Plants


rose, irish

Not so wild Irish rose.

Vacations are for traveling and relaxing, seeing new lands and experiencing cultures other than our own. I did just that this summer on a trip to Ireland visiting the entire coastal perimeter of the country. I am a plant person at heart, so of course I was enamored with the plant life I saw, touched, and even ate and drank. The golden barley in the fields was to become an important ingredient in the Irish Guinness beer brewed in Dublin. We took a tour of the brewery to learn how the fruit of the hops plant and the grain of the barley are turned into the well-loved stout beer.

Guiness

Keeping the husband happy.

Along the coastal route we traveled, we did not see many vegetable farms as they were located more inland where there were better growing conditions and soil. We did see many fields with sheep and cows. Beef and dairy cows were often feeding in fields not used for hay.

cows

Often large fields would have a lone, ancient tree standing within its boundaries, and could be any species that happened to take root on the spot. Our tour guide told us those trees are known as fairy trees which house the fairies of Ireland. Fairies in Ireland are not nice and cutesy like we Americans think of them. In Ireland fairies are tricky beings, and can bring havoc and bad will to those who disturb them. For this reason, farmers will leave a large tree in the middle of his field, even driving around it when seeding and growing crops, avoiding tilling up the area so as not to disturb or offend the fairies residing under it. The superstitions are handed down with the generations, and many stories of them may be found in bookstores on the local legends.

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Fairy Tree

fairy tree, seems a little magical

Magical Fairy Tree. Can you see the fairies?

We passed peat bogs which are wetlands covered in accumulated dead plant material and mosses. Peat takes centuries to form under the acidic and anaerobic conditions. Layers of peat were traditionally cut out of the bog, left to dry and then used a fuel source to burn inside fireplaces to heat homes. Now a day, modern heating is used in Ireland, and bog management laws limits on the amount of peat harvested. Peat moss used in gardens is also harvested from bogs. Since it takes centuries to form, it is not really a very good renewable resource.

 

In windswept, boggy meadows along the seaside were plants that looked like cotton blowing in the wind. It is called bog cotton, Eriophorum angustifolium, a grass-like sedge plant with fluffy seed heads. Each seed is attached to a fluff of hairs/bristles that can catch the wind to be carried far away. Great method of seed dispersal created over eons to ensure the survival of the species.

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Bog Cotton

bog cotton close up 2

Bog Cotton seed head.

Heather grew wild among the rocky areas and tolerated the harsh, windy climate well. It was low growing among the native grasses providing a subtle lavender color to the fields.

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Heather field

 

Foxglove is a native weed just about everywhere in Ireland. Its purple nodding bells arising from waste areas and rock walls. Called Fairy Thimbles in folklore, they are deemed unlucky if you bring them into the house in case you let a naughty fairy into the home. Foxgloves are biennial, with second year plants blooming from June through August.

foxglove 1 - Copy

Foxglove

I captured (with the camera), this cute little bee coming in for nectar on this non-wild foxglove in a tended garden.

Bee coming in for a landing, Ireland

While in Northern Ireland at Malin Head, I came across the most unusual hedge plant planted in multiple yards and outside several establishments. After asking a local or two, its identity was revealed as Hebe, a broad leaved evergreen plant with showy purple flowers in July and August. It is native to New Zealand and the folks I spoke with weren’t sure how it originally came to their town, but they share it readily with neighbors. Hebe is hardy there, but will not take temperatures below freezing. Even one exposure to a freeze and its top growth will die back. The stands of I saw were happily six feet tall and tolerating even this northern most town on the coast.

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Hebe flowers

 

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Hebe hedge

 

What would a visit to Ireland be without the mention of potatoes? Several museums and tour guides told the history of the Irish potato famine caused by the fungal disease of late blight, Phytophthora infestans, the same disease that infects tomatoes and can wipe out a crop. The English withheld all other food sources from the Catholic following Irish people unless they denounced their religion. Once the potato blight hit for several years, there was no food left resulting in mass deaths and migrations to other countries. Still today, the entire population of Ireland has not reached the numbers it had before the blight hit.

potato blight

 

At the end of our trip, we packed up our mementos of Irish lace and tweed caps along with the rich stories of Ireland. My memory cards are full, both the physical one in my camera, and the one in my head.

