Plants


This year I had the opportunity to work in the UConn Soil and Nutrient Analysis Laboratory during the ‘spring rush’. During this time the Soil lab can get up to hundreds of samples a day. These samples may come in one at a time from homeowners with established lawns or garden beds who are looking to maintain their plantings or from new homeowners who have never planted or cared for a landscape before, or dozens of samples from commercial landscapers on behalf of their clients, or from commercial growers.

For over 50 years farmers, greenhouse growers, and homeowners have been served by the UConn Soil Lab. With more than 14,000 samples coming in on an annual basis, that is a lot of soil! Soil fertility is the first building block of plant health. If a plant is not growing in soil that has the proper proportion of available nutrients then it will not grow as well as it could. Poor soil health leads to stressed plants with stunted growth and stressed plants are vulnerable to insect and disease issues.

Iron deficiency on buddleia

Buddleia with iron deficiency

There are a minimum of 16 elements that have been deemed necessary to vigorous plant health. In order by atomic weight they are: hydrogen, boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, magnesium, phosphorus, sulfur, chlorine, potassium, calcium, manganese, iron, copper, zinc, and molybdenum. Some other elements that may not be used by all plants are sodium, silicon, vanadium, and cobalt. The big 3 are, of course, nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Represented by their symbols from the periodic table as N-P-K, they are the prime ingredients in most fertilizers. The seedlings below show signs of nutrient deficiency and are in need of a weak solution of a balanced fertilizer.

 

Also essential to healthy plant growth is the pH of the soil. It won’t matter how much fertilizer is applied if the soil pH is not in the correct range for the host plant. pH stands for potential of Hydrogen and is represented by a scale that runs from 0-7 for acidic solutions and from 7-14 for the alkalis. The higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, the more acidic the sample is. All soil test results will recommend the addition of either limestone to raise the pH, sulfur to lower the pH, or no action required if the pH falls into the acceptable range for the plant/crop.

All standard nutrient analysis tests begin their journey in the same way. For each area to be tested one cup of soil is sent or brought to the lab along with the soil sample questionnaire. The standard test will provide soil pH, the macro and micro nutrients, the total estimated soil lead, and basic texture and organic matter content. Many homeowners and growers request additional tests or only require specific information in the form of textural analysis, organic matter content (measured by Joe in the images below), soluble salts, a pH only test, saturated media analysis (for soil-less potting media for greenhouses), or nitrate testing (for commercial growers).

 

This spring was very cool and wet, as we all know. Many samples were sent in later than usual and a good many were very much wetter than usual. It is important then that the first step requires that soils be spread onto paper toweling and allowed to dry.

1. Spread soils on drying rack

Once the soil has adequately dried out it must be sieved so that any rocks or bits of organic matter are removed. This step may also involve some pounding to break up any chunks of soil as shown by Skyley.

 

From there a small amount of each sample is placed in a paper cup by Louise to be tested for its pH. It is mixed into a slurry with a small amount of distilled water, the calibrated testing meter probe is placed in the mixture and the pH level is stored in the computer program for later retrieval.

 

In a manner similar to a coffee pour over, some of the soil is placed in filter paper that is resting in a test tube in preparation for the nutrient analysis. A Modified Morgan solution is the liquid used for this extraction method.

 

The nutrient analysis is done by a machine called the ICP which stands for Inductively Coupled Plasma. This machine would be right at home in Abby’s lab on NCIS! When I was in school back in the 70’s we were taught that matter existed in three states: solid, liquid, and gas. But matter has a fourth state and it is plasma. It doesn’t exist on Earth under normal conditions but we do witness it every time we see a lightning strike.  Plasma can be generated by using energy to ionize argon gas.

The plasma flame is hot. Really hot.  6000 Kelvin.  For some perspective, the surface of the sun is approximately 5,800 K.  The solution from the individual tube samples is passed through a nebulizer where it is changed to a mist that is introduced directly to the plasma flame. A spectrometer is then able to detect the elements that are present in the soil sample.

 

Additionally, the testing for phosphorus is done with this machine shown below, the Discreet Analyzer.

 

Some soil samples come from outside of CT and those may present a particular set of problems. The USDA has quarantines in several states to limit the spread of certain invasive insect pest species such as the imported fire ant, golden nematodes, and even a few plant species. For more information visit the Federal Domestic Soil Quarantines site.

Working at the UConn Soil Lab has been a great experience and quite an eye-opener. Who knew that there was so much behind a soil test?

