Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Chilean in Scotland

My friend Frances took this neat photo during a recent trip to Scotland—a small "monkey tree" on the grounds of Balloch Castle. I did some googling to learn more about this funky-looking plant. Also called the monkey puzzle tree and Chilean pine, Araucaria araucana is native to Chile and Argentina. It is a threatened/protected species in its native habitat.

I love the warning on this Web site: "Monkey puzzle tree drops branchlets and sharp-pointed leaves almost continuously." And this ringing endorsement from a Dave's Garden member in California: "My trees are 120 years old—part of a large garden which belonged to a Sanitarium in the 1890s. The dropped limbs and cones are extremely dangerous. Cones the size of basketballs have dropped, weighing 17 pounds."

Wow, perfect castle defense!

There's an interesting historical photo and links to more info at the UBC Botanical Garden Web site. I loved these two reader comments on that page:
Chuck wrote:

The only time I've ever heard of this, the "monkey puzzle tree," prior to this email, was in the film The Ghost and Mrs. Muir starring, if memory serves, Rex Harrison and (possibly) Gene Tierney. The Mrs. Muir character angers the sea captain by cutting down his monkey puzzle tree.

Abbas wrote:

This is a very interesting and mind cooling photo. It is recommendable to show more pictures like this in this scenario in the future also.
Mind-cooling. I like that.

Oakleaf hydrangea leaf

I went outside to photograph the oakleaf hydrangea in bloom, but this leaf stole the show.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Scrambled turkey eggs

Last week my brother was mowing his oats when he flushed a wild turkey. He stopped to investigate and discovered a nest with 13 eggs in it (turkeys nest on the ground). Wild turkeys are common sights in the area, but I've not heard anyone describe happening upon a nest.

Avoiding the nest, he mowed around it, leaving a good size swath of oats. He hoped the bird would return, and she did. I visited on Friday, and he took me down to the field to show me the location. At the edge of the stand, we could see a dark shape hunkered down over the nest, but we kept on driving so as not to disturb her.

The next day, he and my 10-year-old niece and I rode down on the golf cart with the intent to snap a long-distance photo. Sadly, what we found were pilfered and broken eggs scattered among the oat stubble. The work of any number of possible scavengers—dogs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes. My niece hung her head and said "I feel so bad for the mother turkey." Due to the circumstances, her nest was unduly exposed to predation. But it could have happened anyway, anywhere. That's nature.

I snapped this photo of the egg shells as well as a shot of the baled oat hay.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Earth mother

If it crawls or grows, my Mom is interested in it. In her later years, she’s developed an aversion to snakes, but when I was a kid she’d pick up anything. I think it’s because of her that I approach any new plant as a full sensory experience. To see it is not enough; you have to smell it, feel it, sometimes even taste it.

On our nature walks, it seemed that nothing escaped Mom’s notice. She even coaxed ant lions from their sandy dens with a stick and the incantation, "Doodle-bug, doodle-bug: Come out of your hole!"

In early summer, Mom seems to know the location of every wild patch of milkweed within a 20-mile radius. When I was a kid, she picked a bouquet of the orange flowers, and there was a monarch caterpillar pupa attached. We waited for days, then watched in awe as the butterfly emerged from its chrysalis on the dining room table.

Mom was the sole source in helping me ID several dozen tree species for an elementary-school notebook made of leaves and seeds we collected. For another school project, we harvested all sorts of twigs and bark to investigate which made the best cloth dyes. I’ll never forget (nor likely will anyone else in the family) the rank smell in the kitchen as she let me boil pokeberries, sassafras and other plants in vinegar, then dip strips of muslin for staining into all the pots and pans. Mom is the main reason I am enthralled with native plants and animals.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Libelous vandals!

I don't know which is more distasteful: people who deface library books or people who don't get their facts straight. But those who do it at the same time? Don't get me started! In case you can't read the handiwork of this vandal, it says, above the listing for Liatris, "No longer a politically correct plant. Very aggressive and invasive." Could it be the person just saw a spiky, purple flower out of the corner of an eye and thought it was purple loosestrife, a beautiful but noxious plant that runs roughshod over wetland environments? Liatris, often commonly called blazing star or gayfeather, is a beloved native wildflower in the wild and in the garden. I've never heard anyone describe it as being invasive.

By the by, Heller's blazing star (L. helleri) is a threatened species listed under the Endangered Species Act, and several other Liatris species have protected status in North Carolina.