-Carol Quish, all photos copyrighted by CQuish

potatoes

 

Every year at the UConn Home & Garden Education there are a few topic of interest that we get a lot of calls about. Several years ago we fielded a lot of calls about the drought situation in Connecticut that occupied many people’s thoughts in 2016. In fact, that encompassed two years as we started to feel the effects of it in 2015. On the tail end of the drought, and perhaps in part because of it, many parts of the state were visited with an infestation of gypsy moth caterpillars. When we have a wet spring the fungus Entomophaga maimaiga, a natural control of the gypsy moth caterpillar, can flourish. The fungus overwinters as spores in leaf litter and in the soil. It then reactivates in the spring when there is sufficient rainfall. Although we were receiving an adequate amount of rain by 2017 it happened to occur a bit late for the fungus to be fully effective against the voraciously feeding caterpillars. So the summers of 2016 and 2017 were dedicated to answering many questions about the gypsy moth caterpillars and the damage that they wreaked.

As those two events have wound down a new concern arose for many of our clients. Thanks in part to press releases and an interview that aired on NBC CT in June the giant hogweed, Heracleum mantegazzianum, (below images) jumped to the front of the queue. The Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group (CIPWG) issued a warning about this invasive species which was first spotted in Connecticut in 2001. Most of the populations of giant hogweed are under control and none of the reported sightings in 2018 were positive.

There are many look-a-like plants and it is those species that we are asked to identify. Starting in early-June calls and emails began to come in to identify large herbaceous perennials that were striking fear into Connecticut residents. This is in part due to the pretty noxious nature of the giant hogweed sap. Within 24-48 hours after skin has been in contact with the sap painful blisters may appear in individuals that are sensitive to it. Three things need to be present for the reaction known as phytophotodermatitis to occur. First, direct contact between the skin and the sap. Second, the skin must be moist as from perspiration, for example. Third, the contaminated area must be exposed to sunlight. If you are working in an area that contains giant hogweed it is easy to imagine that all of the criteria could be easily met.

Before attempting to remove giant hogweed from an area the first step should be positively identifying it. As I mentioned earlier, there have not been any confirmed sightings in Connecticut yet this year. It may be that the suspected plant is one of the following instead.

The first plant that is most commonly mistaken for giant hogweed is fellow member of the Heracleum genus: cow parsnip, Heracleum maximum, (images below). Unlike giant hogweed which was introduced to the United States 100 years ago from the Caucasus region of Central Asia, cow parsnip is native to North America. A tall herbaceous perennial that can reach up to 10 feet in the shade, nowhere near the 18 feet possible height of the giant hogweed, cow parsnip bears its flowers in in the flat-topped or rounded umbels that are characteristic of other members of the carrot family, Apiacea. Both species have compound deeply-lobed, toothed leaves but the cow parsnip lacks the red veining and leaf stalks common to giant hogweed. Cow parsnip also contains chemicals that cause phytophotodermatitis.

The next most common look-a-like is angelica, (below images). A first cousin once-removed, it shares its family, Apiaceae, with the giant hogweed and cow parsnip but is in the genus Angelica. Angelica grows 3-9 feet tall and also has large umbel flower heads. The compound leaves of angelica are what distinguish it from giant hogweed as they are bipinnate, meaning that they are compound leaves in which the leaflets are also compound (think honey locust leaves). Often used as a medicinal herb, angelica is the least toxic of the hogweed look-a-likes although it may still cause a skin reaction.

Queen Anne’s lace, Daucus carota, (below images) takes compound leaves one step further to tripinnate, having pinnately compound leaves that are bipinnate. The more levels of pinnation, the more delicate the overall effect. The airy-looking leaves of D. carota are what give it the ‘lace’ part of its name and are similar to its subspecies, the domestic carrot. Queen Anne’s lace has an umbellate flower head atop a much slimmer stem than giant hogweed, cow parsnip, or angelica. The sap from the leaves and stems can cause a phytophotodermatitis reaction although the flowers are used to make jelly similar to the yarrow jelly from our June 26th blog post.

The native Lactuca species includes wild lettuce (Lactuca Canadensis),

prickly lettuce (L. serriola), hairy lettuce (L. hirsute), and the blue lettuces (l. biennis, L. floridana, L. pulchella, L. villosa).