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton, 2108

Cornus mas flowers April 24 2018

Cornus mas flowers- Cornelian cherry dogwood flowers in April before leaves appear

Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.

– Rainer Maria Rilke

This spring has arrived at a plodding, glacial pace. Several snows in April and chilly, gray days which far outnumber the anticipated sunny, warmer ones seem to have put nature into a low gear. Birds that normally would have arrived in early April, like chipping sparrows, were late arrivals. Forsythia bloomed later than it did the past few springs, and soils have remained cold enough to hold back lawn grass growth. But the cold weather can’t last, and we finally have seen a few sunny days this week.

colletes at hole 4-14-2018 Pamm Cooper photo for Facebook

Native Colletes inaequalis ground nesting bee at entrance to her nesting tunnel- one of the earliest spring flying bees

Tree swallows arrived a couple of weeks ago, and barn swallows followed a week later. I always check out a nice swampy area along a road every spring when false hellebore is about a foot tall. This is when many migrating warblers start to come through on their way north. Two of the earlier arrivals are the yellow-rumped warblers and the palm warblers, which can often be seen together in good numbers as they catch insects on the fly. The loud drumming of pileated woodpeckers can be heard and barred and great horned owls should have nestlings by now. Canada geese should be sitting on eggs, with young hatching out in a week or so.

Pileated woodpecker pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpeckers

Bloodroot is now blooming, and before it is done, red trillium should also be blooming. Trout lily leaves are up, and its flowers should appear in a week or so. The early flowering azalea, Rhodendron mucronulatum, is flowering now with its welcome pink flowers. Bees were all over several plantings of this shrub on the UConn campus this past sunny Tuesday. Pieris japonica, or Japanese andromeda, Cornus mas and star magnolias are also in full bloom. Ornamental cherries are just beginning to bloom now and as the native black cherries begin to leaf out, look for tents made in the forks of branches by the Eastern tent caterpillars. Native bluets began blooming this week, and many native and honey bees, as well as early flying butterflies avail themselves of the nectar these tiny blue flowers provide.

purple trillium Pamm Cooper photo

Purple trillium blooms shortly after bloodroot

Rhododendron mucronulatum. Azalea Pamm Cooper photo (2)

Rhododendron mucronulatum azalea in bloom in late April. Note that this azalea does not retain its leaves through the winter

Spring peepers have been singing like a glee club, and are a welcome white noise in early spring for those of you who live near ponds. In vernal pools, egg masses of wood frogs, spotted salamanders and American toads can be found now. Diving beetles and water striders are also active now. Our vernal pools support life stages of many kinds of insects and amphibians, and provide water sources for many animals and birds as well.

spotted salamander nymph among frog eggs April vernal pool

Gilled larva of the spotted salamander swims among wood frog eggs in a vernal pool

Red, or swamp, maples are already dropping flowers, while spicebush are just starting to bloom.  Snowball viburnums are leafing out and new leaves seen curling are probably signs of snowball aphid feeding. Look inside the curled leaves for these aphids. While not a cause of alarm for the health of the plant, it is a cosmetic issue. Redbuds are showing deep pink flower buds as are the larger ornamental cherry varieties like Prunus subhirtella, the weeping Higan cherry. When these bloom, crabapples are not far behind.

Japanese Andromeda flowering in early April 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Japanese Andromeda, Pieris japonica, can bloom in March. This year it has remained in bloom through late April. Many bees visit its flowers.

More insects are becoming active now with the warmer weather. Look for the striking six- spotted tiger beetle along open woodland trails. Cabbage white butterflies are also arriving, and will lay eggs on native mustards and the invasive garlic mustards. The second generation may end up on your brassica later in the year. Mourning cloak and comma butterflies are out now, and look for swallowtails and the spring azure butterflies. Migrating red admirals and painted ladies usually arrive around the time of crabapple and invasive honeysuckle bloom. I can hardly (but must!) wait to see a swallowtail butterfly. To me this is a certain harbinger of steady, warm weather.

6-spotted tiger beetle

The 6-spotted tiger beetle is hard to miss

Mourning cloak early spring

The mourning cloak butterfly survives winters here in the north as an adult. Often it is seen imbibing at sap flows or on animal dung

tiger swallowtail butterfly on bluets Pamm Cooper photo

Tiger swallowtail on native bluets

As you venture out this spring, listen for the songs of newly arriving birds, observe  insects as they go about their daily activities and enjoy the flowers that join together to make spring a poetic response to winter. Definitely a more charming repertoire in answer to winter doldrums than my own seemingly useless “ hurry up spring” song and dance…

Pamm Cooper

 

 

 

 

This is the time of year when summer-blooming bulbs appear in every garden shop, hardware store, or even grocery store. Like a kid in a candy store, I can look at them for ages, dreaming of the colors and shapes that could appear in my garden. Recently the image on a package of Asiatic lily bulbs jumped out at me.

