Saturday, July 20, 2024

How Are Monarchs Doing in 2024?

Several times a year, the question of "How are the monarchs doing?" rises in my mind. An internet search typically ends up at Chip Taylor's blog on Monarch Watch. There you will find thoughtful commentary and deep analyses, a mixture of good news and bad news, as this extraordinarily resilient species faces ever greater challenges. In 2024, overwintering numbers in Mexico were the second lowest ever recorded, with 2013 having been the lowest. Chip's more recent posts tell of a rebound this summer, as this robust and prolific species has increased its numbers during its migration, following the growth of milkweed north in a tagteam of successional generations, spreading into all corners of the eastern U.S.. 

I've had maybe five sightings of monarch butterflies this summer--a typical number. One appeared frantic, as if it had been searching the great outdoors in vain for a partner. Another was laying eggs on a patch of common milkweed at Mercer Meadows--a beautiful and hopeful sight. Another was in my front yard on busy Harrison Street in Princeton, gathering nectar on a swamp milkweed. 

A few days ago, one was nectaring on a patch of narrow-leaved mountain mint near Herrontown Woods. I was treated to a surprising display of butterfly aggression, as several skippers suddenly ganged up to chase the monarch away from the mountain mint. 

Part of that competitive fervor may have to do with the scarcity of pollinator plants. In a 4.5 acre field, there were only two small patches of mountain mint. Since forests don't supply summer nectar, meadows like this are where monarchs and other pollinators are going to find food and each other. Many meadows and roadsides are being taken over by mugwort, Chinese bushclover, and other invasive species with limited utility for pollinators. Add that threat to all the others: habitat loss, climate change, indiscriminate herbicide use along roadsides. This meadow is preserved, but that's really just the first step in realizing the meadow's potential as habitat that can help sustain species like our beloved Danaus plexippus, aka monarch butterfly.

Wednesday, July 17, 2024

The Wineberry Tease

Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolasius) is a non-native bramble common along woodland edges. 

Because its berries are tasty, I have in the past hesitated to remove it from our various wild garden areas. But this year, the hesitation is fading fast. One reason wineberry is getting cut down and pulled out is the cumulative impact of thorns on my sympathies. Repeated prickling sensations from running up against a wineberry or even a native blackberry gets old.

Another reason is that the dreamed of harvest of delicious wineberries is very nearly all intercepted by the birds, particularly catbirds. The early bird gets the wineberry. leaving us a disappointing display of "too late" and "too soon."

Another good reason to remove wineberry is that it will take over your garden. Here's a wall of wineberry along a road in Kingston, more than holding its own amidst other invasives like mugwort and multiflora rose. 
Even wineberry will lose out to the mobbing behavior of the uber invasive porcelainberry vine. You can see wineberry's last gasp at the bottom of the photo. 

Friday, July 12, 2024

A Followup on Beech and other Threatened Native Trees

Having grown despondent about the devastating toll beech leaf disease will likely take on Princeton's beech trees, I was surprised and somewhat heartened by what I found on the Princeton University campus. 

A friend from childhood was visiting me for the first time, and as I showed him and his wife around campus, I began to feel as if we had somehow been transported back to an era before introduced pathogens and insects had marginalized many of our native trees.

An American white ash towered over us, healthy as can be. American elms, too, grew as if Dutch elm disease had never arrived.

Unlike the ailing beech trees up along the Princeton ridge, the beeches on campus appeared unfazed by beech leaf disease.

I looked for signs that these trees had been injected with chemicals to ward off invasion, but found none. Surely, though, this improbable survival depends heavily on medicinal intervention.

Since I first alerting the community to the presence of beech leaf disease in Princeton in a blog post and letter to the editor, some articles have been written in the local press--one in TapInto Princeton and one in Town Topics

Both mention phosphites as the primary treatment available thus far. Applied to the soil, phosphites are a biostimulant that improves the tree's immune system response. I was skeptical that this could make much of a difference, but the University appears to be having good results. Grounds supervisor EJ May said they started seeing signs of beech leaf disease two years ago. Speaking generally about efforts to save native trees, he acknowledged some losses but some success as well.  