These tall plants start out from a basal rosette of leaves and can grow to 7 feet tall with large alternating broad leaves.  They have pale blue insignificant flowers compared to the dense clustered heads of the previous plants.

Finally, giant ragweed, Ambrosia trifida, has also made a plant identification appearance.  This 6-foot tall annual herb is a noxious weed that has become invasive in other parts of the world as it out competes native species in much the same way that the giant hogweed has here.

As plants and seeds have spread across the globe through human, animal, mechanical, or water means many species have landed in non-native locations and taken root there. If you are a fan of podcasts, check out the Infinite Monkey Cage’s Invasion episode where scientists and comedians take a look at the problems caused by alien (plant) invasions.

Susan Pelton, UConn Home & Garden Education Center

All images by CIPWG and UConn

 

 

tiger swallowtail and obedient plant

Tiger swallowtail on obedient plant flower

“What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps me in a continual state of inelegance.” – Jane Austen

What a strange summer we have had so far in New England! I almost thought of going to Florida to escape the heat and humidity. It has been hot and humid, no doubt, but it is August after all, and things are coming along nicely in the out- of-doors. This time of year there is enough good stuff going on in the landscape to overcome any weather difficulties we may be experiencing, so let’s plod on out and see what’s happening.

Horsebarn Hill on a foggy July morning

foggy morning on Horsebarn Hill UConn

 

 

As we head on into the mid= summer, most garden buffs are by now reveling in the abundance of hydrangeas that are now in bloom. The dwarf ‘Little Lime’ is one of several panicle Hydrangeas that have nice full-bodied lime green flowers that pack a visual punch in the landscape. ‘Little Lamb’ is another of the smaller panicle hydrangeas, this one also having a compact form with pure white, ethereal blooms that give it its name.

little lambs hydrangea

‘Little lamb’ panicle hydrangea

Hibiscus are also blooming now, with their outstanding large, colorful flowers that really provide some visual excitement in the garden. I came across a nice hedgerow type planting that made a nice privacy screen along a sidewalk. I am not really a hibiscus fan, but a pink- flowered one popped up in my garden, and looks so great there that I guess it can stay. I wonder if someone snuck it in there to get me to have kinder thoughts toward these plants…

hibiscus border

Hibiscus

On the wild side, the sweet- smelling Clethra alnifolia is in full bloom and is attracting all types of bees, beetles and butterflies. Look for this small clump-forming shrub in any areas where soils are moist. The white flower spikes are very fragrant, so you can tell where Clethra are long before you actually see them. Groundnut vine is also blooming now, with its pea-like pink flower clusters dangling from its twining stems. Often found twining itself around goldenrods and blue vervain, it is always fun to come across this plant.

red spotted purple on clethra alnifolia

Red spotted purple butterfly on Clethra

The barn swallows that are partial to building their nests on the eaves of our equipment building have had their second brood of the year, as have bluebirds. Hopefully that will exit the nest soon and mom and dad can have a much needed rest in the near future. There was a female wood duck taking her brood on a tour in a large beaver pond the other day.

barn swallows ready to leave nest

barn swallows ready to fledge

female and male juvenile wood ducks Early August Airline Trail marsh Pamm Cooper photo

Juvenile wood ducks

I came across a wild grape that had one leaf covered with interesting cone- like galls formed by the grape tube gallmaker midge (Schizomyia viticola). This is a harmless gall, and only affected one leaf on the entire grape plant. Looks like a bunch of tall red, skinny gnome caps were set on the leaf.

grape tube gallmaker on grape leaf

grape tube galls

Combing through garden centers for great plants is always enjoyable when you find something like the Blackberry or leopard Lily Belamcanda chinensis. Star shaped flowers only 2 inches wide are heavily spotted with red, while foliage is sword- shaped. The flowers appear in late summer and bloom until frost, so this is a good plant to spiff up areas where other perennials are fading into the sunset.

leopard li;ly Belamcando chinensis

leopard lily Belamcando chinensis

Interesting plants suitable for containers are agave and other succulents. I saw a good size Agave colorata recently which was very striking in appearance. Its leaves are thick and powdery blue- gray with unusual cross- banding designs on them, plus leaf edges have brown teeth tipped with spines. A spectacular plant!

