Garlic Mustard: The Time is Ripe

Time to get rid of it. Garlic mustard. Sounds tasty, doesn’t it? IMG_4531It’s a pretty little wildflower with lovely white blossoms. The leaves have an attractively scalloped edge, and a savory garlic taste, a fantastic addition to salads, quiche, and stir-fry. A lovely and useful plant.

I’ve spent all day killing it.

Eradicating it. Ripping it out by the roots. Doing everything short of spraying a dose of Round-Up on it.IMG_4538

Why? I have an enormous tolerance for non-native “weeds,” as my undying love for dandelions shows. Why enjoy the dandelions, the clover, the daisies, and murder the poor little garlic mustard?

Two words. Shade tolerant.

Garlic mustard is able to grow in shade. And shade is the barrier most non-native plants won’t cross. Most non-native plants don’t pose a threat to wilderness areas. Tulips, petunias, peonies—they’re none of them native American plants, but they stay where they’re put. Even the hardy non-native “weeds” like dandelions, clovers, daisies, daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace—they all tend to stick to the open–they linger in the parking lot like timid urbanites, and don’t venture onto the back-country trails.  Oh, some hardy individuals might venture a few yards into the forest, or pop up where a storm has toppled an old tree, opening a skylight in the canopy of leaves. But they need sun and can’t survive shade.IMG_4539

Not so for garlic mustard. Doesn’t mind shade a bit. And that makes it a major threat to woodland wildflowers. It’s incredibly fast-growing and aggressive plant, the tender green leaves marching like storm troopers across disturbed soil, choking out native plants—bloodroots, pink lady’s-slippers, anemones, hepatica, trillium, spring beauties, ferns, club moss…

And garlic mustard is ripening now, getting ready to go to seed. Garlic mustard is a biennial—first year: just leaves. Second year: leaves and a flower head. And those pretty little white flowers can produce hundreds and hundreds of seeds.

So now’s the time. Grab them before they seed. Pull’em up, yank’em out.

It’s easy to confuse them with violets, which look similar before they bloom. Garlic mustard smells distinctly like garlicgarlicgarlic. You can’t miss it. (Violets on the left in photo below, garlic mustard on the right.IMG_4533

And—here’s the really amazing part. Even after the plant is completely uprooted and thrown on the compost pile, the flowers can continue producing seed. Almost frightening, isn’t it? Uprooted, limp and dead-looking, yet they go on developing–living after death, like little green zombies. It took me a few years to figure out why the garlic mustard grew so prolifically around the compost pile…

So, sadly, you can’t recycle piles of uprooted garlic mustard, or do anything “green” with them. Into the trash, off to the landfill.IMG_4530

I hate this. I just hate this. I hate having to uproot anything in this season when we should nurture and rejoice in all plants. But something has to be weeded out of my yard; and it’ll be the garlic mustard.

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All Roads Lead to Dandelions

No matter where you go these days, it seems there’s a dandelion at your feet–or under your feet.

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The beginning of May is when dandelions run riot. This is a cobbled pathway in Central Park, New York City. The dandelions don’t content themselves with growing on the lawn, they invade the sidewalk, too.

dandelion new york city 002The flower and leaves manage to survive in the spaces between the stones. Just a few small crumpled leaves. How on earth can they do it?

The secret of their success is in the root.

Dandelions are perennials, coming up year after year, for five years or even more. So the root has time to get big. Even if the leaves can’t do a lot of photosynthesizing because they’re getting walked on all the time, the root can supply energy so the plant can flower and produce seed.

Half of the biomass, or living material, of most terrestrial plants is found below the ground. Everywhere we walk–grass, sidewalk or paved roadway–beneath our feet there’s a network of living roots, like eels swimming beneath the quiet surface of a lake. The vast tangle of roots compete fiercely, vying with each other in a slow-motion battle for space, water, and food.

In this struggle for survival, there are two basic root “game plans.” Some plants go long, sending the roots to grow deep, reaching for the sure thing: the constant water supply far below. Or there’s the opposite strategy, taken by other species: go shallow. The roots can spread out like the spokes of a wheel, growing quickly to form a spiderweb of rootlets all around the stem. This wide net can grab up the water from the merest drizzle as soon as it hits the ground, before it can evaporate.