Dark Lady blend 2

The mix of antique-looking purples, creams, and pinks would be a beautiful addition our garden bed where limelight hydrangeas, pale drift roses, and a Dogwood Cornus florida with its pale cream blossoms touched with pink.

Asiatic lilies, along with Easter lilies, are true lilies in the genus Lilium and Fritillaria, in the genus Fritillaria, are members of the family Liliaceae. The trumpet-shaped blooms of the Asiatic lily flower in early summer and may face upright atop stems that have long, slim whorled leaves.

Oriental lilies, on the other hand, have flowers that are outward and downward facing and flower in late summer, including the very appropriately named hybrid ‘Stargazer’ lily whose outward-facing flowers appear to be looking up.

Stargazer 1

The Oriental lilies are more fragrant than the Asiatic so they are a better choice if that is what you desire in your garden or home. Both are great options for cutting and look lovely in containers with lower growing plants surrounding them. In addition, when grown in containers they can be swapped out with other plants after blooming or grow both groups in the same planter for a succession of blooms.

However, the bane of any true lily grower’s existence is the Lily leaf beetle, Lillioceris lilii. Both the larvae and the adult Lily leaf beetle feed on the foliage of true lilies, in fact they can totally defoliate a plant in a matter of days. This pest was first documented in the United states in Cambridge, MA, in 1992. In the subsequent years it became a major agricultural and economic pest of growers. The Lily leaf beetle is also known as the Scarlet lily beetle due to its bright red coloring.

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This insect lays its eggs and completes its entire life cycle on the same plant and can cause damage to both the stems and leaves. The bright orange-red, oval eggs are laid in groups of about 12 on the underside of the leaf in May. In 7-10 days the eggs will darken and then hatch out, allowing the larvae to feed on the underside of the leaf before moving to the upper leaf surface and the buds. They can be hard to control with insecticides as they use their own frass (excrement) as a barrier to cover themselves.

In another two weeks they will drop to soil to pupate emerging a week and a half later as adults.  The adults will continue to defoliate and weaken the plant. Neem can be used as a control but must be applied every 5 days or so. Scouting and handpicking are often the best option and I find that holding an open container below them as I scout helps to catch them if they attempt to drop to the ground. Fun fact: they will make a squeaky noise if squeezed or disturbed.

If you don’t enjoy the monitoring that is required to deal with the Lily leaf beetle or the disappointment of walking past your flower beds only to discover that your lilies have been stripped clean you may want to consider planting another dependable perennial bulb: the daylily.

Flower bed

Daylilies used to belong to the same family as the true lilies, Liliaceae, were reclassified in the family Asphodelaceae in the genus Hemerocallis. Since it was first formally described by Carl Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth the Liliaceae family kept expanding until it encompassed over 300 genera and 4500 species. Most of these were grouped into Liliaceae simply because they had six tepals and a superior ovary. From 1998 to 2016 a phylogenetics (evolutionary history and relationships) study by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group was key in recognition of the family Asphodelaceae. Within Asphodelaceae is the sub-family Hemerocallidoideae and the genus Hemerocallis in which resides the daylily.

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The ephemeral blooms of the daylily give it both its common name and Latin name as Hemerocallis comes from the Greek words hemera (day) and kalos (beautiful). To keep daylilies blooming longer I remove any spent flowers and also any of the large, bulbous seed capsules that may appear. Daylilies will grow in full sun or part shade in most soil types although like it slightly acidic, perfect for Connecticut gardens. A bit of a 5-10-5 fertilizer at planting and then each spring when growth appears is all that it needs.

The one pest of daylilies that I have to deal with each year is the metallic-brown Oriental beetle (Anomala orientalis). The adult beetles are attracted to the open blooms and will nestle themselves right down into the center of the blooms.

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Its another pest that I control by handpicking, dropping them into a container of insecticidal soap. I don’t mind though as this activity gets me up close and personnel to the beautiful blooms and also reminds me to deadhead as I go along.