Agaave colorata

Agave colorata

pattern on agave leaves

patterns on Agave colorata leaves

Caterpillars this time of year are larger and, in my opinion, more interesting than the early season caterpillars. One favorite is the brown- hooded owlet, which is a sports a rich array orange, blue, yellow and red. Look for this caterpillar on goldenrods, where it feeds on flowers and flower buds.

brown-hooded-owlet-caterpillar

brown-hooded owlet

If you want a nice surprise, with a little careful handling you can check inside folded stinging nettle leaf shelters and may find either caterpillars of the comma or red admiral butterflies, or the chrysalis of the red admiral.

red admiral chrysalis inside nettle leaf shelter

red admiral butterfly chrysalis inside a leaf shelter on stinging nettle

 

The skies can provide some viewing that is better than any television show. Thunderhead clouds can provide some drama as they develop on hot and humid afternoons, and may provide further excitement in the form of thunder and lightning, and rainbows may follow. We can have remarkable sunsets any time of year, so don’t forget to have a look at the sky around sunset. August is also a great time for early morning fogs as well, especially when we have had a humid night. Getting up early does have its good points…

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Thunderhead developing on a hot and humid afternoon

 

Pamm Cooper

One of my favorite plants in our yard is a large wisteria that wends its way through and around our back deck. Planted in the early 2008 this woody, non-native climbing vine was slow to flower. Although a hardy, fast-growing plant, wisteria usually doesn’t produce flowers until it establishes itself and matures so it was a few years before the first blooms appeared in May of 2011, the image on the left. The center image is from May, 2013 and the image on the right is from the same perspective but in May of 2017.

In early May, before most of the foliage leafs out, the flowers will begin to open, starting at the base and gradually working towards the tip. The 6-12” long drooping racemes of wisteria bloom from basal buds on last year’s growth of wood. It will continue to bloom through the summer when it has full sun and well-drained soil.

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Wisteria vines can become very heavy and need a strong structure such as a trellis, arbor, pergola, or in our case, a deck to provide support. The twining of the stems can be used to identify the species, depending on whether they twine clockwise or counter-clockwise when viewed from above. Our wisteria twines counter-clockwise so it is a Wisteria sinensis, Chinese wisteria. Wisteria that twines clockwise is Wisteria floribunda, Japanese wisteria.

I usually prune it in the early spring when I also give it a low nitrogen-fertilizer. If it sends out unruly new growth during the spring and summer I just break them off by hand. Likewise, with any adventitious shoots that appear at the base of the plant. It’s a low-maintenance plant otherwise with practically no pests or diseases. The bees and other pollinators love it and I saw a hummingbird visiting it this week. One of the few pests that are ever on it are Japanese beetles.

JB

As you can see by the oval white egg on the surface of its green thorax this beetle has been parasitized by a tachinid fly, Istocheta aldrichi. These tiny flies attach a solitary egg to the Japanese beetle. It will hatch a week later and then the tiny larvae will burrow its way into the body to feed. The larvae will consume the beetle from the inside causing its ultimate death, exiting the body to pupate. If you see a Japanese beetle with one of these eggs on it, let it be. It is already on death row and the new fly that it is nourishing will go on to parasitize other beetles in the future.

As I walked past the wisteria earlier this week I noticed bees among its beautiful pendulous violet flowers. I took out my phone to get a picture and as I focused on the buzzing bee I noticed how the individual blooms of wisteria are so like the blossoms of the different beans in the vegetable garden.

Bee on wisteria bloom.jpg

Like bean and pea flowers, the blossoms of wisteria are zygomorphic. ‘Zygomorphic’ means that the flower is only symmetrical when divided along one axis, in this case vertically, unlike the radial symmetry of a flower such as a daisy which is the same on either axis. Clockwise from the top these are the blossoms of a wisteria , a purple sugar snap pea, a pole bean, and a yard-long bean.

Wisteria and beans share many traits with the almost 18,000 other species in the Fabaceae family, also known as Leguminosae, making it the third largest family of flowering plants. Grown world-wide, this group contains trees, shrubs, vines, and herbs that bear fruit called legumes. Many legumes are grown to eat, such as the edible pods of freshly-picked snow and sugar peas and beans, the edible seeds of peas and peanuts, or dried pulses such as lentils, chickpeas, soybeans, beans, and lupin.

