Every growing season brings a variety of inquiries into the UConn Home & Garden Education office, either by snail mail, email, or in person. This year was no exception and I would like to share some that I found particularly interesting.

As we are entering the Christmas season I will start with an image of a Christmas cactus with raised bumps on its leaves. Although they were the same color as the leaf they had a translucent appearance when viewed with the light from behind. These blisters are edema (oedema)are the result of a disruption in the plant’s water balance that causes the leaf cells to enlarge and plug pores and stomatal openings. Moving the plant to a location with more light and watering only when the soil is dry can control edema.

Edema on Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus with edema symptoms

The cold of winter can cause problems that sometimes aren’t apparent until later in the year. Tree trunks that are exposed to southern light during the winter can suffer from sunscald and frost cracks. Sunshine and warm daytime temperatures can warm a tree enough so that the sap begins to run but the nighttime temps will cause the sap to freeze and expand, weakening the bark and resulting in vertical cracks. Dogwood with sunscald (on left) and willow with frost crack (on right) are among the susceptible species.


There were several incidences of huge populations of black cutworm larvae emerging in the spring including a group that appeared to be taking over a driveway! The Noctuidae moth can lay hundreds of eggs in low-growing plants, weeds, or plant residue.

The wet spring weather that helped to alleviate the drought of the past two years also had an effect on the proliferation of slime molds, those vomitus-looking masses that are entirely innocuous. The dog stinkhorn (Mutinus caninus) is another fungus that made several appearances this year.

Hosta plants exhibited several different symptoms on its foliage this year and the explanations were quite varied, from natural to man-made. The afore-mentioned wet spring and summer or overhead watering systems can cause Hosta to have the large, irregular, water-soaked looking spots with dark borders that may be a sign of anthracnose (the below left and center images). In the image below on the right the insect damage that shows up as holes that have been chewed in foliage may be caused by one of Hosta’s main pests, slugs.

But one of the more enigmatic Hosta problems presented itself as areas of white that appeared randomly on the foliage. Several questions and answers later it was determined that the Hosta in question was very close to a deck that had been power washed with a bleach solution! Yeah, that will definitely give you white spots.

Bleach damage 3

That bleach bath also affected a nearby coleus (below on left). Coleus downy mildew (Peronospora sp.) also likes the cool the cool temperatures and humidity of spring (below on right). The gray-purple angular blotches of this fungal disease were first observed in New York in 2005. Fungicides can be helpful if used early and thoroughly, and overcrowding and overhead watering should be minimized.

The grounds of the residence where my in-laws live have a lot of flowering plants in the landscape and as we walked one evening I noticed that the white roses had spots of red on them. These small, red rings are indicative of Gray mold (Botrytis cinerea), a necrotrophic fungal disease that is also a common problem in grapes called botrytis bunch rot. The disease is a parasitic organism that lives off of the dead plant tissues of its host.

The fungus Gymnosporangium clavipes, cedar-quince rust, on Serviceberry warranted several calls to the center due to its odd appearance. The serviceberry fruit gets heavily covered with the aecia tubes of the rust which will release the aeciospores that infect nearby members of the Juniper family, the alternate host that is needed to complete the cycle of the infection.

Two other samples that came in, goldenrod (below on left) and sunflower (below on right), shared unusual growths of foliage. Sometimes plant aberrations can be the result of a virus (such as rose rosette disease), fungus (such as corn smut fungus), or, like these samples, phytoplasma. Phytoplasma is the result of bacterial parasites in the plant’s phloem tissue and can result in leaf-like structures in place of flowers (phyllody) or the loss of pigment in flower petals that results in green flowers (virescence). Phytoplasma parasites are vectored by insects.

A frequent question revolves around ‘growths’ of a different kind, in particular the white projections that can cover a tomato hornworm. These are the pupal cocoons of the parasitic braconid wasp. The female wasp lays its eggs just under the skin of the hornworm and the newly hatched larvae will literally eat the hornworm to death. As the larvae mature they will chew their way to the outside where they will spin their cocoons along the back and pupate. As the hornworm is effectively a goner at this point they should be left undisturbed so that the next generation of wasps will emerge to continue to help us by naturally controlling this tomato pest.

