Indian pipe plants on the forest floor can be an indicator of a healthy soil ecosystem. Photo credit:

Many people who come upon Indian pipe in the forest guess that it is a fungus because of its pale white coloration.   In spite of its appearance, it is a flowering plant, closely related to Rhododendron, blueberry and other members of the Ericaceae family.   Monotropa uniflora is also known by the common names Ghost Plant and Corpse Plant.  It is found in the forest understory associated with a rich soil high in organic matter and surface litter.   Its height ranges from four to ten inches and it can be found growing singly or in clusters.  The bell-shaped flowers are present from June through September and are pollinated by small bumblebees that feed on the nectar.

Because the Indian pipe plant does not have chlorophyll, which gives green plants their coloration, it cannot produce its own food via photosynthesis. It is one of over 3000 parasitic plants, those that must obtain their food from other living organisms.  Some of these, including the mistletoes, dodder and beech drops, directly parasitize other plants.  The Indian pipe plant is mycoheterotrophic, parasitizing certain fungi that live in the soil.  Its roots tap into the thread-like growth of the fungus and the plant receives nutrients via this connection.  The fungi in this relationship are mycorrhizal fungi, having a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with a tree or other plant.  The fungus grows in the roots of the tree and in the soil and obtains nutrients in the form of sucrose from the tree.  The tree benefits by receiving water and nutrients taken up by the fungus, essentially functioning like an expansion of the root system.   So, the nutrients that the Indian pipe plant are getting from the fungus came originally from a photosynthetic plant and the Indian Pipe could be considered an indirect parasite of the plant.

Monotropa uniflora occurs commonly in the eastern United States and is also native to temperate regions of Asia and northern South America.  In some parts of its range it is rare or uncommon.  It is an herbaceous perennial.  In addition to a pure white color, it is sometimes found with black flecks or a pale pink coloration.  A rare type has a deep red color.  As they age, the Indian pipes turn black.

The fungi commonly associated with the Indian pipe plant include those in the genera Russula and Lactarius.  Trees that have mycorrhizal relationships with these fungi include American beech and pines.  Mushrooms are produced by both groups of fungi.  The caps of the Russula mushrooms can be brightly colored.

The Cherokee people have a story explaining the origin of this little plant.   According to the story, there was a time long ago when different people lived in peace, shared hunting and fishing grounds and never argued.  When men became greedy and learned to quarrel, a bitter dispute arose between the Cherokee and a neighboring tribe.  The two chiefs met in solemn council and smoked the peace pipe to try and resolve the issue.  They smoked but continued to quarrel for several days. The Great Spirit was displeased that the Indians were quarreling while smoking the peace pipe.  He saw how gray and weary the old men looked and said “I shall have to do something to you men that will show you that People should live together in peace, and that when Indians smoke the pipe, it must be done in peace.”  He turned them into silvery gray flowers with their heads bent over.  If you find Indian pipes in the woods and turn it upside down, it resembles an Indian pipe, but where they are found clustered together in the woods, they have the appearance of little gray people meeting together.





Over 35 million poinsettias are sold during the holiday season according to the USDA making them the number one potted flowering plant purchased in the United States. Red is the most popular color with pink and white poinsettias not far behind. For a number of years, these three colors were all that was available but over the last couple of decades varieties started showing up in salmons, maroon, yellows, plum purples, creams, bi-colors and variegated. Plants are bred or treated to be multi-branching and more compact. Some are grown as small trees, or standards, while poinsettia hanging baskets are also an item in some markets.

Plum Pudding from garden marketing

Plum Pudding poinsettia from

Not only have poinsettias been showing up in new colors but the ‘Winter Rose™’ series was launched a few years ago first featuring red poinsettias with large rose-like, multi-layered blooms. I think these are really eye-catching and different. Soon these ruffled novelty poinsettias were available in pink, white and marble (a lovely pink and white variegation). ‘Winter Rose™’ plants may be a bit tall and stiff but the blooms are absolutely lovely in holiday arrangements combined with evergreen sprigs and coordinating candles.

Winter Rose by L Pundt

Winter Rose poinsettia. Photo by Leanne Pundt, UConn.

