Pelton 2017

mullein.greenway.jallen  Photo: J. Allen, UConn

 

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is, well, common around here.  Right now it’s in its glory, with spikes of yellow flowers standing tall along roadsides and in other open areas.  I really thought this was a native plant, and when I spotted them along this paved trail in central Connecticut and decided to snap a few pics and do a blog on it this week, the idea was to share info on an interesting but often overlooked native.  As usual, I started reading up on it prior to writing and discovered that it’s not native to North America at all. This plants’ native range includes Europe, northern Africa and Asia.  It was introduced in North America very early in the 18th century and by the early 1800s it was widespread and reported as far west as Michigan in 1839 and California in 1876.  Today it is found in all 50 states and much of Canada.

A couple of states, Colorado and Hawaii, list it as a noxious weed. In most cases, common mullein is not considered an important agricultural weed.  This is because it does not compete well with other plants for establishment and is also not tolerant of tilling.  Seed germination occurs on pretty much bare soil, so disturbed areas are ideal sites for colonization.  Speaking of the seeds, they are impressive!!  One notable characteristic having to do with the seeds is the number of them produced by a single plant: 100,000-240,000 of them in a single season (number varies by reference)!  Not only are seeds produced in massive quantities, they can also remain viable and dormant in the soil for over 100 years.  This means that where this plant grows, a huge seed bank can rapidly accumulate.

First year rosette by John Cardina, The Ohio State University, Bugwood.org

Common mullein is a biennial plant that produces a large rosette of low-growing leaves in the first year and a single tall flower spike in the second year. Rosette leaves can be up to a foot long and are quite fuzzy.  Leaves on the lower part of the flower stalk are attached (no petiole), alternate and decrease in size towards the top.  Flowers are yellow, stalkless, one inch across, and have five fused petals.  Each flower only blooms for one day.  Flowers are produced on the stalk from June through August, or in some areas, September.  Seed capsules are fuzzy and split open at maturity to release as many as 700 or more seeds each.  Most of the seeds fall to the ground within a short distance of the parent plant but some are dispersed by animals, soil movement, etc. Very few animals are known to feed on the seeds, even birds, because they are so tiny.

mullein.flower.jallen  Flower close-up with Syrphid fly. J. Allen, UConn

This plant is a mixed blessing when it comes to the insects that it attracts. Some of them are pests that will also feed on plants in the garden or on the farm.  These include tarnished plant bug and spider mites. Others, though, like the Syrphid fly shown in the photo, are beneficial.  The larvae of the Syrphid fly are predators and will feed on aphids and other tiny, soft-bodied insects.

The reason this plant was introduced into the United States, and probably other areas of the world, is because it has well-documented medicinal uses. Disclaimer: This blog does not advocate the use of plants for these purposes unless a doctor is consulted. Because common mullein was introduced to the U.S. so early, it’s not known whether it was mostly shared with European settlers by Native Americans or the other way around.  A very early record of medicinal use was from Dioscorides about 2000 years ago for treatment of pulmonary diseases, especially coughs. Chemicals in the plant (and tea made from it) include expectorant saponins and emollient mucilage.  Any tea or extract made for the plant needs to be filtered well to remove the hairs that can cause irritation.  Leaves have also been smoked for pulmonary problems.

Some groups have also used a poultice from common mullein for treatment of skin conditions including sores, rashes, warts, hemorrhoids and more. Oil from the flowers has a history of use for many external issues, too.

Other interesting uses for the plant include piscicides (fish killing compounds), shoe insulation, candle wicks, and torches (made from the flower stalk by dipping into suet or wax). Piscicides have been widely used through history for fishing (the toxic chemicals in this case are from the seeds).  The flowers can be used as a source of natural yellow or green dye.

While not planted much in gardens, seeds are reported to be available from a few vendors. Because of the persistence of the seeds, it can be hard to get rid of when needed.  The best method is hand pulling but herbicides can also be used.  This will require some persistence due to the longevity of the seeds left behind.

To finish up, I’ll share some of the other, sometimes fun, common names of this plant: great mullein (commonly used in Europe), cowboy toilet paper (western U.S.), flannel mullein, velvet dock, woolly mullein, and in the 19th century U.S. Indian rag weed, hare’s beard, ice-leaf, blanket mullein, poor man’s blanket, shepherd’s club, feltwort, and Moses’ blanket.

