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The perennial wild violet is sometimes unwanted when it spreads rampantly through lawns and garden beds, but its domesticated relatives are cold hardy plants perfect for local gardens. Edible, you can use the flowers and leaves of violets as a garnish or as an ingredient in salads, cold soups, gelatins, jams, or almost any desert. For entertainment you can serve up an accompanying story about violets.

Johnny Jump Up

Johnny Jump Up

This comes to mind as I dig the unwanted weeds out of the cracks between my brick walkway; all except the Johnny Jump-Ups. They’ve been given permission to grow wherever and however they want.

long spurred violet - native wildflower

Long Spurred Violet

Annual pansies and perennial violets come from the same genus, Viola. They have been grown for food and medicine for centuries and in that time, the plants have accumulated a volume of myth and folklore. Pansies bloom longer in a northern garden than they do in areas with hot long summers, occasionally lasting long into the summer. Gardeners have hybridized violas extensively to produce the wonderful array of flowers now available.

These low growing plants come in many colors and color combinations. In northern areas most bloom in April and May, but some like Viola tricolor, or Johnny-jump-up, bloom all summer long. The small flowered types make great ground covers. The large flowered plants are great in containers or for a splash of color in the garden. Most like moist growing sites, but will thrive in ordinary garden soil.

Downy Yellow Violet

The perennial violet is often called the sweet violet, although there are many species of perennial violets. Our native species are the marsh blue violet, the Labrador violet and the bird’s-foot violet, all found in Eastern North America. Violets readily hybridize making identification in the wild difficult. Most perennial violets sold in garden markets are hybrids. Some look more like pansies than the traditional ‘sweet violet.’

Sweet violets are Viola odorata, a European species with a history that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Zeus turned his mistress Io into a cow to hide her from his wife, Hera, and gave Io violets to eat when she found grass unpalatable. They were also the favorite flower of Napoleon who became known as ‘Corporal Violet.’ His empress, Josephine, wore violets at their wedding to honor him. After his defeat and exile in 1814, Napoleon claimed he would return with the violets in the spring. When he returned to France in March of 1915, the violets were indeed in bloom. This may be why violets are the birth flower for March. Legend says before Napoleon’s final exile he visited his dear, but divorced, Josephine’s grave. He picked a few of the violets growing there and placed them in a locket he wore until his death.

There are superstitions tied to sweet violets, too. To give a gift of violets is to offer the recipient good luck, and wearing a garland of violets prevents dizziness. However, if violets bloom in the fall, epidemics will come within the year. I hope this lore doesn’t apply to the violas and pansies sold blooming in most nurseries during September.

Pick the blossoms of Johnny Jump Ups and add them to your dinner salad tonight.

110 Plants to Feed the BeesI discovered this book on Net Galley and opened it out of curiosity. Bees and their populations are a huge environmental issue right now. I think I’ve mentioned in my last post and in other posts, the volume of honeybees in my area has declined drastically in the last few years. Hopefully this book will help gardeners become aware of plants to draw bees and maybe as gardeners we can provide a welcoming and safe environment for these extremely important insects.

100 Plants to FEED THE BEES: Provide a Healthy Habitat to Help Pollinators Thrive – The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation
Publication date: December 2016
Publisher: Storey Publishing, LLC
ISBN-10: 1612-12701-0
ISBN-13: 978-1612-12701-9

While this book is a handbook of plants insects need, it is an important book for every gardener. The book begins with a very interesting short version of the multi-million year history of how plants and insects evolved into essential partnerships. For those who have ignored environmental problems, bees have been disappearing, and bees and humans also have an essential partnership. The DNR claims bees pollinate approximately roughly 75% of the vegetables, fruits, and nuts we eat. Personally, I love those plant products and want to keep bees around to do what they do best. Unfortunately, I’ve also noticed a distinct decline in the number of honeybees visiting my plants.