All the rage in Europe for some time now, ‘Fantasy’ poinsettias are becoming more popular in the U.S. You may have noticed sky blue, lavender, orange, turquoise or fuchsia poinsettias, some even with glitter, in various garden centers or florists. Most likely, you deduced that these are not naturally occurring colors in poinsettia plants. And, you would be correct as these colors are spray painted on white poinsettias. Sometimes a spray adhesive is applied after painting to capture the fine, colored glitter for that shimmering effect. Lovely to look at but is glitter good for the environment? One perspective:

painted points

Fantasy Poinsettias. Photo by dmp, UConn.

If you do choose a painted poinsettia, keep in mind that the paint may be water soluble so when watering your plant, do not wet the leaves. Sometimes we are asked if the color would be retained the following year and no, it would not be. The same goes for blue orchids by the way. If plant requirements are met for the poinsettia to rebloom next holiday season, it would be white.

Another newer development in poinsettias is the Princettia™. This poinsettia hybrid features smaller, more compact plants with more branching and lots of smaller, colored, bract clusters. Technically, the colored portion of the poinsettia that we find so attractive is not the flowers but a plant part called a bract. Bracts are modified leaves. The actual flowers are the yellow cluster of buds in the center of a whorl of bracts. When picking a poinsettia to bring home, select ones with the yellow buds not yet opened. According to UConn Extension Educator, Leanne Pundt, ‘Princettias’ seem to be getting more popular both as single plants and as components of dish gardens following through with the holiday decorating theme.

Princettia plant

Princettia poinsettias. Photo by Leanne Pundt, UConn

Regardless of what style of poinsettia you opt for, they are all synonymous with the holidays. Poinsettias are native to Mexico and plants bloom during December. Plants naturally grow along the western coast of Mexico and in deep canyons. They were used by the Aztecs as both medicinal and dye plants. The Latin name for poinsettia, Euphorbia pulcherrima, means ‘most beautiful’ and among the euphorbia species that I am familiar with, I wholeheartedly agree. Legends say that this plant became a symbol for Christmas because a community of Franciscan priests settled in this area during the seventeenth century. They used this bright red, native plant that bloomed during the Advent season to decorate their Nativity Celebration. Soon this became a tradition throughout Mexico.

Poinsettias were brought to the United States by the U.S. ambassador to Mexico from 1825 to 1830, Joel Poinsett. He sent cuttings to his South Carolina greenhouse and introduced poinsettias to his friends. It was not until 1920, however, that the first poinsettia variety was developed that could be successfully grown as a houseplant. The credit for this development goes to Paul Ecke, Sr. who went on to develop dozens of new cultivars including shades of orange, dusty rose, pink, creamy white and yellow. Also, plants hybridized by the horticulturists at the Paul Ecke Ranch in California, were selected to be shorter, stockier and retain their bracts for longer periods of time under typical household conditions. The Paul Ecke Ranch and poinsettia business were sold in 2012 but poinsettias introduced by this company still remain popular.

Once brought home, poinsettias are fairly easy to care for. Setting them in bright but indirect light is recommended but this time of year the sun is weak so even a sunny windowsill will be fine. The temperature they are kept at is more important. Ideal temperatures for poinsettias are between 60 to 70 degrees F. Avoid drafts and excessive heat so keep them from doors and leaky windows and also, from wood burning stoves and heaters. Leaf drop is a common complaint and usually due to exposure to drafts.

Christmas Confetti - Bob Shabot's

Christmas Confetti bred by Bob Shabot UConn. Photo by dmp, UConn.

Do not overwater poinsettias as this will encourage root rots. Often they are given as gifts or brought home in pots wrapped in foil or set in colorful plastic sleeves. These would not have drainage holes and if plants are given too much water, the pots will be sitting in standing water. Usually it is best to remove these wrappings and place a saucer underneath the pot. Try to keep the potting mix moderately moist.

It is not necessary to fertilizer your poinsettia if it is just to be kept around for the holidays. Those hoping to get the plant to rebloom next holiday season would wait until bracts fade and then cut back the plant to about 8 inches. Continue to water on the light side and begin monthly fertilizing when new growth is seen usually May. Plants can be grown throughout the summer with occasional pinching done to encourage branching. Transplant poinsettias into larger pots if necessary. Starting October 1st, keep your poinsettia in total darkness from about 5 pm to 7 am and do this for 10 weeks. The bracts should begin to color up again in late November and enjoy this beautiful poinsettia plant for another holiday season.