What's curious is that our unscrupulous editor had nothing at all to scribble on the listings for the thugs Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy. I can only assume his/her pen ran out of ink.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Phyllostachys allergy

I took this photo of my neighbor's magnificent oak today while lying flat on my back in the back yard, prostrate from exhaustion. I'd been digging bamboo for four hours—the bamboo that has wandered uninvited from my neighbor's yard. I have decided that if even my closest friends asked me to help them dig bamboo, I'd respond: "I wish I could help, but I am deathly allergic to bamboo. If I get within 20 feet of it, I go into anaphylactic shock."

You see, our new neighbor—bless his heart!—has started attempting to eradicate the jungle in his back yard, and so I have seized this opportunity to put a stop to the encroachment. Our lot is less than two-tenths of an acre, so we can't spare another inch of space for a bowl of panda chow that never gets eaten. To my amazement, the bamboo (planted decades ago by some silly person infatuated with its good looks) only started to invade last summer (our 11th year here). I was mowing when I spotted the shoots emerging about 10 feet into our yard. I gasped. Satan's horns! I think it was the shade of the gargantuan oak and competition for moisture that kept it mannerly for this long.

I've decided that if we were shopping for real estate and found our dream home but there was a grove of bamboo in the yard, we would keep on driving. Unless it was a self-cleaning house with a freezer that dispensed an endless supply of Edy's ice cream. Oh, and a staff of 12 that would dig bamboo 24/7.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Two words a gardener can't resist:

"Free plants."

Of course when it comes to participating in a sanctioned plant rescue, the term free is open to interpretation. Yes, you get a ton of plants and don't have to run them by a cashier afterward. But the price is your readiness, if necessary, to brave mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers, get caked with mud, wade through poison ivy and briers, and maybe hit yourself in the head with your own shovel handle and forget who you are for 10 minutes.* And did I mention the digging? The relentless meeting of blade and soil, blade and soil, blade and soil?

Today it paid off in spades (which is good, since I lost my trowel in the woods). In exchange for about four hours of moderate labor, I returned home with a carload of yellowroot, royal fern, lady fern, grape fern, Christmas fern, netted chain fern, Carolina lily, club moss, Solomon's seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, fringe tree, pinxter azalea, wild ginger and coral honeysuckle.

How can this be, you say? Well, it seems I know a few of the right people. And one of the right people to know is Tom Harville. If you can get on Tom's good side, you'll learn where the choice digs are. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to get on Tom's good side. If you're a relatively nice person and you love native wildflowers, shrubs, trees and the like, you're two-thirds of the way there. If you want to close the deal, you should join the North Carolina Native Plant Society. Tom is cuckoo for the NCNPS. In fact, he has been known to take people on labyrinthine trips into the forest, then refuse to lead them back out until they've coughed up their dues.**

Among many other admirable activities, NCNPS conducts native plant rescues in cooperation with North Carolina governments, landowners and developers in an effort to save native plants that would otherwise be lost to construction and development. To learn more about the Society's mission and how to become a member, click here. Go ahead, make Tom's day.

* As far as I know, this has never happened. However, I could have forgotten it.
** Don't go into the woods without your checkbook!

(Pictured: Soil guru Pete Schubert in a little slice of fern heaven, Raleigh, North Carolina)

Luna moth in repose

I went on a plant rescue in the woods today (more about that later), and a member of our party noticed this luna moth resting on a twig on the forest floor. I took a few profile shots but thought this overhead perspective was really bizarre (click on the image for a closer look). You can tell this luna is a male from its bushy antennae. The female's is more narrow and whiplike.

I have raised luna caterpillars on a diet of sweetgum leaves, then released the adults. But this is the first time I've seen a luna in the wild that was not in flight. Thanks, Pete, for spotting this fella!

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The fountain of youth

The corporate hawkers would have us believe that the secret to feeling younger is looking younger: "Ladies, get your anti-aging alpha-hydroxy anti-oxidant and other a-word-enhanced epidermal creams! Gentlemen, chase away the gray with Just for Men!"

But if you want to feel younger, I suggest this prescription. Slip into your Keds, or whatever kind of shoes you wore when you were a kid. Better yet, go barefoot. Fill up a watering can. Then go outside and gently sprinkle your fledgling beans and onions and radishes. Later on, you may notice your aches and pains again. But for a few minutes, you might swear you're 7.