Tomato hornworm 3

Tomato hornworm with braconid wasp pupal cocoons


Another wasp that was caught in the act was the cicada killer wasp (Sphecius speciosus), a large, solitary, digger wasp. Cicada killers, also called cicada hawks, are so called because they hunt cicadas to provision their nests. It is the female cicada killer that paralyzes the cicada and flies it back to her ground nest. The male cicada killer has no stinger and although its aggressive nature can seem threatening to humans, the male spends most of its time grappling with other males for breeding rights and investigating anything that moves near them.

Cicada killer wasp

A cicada killer wasp paralyzes a cicada


Speaking of noticing what’s going on around you, as my husband was walking past a False indigo (Baptisia australis) in July he heard a strange cracking sound and called it to my attention. The plant in question was outside of a gym on the Hofstra University campus where our son’s powerlifting meet had just ended. As many lifters exited the building amid much music and commotion we stood their staring at the Baptisia, heads tilted in that pose that is more often found on a puzzled dog. The bush was indeed popping and cracking as the dried seed pods split open!


But none of our inquiries approach the level of oddity reported by a retiree in Karlsruh, Germany, who thought that he had found an unexploded bomb in his garden in September. Police officers called to the scene discovered not a bomb but in fact an extra-large zucchini (11 lbs.!) that had been thrown over the garden hedge.


This is not an unexploded ordnance!


I look forward to next year’s growing season with great anticipation!

Susan Pelton

There is a deciduous plant that grows as a small tree or shrub, is native not only to the Northeast but to most of the temperate Northern Hemisphere, is a popular ornamental species appreciated for its flowers and its fall color, and it produces a deep purple fruit that is both edible and delicious. George Washington had specimens of this plant on his Mount Vernon estate but even before that the Native Americans mixed the fruit with dried meats and fat to create pemmican, a food that is high in both energy and nutrition. This plant goes by many names, some of the more unusual ones are sarvis, saskatoon, and chuckley pear. Have you guessed what it is yet? Here are some of the more common monikers: wild plum, sugar plum, service tree, and shadblow. Have it yet? Let’s keep going. How about shadbush, serviceberry, or Juneberry? Now you know it, it’s Amelanchier.



In fact, there are so many bits of lore surrounding the etymology of all of the various names attributed to this plant. Is it called sarvis or serviceberry because the fruit is similar to the European Sorbus or because its bloom in the spring coincided with the time that Appalachian mountain roads became passable enough for traveling clergy to hold services? Or is it shadbush or shadblow because the flowers appear when the shad are running? Or Juneberry because, you guessed it, the fruit appeared in June? I think that my favorite name is saskatoon which is derived from the Cree name for Amelanchier, misâskwatômina, which also lends its name to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where the plant is native.


The delicate blooms of Amelanchier captured by Pamm Cooper


One of the most common species of this plant that is found in New England is the Amelanchier canadensis, known as the Eastern shadbush. It comes as no surprise that this plant has so many names as there are between 6 and 33 species (depending on the source) due to the wide variety of hybrids and the fact that it is also found in Asia (A. sinica or Chinese serviceberry) and Europe (where the species A. ovalis is known as Snowy mesiplus).


Amelanchier canandensis, aka Shadblow in its tree form, courtesy of Pamm Cooper

Adding to the confusion is that fact that this plant can be a small tree or a multi-stemmed clumping shrub. This happens when the new growth is heavily browsed by deer and rabbits and the plant takes on a tree-like shape instead of a shrub similar to many of the its fellow members of the Rose family. In full sun or part shade it can reach 20’ tall and has an airy, open look to it that is compounded by the fact that the white flowers emerge before the leaves in the spring. If it is left to its own devices then the suckers that are produced from the base of the plant can grow into a thicket.