So, which strategy does the dandelion use? The slow, patient growth of the deep taproot towards the water table, or the quick, opportunistic use of every passing shower? Both.

The dandelion quickly develops a wide network of shallow roots, followed by a deep taproot that is usually about a foot and a half long, but is capable of penetrating to a depth of ten feet or more. So when you look at a little wizened dandelion poking through the gravel or the blacktop, remember.

There’s a lot we’re not seeing.dandelion new york city 008

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Violet: A Spark of the Divine

dandelion new york city 040The cathedral of St. John the Divine. This is the chapter house, a smaller building next to the immense cathedral, one of the largest in the world. It’s a magnificent building, like a medieval fortress. But nature manages to sneak in somehow, finding a crack in the most impressive monuments. One little spark of green in the corner–a spring violet.dandelion new york city 036

Violet is a genus, not a species–it’s like saying, “Oh, look, there’s a duck.” But is it a mallard, a wood duck, a black duck? There’s a zillion kinds of ducks. There are hundreds of species of violets, scattered over the globe. Some are fragrant, some have no odor at all.

All violet leaves are edible–very rich in vitamins A and C. They’re a nice spring green to throw into a salad. They’re a garden flower and a wildflower, growing with equal ease on both sides of the fence. They hide in the lawn and flourish in the florist shop. And as you’d guess from the way this little guy can grow out of a crack under these big stone blocks, they’re way more hardy than they look.dandelion new york city 037

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Ramps: Spring Vegetable

Ramps. A strange name for a plant.

It’s a pretty spring wildflower, with flat green leaves. I’ve seen them sprouting in earliest spring, popping out of the dried leaves on the forest floor along with trout lilies, anemones, and hepatica. Wild leeks is another name for them. Odd to think of the pretty spring flower as a vegetable. misc 015

There were baskets of them for sale at the Greenmarket in Union Square, New York City. misc 010They’re quite delicious–a spicy, oniony taste, but light and delicate. I’ve nibbled them raw, and I imagine they’d be delectable when stir-fried in butter (of course leather boots are delectable when stir-fried in butter.)

Folklorists note: Some websites will tell you that these are the plants in the fairy tale about Rapunzel–remember, Rapunzel’s mother craved the ramps (also called rampion, or rapunzel) growing in her neighbor’s garden, and her husband finally stole some for her. Unfortunately the neighbor turned out to be an evil witch and demanded their baby in return for the stolen plants. But sadly for folklore, the ramps that grow in American woodlands are a native plant (Allium tricoccum) not the same as the European ramp (Campanula rapunculus). Too bad, it’s a great story.misc 016

Anyway. American ramps are a tasty spring treat, and it’s great to see people buying local and enjoying a taste of the wild. misc 011It’s a taste best enjoyed in moderation, though–a few ramps tossed in an occasional springtime salad are fine, but some states have huge ramp festivals, and ramp populations are not on the increase.

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The best kind of vegetable: local and organic!

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Spring Moon

261390_10151617852997049_1254488139_nThanks to Diane Hale Smith for this beautiful moon collage. It was taken last month, when the moon and the clouds were playing hide and seek all night.

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Cinnamon Fern: Summer Plumes

Cinnamon Fern. Osmundastrum cinnamomeum. (At least that’s the Latin name as of the moment, they seem to keep on changing names and reclassifying plants more often than I change my socks.)cinnamon fern frank knight

Many thanks to Frank Knight for this lovely photo–what a nice birthday present!

Delicious as it looks, the brown stuff isn’t really cinnamon, of course. In fern-speak, the fuzzy brown stalks are called fertile fronds–leaves whose function is to help the plant reproduce. The fertile fronds grow sori, which are containers for dust-like brown spores. The green leaves are called sterile fronds–no spores, but they do that usual green-leaf thing of making food for the plant.

Ferns are just starting to sprout now, so this is a look ahead to what Thoreau called “the plumes of summer.”

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Earth Day

Stand up for the Earth!

“Green” isn’t very much in the news these days, and other–very worthy–causes grab more headlines. But stay green. Even if you’re the lonely voice in the crowd, keep on telling people–we need to care for our planet.lone tulip wells horton

Thanks to Wells Horton for this wonderful photo.

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