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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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This is not an unexploded ordnance!

 

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

Susan Pelton

Last week’s Ladybug Blog extolled the historical, cultural, and culinary delights of pumpkin. It seems as though you can’t step foot into a grocery store, candle shop, or cafe without being inundated with products that revolve around pumpkin spice. As ubiquitous as the combination of cinnamon, clove, and allspice have been the past few years I remember a time when the flavor of early fall was apple; from cider and cider doughnuts to pies and apple butter.

Many a school field trip or family outing revolved around a trip to an orchard to pick one of the many varieties of apples available in New England and return home laden with bags of this versatile fruit. The pleasure of these adventures was increased if the destination also had a working cider press. That sweet/sour smell of the overripe apples being pressed says fall much in the same way that a freshly-cut fir tree hints that Christmas is on its way.

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Enjoying a visit to Easy Pickins Orchard in Enfield, CT

Apple orchards have been a part of Connecticut and New England since cultivated apples (Malus pumila also known as M. domestica) were brought here by the European settlers in the 17th century. The first recorded apple orchard was planted in 1625 by the Reverend William Blaxton in what is now Cumberland, Rhode Island. Reverend Buxton cultivated the Yellow Sweeting apple which later became known as the Rhode Island Greening, a cooking apple that has a greenish-yellow flesh. Before that only the small, sour, wild apples which we know as crabapples grew in North America. Crabapples are used as ornamental trees in landscapes and as they are heavy bloomers are great sources of pollen for cross-pollination in apple orchards, are a good source of pectin, and as a rootstock that provides cold-hardiness to domestic apples.

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The crabapple tree at our first home bloomed beautifully every Mother’s Day (1991)

The use of crabapple or other apple varieties as a rootstock in grafting is very important in modern orchard farming. Apple trees grown from seed do not grow true to their parent plant and can be anywhere from 12 to 36’ tall, features that are not conducive to consistent apple production and ease of harvest. Therefore, grafting, the technique that combines the beneficial traits of 2 or 3 apple varieties is greatly beneficial. In the simplest of terms, grafting is the procedure by which a scion (a piece of last year’s growth that has 2-3 buds) is cut from an existing tree of the desired apple variety.

The scion is inserted into the cambium (vascular) layer of the understock (rootstock) of another apple variety that may bring traits such as disease resistance, crotch strength, adaptability to heavier soil, a slow growth rate, adaptability to espalier training, or the above-mentioned cold-hardiness. The new graft is generally bound with tape and a grafting compound. Detailed information on grafting can be found in books or online.

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Espaliered apple trees

Cider apples are usually a combination of cultivars that are grown specifically for use in cider production to have higher sugar and tannin levels and are often more astringent than the eating and baking varieties. These qualities contribute to a final product that has a deeper flavor. Among cider apple varieties are some that are higher in sugar which causes their cider product to ferment resulting in hard cider. In fact, hard cider was an important beverage at a time when refrigeration was unavailable. Most apple cider produced today is pasteurized, a process that heats the unfiltered apple juice to prevent bacterial contamination. It also destroys any yeast that would cause the juice to ferment creating a more stable non-alcoholic product. In fact, ‘Johnny Appleseed’, the folklore hero born as John Chapman in 1774, planted seeds that produced apples that were only good for hard cider (or applejack), not for eating.

In 1993 The Enfield Historical Society brought a manual cider press to the Old Town Hall Museum. Since we were members of the Society my husband Russ and some friends were enlisted to turn the press.

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Layers of burlap-wrapped apples are squeezed in the manual cider press.

It was a beautiful, sunny fall day, perfect for an outdoor exhibition. Our children and friends were among the crowd that gathered to watch the action. The resultant cider was not distributed as it had not been pasteurized but there were jugs of pre-pressed cider for the enjoyment of all.

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Crates of apples await their turn in the press.

Humans are not the only members of the animal kingdom that appreciate ripening apples. At this time of year, it is almost impossible to get near an apple tree without being in the presence of yellowjacket wasps as they forage for the sugars that are important to their developing queen in late summer. As overly ripe apples fall to the ground the yellowjackets will swarm the fallen fruit.

 

A beautiful Mutsu apple showed the scars of an encounter with yet another species that wanted to feed on the delicious ripening fruit. Although this apple was about 5 feet above the ground an animal, possibly a raccoon, had attempted unsuccessfully to get it.

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Mutsu apple with animal damage.

We, however, picked many Mutsu (also known as Crispin) apples, a very crunchy and sweet variety that is a cross between the Golden Delicious and the Indo cultivars that is great for eating and several pounds of Cortland destined for pies, crisps, and apple butter. Connecticut’s orchards are still going strong so visit the Connecticut Apples site to find one near you and enjoy some of the many delicious varieties that are grown in our state.