100 PLANTS TO FEED THE BEES offers an extensive list of plants whose flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees, and not only honey bees but native bees and other pollinators such as moths, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Each plant section contains a photo of the plant, the plant’s botanical name, and some basic information on the plant, plus a map of where it grows. Interesting information and sometimes warnings about the plant are also included. An example of a warning is mustard, which is considered a noxious weed in some locations, and illegal to grow.

Included in the 100 plants are native wildflowers and non-native or introduced wildflowers (weeds), garden plants, herbs, trees and shrubs, and even pasture plants. I was glad to see many of the plants I’ve recognized growing in my area, and my garden holds many other recommended selections. I was surprised to see Tilia Americana or the common basswood tree, until I remembered standing under my trees when in bloom and hearing myriad bees busy in the tree’s unseen upper stories. I appreciated the list of insects each plant attracts far beyond bees, too. I looked over an online version of the book, and then pre-order a volume. I recommend all gardeners purchase a copy of 100 PLANTS TO FEED THE BEES, and a big thanks to Xerces Society authors Eric Lee-Mäder, Jarrod Fowler, Jillian Vento, and Jennifer Hopwood for this work.

Trees in Dusk SkyMany science fiction stories deal with aliens, either aggressive sentient beings set to grab all Earth’s resources for their own, or beings we encounter in our own space exploration with whom we establish friendly communications and accord. Personally, from our experiences on Earth, I think we tend to fall into the first category, but hope we might eventually reach the second. We do try.

As self-appointed most intelligent species, our learning curve has been dismally flat in inter-species communications. Of the thousands of species living with us on this planet, we have only managed to instill communications on a few, a process called training. However, though we may understand our pets’ behaviors, we have never established true communications with them. How do we expect to communicate with completely alien species if we cannot do so with Earth species, say, like trees?

For the most part, we love trees. They grow into majestically beautify forms that inspire our imaginations. We treasure their shade, they increase the value of our property. We appreciate their lumber for its structural strength, the beauty of its grain in products we make from it, and for the fuel it provides to warm us.

We don’t believe trees intelligent because we’ve never discovered brain or nerve tissue in their physiology. However, even that is changing. Consider the paper Aspects of Plant Intelligence and another paper on the consideration of that topic. Then consider some commonly known facts. Trees clean the environment. They remove carbon dioxide from the air, and poisons from the soil. They control erosion and clean water. They can protect their own domain (soil), often changing it to their own specifications. They react to changes in their environment to preserve their existence. They make their own food. And they leave a long lasting, un-technical record of their existence (tree rings). So just how intelligent are we?

Plus trees outlive us by many years. The short-lived trees often reach between 100 and 150 years. Not so much greater an age than us, but definitely longer. The longest-lived trees often outlast us by hundreds or even thousands of years. If you check out the link just given, note Prometheus, the Bristlecone Pine. Prometheus lived for 5,000 years, faithfully recording the Earth’s history annually. What did we do? We cut it down.

Now granted, after Prometheus was cut down, other Bristlecone Pines were saved for the sake of the seniority they hold. Yet you can, hopefully, understand why I doubt our ability to deal with anything alien. Before we deal with outer space, we need to sharpen our learning curve here at home.

INTELLIGENCE IN TREES 5
References
Goldenburg, E. “n.d.” Last modified 2011, October 08, 5:12:44 PM) Eldan Goldenburg’s lab notebook, notes about my work and other peoples’.
Blog@Case. “n.d” Retrievd May 2 , 2009 from http://blog.case.edu/exg39/2006/06/01/plant_intelligence
Hightshoe, G. (1988). Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America, A Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers (pp. 88). Van Nostrand Reinhold, NY: New York.
Prometheus (tree), (last modified 2012, October 09, at 23:18) Wikipedia. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prometheus_%28tree%29
Trewavas, A. (2003). Aspects of Plant Intelligence. Annals of Botany 92. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4243628/?report=classic

We had over twenty inches of snow a little over a week ago. Yesterday I was out collecting greens to make a wreath and the snow was nearly completely melted. Underneath the pine I clipped I found this moss, bright green and spongy. You can see a small clump of ice still on the ground. In botany we are concentrating on vascular plants and, in particular, dicots and monocots, but these tiny little plants are beginning to intrigue me.