Another lead I had checked out was a kind of beech mentioned in a list of special campus trees.  Called a fern-leaved beech (Fagus sylvatica 'Asplenifolia')--a variety of European beech with unusual foliage--the university had gone to great lengths to save this extraordinary specimen during construction of the new chemistry building. The tree's described online as having "no serious insect or disease problems." Was the text written before beech leaf disease was discovered in 2012, or might this variety have some sort of natural immunity? I stopped by to take a look, and could find no visible symptoms. 

There remains, too, an uncertainty as to the origin of the nematode that causes beech leaf disease. It is most similar to a species found in Japan, but differs in some ways. 

Maintenance Will Determine the Fate of the Betsey Stockton Garden

When I look at a plant, a garden, a meadow, a forest, I can see the future. It's a form of extrapolation, defined in the Oxford Dictionary as "the action of estimating or concluding something by assuming that existing trends will continue." I only realize now, writing this, that not everyone exercises such powers. Not everyone has been a gardener of landscapes for fifty some years, accumulating memories of myriad plant species and observing their behaviors. I've seen thriving raingardens and neglected ones, healthy meadows and forests, and degraded ones. I've observed how various invasive weeds spread and come to dominate, each in its own manner and at its own pace. These are the accumulated data points used to predict the future.

One very satisfying thing about extrapolation is that I can see, in my mind, the flower a bud will become. But with that same power to see a garden blooming while still in bud, I can look at a garden in what for others is glorious bloom and see the "seeds" of ruin--the scattered pockets of invasive mugwort, nutsedge, stiltgrass or lesser celandine, crown vetch or Chinese bushclover that without early intervention will quickly expand and ultimately prevail. 

My interventions--a broad mix of successes and failures--have taught me above all that early intervention can make the difference between hope and despair. 

One special garden in town that I stop by to check up on, like an old friend, is the Betsey Stockton Garden planted atop the Firestone Library at Princeton University. This is a complex native planting, containing 35 native grassland species. The person or crew maintaining the garden needs to be able to recognize and identify all 35 intended species, plus all the weeds that could potentially cause problems, not only when they're blooming but at all stages of development. 

That deep knowledge is a tall order. Knowing how little respect maintenance often gets, I worry about this meadow garden in the longterm. Will it receive the knowledgeable, strategic attention it needs to thrive? This photo of wild bergamot blooming with lots of clumping goldenrods suggests things are going well. 

Here, some black-eyed susans lend color, but the pink blooms of quickly spreading non-native crown vetch spell trouble.
New to me is a weed called rabbits foot clover, which may have hitchhiked in from whatever distant nursery the intended plants came from. This, too, was not caught early, and now poses a significant challenge.

Thankfully, there's only one small patch of the fearsome mugwort, but that could quickly expand if not dealt with quickly. Getting as close to zero tolerance for invasives as possible makes maintenance much easier. 

Maintenance is not given its due in part because success is often invisible. In a house, we note dirt's presence, not its absence. A well-run government agency doesn't make it into the news. The bass player who provides the harmonic foundation for a band often goes unnoticed until he plays a wrong note. In medicine, catching problems early doesn't pay as well as dramatically rescuing someone whose problem has grown into an emergency. Extrapolation can help with this. It allows us to see large consequence in small acts, to appreciate how big a problem has been avoided by digging up a small, isolated patch of mugwort.

I found a few relevant local writings. One was an opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian by an undergrad, calling for more native plantings on campus. Planting is a good start, but what goes unmentioned in the opinion piece is that maintenance determines any planting's fate. 

One strategy being used in newer native plantings on campus is to plant gardens with only three or four species, with lots of mulch inbetween plants. This reduces the amount of training required for maintenance. 

Other local writing specifically about the Betsey Stockton Garden can be found in the Princeton Magazine. It includes the list of intended plants (below), and describes the garden as low-maintenance, but that assumes the invasive weeds will be caught early and removed before they can spread.