Susan Pelton

All images by S. Pelton, UConn

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
 One clover, and a bee, And revery.
 The revery alone will do, If bees are few      – Emily Dickinson
bee on gold sedum late June - Copy

Tiny native bee on gold sedum

When I first moved in to my present residence, there were neglected flower gardens and poorly maintained landscapes that did not seem to attract nor support many insects or even birds. The expression “out goes the old and in comes the new” is an appropriate aphorism for what needed to be done. The not so modest enterprise my sister and I undertook was to establish a more useful environment for pollinators, butterflies and birds. The emphasis would be mostly on pollinators, as the birds already there seemed happy enough. As butterflies often share the same flowers with bees we assumed we would attract them as well.

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Out with the old…

We were able to rip out most of the plants, whether shrubs or perennials, that were really not important food sources for most pollinators, and we concentrated the first year on putting a majority of native plants like elderberry, currant, Joe-pye weed, boneset, blue curls, bloodroot, May-apple, trillium, blueberry, winterberry, Asclepias, Aronia (chokeberry), mountain mint, goldenrod and turtlehead. We also included non-native perennials that bees love like blue giant hyssop, Caryopteris (bluebeard) obedient plant, Veronicas, and yarrow.

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…in with the new

The first year we saw quite a few species of bees, especially sweat bees and all kinds of bumblebees. We also had the handsome Colletes inaequalis bees, who visited the early spring flowers like dandelions, henbit, willow and maple. They actually built their solitary ground nests in the neighbor’s sandy soils, but stopped by our nearby flowers. We also had honeybees, from who-knows where. Since bees active in the fall were already there, a couple of native witch hazels were also added.

Bluebeard caryopteris

Bluebeard, or Caryopteris, attracts all kinds of bees

native bee on blue giant hyssop Agastache foeniculum

Native bee on blue giant hyssop Agastache foeniculum

 

frittlary and bumblebee on white swamp milkweed

Fritillary and bumblebee on swamp milkweed Asclepias incarnata

The second year we put in some annuals that flower from early summer through fall. Lantana, cosmos, Euphorbia (‘Diamond Dust’ and ‘Diamond Frost’ are really good cultivars), petunias, sweet alyssum, salvias (pink and black and blue varieties that really attract lots of bee species as well as hummingbirds) and zinnias. Non-native perennials yarrow, coreopsis and Echinacea were also added. Perennials are even better the second year, and many more species of bees were seen throughout the second season.

Bombus hortorum on milkw3eeedpg

Bombus ssp. on common milkweed

It is often difficult to tell native bee species apart. For instance, the tiny Halictidae family sweat bees that are metallic green can be hard to sort out. A good reference book for identifying bees and learning about the flowers they like and nesting sites they need is “ The Bees in Your Backyard” by Joseph S. Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril. There are good photographs of the bees, and also maps showing where they can be found in North America. Good anecdotes are also a feature of this book. Douglas W. Tellamy wrote “Bringing Nature Home’, a must-read for anyone concerned about supporting wildlife through thoughtful native plant selection.

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excellent resource books

Here is a link to the University of Maine’s bulletin on “ Understanding Native Bees, the Great pollinators; Enhancing Their Habitat in Maine ” https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/7153e/. This is suitable information for those of us who live in Connecticut, as the same native bees are found here as well.

echinacea

bumblebees and American lady butterfly on purple coneflower Echinacea purpurea

Many bees are important keystone species who have an essential role in maintaining diversity in ecosystems. This is because they pollinate the flowers they will later bear fruits that will support other fauna in the system. And whatever is not eaten will fall to the ground, where the seed will produce more plants, allowing a landscape that is sustainable(as long as there is no human interference to its natural continuation). If you can provide nesting and food sources for bees that are nearby your property, that will help the birds and other fauna that share the same territory.

fabulous garden- summer phlox, rudbeckia, daisies

Fabulous pollinator plant combination- summer phlox, daisies, Rudbeckia

It has been four years since the renovations in my own gardens, lawn and landscapes. Perennials are now well established, native cherries have been planted to support both bees and other creatures, and a few more plants are popped in as we see what bees we have and what flowers they may also like. There are pollen and nectar sources from spring to fall, so many bee species that are active at different times of year will find what they need. This last summer, there were many species of bees that seemed to be new- at least we had never seen them. We had leaf-cutter and mason bees, all sorts of bumblebees and sweat bees, Hylaeus masked bees, and others.

sweat bee on aster

Halictidae sweat bee on aster

If you are looking to add some plants to your own landscape, consider choosing something that will be enjoyable for you and then useful the native bees. Sort of a dual purpose, double-for-your-trouble investment. Itea virginica, ‘Henry’s garnet’, is a beautiful sweetspire shrub with cascading white flower spikes that are very attractive to all kinds of bees and butterflies. Tree hydrangeas, Hydrangea paniculata, are a great late summer pollen and nectar source for native bees, and Rose- of Sharon is another. They are beautiful to look at and serve a good purpose for our little native heroes of the natural world.