Moss underfoot

Moss underfoot

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then while walking the road I saw these two tree trunks. I believe the trees are popple, but they are so different from the normal greyish-cream color.

Popple trunks

Popple trunks on a damp November day.

 

Virginia Bluebells

Virginia Bluebell


One of the most beautiful May blooming flowers is Mertensia virginica or Viginia Bluebells. The pink buds elongate into clear blue tubular flowers that hang amid oversize ovate to round shaped leaves. The leaves often grow to fist size or larger. They are a wildflower native to this area, but according to DNR a threatened species since a 1999 survey.

Luckily, because they are so lovely, many nurseries carry Virginia Bluebells, so gardeners can purchase plants. Besides blue, a white and a pink variety are known. According to many horticulturists, the plants are a necessary addition for every garden. After growing them, I agree, but they can need maintenance.

They are part of the Boraginaceae, a plant family known for its glaucous, or hairy, leaves and stems. However, Virginia Bluebells are hairless. Their wide, fragile leaves show they are shade-loving plants. A few hours of early morning light or late afternoon light is fine, or just filtered shade.

Mertensia also need moist, humus, slightly acid soil. If they like their location, they readily spread and reseed themselves, gradually forming a colony of plants. Once in place, leave them alone as they do not like transplanting. They spread and seed readily, and most likely to right where you don’t particularly want them. The first time I planted them, they died in the middle of the summer. I thought I would have to replace them, but like daffodils, Virginia Bluebells are ephemeral and disappear before summer is over. If you watch, after the foliage yellows but just before the plant dies, you will find little seedpods. Spread the seeds in a spot you would like them to grow.

To prevent digging them up after they die back you need to mark where they grew in your garden. To cover the empty space left by their early departure, grow them near plants that will fill the space as they grow, like Hosta or ferns. Annuals can also be interplant among the bluebells while they are growing.

Here is what I find interesting about Virginia Bluebells. I could not find one single legend, piece of lore or historical anecdote about them, not even the name Native Americans had for them. They are not used for food, medicine, or dye, and are not poisonous. Although I found one reference the Cherokee might have used them in herbal medicine, I found no corroborative accounts. So here is a plant loved and grown solely for its fleeting beauty.

Amelanchier

Amelanchier laevis

The little, white flowering trees blooming in our forests about this time of year are serviceberry, or Amelanchier. Going south on highway 131 the proliferation of blooming trees often looks like snow in the forest.

Also known as the shadblow, the serviceberry are the first trees to bloom in spring, usually along with forsythia. Unlike the forsythia, they are native. The name serviceberry has two possible derivation legends. One is a corruption of ‘sarvisberry,’ a name the Romans gave to the sorbus, or European mountain ash. Early American settlers noticed the Amelanchier’s fruit resembled the berries of the sarvisberry. The other comes from folklore. Early settlers saw the blossoming of serviceberry as the proper time to inter bodies held during the winter, or because travel was too difficult during winter to attend funeral services, so a memorial service was held when the serviceberry bloomed. The name shadblow comes from its bloom time concurring with the annual migration of shad in eastern rivers.

In June, the serviceberries produce red berries that ripen to deep blue, which gives the Amelanchier another common name, juneberry. Settlers prized the fruit for making jam, but because they are easily bruised and keep poorly, they have never made it into the food production industry. To collect berries from the wild you have to beat the Robins, Cedar Waxwings, and other birds and many mammals to them, not an easy task, so few of us have tasted juneberry jam. If you come across ripe wild serviceberry fruits, try them, for they are delicious, with a hint of pear flavor.

Serviceberries are members of the rose family, and if you look closely at the flower, you will see a disheveled resemblance to wild roses. The branches hold their five-petaledl white flowers in disordered groups and even the petals might not all match in length. About six species grow in Michigan, but these plants hybridize very easily, so species identification can be next to impossible.