The Betsey Stockton Garden was planted in 2018, two years after the demise of another campus native planting, around the Neuroscience Institute. Hopefully some lessons are being learned, and the University will bring the necessary expertise and strategic timing for maintenance to bear on this lovely, botanically complex planting. 

Native Plants Featured in the Betsey Stockton Garden
(Some are used on the High Line as well.)

Carex comosa, Appalachian Sedge
Carex pensylvanica, Pennsylvania Sedge
Festuca ovina, Sheep’s Fescue
Festuca rubra, Creeping Red Fescue
Sporobolus heterolepis, Prarie Dropseed
Elymus virginicus, Virginia Wild Rye
Schizachyrium scoparium,
Little Bluestem
Tridens flavus, Purple Top

Shade Plants:
Aqueligia canadensis, Wild Columbine
Aster laevis, Smooth Blue Aster
Blephilia ciliata, Downy Wood Mint
Erigeron puchellus, Robin’s Plantain
Eurybia divaricata, White Wood Aster
Polemonium reptans, Jacob’s Ladder
Sisyrinchium angustifolium, Narrow Leafed Blue-Eyed Grass
Solidago caesia, Blue-stem Goldenrod
Solidago flexicaulis, Zig-Zag Goldenrod

Full-Sun Plants:
Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Milkweed
Aster laevis, Smooth Blue Aster
Aster pilosus, Heath Aster
Baptisia alba, White Wild Indigo
Baptisia perfoliata, Catbells
Centaurea cyanus, Cornflower
Chamacaesta fasciculata, Partridge Pea
Coreopsis lancelota, Lanceleaf CoreopsisEchinacea pallida, Pale Purple Coneflower
Echinacea purpurea, Purple Coneflower
Monarda fistulosa, Wild Bergamot
Penstemon digitalis, Beard Tongue
Rudbeckia hirta, Blackeyed Susan
Solidago juncea, Early Goldenrod

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Mixing Real and Unreal in a Hidden Garden on Vandeventer Avenue

Along Vandeventer Avenue, hidden behind a hedge and shaded by this most glorious of all river birches, lies a little garden that combines the real and the unreal in delightful ways. 
What looks like a congregation of daylilies is actually a mix. The bloom in the foreground is real, while those in the background are silk flowers bought at the Dollar Store. 
Nearby, a real daylily mixes it up with faux irises. 

I mean, why not? We are so quick to take flowers for granted. This at least makes us stop and look more closely. Why not play with the art of imitation, which has reached such a high level, be it in silk flowers or the animated movies that move us as much as those with real people. 

Jim Firestone, who with his wife Tina tends this garden, says the approach has parallels with Seward Johnson's sculptures at Grounds for Sculpture. It's the art of the double take. 

I once wrote a comic script called "Spring Training," in which Nature has tired of the same old progression of blooms in the spring and decides to go rogue, mixing peonies with crocuses, tulips with Rhododendrons. Her exasperated coach tries in vain to convince her to stick with the status quo.
Outside the hedge, seen but not really seen by passersby heading down from Nassau Street, a morning glory rises improbably out of the concrete every year. It looks like it's blooming, but ...

surprise! Real blooms will come from the real morning glory later in the season, but in the meantime, why not have some fun? 

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Ambush Bugs: Hidden Dangers for Pollinators

During an evening stroll in the backyard garden, with a big show of fireflies soon to come, we were admiring a common milkweed's blooms--like frozen fireworks at lawn's edge--when my friend spotted a honeybee on one of the flowers.

Isn't this the way it's supposed to be? You plant native wildflowers and the pollinators show up to feed ever so gratefully. But something didn't look quite right to me. The honeybee wasn't moving. 

Maybe it was memories of blog posts ten years ago--written after standing for hours gazing at the extraordinarily diverse community of insects and spiders drawn to boneset flowers--that caused me to take a closer look at that motionless honey bee. 