The fruit that succeeds the flowers starts as a yellow, single-stone, berry-like ½” pome that hang in terminal clusters of 1 to 4 fruit. As the season progresses and the fruits ripen their color shifts to red, purple, and finally the deep almost black purple that signifies maturity. We have received several calls from the Connecticut Poison Control Center requesting identification of the Serviceberry fruit as it appears to be as attractive to children as it does to birds and wildlife. It is always nice to be able to report that it is in fact edible and harmless. When fully ripe the taste is sweet and a bit tart at the same time. I had a bowl of them in the fridge and my husband ate one, expecting that it was a grape, and was a bit surprised.


The plum-like interior of the fruit

Amelanchier is not only grown for its fruit but as a popular ornamental shrub/tree. Although they are not drought tolerant and require good drainage and air circulation they do provide interest throughout the year. The delicate 2” white or pink blossoms appear in the spring around the time that the shad are running in the Connecticut River according to folk lore, generally in early April. The leaves follow the blooms and then the berries which are ripening now. Soon the leaves will turn from green to yellow to a beautiful orange or red and when they fall the tree will still provide interest in the form of its unusual grey bark which shows fissures as it ages.


The interesting bark of Amelanchier

In addition to the aforementioned deer and rabbits Lepidoptera caterpillars and other insects also feed on Amelanchier. Among these are spider mites, sawflies, flatheaded borers, bark beetles and aphids. I did not see any aphids when I took these images but I did see a specimen that was heavily populated with Asian lady beetles, a heavy predator of aphids, in three different stages of development.

Amelanchier are susceptible to several diseases including Fire blight, Leaf spot, and Gymnosporangium rust, which affects the leaves, twigs, and fruit with distinctive orange lesions and spores. The alternate hosts of Gymnosporangium are juniper and cedar.

Another common affliction of stone fruit that also infects Amelanchier berries is Brown rot. Brown rot, or Monilinia amelanchieris, fungi persist in blighted blossoms, twig cankers, or on mummified fruit. In the cold winters of Connecticut it only survives by overwintering on fallen infected fruits. Apothecia are produced on berries that overwintered on the ground. These small mushroom-like structures release ascospores which can infect blossoms and cankers but not the fruit. In more temperate areas when early spring temperatures combine with moisture the conidia, the asexual reproductive spores, will be produced on cankers or mummified fruit that remained on the tree. The conidia of Monilinia form linked chains on the blighted tissue of blossoms or twigs from which the mature spores will detach to be spread by air, splashing water, or insects.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will entire fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate of the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit causing the fruit to decay and turn brown.

When vectored by feeding insects these spores will enter fruit through the open wounds. In the moist, moderately temperatured climate inside the developing fruit the conidia will germinate in 2-4 hours although it may remain latent in green fruit. Mycelium, the vegetative part of the fungus that absorbs nutrients, and conidia, the spores, will sprout from the infected fruit as small, circular brown spots that cause the fruit to decay and turn brown. Within these areas tufts of greyish spores appear as the fruit mummifies. The fruit may remain on the tree or drop to the ground until the spring when the cycle starts again. Cleaning up dropped fruit and debris will help to cut down on reinfection and it is suggested that Amelanchier be planted in areas where the messy dropped ripe fruit is not an issue.

Better uses for the ripened fruit include jams, pies, wines, ciders, or dried like cranberries for use in cereals, trail mix, and snack foods. Or you could whip up big batch of that Native American favorite, pemmican, if you happened to have a load of thin slices of bison meat that have been dried in the sun and pounded into a powder, mixed with melted fat and the dried serviceberries and formed into patties. Just in time to store it away to delight your family at Thanksgiving!

Susan Pelton

The Home & Garden Education Center has received an abundance of inquiries related to Japanese pachysandra, (Pachysandra terminalis) during the last few weeks. Homeowners all over Connecticut are experiencing difficulty with this groundcover. It first becomes noticeable as other things around it start to green up in the spring and we see that the leaves are remaining a sickly shade of yellowish-green.

pachy blight 2

Affected bed of pachysandra

As it catches our attention we notice that the plantings in general look a bit sad and sparse. A closer look at the leaves will reveal that there are areas of irregular brown blotches that have concentric line patterns within the affected area and pretty sharply defined darker brown edges. The center of the spots will can appear much lighter if the salmon-pink fungal spores are present.

pachy blight 1

Pachysandra leaves showing signs of Volutella blight

The browning areas will continue to spread and darken and can encompass the entire leaf as it dies. The cankers that can develop on the stems and stolons can girdle the stem and cause the plant to wither and die by disrupting the transport of water and minerals through the plants vascular system.Unfortunately this can happen in as little as two weeks, especially if the weather is wet and humid. It has certainly been wet over the last week and although the total precipitation is around the average 1” needed for growing plants it has come in a slow but steady sprinkle allowing plants little time to dry out between the showers.