Bob's poinsettias

Poinsettias in the UConn Floriculture Greenhouse. Photo by dmp, UConn

It has been rumored the poinsettias are poisonous when, in fact, they are not. These plants have been tested by the National Poison Center in Georgia and other agencies and it has been found that the sap may be irritating to some people who have skin sensitivities and if a large quantity of the plant is consumed it can lead to stomach discomfort, but neither of these conditions are fatal. It would be wise to keep all plants out of the reach of curious children and pets.

Enjoy these traditional holiday plants throughout this joyous season. Their color and stamina will help us get through these darkest days of winter. A peaceful and productive New Year to all,

Dawn P.

Persimmon fruit close up

Ripe native persimmon fruit, up close. ©Carol Quish Photo, UConn

When thinking of fruit trees, persimmon does not immediately come to mind. We often see the large fruit of Asian or Japanese persimmon, (Diospyros kaki), in the produce section of larger supermarkets or specialty markets which are imported and need much warmer weather for trees to grow than the northeast provides. We do however, have the native American persimmon tree, (Diospyros virginiana), which will, and does grow quite happily to zones 4 to 9, two zones colder than Connecticut. American persimmon is native to the entire eastern United States. The fruit is much smaller than the Asian persimmon, but is said to be richer in taste when fully ripe. Waiting for the full ripening without the fruit getting to the rotten stage takes daily checks. Fruit can be eaten fresh, dried or made into a pudding. Fruits are very soft which probably why no one markets them. They would be impossible to ship even very short distances.

Persimmon fruit, blue sky

Unripe fruit is very astringent. If you have ever tasted alum, the resulting dry pucker of the mouth is much the same. As children, we dared the unfamiliar to eat one tempting them with “it’s good, really”, then laughing at the poor soul who believed us. Thankfully we lived to tell about it and are all still friends or accepted family. The Native Americans called them ‘dry fruit’ in the Algonquian language.

Persimmon tree

Native persimmon prefers a site in full sun, as most fruit trees do for good fruit production. It is accepting of a wide range of soil types except being in a very wet root situation. Good drainage is best, though. Trees make a good shade tree with plenty of larger, elongated leaves. They grow up to 74 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. Persimmons are dioecious trees, meaning there are male and female trees. Male trees house flowers containing pollen, the male sex part, and female trees house flowers containing the ovaries which, if pollenated and fertilized will produce fruits. If you want fruit, buy a female tree or one that you see fruit on it already. For a good fruit set, plant both a male and female tree. Occasionally, some trees will produce both male and female flowers on the same plant and be self-pollinating, but this is not always reliable. Fruits often hang on the tree late into the fall, even after the leaves have dropped making a pretty show of orange colors against the darker grey branches. The bark of a mature tree is beautiful on its own; black and corky, and richly textured.

persimmon bark, uconn plant database photo

Persimmon bark, photo UConn Plant Database

Uncommon and native fruits are ripe to be had, just look in the woods and forests of different locations to see what you can find.

Persimmon fruit


-Carol Quish

If you can’t be in awe of Mother Nature, there’s something wrong with you.

  • Alex Trebek
cecropia day of eclose

Cecropia moth made it to maturity from caterpillar raised in a sleeve

Sometimes, in the course of our lifetime, we may find ourselves in the right place at the right time to make a difference in the life of some living thing. Maybe it is just the simple act of putting a nestling bird back in the nest from which it has fallen. Or we may be able to transplant a native plant to a safe location just a few feet away from the reach of a roadside sickle bar. Once I had to scoop up with a towel a baby fox that had fallen asleep in a dangerous place on the golf course and put it back with its brothers (or sisters!) who had chosen their resting place wisely. While it may not always be a good thing to interfere, sometimes it may be the best thing.

box turtle crossed road day after rain 5-30-16 Pamm Cooper phot copyright 2016

Box turtle was helped across busy road

Where I work, we often have a surprise when mowing early in the morning. This year when I was mowing a green with lights on just before sun-up, I noticed something that I thought was an earthworm moving in the path of the mower. At the last second before running it over, the creature starting running on little legs and I stopped in the nick of time. It was a tiny salamander. I put it in a plastic cup with a lid I always have with me and later on I put the little guy in the woods near a vernal pool.

salamander very tiny 4 green 9-23-2017

tiny salamander saved from a mower

In a similar way, the eft form of red-spotted newts often end up on greens or fairways the day after a rain. Being so small, they are often unable to make it back to the woods where they belong. So placement in a plastic cup keeps it safe until the opportunity comes to set the little eft on the forest floor. Like Shakespeare wrote- ‘all’s well that ends well’.

