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No Mow Year Three

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

Well, we mowed the no-mow again (loving the oxymoron), as it was due for its spring knockdown. Like I’ve seen in quite a few farmers fields this year, it actually wasn’t a great grass year-the clovers, alfalfas, and wildflowers seem to have been able to keep pace with the spring flush of grass growth this year. We do an intitial mowing in June (early July this year, rain) to prevent long grass from being availible for deer tick egg laying, as well as giving the wildflowers a fair shot at competing against the grass. Look around Addison County, at many of the hay fields. The second cut of hay is the attractive one, the one where the alfalfa and clover really stand up, while the grass plays second fiddle. Hopefully, it will be the same in our no-mow zones with wildflowers. This year, though, the wildflowers stood out with the grass, and some early ones had started to bloom. They’ll re-bloom, even after being mown.

Observant people will have also noticed that we slightly expanded some of the no-mow areas this spring. Facilities Services, in concert with the Master Plan committee, identified some areas next to existing no-mow locations that needn’t be mowed lawn. The insight of the Master Plan committee was great to watch. With a wonderful eye for design, they expanded no-mow almost right to the front door of Bi-Hall, further shrinking what we are beginning to call Bicentennial Park, making the park like area smaller, but more readable and usable. The same effect was done up by Hadley-Milliken-Kelly-Lang, bringing the no-mow area closer to the row of dorms, making a park like space for what we are now calling Ross Commons surronded by no-mow meadow. There is a bonfire pit in the middle of the commons now, as well as a volleyball net.

There’s a wonderful article, not availible online, sadly, in the May issue of Landscape Architecture that I’ve recently read, entitled “Graduating To Green”, by Mark Hough, ASLA. It starts “The traditional American campus landscape, captured most vividly by an image of open lawns with mature canopy trees, is one of our most established, celebrated, and significant landscape typologies and is, in the 21st century, at a crossroads.” The article is very interesting, and longer than I have time to write about on a beautiful summer evening, but maybe in the next rainstorm…

When Good Plants go Bad

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

My most depressing year at the University of Vermont would have been my junior year. All plant and soil science majors took Plant Pathology that year, two semesters worth. For all of you non-science plant geeks, plant pathology deals with diseases of plants-basically anything except insects. Virus, fungi, bacteria, even abiotic problems were addressed. After a year of learing the various ways plants die, I remember thinking about the hopelessness of it all, wondering how on earth plants even existed.

Insect pest management was the previous year. Insects, while a pain, can very often be sprayed, attacked by other bugs, or even crop rotated away. But most of plant pathology? Hopeless. At best, they are “controlled”, like most fungicides, at worst, well, here’s a list of plants if you have to replant that may not get that disease. No magical sprays, potions, or elixirs to help you along. Often the best defense against many of these problems is simply a good offense-a healthy thriving plant will suffer some little indignities here and there, but will fight on.

The recent spate of warm and wet weather has Verticillium Wilt  rearing its nasty little head around. I’ve gotten several emails about it recently, and am expecting more. Verticillium Wilt is a soil borne fungus that enters the roots, then both produces toxins and spreads spores throughout the xylem (water tissues) of the plant. The plant, in a bit of idiotic self defense, uses various compounds to plug the xylem further, ostensibly to stop the spread of the  fungus, but further restricting water movement inside. The name wilt is a descriptive, as the first symptom typically seen is the last, as the leaves wilt and die from lack of water.

In fruit trees, the fungus is called Black Heart, commonly seen in Apricots, but is also seen in many types of plants, such as potatoes, tomatoes, mint, and many types of trees and shrubs. The fungi, Verticillium albo-atrum or V. dahliae, can persist in the soil for up to 15 years, forming small black resting structures activated when roots grow near them.

On campus, Verticillium wilt is evident on some older plantings of lilacs, like on the picture below. This particular clump is near Battell, on the wetter, or beach, side. Lilacs don’t like wet feet (roots) to begin with, and this may help bring about the fungus.

Lilacs at Battell


Verticillium symptoms on Lilac

Another victim of Verticillium seems to be a Catalpa, know by my kids as the Green Bean tree, for the size seed pods it produces. Spectacular in flower, this tree was the subject of my first Twitter picture about a month ago. (Are you following Middland on Twitter? I’m having a blast posting pictures of plants in bloom around campus, I’m at http://twitter.com/middland.)

Verticillium wilt in Catalpa

The location is directly across from Emma Willard, blocking one of the special sightlines at Middlebury, that of the view from the front of Emma Willard looking up towards Old Chapel. While I mourn the loss of all trees, more than one person has lamented the unfortunate planting location of this tree, wishing it were elsewhere. This loss is particularly wrenching for me, as I watched it come down with this disease last year, but then watched it leaf and flower out again this spring. Thinking Verticillium more quickly virulent, I had false hope this spring, and now know better. Fortunately, the next nearest tree is a birch, resistant to Verticillium, so this loss should be confined to a single tree.