J. Allen

 

Hot summer weather has many of us seeking tasty relief at their local ice cream parlors. Despite a dizzying array of flavors, plain old vanilla ranks high in popularity. Natural vanilla flavoring comes from vanilla beans which are produced in pods by an orchid. Most of the world’s vanilla beans are grown in Madagascar. This past year saw a shortage of vanilla beans from that country which is why you may have noticed the price of real vanilla extract at the stores has increased.

vanilla bean

Vanilla beans by dpettinelli, UConn

If you are looking for some calorie-free ways to enjoy the delicious scent of vanilla, look no further than the garden. A number of plants have a luscious vanilla scents include annuals, perennials, trees, shrubs and vines. Do keep in mind that fragrances take on a personal tone so what some might perceive as vanilla, others may detect a slightly different odor.

Most popular as well as easy to find are heliotropes (Heliotropium arborescens). These annual plants mostly found in shades of purple have large clusters of vanilla-scented flowers. They can be used as bedding plants but many find their way into containers placed near entranceways or on decks where their delicious fragrance can be repeatedly enjoyed. Plants grow about a foot tall. I think the white flowering form has a stronger vanilla scent than the purple but it is harder to find.

Heliotrope Nagano

Heliotropes bloom all summer and are great in containers. By dpettinelli, UConn

Years ago when working at Old Sturbridge Village, we tended a collection of scented geraniums including apple, coconut, nutmeg, lemon, peppermint and vanilla. With geraniums, it is the leaves that carries the delightful scents. French vanilla geraniums have small sprays of white flowers and work well in containers in full sun.

Another plant grown at OSV was mignonette (Reseda odorata). Flowers are rather inconspicuous with small creamy whitish blossoms but their fragrance is a heavenly raspberry vanilla. I have never seen this annual for sale at garden centers but it is easy to start this plant from seed.

Although technical a valerian (Valeriana officinalis), the white flower clusters of the often called garden heliotrope are attractive to pollinators and people alike. It is blooming right now. This hardy perennial gets about 3 feet tall in my garden but would probably grow taller if in a more moister situation. The leaves are toothed and pinnate. It spreads slowly if happy and is native to Europe and western Asia.

valerian

Valerian, sometimes referred to as garden heliotrope by dpettinelli, UConn.

Many are familiar with our native Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) as a good wildlife plant as well as useful cut flower but have you stopped and smelled it. A soft vanilla fragrance is emitted upon close inspection (or should I say sniffing!). Plants reach 4 to 5 feet tall and enjoy moist soils in full sun. Plants are hardy to zone 4 and flowers are arranged in large clusters in shades of mauves and pinks.

While most dianthus have a spicy scent, ‘Itsaul White’ (Dianthus plumarius) smells like vanilla. Pure white, fringed, semi-double flowers attract butterflies. While the plant only blooms from late spring to early summer, the silvery blue foliage remains attractive all season long. Plants are compact reaching only 12 inches high and are hardy to zone 3.

Clematis montana selections are vigorous, vines reaching 20 to 30 feet. They are spring blooming but have a light, delightful vanilla fragrance. Look for the white flowered, ‘Grandiflora’, pink-flowered ‘Elizabeth’ or ‘Mayleen’ These plants are very attractive grown on a fence or over a trellis. For abundant flowering, plant them in full sun with their roots shaded through the use of mulch or plantings positioned behind other fuller but low plant selections.

clematis LR

Clematis montana by L Rivers

The name ‘Vanilla Spice’ should clue you in that this selection of summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) is especially aromatic. Plants grow up to 6 feet tall and wide and have larger white flowers than the species which is native to many east coast states. Usually this shrub is found in moist locations and it prefers our native, slightly acidic soils. ‘Hummingbird’ is a dwarf selection reaching only 2 feet tall while ‘Ruby Spice’ is a full-sized plant with deep pink flowers. Blooms occur in late summer and are always covered with bees and other pollinators.

Clethra 8-03-08

Clethra alnifolia by dpettinelli, UConn

Native to Korea, the white forsythia (Abeliophyllum distichum) is a small shrub, about 4 feet tall. Rather unassuming, the pale pink buds open to mostly white, lightly vanilla scented flowers in early spring. It is a very undemanding plant tolerating a wide variety or soil conditions and hardy to zone 5. Plant white forsythia in full sun to part shade.