Pamm Cooper

Hydrangea paniculata dwarfing a visitor to Wickham Park, Manchester 2017

Hydrangea paniculata -tree hydrangea

We may be in the throes of winter but there is a place in New England where the most beautiful and delicate flowers bloom year-round. These flowers are presented in all their glory in displays that have recently been upgraded to enhance the viewing experience. These flowers and specimens will never wilt or fade, they are forever captured in a state of perfection. These are neither fresh, dried, preserved, nor photographed flowers. They are the Ware Collection of Blaschka Glass Models of Plants, the famous “Glass Flowers” of Harvard University.

I first saw the Glass Flowers several years ago when our daughter Hannah, then a student at MIT, suggested a visit to the nearby Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts. As with most natural history museums the collections ranged from wildlife specimens and fossils to minerals and gemstones. But it was the Glass Flowers exhibit that Hannah knew that I would enjoy most.

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Although it is familiarly known as the Glass Flowers this exhibit actually represents over 4,000 models of 830 plant species and includes incredibly realistic and detailed models of enlarged flowers and anatomical sections of the floral and vegetative parts of the plants (clockwise from top left: Banana, Verbascum thapsus/Common mullein, and Gossypium herbaceum/Wild cotton).

Prior to 1886 the Harvard Botanical Museum, under the direction of George Lincoln Goodale, used pressed plant specimens, wax models, and papier-mache as samples for study. Pressed specimens are of limited teaching value as they are 2-dimensional, dried, and lacking in color, wax models and papier-maché were rough and didn’t stand up well. Around this time, Goodale saw some glass models of marine invertebrates in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology that had been created by the father and son partners Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka from Hosterwitz near Dresden, Germany. He contacted Leopold Blaschka who then made and shipped a few botanical specimen samples which even though they were damaged in US Customs still showed the possibilities of further work.

There were other glass-blowers at the time and it was said that no-one could replicate the secret methods employed by the Blaschkas. The Boston Globe said that the glass flowers were “anatomically perfect and, given all the glass-workers who’ve tried and failed, unreproducible”. But in fact, there were no secret methods employed and their techniques were commonly known to other artisans. In addition to glass the Blaschkas used wire supports, glue, paint, and enamel in their work. Their method melted glass over a flame or torch which they controlled with foot-powered bellows in a technique known as lampworking. This differs from glassblowing which uses a furnace as the heat source. The molten glass was manipulated, pinched, and pulled with tools to achieve the desired forms. The finished specimens were occasionally formed from colored glass but were often hand-painted.

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Leopold Blaschka credited their ability in this way, “get a good great-grandfather who loved glass; then he is to have a son with like tastes; he is to be your grandfather. He in turn will have a son who must, as your father, be passionately fond of glass. You, as his son, can then try your hand, and it is your own fault if you do not succeed. But, if you do not have such ancestors, it is not your fault. My grandfather was the most widely known glassworker in Bohemia.” Schultes, Richard Evans; Davis, William A.; Burger, Hillel (1982). The Glass Flowers at Harvard. New York: Dutton.

(at right, Caroline and Leopold Blaschka, seated, Rudolf Blaschka, standing)

 

The original 10-year contract between the Blaschkas and Harvard commissioned the work at a rate of 8,800 marks per year ($3,533 US dollars) or approximately $91,565 in 2017. The funding came from a former Radcliffe College botany student of Goodale’s, Mary Lee Ware and her mother, Elizabeth Cabot Ware, members of a wealthy Boston family. Additionally, all freight charges were covered by Harvard.

So, the artisans have been commissioned. Remember, the year is now 1890, film photography is in its infancy and it is about 100 years before the internet is available to the public. So how do two glassmakers in Germany research botanical specimens from all over the world? Well, some plants were sent from America and raised in the Blaschka’s garden. Other plants that were tropical or exotic were viewed in the royal gardens and greenhouses of the nearby Pillnitz Palace (below images). Rudolf Blaschka traveled to Jamaica and the United States in 1892 to make drawings and collect specimens. Leopold died in 1895 but Rudolf continued to work until his retirement in 1936. Rudolf had no children and had never taken on an apprentice so there was no one to take over from him ending a 400-year-old dynasty.