I never connected the ornamental lupin, Lupinus polyphyllus, that grow in our flower beds with the salty lupini beans, Lupinus albus, that accompany many antipasto platters. But when you look at the seed pods of an herbaceous lupin the similarity to other legume seed pods becomes apparent. The images are, clockwise from the upper left, wisteria, lupin, purple snow pea, sugar snap peas, and yard-long beans.

Fun fact about another legume: in a method called geocarpy, the seed pods of peanuts develop underground. This gives rise to its other moniker, the groundnut. Post-fertilization, the yellowish-orange peanut bloom sends out a ‘peg’ that grows down to the soil where the ovary at the tip matures into a peanut seed pod.  Like most other legumes, peanuts have nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobia in their root nodules. This capacity to take inert atmospheric nitrogen from the soil means legumes require less nitrogen fertilizer. When the plants die they can improve soil fertility for future crops by releasing that fixed nitrogen.

Scarlet runner beans blossoms

Scarlet runner beans

Any home gardener can benefit from growing legumes, whether they enjoy the beautiful blooms, the healthful benefits derived from eating these high protein and fiber foods or to enrich their garden soil for future plantings.

Susan Pelton

UConn Home & Garden Education Center, 2018

All images by Susan Pelton

praying mantid 2

Praying mantids have hatched and are busy staking their claim in all areas of the garden looking for any insect to eat. They are fun to watch and photograph. So glad I noticed their egg masses and relocated them when cutting back the garden last fall.

clove current berries

The clove currant is producing berries, first green then ripening to black. The birds are eating them faster than I can take a photo them almost. Good plant for wildlife, and a hand-me-down plant from my husband’s grandmother’s home. The Latin name is Ribes odoratum for those doing a search to find one.

swallowtail butterfly

This swallowtail butterfly was very busy feeding on the nectar of the very floriferous bottlebrush buckeye blooming on campus. Bottlebrush buckeye, Aesculus parviflora, is a fabulous, large shrub which sends up panicles of white flowers with red anthers and pinkish filaments.

spinach bolting 2

The summer’s heat is causing the cool weather crops of the spring to bolt and go to seed. Once this happens, the leaves become bitter and plants should be pulled and composted. Planting fall crops of carrots, beets, peas, kale or beans make good use of then now available space in the garden.

Robber fly

This robber fly was resting in the garden, probably waiting for an easy insect meal. They are predatory on all types of insects and considered a beneficial insect.

cross striped caterpillar on cale

If your kale or other cole crops are being eaten and showing a lacy appearance of holy leaves, look for the cross-striped cabbage worm. One caterpillar can eat quite a lot. Bt is a good control measure when they are small, or insecticidal soap. Rotate where brassica plants are located next year, and grow under a row cover to keep the adult moth from laying her eggs on the leaves.

garlic

Garlic is ready to be harvested during July, once half of the leaves have turned brown. After carefully loosening the soil with a spade, pull the garlic bulbs by the stems and dry on an open rack in out of the sun and under cover for three weeks. A shed or garage are best for the drying. After they are dry, brush off the dirt, cut off the roots close to the bottom of the bulb, and cut back the stem end leaving about one inch. Store in the home in a dry, dark spot. Save the largest bulbs for planting next October through November.

gypsym moth females and egg masses

Gypsy moth adults are busy mating. Females do not fly, only able to crawl. The males are flitting around, flying to females to mate. Females will lay the buff colored egg masses which will last through the fall, winter and spring, to hatch next summer. Egg masses can be  crushed or scraped into a container of soapy water.

-Carol Quish

All photos are copyrighted by Carol Quish, UConn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

catalpa flowers 6-25-18 Pamm Cooper photo

Flowers of the Catalpa tree

 “ Nature gives to every  time and season some beauties of its own

– Charles Dickens

After a cool, wet spring and a similar June, July came in like a jalapeno pepper and is staying that way for a while, at least. It is a good thing that our native plants are adaptable to the swings in both temperature and water availability fluctuations. I am also a native New England carbon-based anatomical wonder, but I have a more difficult time with excessive heat coupled with high humidity. The one good thing about this time of year, though, is the wealth of interesting flora and fauna that provide a little excitement, if that is what you need, as you venture outside.

