Saturday, September 12, 2015

Signs of Late Summer in New England

Although summer is coming to an end here in New England, there are still many plants chugging along before the frosts arrive.  The yellows of Goldenrod fade as the riot of colors from Asters take over.  Various fruit trees and vines found this growing season especially friendly as there were no major hail storms, floods, or late winter storms to deal with.

This Aster is happily growing next to a riverbank, a parking lot, two dumpsters, and a concrete retaining wall.  To say that it's a hardy plant is quite the understatement.

This smaller flowering Aster is growing right next to the purple one and appears to be thriving.

This is one of our native wild grapes, possibly Vitis labrusca the Fox Grape, or Vitis riparia the Riverbank Grape or Frost Grape.  The fruits are smaller than cultivated grapes and intensely sour.  These native grapes were combined with wine grapes to produce the common Concord Grape which is another plant that has escaped into the wild.  Concord Grapes ended up being a pretty terrible grape for wine, but are excellent in jams and juice (with lots of added sugars).  Birds will eventually claim these grapes, although it did smell like there was some fermentation going on so the birds might end up a bit tipsy in the process.
It's difficult to figure out the scale of these wild grapes in the photos, but they're about the size of high bush blueberries; the larger blueberries commonly found in the supermarket or at "Pick Your Own" locations.

Sadly, this photo ended up a bit washed out, but I wanted to include it as it's a perennial herb I wasn't expecting to find (it's also between the river and parking lot where I found the Asters).  This is wild mint.  The leaves are much smaller than garden grown hybrids, although the scent of the plant is just as large.  It tends to grow in damp locations and spreads just like the mints found in gardens,  Runners from the parent plant were snaking through the grass and popping up all over.  There are a few different wild mints in New England and I'm not exactly certain of the variety in the picture.  It could be Mentha canadensis or Mentha arvensis or even Menta aquatica which is an introduced species.  Whatever the variety, the smell of it makes me long for some mint tea.

Recommended Plant:  For strong late summer color, few plants beat Eupatorium purpureum.  Commonly known as Joe Pye Weed, it starts flowering here in New England in August and lasts well into September depending on the location.  This is no shrinking violet and it tends to grow upwards of 4-5 feet with some cultivars growing much higher.  The variety known as "Gateway" can easily reach 6 feet and I've seen some specimens closer to 8.  Provide the plant with plenty of room, evenly moist soil (Eupatorium does not appreciate dry locations), and full sun.  It has few pests or diseases and may in fact become a bit aggressive in locations it's fond of.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Bittersweet and Honeysuckle: Not so Sweet

If there's one plant that has become my nemesis, it is Oriental Bittersweet.  The scientific name is Celastrus orbiculatus, and sadly it seems to grow everywhere.  It follows me around, sneering and chuckling at me like some surly, angst ridden teenager.   Oh it knows how much it annoys me and seems to revel in it.  As a climbing vine, Bittersweet is highly effective and will twine up into trees, telephone poles, shrubs, and any stationary object.  Removal is especially difficult as it clings and winds about the victim and refuses to let go.  Other plants are smothered, power lines are pulled down, and neighborhood pets disappear.  Well, the pets know enough to stay away, but your lilacs may not be so lucky.

Chemical controls on the market work, but it takes multiple applications to fully kill the plant.  Digging out the vine by hand is possible and works quite well.  Sadly, if enough of the bright orange roots remain behind the vine will regrow.  The easiest way to get rid of Bittersweet is to pull it out before it starts climbing.  Cutting the vine at the ground will slow it down although this will require vigilance and repeated snipping.

The leaves are rounded and vary in color from light to dark green depending on growing conditions and moisture.  It grows well in sun and shade although shade does seem to slow it down some.  The flowers are small and an insignificant whitish color.  The berries, on the other hand, are quite attractive with a yellow shell that eventually cracks open to show the meaty orange flesh inside.  These berries are so colorful they often turn up in fall decorations thus assisting the plant in spreading further.  Birds readily eat the fruit and the seeds germinate at an alarming rate.  If you see Bittersweet in a fall wreath or floral arrangement please refrain from purchasing.

The fruit prior to splitting open and the rounded leaves.  This plant was found growing along the Robert Frost Trail in North Bennington, Vermont.

More leaves and berries.

Shrub honesuckle, Lonicera species of various types, is a second not so sweet invasive.  Unlike Bittersweet, this honesuckle is a shrub and it's not quite as evil.  Often planted to form a hedge or to attract birds, this plant has successfully escaped into the wild and now, like Bittersweet, appears almost everywhere.  The small flowers appear early in the spring and the rounded green or green/grey leaves appear even earlier.  Overall growth is arching in nature as stems of the plant grow upward and outward over time.  The plant prefers sunny spots but will tolerate shade.  It would prefer evenly moist soil but will also tolerate dry once it is established.  The berries it produces are red or orange depending on the species of plant.  Since the plant leafs out early in the spring, it is pretty easy to spot.  The leaf buds start out looking like small green pencils and then the leaves whorl out.