This is all the work of the fungus called Volutella pachysandricola, or Volutella Leaf and Stem Blight. This fungus is considered an opportunistic pathogen that attacks weak plants. It can infect leaves, stems, and stolons and is considered the most destructive disease of pachysandra. The pink spores that appear in the spring will darken to reddish-orange in the late summer and fall when a second type of spore is produced.


Close-ups of the Volutella damage and spores

This winter may have provided the perfect storm needed by Volutella to thrive. Drying winds and winter sun can desiccate pachysandra if there is not an adequate cover of snow to provide protection. Also, many beds of pachysandra are near roads and sidewalks where salts may dry them out further. A cover of mulch could provide just enough needed winter protection for plantings in these areas but it should be removed in the early spring. Some symptoms of winter injury or sunscald such as tan or scorched leaves may initially appear to be Volutella but they will not exhibit the characteristic concentric lines of the disease.


Those same pachysandra beds that are near sidewalks or roads or are used as edgings can receive damage from mowers, clippers and weed whackers (Or as they are called in Australia, ‘whipper snippers’. I just love that!). Cuts from lawn equipment can provide an opening in plant tissue and when the plant is wet the fungal spores are able to infect it easily and travel to the stems where they will cause the girdling mentioned earlier.

Good sanitation practices can be helpful when dealing with pachysandra blight. It is too late for a good fall cleanup now but you can still remove any plant debris that remains. During dry weather remove and bag (not compost) any diseased plants to reduce the inoculum. Thinning out beds will also help improve the air circulation that can speed up drying. Fungicides can be used as preventives for new growth or when wounds occur and systemic curatives can be used when symptoms first appear although they will not correct damaged tissues. Allegheny pachysandra (Pachysandra procumbens) can be less susceptible to the disease or you could consider another groundcover such as creeping myrtle or vinca.


Vinca major, also known as variegated greater periwinkle

Another source of wounds to pachysandra that should not be overlooked in insect damage. Scale insects such as Euonymous scale, two-spotted spider mites, and root knot nematodes have been found on plant samples that have come in to the Center. Horticultural oils and insecticidal soaps applied now can help control scale, just be sure to thoroughly coat the pests with the product. A miticide can be used on the spider mites but there is currently no control chemical treatment for the nematodes.

Euonymous scale

Euonymous scale image by Joan Allen

If you are experiencing these symptoms in your pachysandra beds you can get additional information from the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station fact sheet entitled Volutella Blight of Pachysandra, on our website at Pachysandra Leaf and Stem Blight, or by contacting us at the UConn Home & Garden Education Center.

-Susan Pelton








The birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is one of those things in nature that you might see on a regular basis, maybe even every day, and wonder in passing what it is or what it’s called, only to forget about it until it jogs your memory again.  There’s not much that seems to stand out about it and it’s probably not something you’d try to remember to describe to your friend at work the next day.  But, just because it’s common, it is kind of nice to find out what it is and learn a little something about it, at least I think so.

This year's birch polypore fruiting body (lower) perpendicular to last year's after the tree fell.

Current year’s birch polypore fruiting body (lower) perpendicular to last year’s after the tree fell.

The birch polypore is a fungus that produces a fleshy, bracket-like fruiting body on the wood of colonized birch trees.  It causes a brown rot type of wood decay but only in weakened or dying trees.  Once the tree dies, the fungus can continue to thrive on it for some time.  The fruiting bodies, the fleshy spore-producing structure, is annual in this fungus and will be produced once the wood in the tree is quite extensively decayed.  It’s called a polypore because the lower surface of the fruiting body is made up of many tiny, vertical pores up to about a centimeter high.  On the walls of all these pores, spores are produced in late summer through early fall.  A single fruiting body will produce millions of spores.  Even though these are annual fruiting bodies, producing spores for just a single season, they will darken and stay on the tree for a year or more if undisturbed.  An infected tree will often have many brackets, giving them a stepped appearance on the trunk of a still-standing host tree.

