Friday, July 22, 2011

All Kinds of Nightshade

"Deadly nightshade:" a name that makes me glad for Latin nomenclature

Purple flower
Easy post, I thought. Just write about the deadly nightshade. I happened to be thinking about the perennial, semi-woody, weedy vine that lurks along my property boundaries, and climbs up through the links of the fence. It can grow to six feet and the leaves have distinctive “ears” at the base. Its purple flowers bloom in summer, and the berries ripen to an alluring red. Warned as a child not to eat the berries or leaves, I've been pulling it my entire gardening life. A little research informed me that this plant is also called bittersweet nightshade, or Solanum dulcamara.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Guest Post at Beautiful Wildlife Garden

Carole Brown, at Beautiful Wildlife Garden, has put up a guest post I wrote about giving away native plants to unsuspecting gardeners. You can find "Stealth Native Plant Gardening" here.

Previous Guest Post at BWG:
Reconciliation Ecology and the Beautiful Wildlife Garden

Friday, July 15, 2011

Problematic Pokeweed

I was of three minds
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds     --Wallace Stevens

Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) is one of those plants about which it is possible to be of two or three or maybe even four or five minds. On the one hand, it is native, kind of pretty, and birds love the berries. On the other, as a food, it is so famous that songs have been written about it, and some herbalists make medicines from it. On the third, all parts of the plant are toxic to humans and non-bird animals, and many botanists suggest not ingesting any part, no matter how it’s cooked.

Sometime around 2005, pokeweed colonized multiple gardens in my neighborhood. It started out innocently enough. In spring, the attractive young plants have large pale green, ovate, somewhat shiny leaves vaguely reminiscent of Nicotiana. Later the leaves develop pinkish undersides. Any gardener might let them go, as you do a plant you might not have seen before but looks interesting enough to see how it develops. If you do, you’re in for a surprise. The plant rapidly outgrows its cuteness, to become a large, imposing specimen perhaps ten feet tall, with multiple, hollow, purplish stalks at least an inch in diameter. This happens at about the time cup plant is coming into its own, so if you’ve got both, as I do, you start to feel as if you’ve wandered into Indian in the Cupboard land. In July, pokeweed develops little white flowers in a tapering cluster at the top of the plant, which in late summer morph into flattish purple-black berries on red stalks. Striking in every regard. And birds, such as catbirds and robins, do seem to consider the berries a treat. (To which I don’t begrudge them, even if this year the robins did strip my serviceberry tree before the berries were decently ripe enough for a human to pick, so no serviceberry jam this year.)

Pokeweed is a perennial that grows from a large, fleshy taproot. As a young plant, it is easy to pull, but as it grows taller, the roots grow larger and go down deeper. If you dig it up, but leave part of the root, a new pokeweed may greet you from the same spot later in the season or next spring. Some say that if you get below the crown of the plant, it’s effective, but that’s not been my experience. You may not mind having a pokeweed or two, but be careful where you let them grow, because once you let them set up housekeeping, they’ll be with you a long time. And be prepared to keep an eagle eye out for their progeny, since the birds do scatter the seeds. Pokeweed particularly likes rich, disturbed soil, for example, as Plants of the Chicago Region says, “woodland that has been heavily trampled, especially by hogs,” but also “roadsides disturbed by machinery...and where compost and other fertilizing materials have been scattered.” Right. Our gardens. And apparently on farms among no-tillage crops, according to the Ohio Perennial and Biennial Weed Guide.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Beware the Dreadful Bindweed

Just don’t show off!
Over the July 4th weekend, I had some of the extended family over for a cookout, in the best Midwestern tradition. One of my family-centered pleasures is cooking with my brother while my resolutely non-cooking sister kibitzes. I am a vegetarian, my brother is not. He brought some homebrew and manned the grill, I made fresh salsa, salad and desert. Between us, we put out a pretty good spread, made even better by contributions from other family members.

After a fine, noisy, friendly meal, I showed off my garden to an in-law from the East coast. We walked along, starting with the vegetable bed near the house, walked past the pagoda dogwood shading its collection of natives, past the prairie patch, all the way back to the pollinator reserve by the alley—which hadn’t been tended to in some time. After all, by permaculture standards, it more-or-less corresponds to a combination of zone four (wildish, semi-managed), and zone five (just plain native and wild).

“How nice,” she said, “you have wild morning glories. Those white flowers are so pretty.”