Visiting the Grand Canyon last November, our tour guide brought us to some old copper mines now surrounded by ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa). It was a warm November day and he had us all smell the reddish crackly bark of these tall, magnificent trees. They smelled just like vanilla flavored, fresh baked sugar cookies. I remember that Jeffrey pines (P. jeffreyi) in Oregon had a similar scent. Both are quite sizeable trees but they are hardy in this area.

Plants are grown for many reasons but maybe one consideration when selecting some for your garden might be their scent. So be sure to smell the flowers and you can bask in their scents making pulling weeds and putting down mulch much more pleasant tasks.

Happy 4th! Dawn P.

Venus looking glass II

Venus’ Looking glass

Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.

Al Bernstein

 

This spring took forever, it seemed, to warm up, but it did, and just in time. Rains provided a boost to plants that suffered during the drought of last year, and dogwoods, crabapples, azaleas and rhododendrons had fabulous flowers this spring. But now June is here, and yesterday marked the first day of summer, and so we move on to the warmer weather and all it brings with it.

elderberry blossoms 2011

Elderberry flower head

Native elderberries are in full bloom right now and many bushes are covered with the large, white flower clusters. Later on, the dark purple fruits will provide food for many birds and mammals. While edible for humans, and high in vitamin C, most people do not care for the raw fruits, but may make jam or pies from them. And mountain laurels are still in bloom now as well. Some cultivars, such as ‘Kaleidoscope and ‘ Firecracker’ have striking red flowers. Dewberry, a native berry that forms mats sometimes as it creeps along the ground, is in bloom now, and its flowers are important food sources for many native bees and butterflies. Soon to come into flower are the native Canada lily, Indian pipe and native wood lilies. Venus’ Looking- glass, Triodanis perfoliata, is a native purple wildflower that has its flowers along the stem at the leaf axils. Poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, should be blooming now. This native milkweed grows well in wooded, shady areas. Flower heads dangle down, unlike those of most milkweeds. The white flowers are attractive to several moth pollinators.

poke milkweed.JPG

Several insect pests are making their presence known. The infamous 4-lined plant bug, a lime green adult with 4 black lines down its back, leaves behind diagnostic feeding damage that later on will look like black angular leaf spots. They are cosmopolitan in plants they will eat. This year they have been reported feeding on many herbs, dandelions (who cares?!), sunflowers, sedum, and the list goes on. Also, both the Colorado and false potato beetles are mating as we speak, and they seem to be heading for a banner year, population –wise. So crush the eggs as you may find them on any of your nightshade family plants like tomatoes and peppers. Be careful not to crush any lady beetle eggs, though, as the larva will feed on those of the potato beetles.

moutain laurel

mountain laurel cultivar

Colorado potato beetle June 2017pg

Colorado Potato Beetle laying eggs

On a walk along a power line yesterday, I was delighted to see two visitors from the south- common buckeye butterflies. I have not seen these occasional visitors since Hurricane Sandy, so this a good butterfly to keep on the look-out for. Red- spotted purple, viceroys and American lady butterflies should be in the process of laying eggs now, if they haven’t already. I found several tiny spicebush swallowtail caterpillars also this week. Check out your dill, fennel or parsley, because the black swallowtail butterfly may have laid an egg or two on them, and the caterpillars may have hatched out.

common buckeye June 21 2017 Coldbrook

A visiting common buckeye butterfly

Swamp milkweed leaf beetles are easy to spot with their red and black elytra. Not pests, these chunky beetles are just a colorful splash on a green background. Pine sawyers, longhorn beetles commonly mistaken for the invasive Asian long-horned beetle, are active now. They will often visit newly stained decks until the stain dries out. Dogwood calligrapha beetles, striking in their spiffy black markings on a white background, are out and about on native dogwoods now.

calligrapha

dogwood calligrapha beetle

There are many birds that are now fluttering around trying to keep up with newly fledged young.  Catbirds, robins, red-tailed hawks, Carolina and house wrens, Bob-o-links and some sparrows have a clutch early and some species, like the ubiquitous robins have a second brood. Fledglings are often very loud as they beg for food, and get louder still as mothers withhold food briefly, to teach them how to fend for themselves.

chipping sparrows just hatched 6-6-14

Chipping sparrow nest

we recently had a visitor to our office. A green bullfrog somehow landed in our window well and could not escape. So we managed to catch it and Joan Allen walked it to a nearby pond. Another bit of excitement at work.