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.

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Serviceberries

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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

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

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…the honeysuckle smells sweeter…

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20170711_112627268   Sassafras

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

Susan Pelton

All images and videos by Susan Pelton 2017

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” -Greek Proverb

 

Two of my favorite shade trees are real beauties: Horse Chestnut and Copper Beech. Both trees are large, making a commanding presence in a landscape. You will need a fairly open spot not too close to the house to give each plenty of room. Planted on the south-west side of a home will provide cooling shade during the summer. Both are deciduous, shedding their leaves for the winter, allowing the sunlight to warm the house in the winter.

Horse Chestnut, (Aesculus hippocastanum), is a stately 50 to 75 feet tall and 40 to 70 feet wide at maturity. The large, palmate leaves have an opposite leaf arrangement, and are a pretty dark green. Soon after the leaves emerge the tree produces large, white panicles around mid-May. Panicles are made up of individual white, perfect flowers with a yellow blotch at the base. This yellow blotch changes to a pinky-red as the flower ages. The flowers are very showy, and I think, the best features of a magnificent tree. And the bees love it.

Horse chestnut flower 2017 closeup

Horse chestnut is not a true chestnut as it is in a different genus. The nuts of Horse chestnuts are not edible due to their toxic levels of glycoside and saponin. The nuts are enclosed in a green, smoothed shell with some pointed warts. The American and Chinese chestnuts have spine covered shells. Nuts left on the ground through the will break dormancy in spring and start to grow mid-April. Dig the baby trees to move them where you would like them to grow.

 

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Horse chestnuts in spring ready to germinate.

Copper Beech trees are not really a copper color. More of a mahogany, but that name was already taken! Whatever you call it, it is strikingly gorgeous. The Latin name is Fagus sylvatica ‘Purpurea’ group. There are quite a few named varieties of with the different shades of purple leaves. Popular ones are ‘cuprea’, ‘Brocklesby’ and Purpea Nana’. ‘Purpurea Pendula’ is a weeping cooper beech.

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Copper Beech Flowers

Size varies with the many varieties. Some can reach 60 feet tall and 45 in width. Overall shape is an oval to more rounded with age. Flowers are small, not showy and a yellowy green in color. The male flowers hang down while the female flowers are held close to the twig. Flowers are wind pollinated. If female flowers do become fertilized, a spiny husk covering a triangular nut develops. Nuts are edible, but small. It will take ten years for trees to reach maturity before flower and nut production begins lightly and 30 years for a full harvest. It is best to purchase a balled and burlapped or potted tree to make sure the leaf color is to your liking. Seedlings can vary widely in their coloring.

-Carol Quish

Trees and shrubs are showing signs of life as they swell in preparation of budding out. Let’s hope that they have survived the extreme cold that followed some unseasonably warm weather in February when they started to appear. Although we are still weeks away from seeing canopies of leaves and flowering shrubs the weather is becoming nice enough to enjoy a walk through the landscape. And without leaves and flowers to attract our attention our sight is drawn to other details that might normally go unnoticed.

As I was walking around the yard looking at the pussywillows and the lilac buds I noticed lichen growing along the side of the lilac trunk. We get many calls at the Home & Garden Education Center regarding grey-green growths along trunks and limbs of woody ornamentals. Most lichen are so unworldly-looking that the common misconception is that they must be causing harm to the host plant, especially since they are commonly first noticed when a tree is in distress. But a sparse canopy simply lets in more sunlight which is beneficial to the lichen.

Lichen on lichen

The truth is so different. In fact, lichen may be a benefit to the host plant by bringing extra moisture and environmental protection as the lichen take root. Further, removal of lichen may damage the underlying bark may create open wounds that would allow pathogens to enter. It is best left alone.

What are lichen, then? They not only live symbiotically with host plants, they can be found on soil and on rocks. Lichen are composite organisms and although they sometimes appear plant-like, they are not plants. They are algae (or cyanobacteria, a name that reflects their blue-green hues) that live among the filaments of fungi. They do not have roots to absorb water and nutrients but they can produce food through photosynthesis by the algae component. Lichen are sometimes called moss and may grow amongst them but they are not related. This image shows them on the same tree:

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Lichen can be correctly called an epiphyte though. Epiphytes grow harmlessly on other plants, only relying on the physical support for its structure and getting moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. Orchids are a beautiful example of an epiphytic plant and more can be read about them in the Ladybug Blog: A Visit to the Bahamas.

As lichen grow the forms that the thallus take determine the grouping that they fall within. The thallus are the obvious vegetative body parts and they can grow in a variety of ways and colors. On the left is the Parmotrema sp. in a foliose growth form. On the right is the Caloplaca sp. in a crustose growth form.