But the legacy of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka lives on in over 10,000 glass models that are in museums the world over. Although the greater number of these are marine specimens it is the Glass Flowers that are most famed. The Glass Flowers encompass 164 families and 780 species in 850 full-time models. There are 4300 detailed models of individual floral and vegetative parts that capture every detail, right down to a grain of pollen as in the example of Lupinus mutabilis (Lupine) shown below.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

There are models that show the fungal and bacterial diseases of fruits in the Rosaceae family that includes apples and pears (The Rotten Apples, shown below).
Rotten apples

Others show insects in the act of pollination such as their depiction of a male fruit fly on an orchid, top image, or the bee on Scotch broom, below. Plants are exhibited from the simplest to the most advanced in the order of evolution.

Glass Flowers Exhibit Harvard Museum of Natural History

Cytisus scoparius (Scotch broom) with bees

This is not an exhibit that you would speed through. Each specimen is so enthralling that it is difficult to move on to the next one. The fact that every item there was created by only two men is mind-blowing and can be attested to by the tens of thousands of visitors each year. If you haven’t been to the exhibit I highly recommend it and if you have been in the past in would be worth going to see it in its restored glory. Visit the Harvard Museum of Natural History site for additional information and to view their videos of the Restoration and the Rotten Apples.

Susan Pelton

The Glass Flower images shown here are the property of Harvard University.

snow and tree

As I sit here inside, watching the cold wind blow and snow pile up outside the warmth and safety of my little writing spot, I wonder just how all those living beings outside are surviving. Trees are swaying in the wind, and birds trying to visit the feeder are forced to alter flight plans while sporting ruffled feathers. The only animals I see are hunkered down squirrels. And just where did the insects go?

A little research tells me all of the annual plants are dead. They completed their life cycle in one year going from germinating a seed to producing seeds which are waiting winter out to make new plants in the spring. In my vegetable garden I call them volunteers. You know those tomato seeds that germinate from last year’s rotted tomato fruit that dropped to the ground and its seed volunteered to grow where I didn’t put this year’s crop. The seed survived through the winter, not the plant. Annual weeds drop seed in this manner, too.

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Perennial plants are a different story, although their seeds can do the same overwintering as annuals, the existing plant can live through the winter to grow another year, hopefully for many years more. Trees and shrubs are woody perennials that have woody above ground structures and roots that overwinter. Herbaceous perennials overwinter their roots and crowns only. The above ground portion of the plant dies back, but the crown and roots are alive at level or below ground. Perennial plants go dormant, living off of stored food until warmer weather returns. Storage organs of plants are the thick roots, rhizomes and bulbs. Just how they prepare themselves to make it through the winter happens at the cellular level long before freezing temperatures begin.

Plants are triggered by the amount of light and the amount of dark they experience, and lower night temperatures signal to get ready for winter rest and dormancy. Different species have varying light and temperature levels signals. Deciduous trees and shrubs must begin the process of losing their leaves by first stopping the production of their food. We notice it in slower growth and in the leaf color. The leaves are the food factory of the plant where photosynthesis happens. Carbohydrates are made then stored in roots and woody parts of the tree or shrub. Lots of light and water results in good growth and food storage, but when light amount lessens, leaves slow down production. Chlorophyll is also produced during photosynthesis, giving the leaf a green color. Once the leaves stop working, no more chlorophyll is produced and the other plant pigments of red and yellow are exposed now that there is no green chlorophyll to cover them. This is when we see beautiful fall foliage. The next change happens in a specialized layer of cells at the point where the leaf stem (petiole), attaches to the twig called the abscission layer. These cells enlarge and harden to choke off water flow to the leaves and the leaf slowly dies and falls off.

tree in fall

The next cellular change is called cold hardening. It happens within the vascular system containing the plant juices and water. If water inside the cells freeze, it will rupture the cells, permanently damaging the plant. The cold hardening process increases the sugar content of the water, and makes other protective chemicals, lowering the freezing level of the plant liquid. Basically the plant makes its own antifreeze. Cell walls are also changed to allow water leakage into spaces just outside the cell so if crystals do form, damage will be avoided. The acclimation of all these changes makes the plant able to tolerate below freezing temperatures. Fall pruning or fertilizing with nitrogen during August and September stimulates new growth interrupting the cold hardening process.