Because they are an understory tree, or trees that live beneath the shade of taller trees, you can expect serviceberries to be small, usually less than twenty feet. There are also serviceberries that grow as small shrubs. Most serviceberries are hard to find under cultivation, perhaps because some tend to sucker and spread, particularly in the shrub group like the roundleaf serviceberry, A. sanguinea.

The Amelanchier grandiflora is a hybrid and grown as a specimen tree sometimes called the apple serviceberry. This hybrid is better behaved than its wild cousins, less prone to suckering and produces larger flowers.

Amelanchier are very tolerant and adaptable to many growing conditions. Their natural habitat is partial shade, but many grow in full sun. They can tolerate dry soil and drought once established. They are not prone to breaking limbs by strong winds and storms. Because of their rose relationship, they might get fire blight disease, but this is usually due to over fertilizing.

Amelanchier are hardy, small trees. With their early spring bloom, summer fruit, and great fall color, they provide multiple seasons of interest and make a perfect tree for small gardens or yards.

goldenrod
Most open fields in this area and many other parts of the United States look as if touched by Midas as goldenrod blooms in late summer-early autumn. Numerous species of goldenrod are found in Michigan, and even more in North America. Perhaps because of this local abundance, many gardeners don’t consider this plant garden worthy. It is true that most species are lanky and rampant, and invade places readily.

In Europe, there are not as many species, and when first imported into England from the Middle East, it was an expensive medicinal herb. Its Latin name of Solidago means to make whole, or heal. Solidago was believed to cure kidney ailments, and a compress relieved the pain of fresh wounds and insect stings. Early herbals list a long litany of ailments goldenrod could cure, including calming the nerves. It also had a sweet taste used to hide more unpalatable medicines. Today, medical research has not proved goldenrod capable of curing anything except maybe blah spirits when someone looks at its cheery plumes of tiny yellow flowers.

Goldenrod still has some uses. Weavers use the flower heads for a natural dye. It provides varying tones of yellow depending on how the dye is made. Its dried flower heads provide winter bouquets, keeping their yellow color in a much softer tone. The only other notable use of goldenrod was in 1948, when Texas tried to develop it as an agricultural crop for an ingredient in goldenrod gum and candies. They didn’t succeed.

For many years goldenrod suffered an undeserved reputation for causing hay fever. Insects pollinate goldenrod, so its pollen is large and sticky to make it easier to coat the insect body for pollinating the next flower. This makes the pollen heavy and more likely to drop to the ground than become air-borne.

European gardeners think of goldenrod as an important garden plant and have developed many cultivars and hybrids. These have been exported back to the United States and are now commonly available in nurseries. The hybrids have been dwarfed, and the coarse stems and foliage somewhat refined to produce better garden plants. ‘Golden Thumb,’ also known as ‘Tom Thumb,’ is about twelve inches tall. Other cultivars that grow about twenty-four inches are ‘Baby Gold,’ ‘Golden Baby,’ and ‘Golden Gates.’

I still like mine best in the surrounding fields.
field of goldenrod

Bracken Fern

Bracken Fern

Imagine a time when dinosaurs had mysteriously disappeared, and only little rat-like mammals ruled the planet. Then imagine these small animals scurrying around under bracken fern. The same bracken fern that line our lightly shaded forest floors and edge our fields. Maybe their green fronds are what make our landscape seem so pristine and primeval. Bracken fern are one of the most common global-wide plants known, one species growing in the Northern hemisphere, another in the Southern hemisphere.

You can’t miss bracken fern. It has two fern-like fronds emerging from an upright single, frond-topped rigid stalk. When newly emerged, the fronds are soft and pliant. As they age, they toughen making a walk in shorts through a colony of bracken an unpleasant, scratchy experience. This large fern grows knee-high or taller, and is most often found in partial shade to sunny, dry locations. Matter of fact, you won’t find it in waterlogged soils or heavily shaded areas where you expect to find ferns.