Lichen are long-lived but can have slow growth rate, as little as 2/100” in a year although there are varieties that can measured at 1 ½’ per anum. Lichen can be the first species to colonize freshly exposed rocks and can survive under the harshest conditions, such as arctic tundra and desert. It can survive a complete loss of water and then rehydrate when it becomes available. This moss has been growing on this rock for years. The cup-like structures are the apothecia, the fungal reproductive structure that produces the spores. While these spores will produce new fungi it won’t lead to new lichen. New lichen are formed when soredia are dispersed. Soredia are  clusters of algal cells wrapped in fungal filaments.

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So there is no need to panic when you see lichen. If the host plant does seem to be in decline, look for another cause. It could be due to an insect infestation (have Gypsy Moth caterpillars defoliated the canopy?), a vascular disease that has caused a general decline in vigor, or uneven watering practices. Check with the UConn Home & Garden Education for verification of any of these possibilities.

Susan Pelton

 

Amateur and professional drinkers of wine and coffee are very familiar with the flavors that are used to evaluate the complex tastes of those beverages. Grass, cinnamon, peach, and almond are among the dozens of compounds that can found among the sensory description wheels or charts for wine and coffee. But did you also know that those words are also used by the maple syrup industry?

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Counter Culture Coffee                 Aromaster                    Agriculture Canada

Maple sugar and syrup production has been a part of northeastern North American culture since before the Europeans arrived en masse in the 17th century. The native indigenous peoples passed their methods down from generation to generation through oral history and traditions. In fact, the methods that they used to gather sap and produce maple syrup were so basic that they have changed little in essence into the 21st century. The Algonquians used stone tools to make the incisions into the trunk from which reeds were inserted which allowed the sap to run into birch buckets or scooped-out sections of a trunk. The sap was concentrated in much the same way that most cooking was done; by dropping heated stones into the liquid, raising the temperature to the point that steam carries off the excess water.

Laura Ingalls Wilder described the maple sugaring process in her book The Little House in the Big Woods. Chronicling her life in 1870s Wisconsin, Mrs. Wilder recounted the late winter tapping of the maple trees and the making of maple syrup which they called ‘sugaring off’. The buckets of maple syrup supplied them with a sweetening agent for the next year, especially in the very basic meal of ‘hasty pudding’; cornmeal cooked in water to a thick mush that was sweetened with maple syrup. The syrup was also boiled past the syrup stage until it crystallized, poured into pans, and allowed to cool into rounds of maple sugar.

There have been developments in the past four centuries that have streamlined and improved production. Wooden taps and then metal spiles replaced reeds, wooden buckets were replaced with metal buckets, plastic bags, or even tubing that allowed the sap to be collected from many trees at a time into a holding vat. When maple trees are 30-40 years old they are large enough to tap, and can support 2-3 taps each, depending on the diameter of the trunk.

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Once collected, sap must be reduced a great deal, from 20 to 50 gallons to a single gallon of syrup. It must be boiled carefully so that sugar crystals do not form. Once boiled in large kettles, sap is now heated in flat, open pans that increase the rate of evaporation and speed up the process.

I attended a maple sugaring workshop sponsored by the Arboretum at Connecticut College this past weekend and get a first-hand view of some of the techniques. The first step in maple sugaring is tree identification and Jim Luce, our instructor, gave us some tips. Tree identification during the winter takes a bit more investigation than it does in the summer when the distinctive, palmate, simple, opposite leaves (seen the Canadian flag?) and samara (helicopters) are present. However, few species, maple among them, have the distinctive opposite buds and branches. Sugar maple bark is gray, going from smooth to furrowed and its twigs are light brown with scattered white lenticels. The buds are red or brown and pointed and the sap is clear, not cloudy.

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The most desirable maple species are Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), Red maple (A. rubrum), and Black maple (A. nigrum) due to a 2-5% sugar content although syrup can be made from walnut (Juglans) and birch (Betula) sap also. Birch sap runs a bit later in the season so that you could collect that in April and make syrup after the maple season has ended. Tapping of maples starts in early February once temperatures are above 32° F during the day and below that at night and generally runs for 4-6 weeks.

Rather than describe the tapping process step by step, here is a video of the workshop that was held on a cold and breezy day:

 

It was an enjoyable experience, especially the tasting of the finished product poured over ice cream! We sampled a commercially prepared Grade A syrup that was darker in color but less tasty than the sap that Jim boiled down from sap collected yesterday.

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The newly cooked sap had definite vanilla undertones and was sweeter with being cloying. Oh yes, I have a new appreciation for the complexities of maple syrup and for the cost of a quality product now that I have seen the amount of work that goes into it. Pancakes, anyone?

Susan Pelton

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