A series or group of birch polypore fruiting bodies on the trunk of a black birch in winter.

A series or group of birch polypore fruiting bodies on the trunk of a black birch in winter.

The birch polypore is so-named because it is only found on birch trees in nature.  It occurs throughout the northern temperate parts of the world wherever birch trees grow.  The fruiting bodies or ‘brackets’ are said to have a mild ‘mushroomy’ odor but they are not considered edible.  Decayed wood may have a pleasant green apple aroma.

Historically, strips of the leathery brackets have been used by barbers for sharpening their razors or strops and an old common name in some areas is the razor strop fungus.  Early man used dried pieces of the fungus to start fires using flint stones and the smoldering fungus could be carried from one site to another then fanned to flame again, serving a very useful purpose in the days before matches and lighters.  According to one reference (, there were two pieces of this fungus on a cord around the neck of Ötzi the Iceman, the 5000 year old mummified corpse found by hikers in the Ötztal Alps in 1991.  More recently, scientists have extracted an antibiotic, piptamine, from the fruiting bodies.  It is not, as far as I can find, currently used in medical treatments or even commercially available.

J. Allen


sand sculpted by a wave on Watch Hill beach December 2015

Sand sculpted by a wave at Watch Hill in early December

December 2015 in New England has been a nice blend of above- average temperatures, green grass, and a few timely rains to compensate for a droughty year. Getting outdoors for some fun has been easy and comfortable this year, especially for walks in the woods. So, just for fun, here are some things I came across in the woods near my home and in a small village near the Connecticut River.

alyssum full bloom December 28 2015

Alyssum in full bloom December 27, 2015

Here’s a very common fungus in America – the “turkey tail”- which is named after its resemblance to the tail feathers of the native wild turkey which Benjamin Franklin sought to have named our national symbol. Hmm… eagle versus turkey- no contest I think. Sorry, Ben. The Latin name Trametes versicolor is a fitting name as this fungi varies considerably in color. The chestnut brown and the bold white outline make a striking contrast in this species of polypore mushroom.

turky tail polypore shelf fungi.

Turkey tail fungus

The green- hued Mossy Maze Polypore (Cerrena unicolor), is one of many wood decay fungi that are critical in nutrient cycling in temperate forests. These bracket or shelf fungi are in the phylum Basidiomycota. Large colonies of this fungus can be found going along a log. Spores get into the wood when a female horntail wasp picks them up while drilling holes to deposit her eggs into logs and trunks of hardwood trees.

Mossy maze Polypore shelf fungi 12-27-15

Sometimes the pre-dusk sky takes on a peculiar glow that bathes trees and houses in a wash of orange that is singular to the season. This happens when shorter wavelengths of light (blue) are scattered quickly, leaving only the orange-red part of the spectrum.

pre- sunset December glow 12-3-15
Human touches of the season were in evidence in rural and municipal settings, and proved amusing at times. But then, I can be easily amused. As with this driftwood and found object sculpture. Note the snake on the right, a small owl in a bole, and oyster shells that look like shelf fungi.

driftwood sculpture from found objects.jpg

Snowmen were a scarce commodity because of snow challenges this year, not that I am sorry to have it so. Someone of an original and resourceful mind bypassed the use of snow as a raw material and put on their Yankee thinking cap instead. The result was a monumental “ snow” man made of hay baled in plastic and topped with a hat made of drainage pipe material. Good job!

snow man made of hay bales wrapped in plastic and drainage pipe hat

And let us not forget the decorations. Some people have a more aesthetic bent than others, and it is nobody’s fault. Comparing efforts (or lack thereof) is not always an admirable enterprise, but still can provide some amusing moments. Look at how holly has been used to spruce up a window box…

great use of holly in a windowbox


Pamm Cooper

It’s that time of year when we want to show our love and appreciation for our family and friends. If you have an avid gardener on your gift-giving list then here are a few ideas for last-minute gifts or stocking stuffers (most the following images are just of things that were available at local garden shops and a big box store and are not meant to be endorsements of any specific brand).