There, beautifully, mischievously, mercilessly camouflaged, hiding between the milkweed flowers, were two pairs of ambush bugs, mottled brown, black and white. The smaller of each pair sat atop the larger, apparently mating. Life is short for an insect, so it seems perfectly practical that one of the females, needing nourishment for whatever eggs come of the mating, had chosen that moment to snag the honeybee whose bad luck it was to visit those particular flowers.

Later, I returned to try for a better photo of the ambush bug and its mate.

By then, they had consumed what they wanted of the bee, dropping the remains to land ever so lightly on a leaf, one story down in the tower of milkweed.

Afternote: One could probably spend a lifetime exploring the mechanisms behind the camouflage of an ambush bug, as this quote from the Missouri Department of Conservation website shows:
"The colors of ambush bugs are worth mentioning. They can vary quite a bit within a single species. Most are gold, yellow, leaf-green, tan, brown, or white, often with dark mottled patches or bands. Apparently males are often darker or more spotted than females. It’s not clear whether individual ambush bugs change color like chameleons (and some crab spiders) to match the plants they’re resting on, or if they simply move to (or survive on) plants whose colors happen to match their bodies. It could be that they change color with each molt: young individuals, early in the season, being pale green, matching the new foliage of springtime, while older specimens become gold and black in later molts to match the flowers that develop in midsummer. The temperatures during egg stage may also affect the overall darkness of the insects."

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

Witnessing a Gypsy Moth Outbreak Along the Appalachian Trail

I wasn't expecting to run into an outbreak of gypsy moths in New Jersey earlier this week. The aim of driving up to the Stokes State Forest near Delaware Water Gap was to drop off my younger daughter Anna so she could resume her thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail. 

After a couple day visit at home, Anna was eager to continue her journey northward towards Maine. When we reached Sunrise Mountain Overpass, she asked if I wanted to hike along with her for a bit. 

It was as if she had invited me into her home, which the AT has been since she began in Georgia back in late February--more than 1000 miles thus far. Everything she needs is in her backpack--designed to be lightweight but still very substantial--as she hikes up and down mountain after mountain, rain or sunshine, cold or hot, following America's verdant eastern spine through North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and now just the northwestern tip of NJ before heading into New York state. 

Most of the inspiring vistas she sees along the way are not tempered with a warning about venomous snakes, like this one at the parking lot. New Jersey is unusual in having venemous snakes in the north and south of the state, but not where we live in central Jersey. As for black bears, over three months she has seen only one and heard another. Though she started the hike on her own, there's now a group of companions with whom she camps each night.

As we hiked the rocky trail, we had to look mostly down to avoid the stones, stealing glances at the high quality woodland, free from invasive plants except for an occasional garlic mustard. We soon became aware, however, of an odd noise that sounded like a light sprinkle, despite the clear sky. When I turned back, leaving Anna to head north on her many steps towards Maine, I started taking a closer look at the leaves of oak, sassafras, and maple above. The well-munched leaves were surely a very generous giving of tissue by the trees to the local insect population. 

But what was that sound of rain with no rainclouds in sight? And why was the ground littered with fragments of green leaves? Whatever was eating the trees was being messy about it. 

Then I felt something very light fall on my head. I brushed it onto my hand, gave it a good look, and decided to call it frass, that is, caterpillar droppings. 

On the ground all around, the leaf litter had been in turn littered with this frass, raining down from far above.

Though most of the caterpillars remained unseen high in the canopy, a few were close enough at hand to get a photo. 

Back home, searching the internet, the caterpillar's identity quickly became apparent: gypsy moth, also known as Lymantria dispar dispar, and more recently renamed "spongy moth."

One source described exactly our experience along the trail:
"Gypsy moths are invasive insect pests that can be destructive to trees, especially hardwoods like oaks. In May and June, each caterpillar can grow up to two inches long and consume 11 square feet of leaves. Signs of a gypsy moth outbreak include bare tree canopies, droppings that sound like rain, and leaf confetti on the forest floor."
If you haven't heard of gypsy moths, or haven't heard of them in a long time, it's because this highly destructive introduced species is no longer causing widespread havoc in our forests. thanks to the development of a remarkably successful, low-toxicity treatment. 