froggie in the window.jpg

froggy in the window

As you venture out into the landscape, I hope curiosity will get the best of you, causing you to turn over leaves looking for insects, watching birds as you see and hear them, and bending over to see what is lurking on the ground by your feet. In such a way we become more interactive with the environment and thus, less frightened or at least dismayed by new discoveries. Look stuff up when you find it. Curiosity did not kill the cat, nor will it do likewise to people. Nor has asking questions ever done any harm, at least as far as I know…

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Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

Like many landscaped yards in Connecticut our property has boxwood adorning our front yard, planted more than 30 years ago. This shrub is usually a minimal maintenance woody ornamental plant. It requires a bit of shaping once a season even though its slow growth habit doesn’t send out the random foot-long shoots that its neighboring Japanese maple does. In fact, the amount that is trimmed off is more like a ‘shaving’ of its foliage and the easiest way to collect the clippings is to place a tarp beneath the shrub (the tiny pieces of leaf are almost impossible to rake it up). We tend to do the shaping of the shrubs in the landscape somewhere near the end of June and beginning of July. I remember one year (and I’m sure that my daughter will never forget) trimming them on a hot humid day where we ended up wearing bits of foliage that stuck to our damp skin!

Over Memorial Day weekend this year as I walked past the boxwood that borders our driveway I was surprised to see it covered in a white fuzz. I stopped in my tracks for a closer look. Up and down the stems and in the leaf axils was a fluffy white coating that dispersed like a powder into the breeze when I touched the shrub.

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Using a macro lens, I took successively closer images until what looked like just white fuzz became individual clumps and then minute insects. These are the nymphs of the boxwood psyllid and the white fuzz was waxy strands of their crystallized honeydew secretions that is also called ‘lerp’. Yes, that is a real word. Boxwood psyllid (Psylla buxi) are in the family Homoptera, a suborder that also includes aphids, scale insects, cicadas, and leafhoppers.

The tiny orange eggs of the boxwood psyllid overwinter in the bud scales of the boxwood and will hatch when the temperature reaches 80 degree days, around the same time that the buds open. Degree days are an accumulative measurement that allow the prediction of insect appearances and plant blooming. For more info on degree days, visit the Cornell University site: Network for Environment and Weather Applications.

Enfield, CT reached 80 degree days on May 18th this year and between then and mid-June when we accumulate 300 degree days the psyllid nymphs will go through 5 instar (nymph) stages. They mature into winged adults as they finish their incomplete metamorphosis. It was a bit slower this year due to the cooler temperatures. The adults will mate and lay their eggs under the bud scales, there is only one generation a year.

Most of the damage from the boxwood psyllid is in the leaf cupping that happens as the larvae feed. They have sucking mouthparts and the leaves curl around the nymphs as they feed, a rather tell-tale sign of their presence. The psyllid doesn’t do any substantial damage.

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Meanwhile, another pest also made its appearance. A beautiful Goldflame honeysuckle, Lonicera x heckrottii that adorns our deck was getting its yearly aphid visit.

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As a relative of the boxwood psyllid the feeding damage of this aphid (Hyadaphis tataricae) is very similar. They love the flower buds and can feed inside the bud before you can even know that they are there. Aphid damage will stunt the growth of the flower buds and prevent the honeysuckle flowers from blooming.

And that would keep us from one of the pleasures of outdoor dining on a summer evening: watching the hummingbirds visit the showy pink and yellow tubular flowers as they search for nectar. The hummingbirds dart in and out so quickly but they occasionally stop for a brief respite, barely bending the vining stem as they weigh so little, often less than 1/10th of an ounce.

Bees and other pollinators such as the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus) also spend lots of time going from flower to flower on the honeysuckle. It’s important to keep these visitors in mind when dealing with pests such as the aphids. A systemic insecticide should never be used during the period when a plant is flowering. These pesticides will target all insects that feed on the plant’s sap, drink the nectar, or gather the pollen regardless of whether they are beneficial or not.

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A strong spray of water may dislodge aphids and psyllids or an insecticidal soap may be used. An insecticidal soap works as a contact pesticide and as such there is no residual insecticidal activity once the solution has dried. It must sprayed directly on the soft-bodied insects that it effectively controls. It also degrades quickly and will wash off leaf surfaces so that it won’t affect non-target insects, especially pollinators, or the lady beetles that consume the aphids in large quantities.