eft form of red- spotted newt 2017

Eft form of the red-spotted newt

Our giant silkworm moth caterpillars have a high percentage that are killed by introduced parasites meant to control the gypsy moth caterpillars. When I find young silkworm moth caterpillars in the wild, I like to raise them so prevent parasitism. When they form cocoons, I take them back from whence they came. Cocoons can be attached to twigs of the host plant with a bread tie or put in leaf litter below.

cecropias just before second instar

First instar cecropia caterpillars found on alder and raised in captivity safe from introduced parasitic wasps

Turtles often are the recipients of human kindness, especially when they attempt to cross roads. Box turtles are frequently seen crossing roads the day after a summer rain, and many have been helped across by kind people. Some turtles travel great distances to lay their eggs and encounter similar hazards. Once we found three spotted turtle eggs while renovating a bunker. Carefully marking them to keep them right-side up, they were transferred to an aquarium and placed under sand. Within two months they hatched and were released on the banks of the pond where the eggs where originally laid. If it were possible for turtles to leap for joy, they would have.

spotted turtle one week old 2012

Spotted turtle hatched from egg just before release

spotted turtle saved from the mower

Another spotted turtle removed from harm’s way

If a baby bird is found on the ground, it is important to note whether it is a nestling, which has fallen from the nest prematurely, or a fledgling, which should be out of the nest. The cedar waxwing shown below was a fledgling found on the ground on a cart path. It was moved out of harm’s way to a low branch nearby where the parents easily found it. Unlike many other animals, parents will still feed and care for baby birds even after human handling.

cedar waxwing fledgling

Cedar waxwing fledgling moved from a cart path to a low branch

There are walking sticks I find every year on certain plants on a particular power line right- of- way. A lot of tree and shrubs were marked to be cut down to clear the lines including a small clump of filbert and viburnum that are the host plants for these insects. I wanted to try to save a few before the chain saws arrived, so I took my beating sheet and was able to find several tiny walking sticks that probably had hatched that week. They were raised that summer until work along the lines was complete. Since the host plants were left standing, the walking sticks were returned.

power line after tree cutting 2017

Power line right-of-way after drastic tree removal. Walking stick host plants escaped the saw

walkingstick week old perhaps 2017

Walking stick just hatched removed from power line area, raised and released back after tree removal work finished

This year we had an interesting incident involving honey bees. Since it was late in the year and many flowers were no longer available, honey bees were very busy on black and blue salvia in a large planter outside the clubhouse. The problem was, someone had fallen into and smashed the salvia and it had to be removed. Our gardener noticed that over fifty honey bees were still swarming around where the plant had been, and they were even trying to get nectar from the petals remaining on the ground. Since a planting nearby along a stone wall also had the same salvia, we took small branches with the flowers and held them over the ground where the bees were. The bees immediately went for the flowers on the stalks and stayed there, or flew with them to the front planting. We shook the bees off, and they found the new flowers right away. We were able to get all the bees over there in this way. They probably would have found the other salvia on their own, but it was something to do…

karen transporting honeybees

Transporting honeybees on a branch of black and blue salvia flowers


Honey bees inside flowers and following branch as they are moved to a new nectar site

To help wildlife on your own property, include water dishes for toads, chipmunks, and other animals, birdbaths and perhaps bird and bee houses. Provide shelter for  birds such as small trees and shrubs, which may also double as food sources and nesting places.

bee nest house using bamboo tubes

Bee nesting house using bamboo tubes that should be sealed on one end with mud or another substance

When you are out and about enjoying  nature in the wild or in your own back yard, it is always satisfying and cheering to one’s own little self to see something else become better off because of what we may be able to do. Just think- you don’t have to be a nature expert to become, at least for a little while, a bee whisperer.

Pamm Cooper                                              all photos by Pamm Cooper

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

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

Edema on Christmas cactus

Christmas cactus with edema symptoms

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


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

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

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

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

Bleach damage 3

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

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

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

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

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

Tomato hornworm 3

Tomato hornworm with braconid wasp pupal cocoons


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

Cicada killer wasp

A cicada killer wasp paralyzes a cicada


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


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


This is not an unexploded ordnance!


