Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mushrooms and Grasshoppers... the odd couple

With the weather of late we are seeing strange occurrences in the garden. For perhaps the first time in many years we have an odd assortment of mushrooms appearing everywhere. It seems that every flower pot and crevice has sprouted a different and interesting specimen with some tiny, others in large clusters, some wrinkled, others silky smooth, and all with interesting texture and color. We are rarely treated to their presence since they require cooler weather and moisture to complete their life cycle.

Mushrooms are a family of fleshy fungi with over 425 types found in the United States and Europe. The important part of a mushroom is beneath the soil with the form we see above ground for reproduction. In a vast over simplification, the interesting ‘top’ seen above ground contains spores, which are tiny single cell reproductive genes that are shot into the air to be transported by wind away from the parent. Along its travels this cell will join with another and thus mushroom is born. Scientists estimate that one mushroom may release as many as a trillion single-celled spores.

All descriptive books on mushrooms contain photos and a side panel illustrated with a plate that has either a fork or a large red X, indicating whether the mushroom may or may not be eaten. I recommend that edible consumption be limited to those that are commercially grown. The mushrooms in the yard are simply fascinating to observe… and it’s fun to kick one to release the puff of spores!

With the heat last week the grasshoppers arrived, appearing in the garden as miniature infants. In a week they have become adolescent eating machines that may be heard plopping in tandem on select garden guests. In a matter of days, they decimated the foliage on the comfrey and rose bushes!

After fall mating females deposit clusters of eggs in the soil in a protective "pod". The pod is formed by soil and a glue-like secretion and may contain up to 150 eggs. The eggs over winter in the soil and hatch as nymphs throughout April, May and June as soil temperatures rise and spring rains begin. Nymphs feed and grow for 35 to 50 days, molting five or six times during this period. Development proceeds most rapidly when the weather is warm and not too wet, with rain slowing them down a bit. The Father’s Day storms took them by surprise drowning and washing many away… and quite possibly saving the roses!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Poisonous Plant Makes Political News

Photo of a Castor Bean in Full Bloom~
Letters laced with toxic ricin were reportedly mailed to government officials several weeks ago placing plants at the top of the political news. Ricin is made from seeds of the castor bean, a common plant which has long been used to eliminate gophers from the garden.

Plants have been source of fascination since the beginning of time and they have provided a multitude of benefits to mankind, however there is a dark side to the plant kingdom and many plants are extremely deadly. The science of producing poison from plants reached a zenith during Medieval times when dispatching an enemy was as easy as brewing an untraceable tea.
Following ingestion of a poisonous plant, complaints may range from indigestion, to hallucinogenic visions, and possibly even death. Many plants contain dangerous compounds which are removed by cooking. Our own Poke Weed, found in early spring, is toxic unless the leaves are prepared in a specific manner. Some plants have parts of them which are edible while other parts are toxic as in Rhubarb, which is used in flavorful jellies and pies. It has poisonous leaves but the stalks are not.

The following plants are listed as fatal, making them of particular import. The lovely Larkspur is so toxic that it was used during the Revolutionary War as a pesticide with soldiers stuffing their boots with it to repel mites and ticks. The green berries of the lovely and prolific Lantana are fatal in small doses as are those of the Wisteria, Jasmine and Mistletoe. All parts of the Azalea and Rhododendron plants are deadly as well. The popular house plant Dieffenbachia is called dumb cane for its affect on the mouth and throat if ingested. The instant swelling not only renders the individual dumb, but may cause air-blocking swelling.

Many toxic plants incur cult followings among ill informed youth. Used as a recreational drug due to hallucinogenic properties, the exotic Moon Flower made the news as high school students chewed seeds in class. The beautiful Salvia Divinorum contains a property which is a potent naturally occurring hallucinogen when smoked. The leaves were used in traditional spiritual practices by the native people of Mexico however due to its ‘popularity’ among non-native followers, it has been banned in twelve states including Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Delaware, North Dakota, Illinois, and Ohio.

There is a simple common sense rule to follow in dealing with the Plant Kingdom: Do not graze in the woods or garden, eating what abounds, unless it is something that you know and recognize as healthful… and with great caution, teach the children which plants are dangerous and to avoid them.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Oklahoma's state wildflower is the Indian Painted Blanket~

The wildflowers have begun a spectacular show and a drive along any road will provide a glimpse into the beauty of our naturalized countryside. Fossil records indicate that flowers appeared quite suddenly about 80 to 90 million years ago; today they are the most abundant plants on the earth. Originally plants were generated from spore, however with the emergence of seeds plants needed birds and insects to achieve fertilization. Flowers needed pollinators and the showy forms we see today emerged as a way to seduce them with scent and beauty.

Egypt was involved early in botanical exploration. Excavations of the Nile Valley have shown remains of 25 plants, including cattails, all of which date over 17,000 years ago. Chemical analysis on ancient Egyptian fabrics indicates dyes from plants were used as long ago as 1300 BC. Flower gardens are depicted in murals painted on the bedroom walls of Amenhotop in 1380 BC, while Ramses III reported importation of hundreds of plant specimens from the travels of his soldiers.

By 300 BC the Greeks were actively involved in describing and naming species of plants. The long and difficult botanical names come directly from them and their naming process continues today in respect for their efforts. By Medieval times monks were largely in charge of botanical discovery but little progress was made in the Western world until the 1700’s. As European discoverers made their way across the planet, they returned with specimens to present in court. By the 1800’s there was a global excitement over the enormity of plant species and advancements were made to classify and learn the uses of them. Lewis and Clark carefully noted the wild flora while Charles Darwin collected plants which are included in his ‘Origin of Species’ published in 1859. Gregor Mendel introduced the science of genetics in 1866 and with it began the tracing of DNA.

Royal gardens were strictly formal and there was no interest in common wildflowers. However in the early 19th century American and English gardeners began to note the appeal of ‘natural’ gardens growing in woodland seclusion. Gertrude Jeckyll, (1843-1932) created over 400 gardens in Europe and America and her influence on wildflower gardening is to be commended. It is through her efforts in preserving ‘flowering incidents’ in woodland settings that we recognize the importance of flowers growing in the wilderness. Take a drive and enjoy the beauty of Oklahoma in the spring!