Luckily, shrub honesuckle is far, far easier to control.  Removing it by hand works quite well, especially when the plants are young.  However, even older, established plants can be hacked down and dug out successfully.  Chemical controls also work, but since removing the plants by hand works so well I've just taken a shovel to the plants instead.  Unfortunately, birds enjoy these fruits and will help spread the seeds far and wide.

Shrub honeysuckle.  Found along the Robert Frost Trail in North Bennington, Vermont.

Recommended Plants:  Asters.  The common natives include Aster novi-belgii, the New York Aster and Aster novae-angliae, the New England Aster.  There was a time when I wasn't so fond of the sometimes scruffy looking native asters.  Over time, however, I've come to enjoy their variety and their burst of late summer color.  Asters come in many shapes from the more manicured looking "Purple Dome" variety, to the tall, floppy, wild natives.  Flower colors appear in various shades of purple, pink, red, and white.  They grow best in sunny spots with well drained soil.  If too shaded, they tend to become floppy and damp locations will invite the fungus powdery mildew.  Heights range from a foot or less to upwards of three or four feet.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Escaping from the Garden: Purple Loosestrife and Tansy.

Sadly, some of the plants we enjoy most just aren't good news.  They bring baggage.  Yes, they're lovely to look at but the next thing you know they're taking over wetlands or chasing other plants from your garden or making threats against the hydrangeas.  Yes, they're invasive and it's all your fault.  Well, no, not you particularly, but somewhere in the past gardeners planted some unfriendly (albeit at the time potentially useful) neighbors.

The first I'll mention is Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria).  It was introduced first in the 1800's and became a garden ornamental as well as a medicinal.  Then it started plans for world domination.  The edges of waterways become tinged with a purple haze of flowers when it blooms in mid-summer.  Looks lovely, but the plant chokes out all other plant life around it.  Cold weather doesn't seem to slow it down much as I've viewed it happily growing in Maine and along waterways in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  There are chemical controls, of course, but using them near water is especially risky.  Biological controls are also available and they do appear somewhat successful.  Given the massive number of acres now invaded it will take a great deal of effort to reign this plant in.  This perennial was once a recommended garden plant and it is found in gardening books of the past (including one of the Victory Garden books; Crockett's Flower Garden, from 1981).

This picture of Loosestrife was taken at Red Mill Pond in Woodford, Vermont.  Want to learn more about this plant?  Check out:

Another plant that seems to be attempting a hostile takeover is Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare).  Once planted as a useful medicinal and scented herb, it managed an escape and now turns up in many places it doesn't belong.  The fern like foliage is thick and lush and the yellow button flowers are attractive.  Sadly, it's tenacious, and much like the roadside daylily, it grows along roadsides and in areas where soil is not tilled.  In fact, tilling the soil where Tansy shows up is one method of control.  The foliage has a distinct spicy and herby scent, reminiscent of mint combined with Sweet Fern (Comptonia peregrina).  The plant is poisonous to livestock and some people react badly to it if ingested.  It was used as a culinary herb, an abortificant, packing material to help prevent meat spoilage, insecticide, and as a coffin stuffer to help prevent unwanted smells (according to Wikipedia).  So here's a perennial that has potential use in the herb garden but just likes to wander a bit too much.  Although not as invasive as Loosestrife, it does tend to crop up all over the place.

Both of these photos were taken at Hogback Mountain in Marlboro, Vermont.  It looked quite pleased with itself growing on this hillside.  Closer to home, I've seen Tansy springing up through pavement right next to the parent plant.  It's nothing if not determined.  Want to learn more?  Check out this USDA document from Montana:

Recommended Plant: Alchemilla molllis, or Lady's Mantle.  It grows as a low mound of folded leaves, similar to a cloak or mantle from wardrobe collections of years past.  The greenish flowers mix well with other colors and the overall habit of the plant is similar to a ground cover.  Perhaps the best aspect of the plant are the leaves.  When wet, water droplets collect and bead up on the leaves.  The plant is tough and will grow along walkways with little trouble.  Unlike the other plants mentioned in the post, it's not especially invasive although in some situations it will self sow readily (personally, I've never found this to be the case).

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Roadside Daylilies

The roadside daylily isn't a native plant.  It appears with such frequency, however, that it is now appears to belong.  Sadly, in some places it is quite invasive and difficult to get rid of.  Hemerocallis fulva grows along roadsides, in ditches, near salt water, next to old foundations, and just about anywhere it pleases.  Although it prefers full sun it will also perform admirably in shade.  This massive grouping was found along a sheltered bay in Harpswell, Maine.  The salty ocean was just a matter of fifteen feet away.  These daylilies were thriving.

Recommended Plant: Thalictrum rochebrunianum.  Flowering in summer, this meadow rue send up flower stalks that are 4-6'.  The leaves of the plant stay closer to the ground.  The leaves are similar to columbine and blue-green in color.  It is apparently deer resistant as well, which makes it attractive in certain locations.  This meadow rue does best in full sun and rich soil.  It is best planted in groupings to create a mass of the airy flowers.  One variety goes by the name "Lavender Mist" which is fitting, given the flowers.