Wilting leaves on Catalpa

Poison Parsnip

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The poison parsnip is starting to bloom on roadsides, and, being one of those plants I get asked about (and emailed about), I thought I’d fill you in on the nastiness.

Poison parsnip, Pastinaca sativa, is actually Parsnip, the root vegetable. As a vegetable, it was popular in colonial times, as it matures under a very short season, and tastes best after the cold set in. Potatoes became more popular, and parsnip escaped cultivation, and has plagued us since. Related to carrots, they haunted my childhood, not only for an ingredient in pot roast, but an unfortunate nickname through grade school. I bet I would like them now, but I just can’t bring myself to try them.

The poison comes from a chemical in the plant sap called psoralen, which reacts with the human skin to cause (ready for this?) phytophotodermatitis. In a nutshell, the sap reacts with UV sunlight, and causes mild to in some cases quite severe burns. I’ll speak from experience here-a mild case can cause red skin, like a steam burn from your tea kettle. I had full second degree burns on all exposed parts of my legs one year, blisters from shorts to socks. Oh yeah, I was just a poster child for horticulture that summer. The blisters healed after a couple of weeks, but the dark reddish brown blotches stayed for the better part of a year.

The sap is not an oil, unlike poison ivy, so it won’t linger on your clothes, pets, lawn mowers, etc. Being phytotoxic, one must come in contact with the sap in the sun in order to get the burn. When dealing with parsnip, I pick cloudy or even rainy days. It is also safe to brush up against, unlike poison ivy, as the plant does not seem to exude sap from unbroken leaves or stems.

The plant is a biennial-a rosette of leaves the first year, and flower stalks the second. (Parsnip in the store is a one year root). I find this makes eradication a little difficult. Biennials are hell-bent on flowering in their second year-if they don’t, what’s the point to life? So cut down too early, and they form many smaller flowers, and therefore more seeds, than left untouched. The best time to mow seems to be right after they flower, but before they have set seed, like you can fool mother nature that way. Unfortunately, roadside mowing seems to coincide with an earlier mowing, followed by a later mowing spreading the ripe seeds around.

It thrives on roadsides, and other poor growing locations, because the rosettes in the first year are poor competitors, and can’t keep up with a healthy stand of vegetation, such as grass. This is actually the best control method, growing better plants to choke out the parsnip. Other control methods go all medieval, by digging, ripping, pulling,repeated mowing,  or just plain cursing the plant out of exisitence. Seeds of parsnip are viable in the soil for up to four years, so vigilance is required. A little herbicide does wonders, if you are so inclined.

Wild parsnip can be found on parts of campus, but not on campus proper. It is along the road down by the recycle center, in such a large patch to make control nearly impossible. Thanks to a timely email from Peter Ryan, there is none in the no-mow zones. His eyes are better than mine. If anyone else in blog-land sees a single plant or two creeping up on campus, let us know. Here’s some pictures taken today along Bi-Hall Road of a couple of plants I found. It’s best to recognize your enemy. Poison Parsnip Plant Poison Parsnip Flower-with bonus Pollinator! Close Up of Poison Parsnip Leaves

Happy Arbor Day!

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

A final reminder to join us, 3:00, on the McCullough Plaza for a tree walk around campus, followed by a tree planting by Bicentennial Hall. Come learn about the trees around us, and make your mark on Middlebury by planting something you’ll watch grow for the rest of your life.
As part of her class project in the Trees and The Urban Forest winter term class, Laura Budd took the tree inventory of the Middlebury College Campus and ran it through iTree, modeling software that quantifies the benefits of a urban tree population. Today seems like an appropriate time to remind everyone of what our campus trees do for our environment.
2.75 million gallons of Stormwater intercepted

270,000 lbs of carbon sequestered yearly, 616,000 lbs sequestered and avoided, and 5.36 million lbs stored in total

3156 lbs of air pollutants captured or avoided, including 807 lbs of ozone, 1580 lbs NO2, 778 lbs SO2, and 503 lbs of PM10.

Spring Ephemerals

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

I had dreams of guest posting on the great Middlebury Trailrunner, inspired by his post on Snake Mountain (the wildflower in his post is a Hepatica, by the way) . I was going to go for a run up the back side of Snake Mountain, the side where our house is located, taking pictures the whole way of plant life.