Bittersweet and an old truck

Bittersweet growing through the cab of an abandoned truck

Some of the most spectacular caterpillars are works of progress at this time, and also in late summer and early fall. Daggers, sphinx and prominent caterpillars are always interesting finds for me. They get larger than spring-feeding caterpillars, and often have warts, knobs, hairs and colors that make them stand out. Furculas, for instance, are prominents that have anal prolegs that act more like tails. When disturbed, they flail them about and that action may drive predators away. Sphinx caterpillars usually have horns on the rear end and may get quite large before they pupate. Most are not pests, but beware of the tobacco hornworm if you grow tomatoes.

wavy lined heterocampa lookimg toward the sky Pamm Cooper copyrighted

A wavy-lined heteocampa, a prominent moth caterpillar, looking toward the sky

early instar blinded sphinx July 4 2018 Pamm Cooper photo

Very small blinded sphinx caterpillar

Most milkweeds bloom Between June and late July. This year common milkweed is almost done none in many areas. Soon the swamp milkweeds will bloom, though. Milkweeds are important sources of nectar and pollen for many bees, moths and butterflies, and many other insects feed on the foliage and flowers. Check any of the milkweeds, including native and non-native butterfly weed, for the monarch butterfly caterpillars.

fritillary and skippers 7-11-14 on swamp milkweed

Fritillary and skipper butterflies on swamp milkweed in July

Most birds have raised their first broods, and many are started a second one. pIleated woodpeckers may be seen directing their young to food sources. These include trees and logs in which carpenter ants are actively feeding. Although  pileateds are very large, if not for their raucous calls and loud drumming that give them away, they can be elusive to find unless you know where they live.

Pileated Case Mountain Pamm Cooper photo

Pileated woodpecker

Butterflies have not been as abundant as last year, especially the red admirals and painted ladies. Since these are migratory, one wonders if they were held up in the southern areas and now the second generation be arrive later on.  Hairstreaks and skippers also were few and far between, but now the summer ones are starting to put in an appearance. I was delighted and surprised to have a white admiral butterfly visit the flowers in my backyard gardens this week. In all the time I have spent in the outdoors, I have only ever seen three of these, and this one was a hybrid, likely a result of a red-spotted purple/white admiral matchup.

white admiral cross backyard bush honeysuckle 6-30-2018 IIPamm Cooper

White admiral hybrid

Some summer flowering trees like the exotic mimosa, or hardy silk tree, should bloom in July. We are glad to have one of these on the UConn Campus, just outside of the Wilbur Cross building. Its flowers are pink, fragrant and showy, and to my mind look like fluffs of cotton candy. Catalpa trees finish blooming in early July, dropping their white flowers to the ground like a summer snow.

hardy silk tree UConn Wilbur

Hardy silk tree, or Mimosa

Wildflowers that begin bloom in July include the Canada lily, Lilium canadense, and the wood lily. Both attract butterflies and are a striking hint of color among ferns and herbaceous plants in sunny areas. In the woods, look for Indian pipe, a surprising member of the blueberry family which has no chlorophyll. White in color, you can see how it got its nickname- the ghost plant.

indian pipe

Indian pipe

Canada Lily Lilium canadense 7-14-13

Canada lily Lilium canadense

Fawns are here, being carefully trained by their mothers to be sure to sample hostas, yews, phlox and other tasty garden plants. Knowing this behavior inspired me to put plants that the deer are known not to like, at least for this moment in time, on the edges of my garden beds. I tuck the plants they seem to like to nibble on far enough behind the plants they will not eat, that so far- three years now- they leave stuff alone.

When we get afternoon or early evening thunderstorms, remember to look for rainbows once the sun starts to shine again. If there is going to be a rainbow, it will appear where the storm is still passing through, but the sun has to be behind you.  We can get some great clouds any time of year, so don’t forget to look up now and then, especially in the early morning and late evening around sunset.

rainbow with faint double above

Rainbow over Bolton, Ct. July 3, 2018

Enjoy your time outdoors, even if it is time spent in your own backyard. You can see good and interesting things on nature shows and the weather channels, but it is far better to see it for yourself. The excitement never ends…

Pamm Cooper

feed me Pamm Coope rphoto

Don’t forget to stay cool!