Imported into Massachusetts from Europe in 1869 with the intent of starting a new silk industry in America, the gypsy moth escaped into the wild and was soon causing dramatic defoliations of forests. Though oaks are a favorite, gypsy moths threaten a broad range of species, including both hardwoods and conifers. One source alphabetically describes its diet this way:
Preferred: Alder, apple, aspen, basswood, birch, hawthorn, oaks, tamarack, willow, witch hazel
Intermediate: Beech, dogwood, elm, hemlock, maple, pine, Prunus species, serviceberry, spruce, walnut
Avoided: Ash, balsam fir, cedar, red & white, locusts, mountain maple, pine, scotch

According to numerous articles found on the Papers of Princeton website, 13 years of intense spraying led to eradication of the gypsy moth in NJ by 1932, but it reappeared in 1953 and by 1955 had again become a serious pest. In 1965, a small area near Mt. Lucas Road in Princeton was sprayed. As defoliation increased statewide through the 1970s, the most common treatment--carbonyl, also known as Sevin--became suspect due to its effect on honeybees. 

Letters to the editor describe heroic citizen efforts to round up and destroy the moths' egg cases. Elizabeth Carrick, chairman of the Woodfield Reservation Committee, described a successful outing by girlscouts in 1972. In 1980, Preston and Helen Tuttle reported on a hand collection campaign in the Institute Woods that included renowned faculty at the Institute for Advanced Studies:

During the past two weekends. 95 individuals, ranging from Girl and Boy Scouts to world-famous mathematicians, took part In all. 8.791 egg cases were collected or immobilized witn a hand held sprayer containing a mixture of creosote, turpentine and transmission fluid This was used to spray those egg masses that were above convenient scraping and collecting reach Egg masses collected the first weekend were given to the state Biological Controls Laboratory to feed gypsy moth predators being developed by the state.
Destruction peaked in 1981, when 12 million acres were affected by defoliation nationwide. The biggest reason we haven't heard much about this hugely destructive pest lately is the utilization of a low-toxicity bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). First mention of it in local papers appears to have been in 1974. Bt is sprayed on foliage in the spring. When eaten by the caterpillars, it disrupts their digestive systems. By 1990, arborist Sam deTuro of Woodwind Associates, who used to have a regular column in the Town Topics, was combining the traditional chemical spray methods with a new formulation of Bt.

Like the many mountains and valleys of the Appalachian Trail, moth numbers have risen and fallen dramatically through the decades. Gypsy moth numbers in NJ reached a relative low in 1988, only to rise 19 fold in 1989. Another peak came in 2008, prompting aerial sprays of Bt in Princeton. 

Numbers have dropped since then, leading many of us to forget about gypsy moths altogether. For that luxury, we have a state government program to thank. The New Jersey Dept. of Agriculture has been running a gypsy moth suppression program at least since 2007. In 2024, they planned to spray 3000 acres of local and state-owned land. The aim is to prevent repeated defoliation of forests. Trees that can survive defoliation one year may not be able to survive defoliation two years in a row. The state description sounds like what governments are supposed to do--work collaboratively to intervene in safe ways to protect us and our environment. LDD stands for the species name, Lymantria dispar dispar.
The New Jersey Department of Agriculture promotes an integrated pest management approach, which encourages natural controls to reduce LDD feeding and subsequent tree loss. However, when LDD cycles are at a peak, natural controls have difficulty in preventing severe defoliation. In these special cases, the Department recommends aerial spray treatments on residential and recreational areas using the selective, non-chemical insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis.

The Department's LDD Suppression Program is a voluntary cooperative program involving New Jersey municipalities, county agencies, state agencies, and the USDA Forest Service.

17 miles down the trail, Anna was still hearing the curious rain of frass all around, Hopefully the state program of gypsy moth suppression will continue to work--an all-too-rare example of successful containment of invasive species threatening our forests.

Below, some sights seen during my short hike on the Appalachian Trail:

Expanses of sedge meadow that can give healthy forests a natural park-like appearance.