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

Susan Pelton


Photo: Joseph Berger,

When you think of beetles, an image like the photo to the left probably comes to mind first. This is a common ground beetle. These are only one type of many in the diverse order Coleoptera.  The beetles come in a wide array of sizes, colors and forms. In addition, they occupy diverse habits, have food preferences ranging from dead organic matter to plants and other animals and even fungi, and have a variety of both harmful and beneficial roles, depending on your perspective. The ground beetle pictured here is a beneficial predator of other insects and small prey. One of the very interesting groups of beetles are the blister beetles in the family Meloidae.

The common name blister beetle refers to the skin irritation resulting from contact with an exudate produced by these beetles when they are alarmed or injured. It contains the toxin cantharidin, an odorless chemical found only in this and one other beetle family, Oedermeridae (false blister beetles). Skin contact in humans can result in blisters but they are reported to be only minimally painful if at all and to clear up on their own in a reasonable amount of time. There is a much greater risk associated with consumption of beetles (and the toxin) in hay by livestock, especially horses. Some blister beetle species are attracted to alfalfa, especially during bloom, and when cut for hay during this time, beetles can be killed and inadvertently fed to animals. Different blister beetle species produce varying levels of toxin and therefore have different levels of severity when ingested. Reports indicate that if a horse ingests only 5-10 beetles (or their toxin) it may be fatal.

Striped blister beetle (Epicauta vittata)Photo: Clemson University – USDA Cooperative Extension Slide Series,

What do blister beetles look like? They have a unique appearance. Wing covers (elytra) are generally shorter than the abdomen (note this in the photos featured in this blog). The neck (between the head and thorax) is very narrow and the thorax is wider at the abdomen than at the neck. Antennae are pretty long and look serrated or segmented. The striped blister beetle shown above is found in the eastern part of the US and southern Canada and the adults feed on some common vegetable plants and weeds, sometimes congregating in large numbers and causing damage. These and some other blister beetles are attracted to lights. As a group, the blister beetles are not nocturnal but are also not strictly diurnal.


Meloe sp. by Joan Allen, UConn

So that’s the bad side of blister beetles (well, one of them anyway). An explanation of the life cycle of some of them in the genus Meloe (common name oil beetles) will shed some light on another somewhat negative impact. In blister beetles, the larval stages are typically predaceous while the adults feed on flowers or leaves. The earliest larval stage is called a triungulin. In many species, eggs are laid on or near the flowers of the host plant of the adult. After hatching, the triungulins attach to a male bee as it visits a flower and catch a ride to a female bee.  In some cases, large numbers of triungulins cluster together on flowers and emit a chemical attractant that mimics one emitted by the female of the target bee species to help attract males. Once transported to a female bee, the triungulins move from the male to her and accompany her to where she is building a nest, laying eggs and providing provisions for her young. There they leave the female and consume bee eggs, larvae and their provisions.  Adult Meloe sp. are easy to identify: their elytra are much shorter than their large abdomens as shown in the image above (possibly M. impressus or M. campanicollis).

As mentioned above, the adults are typically herbivores, feeding on plant material. Sometimes they will aggregate in large groups and cause significant but localized damage to food crops including those in the Brassicaceae, Amaranthaceae, Asteraceae, Fabaceae and Solanaceae. A couple of years ago there was a localized outbreak of Meloe campanicollis on Brassicas on farms in Connecticut (shown below).

Meloe campanicollis on Brassica leaves. Photo: Jude Boucher, UConn

Another type of blister beetle can be considered a bit more beneficial. Many in the genus Epicauta lay their eggs on or in the soil and the young feed on grasshopper eggs or even on the eggs of other Epicauta sp. The margined blister beetle (E. funebris) and the black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) are examples of these beetles that occur in the northeast (and are widely distributed in the U.S. and southern Canada). Adult host plants preferred by the margined blister beetle include alfalfa, beet, eggplant, tomato, potato, and soybean. Black blister beetles are often found on goldenrod but will feed on many other plants too. See pictures below.

blisterbeetlemarginedPCooper 8-13-11

Margined blister beetle (Epicauta funebris) by Pamm Cooper, UConn

Black blister beetle (E. pensylvanica) on goldenrod by Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University,


Living in a developed nation, we have a tendency to take too many things for granted. We can just turn on the faucet and fill a glass with water. When illness occurs, antibiotics are often prescribed. Looking for a warm weather gift – what about cotton flannel pajamas or a wool cap? Drive down to the nearest store and a near mind-boggling array of food products greets you.