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“Fortunate is the man who knows how to use yarrow in the last days”
Attributed to Brigham Young

Brigham Young was born into a farming community in Whitingham, Vermont in 1802. Like many people at that time he would have been well-acquainted with the use of plants for medicinal purposes. Yarrow in particular has many medicinal and culinary purposes that have used for centuries. Its astringent properties led to it being used to reduce the flow of blood from wounds and the names herbal militaris, staunchweed, allheal, and bloodwort. In fact, legend says that it was used by Achilles’s soldiers on the battleground of Troy. It is that legend that gave us the Latin name for yarrow: Achillea millefolium.

It interested me to learn that since the second century BC yarrow has been used by the Chinese for divination of the I Ching. Diviners prefer dried stalks from locally gathered yarrow as they feel they will be more in-tune with it. Even better are stalks harvested from spiritually important sites such as a Confucian temple. This practice of divination is still widely used today.

In North America yarrow was used by many Native American peoples. The Navajo chewed it to relieve earaches, the Cherokee made a tea to reduce fever and aid sleep, and the Ojibwe, in addition to those uses, burned it for ceremonial purposes. They also gave it to their horses as a stimulant although the ASPCA says that yarrow is toxic to horses, dogs, and cats. For a small number of humans, it occasionally causes allergic skin irritations and photosensitivity.

For the rest of the population, yarrow has so many diverse uses. Let me start with its attractiveness to pollinators. As an umbrellated plant, that is one that has a flower head that is in the form of an open, flat-topped cluster, it is a convenient landing pad for many insects.

These white, yellow, or pink flower heads contain masses of minute, 5-petaled flowers. It is this that gives yarrow the second part of its Latin name, millefolium, or thousand-leaf or petal.

Millefolium can also refer to the many very fine, feathery leaves that adorn the yarrow plant. These lacy alternately arranged, fern-like leaves, can be dried and then steeped in hot water for a ‘tea’. The stripped stems can be boiled in water for 20 minutes and then sautéed in butter as an addition to a salad.  Yarrow leaves and flowers were part of an herbal mixture called gruit that was used as a substitute for hops in the production of beer during the Middle Ages, mostly in the Netherlands, Belgium, and western Germany.

Leaf close-up

In researching yarrow, I came across several mentions of yarrow jelly so of course I needed to make it. I harvested 2 cups of flower heads early one morning, rinsing them and then placing them into a steeping carafe along with freshly boiled water.

I let the mixture brew for an hour before draining it through two layers of cheesecloth. No need for any little insects to be involved in the jelly-making process.

The jelly-making method that I use calls for adding lemon juice and calcium water to the strained liquid. To my astonishment, as I stirred in the lemon juice into the yarrow ‘tea’ the color changed from a dull amber to pink! It turns out that the acid in lemon juice will turn pink when a molecule called an anthocyanin is introduced to it.  Anthocyanin is present in red, blue, and purple flowers including the deep pink yarrow that I used.

Unfortunately, the resulting cooked jelly did not retain that pink color that I love in the blossoms and that is so attractive to insects like the drone and hover flies that recently visited.

A tiny grasshopper nymph  in the species Melanoplus let me get very close to capture his image, jumping away only at the last second.

Grasshopper nymph

Looking a bit lower and deeper into the foliage I saw the tiniest of field ants moving among the feathery leaves. He was not alone.

Field ant (Formica spp).

Nestled in the leaf axil was a spittlebug. No bigger than the head of a pin, the adult Clastoptera lineatocollis was well hidden.

Spit bug 3

The video is of a spittlebug nymph feeding on another plant, covering itself with the foamed-up plant sap.

The foamy ‘spit’ not only hides the nymph from predators and parasites it provides a unique protection from the light that might dry it out.

Further up, an Eastern harvestman spider, Leiobunum vittatum, lay in wait for an unsuspecting red spider mite, Tetranychus urticae. I hope that the harvestman enjoyed his lunch for although one spider mite won’t do too much damage as it sucks out the contents of individual plant cells, an infestation of hundreds can seriously affect the vigor of a plant. Its good to see that a beneficial spider is taking care of that for me. Other beneficial insects that are attracted to yarrow include lady beetles and parasitic wasps such as the Braconid wasp.

If you don’t have yarrow in your flower beds yet I recommend it as a lovely, delicate-looking perennial that brings a touch of antiquity to any site. And here is one more thought from Brigham Young that speaks to the gardener in all of us:

“Beautify your gardens, your houses, your farms; beautify the city. This will make us happy, and produce plenty.”

Susan Pelton

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