Scouring rush is a unique wetland plant with landscape potential


They are not overly common around here, but scouring rushes can add a different texture to a perennial garden. Some people know them as horsetails. The scientific name of Equisetum hyemale has a horse-like ring to it. It’s not by accident. In the wild they usually grow along stream beds.

These unusual plants don’t have flowers or seeds. They also don’t have true leaves. Hollow stiff green stems can sometimes be six feet tall. These stems are jointed and look a little like bamboo without the leaves. Plants do not branch and they’re not related to true rushes at all.

I’ve often thought scouring rush might be used as an ornamental, although until recently I’ve not seen any planted on purpose. Gardeners with poorly drained soils often struggle to grow common landscape plants. These will even thrive in four inches of water. They also tolerate drought.

In addition to their aesthetic value in a perennial be or rock garden, scouring rushes make a great addition to floral designs. They dry well and can be used in dried arrangements too.

One might wonder how these plants reproduce if don’t have flowers or seeds. First of all, they are very successful at it. Scouring rushes are primitive plants that reproduce by spores. Ferns do too. They also spread by aggressive underground stems called rhizomes.

Scouring rush came by its name honestly. The rough textured stems are high in silica. This makes them ideal for scrubbing pots and pans. I’ve even used them like sandpaper to clean dried algae from wood or stone.

Many folks consider them weeds and struggle to control them on pasture land. Livestock will eat them and small amounts aren’t a problem. Large amounts, particularly in winter can be a problem, especially in horses.

Scouring rush contains nicotine and a chemical called thiaminase. This compound inhibits the production of Vitamin B1. This vitamin is necessary for efficient metabolism of carbohydrates, so animals could lose weight. This would stress them and make them more susceptible to other problems.

Eradicating scouring rush from pastures can be a tedious process. The stiff stems have a thick waxy coating. This makes them somewhat impervious to chemical sprays. Often multiple applications are necessary and incorporation of the maximum labeled amount of surfactant should be used. Surfactants are soap-like chemicals used to help pesticides stick to their targets.

Scouring rush has a long history for use as a medicinal herb. When consumed it is a strong diuretic, so it’s often employed to treat kidney stones. Scouring rush increases urine production making it easier for patients to pass stones. Some use it to treat BPH, an inflammation and enlargement of the prostate gland.

As mentioned earlier, these plants are high in silica. Modest amounts can help the body retain calcium. This could be of benefit to those suffering from osteoporosis. Medicinal claims abound for this unique plant.

Proponents of holistic medicines sometimes only tell one side of the story. The other side often doesn’t get published. To a lesser extent this is the same for some pharmaceutical products. Always research as thoroughly as you can and consult your medical professional. Don’t self-medicate.

Scouring rush in a wetlands garden showing the jointed stems resembling bamboo

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Ironweed is a dreaded pasture weed with ornamental potential


My father-in-law would turn over in his grave. Ironweed is now a highly promoted ornamental perennial plant in many garden centers. He spent much of his life trying to get rid of it.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.) is a tall perennial plant with bright purple flowers. It got its name because of the toughness of its stems. Some farmers might actually admit ironweed is a pretty plant if it didn’t take over pastures like it does.

The biggest problem with ironweed in pasture fields is that livestock won’t eat it. It’s not especially harmful to animals. It’s simply not palatable. Ironweed contains chemicals called lactones, but they must be consumed in large quantities to pose a problem.

Consequently, over time it spreads and that means ironweed plants take up more space in pastures. There’s less room for desired species that are constantly being grazed.

For dozens of decades farmers have fought this weed. They’ve clipped it. They’ve tried to grub it out. They’ve sprayed it. All methods have limited success.

There are broadleaf pesticides that will kill ironweed, but they also kill desirable pasture plants like clover and other legumes. Often reseeding of preferred forage crops is necessary.

Spot treating this weed can be effective and often eliminate the need for reseeding. However, it’s time consuming and often can’t be done while sitting on a tractor.

Ironweed spreads by seeds, so mowing plants before they go to seed can help. Plants also spread by underground stems called rhizomes. Ironweed also has an extensive fibrous root system. That makes it very tolerant of drought. In short, ironweed is one tough customer.

Ironweed is tolerant of just about every soil type. It even thrives in poorly drained and acidic soils. It grows in sun to partial shade as do most forage crops.

Unlike many problematic weedy plants, ironweed is not exotic. It’s a native plant. That’s one reason it’s gaining popularity as an ornamental. Plant breeders are developing more compact strains. Natives are all the rage right now.

I think this weed, I mean plant, has great potential for perennial gardens. I wouldn’t plant it near pastures, but it’s pretty and durable. Invasiveness is gradual, so gardeners should be able to keep it under control on a small scale. A small flower garden isn’t forty acres.

On the plus side, ironweed is a great attractor of pollinators. Bees and butterflies flock to it. Monarchs, painted ladies and tiger swallowtails are just a few of the butterflies you can see gracing the flowers.