What do all of these things have in common? They are all affected by the soil and its properties. Among its functions, soil regulates the flow of water. Will it soak in and replenish groundwater tables or run off carrying valuable topsoil and nutrients? Many do not know that the soil contains millions of species of microbes that produce many unique substances including the antibiotic, streptomycin. Cotton and flax plants are used to make clothing. Sheep and alpacas graze on forage plants growing in the soil. Their fleece is spun into wool yarns. Whether vegan or omnivore, the vegetables, fruits and grains we consume, or feed eaten by livestock raised for meat or dairy products are grown in soils.

Winter squash in basket

Winter squash. Photo by dmp.

Soils not only sustain life both above and below the ground but they store and recycle nutrients. As plant or animal debris falls to the soil surface, microbes decompose these remains releasing essential elements for themselves and other organisms. Soil plays a large role in the nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur nutrient cycles. These nutrients are held on both organic and inorganic soil particles, and in the bodies of soil dwellers and eventually made available to both plants and animals.

While the uninformed may think of the soil as an inert substance, those familiar with working the soil and getting their hands ‘dirty’ can almost feel and often smell the life in every handful of healthy soil. That earthy odor that emulates from soil stirred or walked upon after a rainstorm is that of geosmin. It is a volatile organic compound produced mostly by soil organisms called actinomycetes. Scientists do not know what purpose it serves other than to clue us into the fact that the soil smells healthy.

Soil is a complex, dynamic living ecosystem. It is the soil organisms that give the soil life and upon which we also depend, whether we realize it or not. These tiny creatures have co-evolved with plants over billions of years and formed symbiotic relationships. In its simplest sense, plants feed the microbes and the microbes feed the plants. It is hard to fathom but in the top 6 inches of an acre of healthy soil, there may be anywhere from 1000 to 5000 pounds of soil organisms!

bare soil

Bare soil is subject to loss by erosion. Photo by dmp.

Aside from providing plants with nutrients and other essential life substances, certain microbes exude a sticky substance called glomalin. This substance is key to good soil structure as tiny particles of sand, silt, clay and organic materials are bound together to form soil aggregates. The aggregates give soil a granular or crumb structure with spaces for air and water and roots to travel. Well-aggregated soils allow more water to infiltrate them, are less compacted, have less runoff and erosion and encourage plant growth.


Exudates from roots and microbes result in soil aggregates. Photo by dmp.

For microbes to do their jobs, they need food just like we do and microbes love organic matter. Our soils in many situations need organic matter too. Several sources have documented world soil organic matter levels declining over the years due to poor soil management. Not only is organic matter essential for soil microbes but it benefits the planet as it serves to sequester carbon. As some of the organic matter is processed by microbes, it is turned into complex, humus compounds that are very resistant to decay so carbon can be stored in them for years.

wood mulch

Bark mulch on perennial bed. Photo by dmp.

Carbon is at the forefront of many discussions and research projects in regards to its contribution to climate change. As most people are aware, carbon and oxygen together form carbon dioxide (CO2) which is known to be a greenhouse gas meaning it has the ability to hold heat. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the more heat it can hold with the result being changing weather patterns often bringing with them unprecedented weather events such as hurricanes and droughts.

The carbon cycle is fairly simple. Carbon cycles through the atmosphere, the soil and living creatures be they plants, animals or humans. We can’t make more carbon. There are the same number of carbon atoms on the planet now as there was when it was formed. Carbon just moves through these three storehouses. The reason there is more carbon in the air is because it is being removed from the ground by the burning of fossil fuels (the remains of carbon containing plants and animals), deforestation, the conversion of solid carbon in the soil into gaseous carbon dioxide because of poor soil husbandry and other land management practices or decisions.

Increasing the amount of organic matter in soils, whether they be in your backyard or a farmer’s field or on natural sites, is one way to keep carbon where it belongs – in the ground. Leave the grass clippings on the lawn, use mulch or cover crops in garden beds, compost kitchen and yard wastes and consider using natural fertilizers. Yes, these are tiny efforts when compared to what is needed on a global scale, but every measure helps. Support larger scale initiatives to manage soils sustainably.

mulched bed

Keep soil covered. Straw mulch in vegetable bed. Photo by dmp.

The Earth has 58 million square miles of land area but only about 11 percent is considered arable. When this is divvied up by the number of people living on this planet now, somewhere in the neighborhood of 7.5 billion, it means that there is about one-half an acre of arable land per person. Think about that for a moment. Perhaps this realization will find more people wanting to learn about creating healthy soils. It really is time to stop treating our soils like dirt!

Dawn P.