The striped maple, Acer pennsylvanicum, is a little tree that grows all along the Appalachian Mountains.

If you hike northward on the AT with the spring, much of your journey will be graced with the blooms of Mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, abundant on rocky slopes.

Monday, May 20, 2024

Beech Leaf Disease Sweeps Across Princeton

Princeton is losing its beech trees.

We were feeling celebratory, having just completed a successful corporate workday in Herrontown Woods, when I happened to pass by this small branch of a beech tree along the red trail. The leaves were strangely contorted, with dark green stripes. I had heard distant rumblings about a disease of beech trees, but had managed to keep my head in the sand until that moment. 

Back home, diagnosis was but a google's search away. Similar images popped up on the screen, along with the name: Beech Leaf Disease. Tree maladies typically come with an acronym. Emerald ash borer is EAB. The dreaded asian longhorned beetle, which they've had some success keeping from spreading across the eastern U.S., is ALB. The Bacterial Leaf Scorch that afflicts pin and red oaks is BLS. Now there was a new one: BLD. 

For those unfamiliar with the American beech (Fagus grandifolia), it's a native tree related to oaks and chestnuts, with beautiful smooth gray bark. They can get very big and live for centuries. Thousands of them grow in Princeton, in the preserved forests along the Princeton ridge and on slopes above the Stony Brook. 

The "grandifolia" in the latin name refers to the leaves, which are larger than the leaves of European beeches. This photo shows some healthy leaves (on top) and the curled, darker green leaves that have been contorted by nematodes overwintering in the buds. Beech leaf disease is caused by these nematodes--tiny worms spread by birds or the wind. 

Viewed from beneath, the infected leaves show a curious striping of dark and light green. 

During a subsequent hike in Autumn Hill Reservation, I was astonished to find nearly all the beech trees affected--their leaves contorted, their crowns beginning to thin. Beech in Rogers Refuge are showing symptoms, and Mountain Lakes preserve is reportedly also affected. According to online sources, essentially all of our beech trees will be dead within ten years. The news comes exactly ten years after the first emerald ash borer was found in New Jersey, with the skeletons of ash trees still haunting our woodlands.

According to this map, on the Holden Arboretum website, the disease was first spotted near that arboretum in Ohio in 2012, and has spread in all directions, most rapidly eastward.

According to the Maryland Extension website, the microbe causing the disease is Litylenchus crenatae mccannii, a subspecies of a nematode found in Japan. As one would expect, the only beeches resistant to this particular nematode are those that coevolved with it in Japan. 

The Holden Arboretum website mentions a chemical treatment that is being tested. It is a compound that is sprayed on the tree in the fall just as the nematodes are moving from the leaves down into next year's buds. Unfortunately it is highly toxic. The snail's pace of tree research compared to the rapid development of Covid vaccines caused one friend to ask, "Where is science when we need it?" 

The loss of a tree species from the canopy has all sorts of impacts on wildlife. Ash, elm, and maples bear abundant seeds early in the season to feed on. Two of those three have been largely lost. Nut-bearing trees provide food in fall and winter. Gone from wildlife diets are chestnuts, bacterial leaf scorch is reducing oak production of acorns, and it now looks like beech nuts will become very rare. Websites detail the ecological web of connection and dependence that is unraveled by the loss of a tree species. 

A post last year by the Brandywine Conservancy in Pennsylvania provides a particularly chilling description of what is in store for eastern forests:
"As the disease progresses, leaves will become smaller in subsequent years, and it will seem like autumn in the summer as infected leaves brown and fall from the tree, resulting in thinned crowns and branch dieback. Eventually, BLD will cause beech trees to abort their buds, leading to the death of the tree. Young beech tree saplings die within 2–5 years of infection, while mature trees live a bit longer. Death from BLD is likely accelerated in beech trees stressed by drought or Beech Bark Disease, which is a different infection that involves scale insects and fungi."

Here's a writeup I found on beech bark disease, which also poses a mortal threat. 