Bracken is a pioneer plant. It can grow on many types of soils, and the soil’s acidity or alkalinity doesn’t seem to matter. Wind-born spores allow it to quickly inhabit newly disturbed soils. It will be one of the first to start growing after a fire has swept through an area. Its dried fronds cover the ground in fall. This dried material helps fuel incipient fires and insure bracken’s survival by burning away competition while its rhizome root enables it to survive the same fire. This rhizome also forms the stalk, which is not the hollow ‘stem’ of most herbaceous perennials plants.

During bracken’s long survival it has evolved methods to ensure its continued existence. These methods do not make it a garden friendly plant. It secretes chemicals into the soil that inhibit the growth of neighboring plants. Chemicals in its leaves kill or inhibit the growth of insects. The plant invades crop fields, competing for the soil’s nutrients and moisture. It can poison cows and horses grazing on its fronds. Research has shown eating bracken can produce tumors in animals; the only plant known to have this capability.

Resistant to many herbicides, the only reliable way to eradicate bracken from an area is to repeatedly cut the above ground growth. This weakens the rhizome and eventually kills it.

An important crop used to thatch roofs and fuel a quick fire in Medieval Europe, today bracken is a human food crop. The emerging tightly curled fronds, or fiddleheads, are considered a delicacy raw, cooked, salted or pickled. It has been used as an ingredient of beer, the ground rhizome dried and ground for flour, and it is still used in parts of the world as an herbal remedy. Yes, it is still eaten despite the carcinogenic results of tests on lab animals and ties to leukemia and cancers of various digestive organs in humans.

To its credit, with it’s poisonous traits, bracken may become the source for new insecticides.

Another benefit come from the bracken. Their rhizomes extract phosphorus and transmute it into a type more readily available to plants, so the presence of bracken can indicate a nutrient rich soil. The fronds are sensitive to acid rain and act as an indicator of air pollution.

Long ago someone thought this upright, triangular arrangement of fronds made this fern look like an eagle. Bracken’s botanical name Pteridium aquilinum reflects this, aquilinum meaning ‘eagle-like.’ The genus name ‘Pteridium,’ derives from the Greek word for fern, and bracken comes down from Old English for any fern, but the word applied in particular to this fern. Its survival is more certain than that of its namesake.

As soon as the weather turns good I start walking the road along my property–a one and a half mile round trip. During these treks I like to keep track of the wildflowers along the way. After ten years of regular walks, I still find new flowers. This week I noticed Cardamine diphylla, also known as Dentaria diphylla, or by the common names of toothwort, pepperroot or crinkleroot. That’s a lot of naming, but the four petaled flower does look a little like baby teeth, doesn’t it? Or perhaps for the tooth-edged leaves?

Actually, I discovered the roots were chewed to relieve toothache, and teas made out of the roots were supposed to help flu and colds, therefore, toothwort. Pepperwort because the rhizome roots are sharp, pungent or peppery in taste. Herbalists are still promoting the plant’s medicinal value on the web. Others suggest it as a good addition to salads, or sauces. I’m guessing the European colonists learned about toothwort from Native Americans who seemed to also have used it as a food crop. Since Cardamine diphylla is from the mustard family, known for its pungency as wells as its four-petaled flowers, that might be very true. Edible Wild Plants has more information about toothwort and even for its inclusion in horseradish sauce.

Whether for a medicinal or culinary use, many roots must need to be harvested to whip up even a little quantity for any recipe. The plant is small, only growing about eight inches. You might guess from my comments that I didn’t dig the plant up to taste. I’d rather see them grow along my roadside and just purchase pepper or horseradish, or whatever I need from the grocery store. I suppose it is called crinkleroot because the roots are crinkled?

These plants grow in the early spring in damp, wooded areas before the trees leaf out. They bloom and spread seeds, and then disappear for the rest of the summer. The genus name Dentaria, which refers to teeth, is often included in the Cardamine genus; the diphylla means two leaves. Although their broad leaves looks like more because they are three-lobed, the flower stalk bears only two leaves.