Well, I’m not that much of a runner.  My reason for running is simply running away from middle age, and besides, the plant life is too distracting, and I’m not sure I want to share the less popular trail up Snake Mountain with everyone. So, the run I was thinking about turned into a much needed and great hike with Nancy and Molly the stillhyperpuppyeventhoughshe’salmostayearold. While not on campus, I still feel like I should share what we saw, though, as this is one of my favorite times of year in the plant world, the quick flash in the pan of the spring ephemerals.

Spring Ephemerals are plants that complete an entire life cycle early in the spring, before the upper tree canopy leafs out. An unknown Wikipedia author writes about “excess light” in the early spring, but after a long Vermont winter we know better. Light can be held in dearth, but the glorious spring rays are to be cherished, not called out as vain and excessive. Imagine the evolutionary trick-sprouting, flowering, reproducing, and storing of energy for the next year all within the light and cold of early spring. What a strategy.

springbeauty This is Spring Beauty, Claytonia virginica -an apt way to start some pictures. Grows from an underground tuber like a potato, and was used as a food source by native Americans and early settlers.

wildoatsWild Oats, or Sessile-leaved Bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia . A common bellwort, and maybe not technically ephemeral, but pretty nonetheless.

lrgflwbellwortAnother Bellwort, the Large Flowered, Uvularia grandiflora .

hepaticaHepatica, Hepatica americana , named for the supposed resemblance of the leaves to the shape of the liver. Can be seen in blue, white, or pink flowers.

lrgtrilliumOne of the grand queens in the spring ephemeral world, the Large Flowered Trillium, Trillium grandiflorum .

wakerobin

Personal favorite here, Wake Robin, or Purple Trillium, Trillium erectum. Probably the most common trillium in the northeast, and known for it’s foul scent, which it uses to attract carrion flies for pollination. The smell is such that early herbalists used the plant to treat gangrene, since plants were used to cure the ailments they resembled.

troutlilyTrout Lily, Erythronium americanum. Very common in the woods lately, and named for the leaf pattern resembling the fish.

dutchmansbreechesDutchman’s Breeches (best name ever), Dicentra cucullaria. Perennial gardeners will quickly see the resemblance to Bleeding Heart, another Dicentra. Flowers are pollinated by early bumblebees, as honeybees don’t have a long enough proboscis to gather nectar.

bloodrootBloodroot, Sanguinaria canadensis. So early blooming, the flowers are self pollinating, just to be on the safe side. The name comes from a dye that can be made from the roots, and was probably the ink used for the Scarlet “A” on the forehead of adulterers. There are some great patches of this in Ridgeline. The plant is myrmecochorous, ant-dependent, as it’s seeds attract the insect which then moves them around and buries them.

earlymeadowrueEarly Meadow Rue, Thalictrum dioicum.

wildgingerSome Wild Ginger I found in a tree stump, Asarum canadense. Strange and kinda ugly brown flowers thankfully hidden beneath the foliage-ant pollinated.

mouseearchickweed

Mouse Ear Chickweed, Cerastium vulgatum. This was on the top of the mountain by the concrete platform, which makes sense seeing as it is an escaped European plant. Now a lawn weed, but reportedly edible leaves once boiled like other greens.

amflyhoneysuckleAmerican Fly Honeysuckle, Lonicera canadensis. Not an ephemeral, but a woody plant along the trail edge.

bluetsBluets, Houstonia caerulea. Another plant found up by the concrete platform, native to fields and open woods.

earlysaxifrageEarly Saxifrage, Saxifraga virginiensis. Feel free to let me know if I’ve mis-identifed this one-I hadn’t brought the wildflower book with me on the hike, and have been identifying from pictures. violarotundifoliaThis was a great find, and a bear to identify. Round Leafed Yellow Violet, Viola rotundifolia. the only stemless yellow violet, with flowers and leaves on separate stalks.

 

Peepers!!!!

Categories: Midd Blogosphere

The talk in our landscape department this morning was the peeper emergence lasts night. Being outdoor types, most of us sleep with the windows open, even with the woodstove blaring. It paid off last night, as the sound of peepers from my pond filled my bedroom.

Proving once again biologists have a sense of language, Spring Peepers are a variety of “chorus frog”. I always reach for the latin names, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Pseudacris crucifer crucifer is the Northern Spring Peeper. Pseudes (false) and akris (locust) for the sound, similar to a real locust insect. Crucifer meaning cross bearer, named for the cross like markings on the underside.

Peepers hibernate near ponds, and the males start making noise early in the spring seeking mates. Smaller than one inch, they are nocturnal, so hard to find, and although equipped with large toe pads for tree climbing, are more comfortable on the ground, hiding in the grass. I’ve learned they can tolerate freezing of some of their body fluids, so that explains their ability to have such an early life cycle in the spring.