I encourage people to visit favorite beech forests in the area sooner rather than later, to appreciate the now threatened beauty of this singular tree. Over the next few years, if you are fortunate enough to find one that remains healthy while others around it succumb, you should let people know. The Holden Arboretum site provides someone to contact.

Yesterday evening, I visited the fabulous congregation of European beech off of Elm Lane on Constitution Hill in western Princeton. The many trunks appear to all come from the original massive trunk in the middle. 

Seen from a distance, they appear to be separate trees, but more likely were either branches that touched the ground and took root, or sprouts from the original tree's massive root system.

You can see how some of the trunks still have a sort of navel, where the original branch from the "mother tree" was cut off.

Its leaves, smaller than those of the native beech, were  showing early signs of the disease.

Some of Princeton's most spectacular native beech trees grow in the Institute Woods. That will be my next stop--that and a hidden valley between the Princeton University chemistry building and Washington Road, where I found a mixed forest of 200 year old trees, part of the great American forest cathedral that, in unspeakable sadness, loses its towering pillars, one by one.

Here is how I concluded a recent letter to the editor in the Town Topics: 
Outrage is often triggered by the intentional cutting of trees. The highly visible spotted lanternfly caused a stir, yet has proven relatively innocuous. The biggest threats we face are neither visible nor intentional. The emerald ash borer is hidden behind bark. Nematodes are microscopic. Our machines’ climate-radicalizing carbon dioxide? Unintended and invisible.

There is so much joy still to experience, for me particularly in Herrontown Woods, and yet in the larger workings of the world, so much to grieve.

Friday, May 17, 2024

A Winsome Bugloss-Wood Poppy Combo

There's a winsome duo--one yellow, the other blue--that I first saw blooming together in my friend Gail's garden. I don't think my having two degrees from the University of Michigan has anything to do with their blue and gold appeal, though the blue one I first encountered in Ann Arbor. Though one is native and one is not, I think of them both in the same breath. They both thrive in moist soils and some shade, and combine attractive flowers with attractive foliage. Both spread by seed, not rampantly but just enough to create a sense of delight at the sight of a new one having popped up here and there. Both have common names that can get in the way of fully enjoying them. Neither grows in the wilds of Princeton that I have ever seen. 

The first is Siberian bugloss (sounds best when pronounced "BOO-gloss", a perennial that, as its name suggests, is native to Siberia, south to the Caucusus. It has tiny blue flowers and,

as its latin name Brunnera macrophylla suggests, large leaves that remain attractive through the growing season. The name "bugloss" comes from Greek, meaning 'ox's tongue', referring to the leaf's shape and rough texture.

The large leaves and clouds of blue flowers mix well with other garden plants, in this case a largely random congregation of hostas, mayapples, and day lilies.
They also mix well with a native yellow flower called wood poppy. I'd call it by its other common name, celandine poppy, but that creates confusion with the super invasive lesser celandine. 

The diphyllum in its intimidating genus-species name, Stylophorum diphyllum, also refers to the leaves. After the flowers are gone, the foliage forms a nice mound through the summer 

that fits in well with other plants like Christmas fern.

Wood poppy has a nonnative invasive look-alike called greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) that I've only found a couple small patches of in the Princeton area. 

As this comparison shows, wood poppy has larger flowers. 

And wood poppy has hairy seedpods like these, while greater celandine's seedpods are smooth.

Siberian bugloss also has a look-alike, this one with a much more appealing name: forget-me-not, which has tiny leaves and lighter blue flowers. Its genus, Myosotis, also draws from animal anatomy: it's Greek for "mouse's ear."

A few times I've had to break the news to gardeners that the lovely flower they've been growing and admiring in their gardens is not the endearingly named forget-me-not, but instead Siberian bugloss. 

Siberia, bugs, loss, ox's tongue--these are not the associations people wish to conjure when admiring such a pretty plant. The sometimes used "false forget-me-not" doesn't land well either.

Other common names for the plant that are far less common but far more palatable are "great forget-me-not" (they're both in the borage family, after all) and "heartleaf Brunnera."

The plants are easy on the eyes and easy on the garden; but the names can get in the way.