There is another native toothwort, which I have not discovered along my road, the cutleaf toothwort, Dentaria lacinata, which blooms after the trees have leafed out. Its leaves are deeply cut so look much thinner. If you live east of the Mississippi River, you might see either of these wildflowers on walks in your woodlands.

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road

Big Bluestem along 3 Mile Road


I suspect that many drivers traveling Michigan’s roads this autumn are more attracted by the color of the changing leaves than the weeds along the roadside. Recognition of those ‘weeds,’ however, can change that viewpoint. For most of the spring and summer a grass is just a grass, a clump of green blades, mostly needing mowing. Come late August, however, something amazing happens. The native grasses Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem bloom and embellish many of Michigan’s roadsides with their burnished glory. It may look like dead brown grass to many, but closer study show an amazing array of color from the yellow to yellow orange flames of basal grass leaves to the ripening splendor of the slender reddish, glowing amber or pink stalks.
Big Bluestem

Big Bluestem in September


Once, I too, thought of these grasses as weeds, and then I learned a little more about these two native grasses. Big Blue Stem (Andropogon gerardii) once covered the prairies from the Ohio River to the foothills of the Rockies. It was the predominant prairie grass covering much of the Mid-West. By late summer the seed stalks often rose to seven feet, or in some locals, even ten feet (those in my fields grow to six feet!). The name came from the lavender-gray seed heads, the slender finger-like shapes of which gives Big Blue another common name, Turkeyfoot. These fragile looking whips play with the wind. There are red splotches on the stem, so the wind brushes the stems the red and green on the stems seem to blur into blue-gray. For our early settlers it must have looked like another ocean when late summer winds propelled the tall grasses into waves of motion that formed the grass sea.

Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem Crowned by Maple in October


Sometimes I imagine the vast herds of buffalo and antelope living on land covered by this grass, or traveling in a wagon where the grass along the trail towers over me. It must have been a remarkable sight. Now Big Bluestem is known for its superior qualities as forage for cattle, horses, and, to the hunter’s joy, the Michigan white-tail deer. As the settler’s plowed under the prairie grasses, something else happened; they destroyed the very deep roots of Big Bluestem which held the soil in place. When drought hit the prairie, the roots that had acted like anchors for soil and moisture were gone, and those crops planted in place of the grasses, couldn’t hold the soil. The topsoil blew away in great black winds that resulted in the Dust Bowl, affecting hundreds of thousands of acres of land. John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, depicts the sorrow from this ecological calamity.
Little Bluestem

Little Bluestem


Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), often grows next to Big Bluestem along the roadside. Even from the car, the difference can be seen. Little Bluestem is shorter than Big Bluestem, usually reaching only three feet in height. While this grass’s leaves are a highly prized for their blue-green summer color, in fall they turn pinkish-tan to brilliant orange with white seeds running up the stem like tufts of a hair. This feature gives the grass its other common name of Beard Grass. Little Bluestem lacks the great stature of Big Bluestem, but it has a fragile beauty to distinguish it. The frosted pink or pronounced reddish-tan stalks of Little Bluestem dress an autumn field in rare beauty.
A field of Little Bluestem

A field of Little Bluestem


Another of the predominate prairie grasses, Little Bluestem also exists in greatly reduced circumstances, although the pink-red-orange fall coloring has piqued the interest of landscapers and horticulturists which has established it as a ‘garden plant.’ A few plants have even received cultivar names for certain superior qualities, usually summer or autumn color, and are now are available in nurseries. For ranchers and farmers, though, like Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem has great nutritional value for livestock. Maybe they both can make a comeback.
A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem

A Michigan Autumn with Little Bluestem


Now that I know and can identify Little Bluestem and Big Bluestem, I look for them in the fall. They have become as important an indicator of the season as the red-orange sugar maple. The maple adorns the sky, the bluegrasses gild the ground. It is most unfortunate that so many counties and townships mow them down at the peak of their glory.

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