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If you see (or have seen) psyllids or aphids you may want to do as I do and make a note of it in your calendar or your garden journal so that you can keep an eye out for them next year. Knowing when the aphids may show up on the honeysuckle gives me a bit of an edge in controlling them and allows the most blooms to come to fruition much to the enjoyment of humans, animals, and insects alike!

Susan Pelton

(all images and videos ©Susan Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center)

It’s the very beginning of June in Connecticut.  Since mid May or so, gorgeous patches of pink, purple and white ‘wildflowers’ have appeared along roadsides.  A few years ago, my mom was visiting from Michigan around this time for a graduation.  She has been an avid gardener for many years and when she saw these flowers, she exclaimed, “oh, those wild phlox are just beautiful!”   So even a seasoned gardener can mistake this invasive plant, Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) for wild or garden phlox.

DamesRocket.GarlicMustardJAllen  J. Allen photo

Relatively speaking, Dame’s rocket (other common names include dame’s violet and mother-of-the-evening) is a newcomer to the status of invasive plant so its impacts on native species are not well studied.  It is known that it effectively forms monocultures where it has escaped from cultivation, is a prolific seed producer, and is not kept in check by pests or diseases in North America.  It is still readily available as seed commercially but is banned as an invasive in some states including Connecticut and Massachusetts. This means it cannot be bought, sold, cultivated or moved within these areas.   Unfortunately, it is still commonly included in ‘wildflower’ seed mixes for gardens in other parts of the United States.  According to a USDA distribution map, it is found throughout the continental U.S. except for the most southern parts and much of Canada.

Where did it come from?  It was introduced as an ornamental from Eurasia in the early 1600s so it’s had plenty of time to become established.  Dame’s rocket is in the plant family Brassicaceae so is related to the mustards, cabbage, broccoli, kale, etc.  The leaves, oil and seeds are edible and the plant is cultivated for its oil which is used in perfumes. Young leaves are a good source of vitamin C and they can be used in salads.  Speaking of perfume, it’s reported that the flowers of this plant produce a stronger scent in the evening.

DamesRocketLeavesJAllenDamesRocketFlowersJAllen J. Allen photos

Characteristics that can help identify Dame’s rocket include branched clusters of white, pink, and purple flowers that are about 3/4-1″ across and have four petals.  True phlox flowers have five petals. In addition, true phlox (wild) flower later in the season.  The leaves of Dame’s rocket are alternate, lance shaped and have serrated or toothed edges as shown above. In addition, leaves (except for the lowest on the stem) are directly attached to the stem and have no petioles. In contrast, true phlox have opposite leaves.  I’ll pop in a photo of true phlox below so you can see the leaves and flowers together.

 Wild blue or woodland phlox (Phlox divaricatahttps://en.wikipedia.org photo. This species is native to eastern North America.

Another distinctive feature of Dame’s rocket is the long, spindly seed pod (silique).  These form from the bottom of the flower cluster upward, so the youngest flowers (formed over a 4-6 week period) are at the tops and produce seed pods last.  Seeds and pods mature over the summer and when dry they split open releasing seeds into the soil.  Some are eaten by birds allowing for longer distance dispersal.  Each plant can produce hundreds of seeds which can remain viable in the soil for many years.

Dame’s rocket seed pods (siliques) on the left (Mark Frey, The Presidio Trust , Bugwood.org.  First year rosette on the right (Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut, Bugwood.org).

This plant is considered a biennial or short term perennial.  The first season of growth from seed produces a low-growing rosette of leaves which survive and remain green through the first winter.  The next season a 2-4′ flower stalk is produced as shown above.  This will dieback in the fall and some plants will produce new flower stalks in the third year.   The plant appears perennial where established in part due to the large seed supply that is produced annually.

It’s hard to want to destroy such a beautiful plant but if removal is required the methods include mechanical (pulling), burning, or herbicide applications (useful for large populations).  The best time to pull plants is in spring before seed pods mature.  Seeds can still ripen on plants pulled at this time using nutrients from the stems and leaves so for effective eradication, bag or burn the plants and remove them.  If not feasible, pile the plants in the center of the area where there is likely to be a lot of seed in the soil already.  The pile can be covered with black plastic to heat the pile and kill some of the plants.  A good approach for herbicide use is to apply to rosettes in early spring or fall to avoid injuring desirable plants nearby.  In early spring they will not have germinated yet.  Temperatures should be at or above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.

J. Allen