Evergreen trees and shrubs have thick leaves with waxy coatings to prevent moisture loss. Some broadleaved evergreens have gas exchange openings called stomata on the underside of the leaf. In very cold weather the leaves will curl as the stomata close to prevent moisture loss. Rhododendrons are a good example. Evergreen plants will continue to photosynthesize as long as there is moisture available, but much more slowly during the winter.

rhododendron curled in snow

Animals and insect have the ability to move, unlike plants. They can migrate, hibernate or adapt to winter’s cold. Certain birds migrate to warmer areas and better food sources. Hummingbirds, osprey, wood ducks and song birds fly south, and some birds from far north in Canada come south to spend the winter here. Juncos, snowy owls and bald eagles summer at a higher latitude and spend the winter nearer to us. They go where they can find food.

Some animals go into a winter dormancy or hibernation. This phase consists of greatly reduced activity, sleep or rest, and lower body temperatures while their bodies are sustained from stored fat. Bears, woodchucks, skunks, bats, snakes and turtles all have true hibernation, not waking until light levels increase and food sources begin to be available again. Bears and bats find caves, woodchucks, and skunks dig tunnels, snakes and some turtles burrow into soil and leaf litter, all in protected sites.

woodchuck at entrance to tunnel

Woodchuck at the entrance to his tunnel where he will spend the winter.

Other animals such as chipmunks have underground burrows lined with stored nuts and other food. Beavers do the same in lodges they build just above water, and line with stored logs to feed on during the winter. They sleep for long periods, only waking to eat and if maybe take a short walk above ground before returning to their den. Fur bearing animals will grow a thicker winter coat to help keep them warm, and may be a whiter color to provide camouflage in the snow.

Voles are active all through the year. In winter, they will tunnel through the snow, just on top of the ground looking for plants material to eat. They will strip the bark off of young trees and eat the roots. Voles store seeds and other plant matter in underground chambers. Mice are active and breed year round, living in any protected nook or cranny they can find, including our homes. They store food in hidden spots away from human and predator activity. Check for mice tracks around your foundation after a freshly fallen snow to see if mice are using your house for their winter quarters. Moles are active deep underground, below the frost line, in an elaborate array of tunnels. They feed on soil dwelling insects throughout the winter. I guess you could say they go ‘south’ in the soil profile during cold weather of winter.

Squirrels do not migrate nor hibernate, they adapt. They are active all winter, raiding bird feeders, and feeding on stored nuts. They grow a thicker coat of fur and fat for winter. Squirrels make great nests high in trees, well insulted with leaves. Several grey squirrels will share a nest to keep warm. They are often too quick to get a close up photo!

squirrel tail

Insects as a group are very large and diverse. Some migrate in their adult stage such as monarch butterflies and some species of dragonflies. Others overwinter in pupal stages like the chrysalis’ of spice bush swallowtails or cocoons of Cecropia moths.  Others adult and immature insects, depending on species, enter a state of diapause, similar to hibernation in animals, to overwinter during the winter. Diapause is a dormant semi-frozen state for some insects.  And like plants, changes at the cellular level occur, too. These insects produce an alcohol-like chemical and added sugars to the moisture in their bodies to prevent freezing, just like vodka will not freeze when placed in our home freezers. Insects will first seek out a protected place in the soil, leaf litter or under lose tree bark or rotten logs.

The brown and orange woolly bear caterpillar burrows into the forest floor to spend the winter as in its larval stage. In spring it will come out of its dormancy to pupate, later becoming an Isabella tiger moth.

woolly bear

Other insects lay eggs singly or in mass groupings, which are equipped to live through the winter and hatch when conditions are good again. Gypsy moths spend the winter as egg masses, tolerating down to -20 F temperatures. Crickets are another insect group which lays eggs in the fall on the ground that will provide a new generation of night songs for us to enjoy the next summer.

Gypsy moth egg cases, p.cooper photo

Gypsy moth egg mass will overwinter on this tree bark. Hatch will be in late spring.

-Carol Quish

tulips

 

 

 

   “The grass on the rock, the flower of the heath, the thistle with its beard are the chief adornments of his landscape.” Ossian.

Well, here we are. 2017 has come to an end and 2018 lays before us. We are at the darkest time of the year as the winter solstice, which occurred on December 21st, brought us only 9 hours and 8 minutes of daylight on that day. That is 6 hours and 5 minutes less daylight than on June 21st! Its no wonder that this time of year is referred to as ‘hibernal’, a time when the deciduous trees are bare, the dropped leaves begin to decay, and birds and wildlife have settled into their winter homes and habits.