The easiest and most common gift is gardening gloves. Although they may seem to be the horticultural equivalent of a tie I find that I am continually in need of work gloves each season. There are so many styles and fabrics to choose from that you want to keep in mind the type of gardening that your recipient does. Are they fond of roses? Then you want to get some heavy-duty gloves such as suede that will cover the forearm. If a lot of pruning is in the future then a pair of gloves that has reinforced stress points and padding will be appreciated. Weeding and planting require dexterous gloves and those that have the palms and fingers coated with nitrile are great and most of them are machine-washable.

Speaking of pruning and planting, there are many great tools that will make gardening chores easier. One of my favorites is a folding pruning saw. It can be carried around without the teeth getting damaged and can handle a wide variety of pruning jobs, cutting quickly through branches up to 4” in diameter. Lopping pruners also work well for pruning small branches where the saw can’t be easily used. Some hand tools that would slip easily into a stocking or gift basket are floral shears, pruning snips and bypass or anvil pruners.

Is your gardener fond of potting up planters and hanging baskets? How about a vertical gardening kit that is both decorative and functional? Or a selection of planters in coordinating colors and sizes? Include a bag of good-quality potting soil and a gift certificate to a local garden center and let your gardener dream of spring.

Want to keep them busy until then? There are many indoor projects that will keep their green thumb busy. A grow-your-own mushroom farm provides food and entertainment. A glass terrarium kit will provide years of pleasure.

Houseplants are always a welcome gift, from bromeliad to orchid there is something for every taste and style. Keep in mind if your gift recipient is also a pet owner as many houseplants can be toxic to pets. For a compilation of toxic and non-toxic plants visit the ASPCA site.

Some other fun gifts that are more outdoorsy than gardening-specific are hummingbird feeders, rain gauges and barometers. And a very practical and yet still awesome gift would be a rain barrel.

Consider making a donation in their name to a non-profit organization. Community Gardens As Appleseeds is a group that provides help and equipment to community gardens all over the US. The Hudson Valley Seed Library is a source for heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and each seed packet is a work of art.


Happy Holidays!

Susan Pelton

Bird’s nest fungi, also known as splash cup fungi, are one of the most fun fungi to discover. They are common worldwide growing on decaying wood, organic matter and bark mulch. These saprophytes are among the important organisms that break down organic matter and return essential nutrients to the soil. Members of the Nidulariaceae family in the phyum Basidiomyota, these fungi are relatives of the mushrooms, puffballs and shelf fungi. Within the family Nidulariaceae, there are five genera, all bird’s nest fungi. The genera are differentiated based on physical characteristics such as color and form and more recently on DNA analyses.

Bird's nest fungi growing in wood mulch. J. Allen photo.

Bird’s nest fungi growing in wood mulch. J. Allen photo.

They are all distinguished by the resemblance of the fruiting bodies or spore structures to miniature bird’s nests. Within a tiny (about ¼”) cup-like structure called a peridium there are tiny egg-like structures called peridioles and these contain spores. The spores are dispersed when raindrops splash the ‘eggs’ out of the ‘nest’, propelling them up to about four feet away. In some genera, the egg is sticky so it will attach to the substrate it lands on. In others, the egg has a cord which attaches it to the nest. When it is dislodged by rain, the cord remains attached and has a sticky end. If the sticky end becomes attached to a small twig or piece of organic matter, the cord will wrap itself around the object.

The little nest-like fruiting bodies are just a small part of the fungus. Before these can form, a single spore germinates in a suitable substrate and under favorable temperature and moisture conditions. From this spore, a thread-like hyphal strand begins to grow and as it takes up nutrients from the breakdown of organic matter a network of hyphae called mycelium forms. Once the fungal mycelium is well-established, fruiting bodies will develop, typically during moist weather from July through October.

Note: Bird’s nest fungi are not considered edible.

  1. Allen

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