Squirrel on the suet feeder
A squirrel on the suet feeder      Image by S. Pelton

In Connecticut winter-time means that most plants have either died back or gone dormant. The evergreens hold onto their leaves and needles but they are not actively growing. Some of the more common evergreen landscaping plants for zone 6 such as the (clockwise from the top left) the rhododendron (Rhododendron sp.), the Eastern white pine (Pinus strobus), the mugo pine (Pinus mugo), and the white spruce (Picea glauca) add so much to the barren winter landscape.

                                                                                                Images by S. Pelton

The non-evergreen perennials can also be of interest during this time. From the top left clockwise, the American pussy willow (Salix discolor), the stonecrop (Sedum sp.), and the hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) all add some textual variety to the landscape.

                                                                                                         Images by S. Pelton

 

Their monotone appearance doesn’t really catch the eye like the very appropriately named winterberry (Ilex verticillata) does. One of the deciduous hollies, winterberry looks especially outstanding after a snowfall. As with most hollies the winterberry is dieocious and requires a male and a female plant to produce these beautiful red drupes which will remain on the plant through a good part of the winter to the benefit of small mammals and more than 40 species of birds.

                                                                                        Winterberry images by S. Pelton

But I would like to talk about an evergreen shrub that holds not only its leaves but its flowers all winter. Known as spring or winter heath (commonly but incorrectly called heather) Erica carnea has the most delicate, bell-shaped pink flowers and whorled, needle-like leaves that are barely ½” long. The family Ericaceae also includes the true heathers that were once included in the genus Erica but are now in the genus now called Calluna. Calluna heathers are called summer or autumn heathers and can be identified by their smaller, scale-like leaves which are in opposite pairs and their flowers which emerge in late summer. It is the heather Calluna vulgaris that evokes images of wide expanses of Scottish highland moors that appear to be covered in a pink mist.

5391978-PPTJohn M. Randall, The Nature Conservancy, Bugwood.org

It was the winter heath, Erica carnea, that stood out as I walked through our yard on a recent sunny but bitterly cold day. Its tiny pink flowers don’t seem capable of withstanding the arctic temperatures of the past week yet there they are.

heather in winter closeup 2                                                                                 Erica carnea close-up       Image by S. Pelton

The compact, or dwarf, size of most heath helps to limit the amount of air circulation through the plant and it creates its own microclimate whereby the plant is not as vulnerable to the cold as a taller, more openly branched plant. Its low growth habit does expose it to the possibility of frost when very cold air settles near the ground but it’s likely that in Connecticut a cover of snow may insulate it.

IMG_20171231_141655664_HDR

                                                                                E. carnea in the snow    Image by S. Pelton

Early spring and early fall are the best times to plant, feed, or prune heath. When planting in full sun or slight shade in the early spring or fall do not allow these shallow rooted new plantings to dry out before they can establish themselves. Some gardeners amend the soil with peat moss, which can hold more than 20 times its dry weight in water in its cells, to help retain moisture. If you do add peat moss your heath plantings will receive an added benefit as the moss takes up calcium and magnesium from the surrounding soil and releases hydrogen. This action, called cation exchange, acidifies the soil. Heather prefers acidic soil which means that they are well suited to Connecticut. Plant them in area that will not be affected when you lime your lawn. Give them a dose of Holly-tone once a year when fertilizing other acid-loving plants such as rhododendron, azalea, or holly making sure that it doesn’t adhere to the foliage and reaches the drip line of the plant. As with any fertilizer it should be watered in.

                                                     Heath and heather images by the UConn Plant Database and S. Pelton

Spring is also good time to do any pruning of heath before the plant sets its flower buds or has new growth. Prune just to control any unwanted spreading and avoid pruning in the late fall as open cuts can collect water that will expand during a freeze and cause the stems to split. True heather (Calluna sp.) should be pruned annually in the spring as the flower buds do not set on old wood and the plants will become leggy and unattractive. Prune C. vulgaris at the base of old flowers.

Caliuna vulgaris heather

                                                                                   Calluna vulgaris      Image by S. Pelton

Other than needing occasional pruning heath and heather are very low-maintenance plants with few issues. You may find that deer or rabbits will feed on it as will the larvae of the Lepidopteran order which includes butterflies and moths or moths in the Coleophora genus. All in all, these plants are a wonderful addition to any yard or landscape as they unobtrusively add a swath of pink flowers and deep green foliage year-round. Perhaps 2018 is the year to add some year-round color to your landscape!

Susan Pelton

For additional information visit the UConn Plant Database: Calluna vulgaris (Scotch heather, Common heather) and Erica carnea (Spring heath, Winter heath)

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