Additionally, since livestock won’t touch it you might suspect deer and rabbits would follow suit. You’d be right. I’ve yet to see evidence of deer damage to ironweed, regardless of grazing pressure.

As is the case with many native herbs, ironweed has been used medicinally for centuries. Root concoctions have been used to regulate menstrual blood flow.

Herbalists have also prescribed ironweed to treat stomach pain and general bleeding. Root infusions supposedly help firm up loose teeth. Few side-effects have been reported. Allergic reactions causing skin irritations are possible though.

Ornamental ironweed in flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Evergreen bagworms are a major problem in our landscapes


A short time ago I received an email encouraging me to write about bagworms. I haven’t written about them here and they are quite evident now so I’ll gladly address the subject.

There are numerous types of bagworms, but the one of greatest importance to our area is the evergreen bagworm. This is somewhat of a confusion to many. Evergreen bagworms prefer coniferous evergreens like junipers, arborvitae and Leyland cypress, but they also attack broadleaf evergreens and even deciduous trees and shrubs.

These insects are more likely to cause lasting injury or even death to coniferous species though. Bagworm larvae attack branch tips first.  As larvae grow larger, feeding damage becomes more noticeable. Severe infestation can kill host plants, especially evergreen species because their leaves do not sprout and replenish as readily as those of deciduous species.

Despite the name, bagworms are not worms at all. They are moths. The larval stage is wormlike, so that’s where the name originates. The bagworm lives its entire life inside the security of its bag, which it constructs with its own generated silk and interwoven bits of foliage.

When the hatchling larvae emerge from their cocoons, they spin a strand of silk that catches the wind and drift to another place. Then they begin work on their protective cocoon. They weave foliage fragments into the silk they produce. The result is what we call the bags.

These voracious insects are often hard to spot until they have caused substantial damage, especially on conifers. The little camouflaged bags appear at branch tips. These structures look a little like buds or cones until we scrutinize them. Once the bags begin to turn brown and nod downward they are much easier to spot. However, at that point major damage could already have occurred.

Only the adult male moth leaves the security of the bag when it is ready to mate. Adult males are black with roughly clear wings. Length and wingspan are each about an inch long. Neither the male nor the female adult feeds. Females live a week or two while males emerge, find a bag with a female, breed and are dead within two days.

Females produce a pheromone to attract males or this process would be far less efficient. When females are finished laying their eggs they either mummify around them or exit the bag and die. Either way the eggs rest safely in these bags and each bag could contain up to 1000 eggs.

Bagworms do have enemies. Several species of parasitic wasps can help control them. Many birds also like them, but usually they don’t eat sufficient amounts early enough to prevent damage.

Several insecticides are effective at killing bagworms but early treatment is necessary. Biological insecticides, such as those containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis can be effective too, but early treatment is still necessary. Once bags develop major damage has occurred. Inspect plants early in the growing season and hand pick and destroy bags whenever you see them. It’s a challenge.

Evergreen bagworms attacking Leyland Cypress

Single bagworm long since gone

Bagworms killed this Leyland Cypress

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Rediscovering the sweet pawpaws


Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native fruit that is common but easily overlooked. Nearly every fall people ask me about these curious fruits but they’re often hesitant to try them. Ripe fruit are shaped like green link sausages. They have soft bright yellow very sweet flesh and curious large dark flattened seeds.

Flavor is somewhat similar to a combination of banana and mango. They’re also juicy and soft like mangoes. Some people confuse pawpaw with papaya but I consider them nothing alike. They’re not related taxonomically. Fruits don’t have similar flavor or texture and seeds are totally different.

Fruit size can vary tremendously. Around here they usually weigh just a few ounces each, but in other parts of their range they can get as large as a pound.

According to the literature they are rare near the coast, but we have pockets around here that are thick with pawpaws. Fruit set might be poor but plants are plentiful. They’re also easy to spot even though trees are small.

Pawpaw trees have large dark green leaves that emerge from stems singly. They are one of the last trees to leaf-out in the spring. In this area most trees are found on sandy soils near the edge of swamps. In the Midwest they’re considered an upland species.

There’s good reason why fruit set is often poor around here. Pawpaws often spread from root suckers. That means that plants are genetically identical or essentially the same tree. Pawpaws must be cross pollinated to set fruit and pollinators might not spread from one patch of trees to another.

Pawpaws flower in the spring. This means it’s important that we have plenty of spring pollinators. Bees are great pollinators for most crops and they often travel great distances, but they seldom visit pawpaws. Instead, pawpaw flowers are pollinated by beetles and various flies. Generally these insects don’t range very far. Consequently, pollination can be inadequate resulting in poor fruit set.

Assuming we are able to find a good supply of fruit we are met with another dilemma. Pawpaws don’t keep very long. Once fruits are ripe we must eat or process them. We can pick them when they’re not quite ripe and let them ripen like we do tomatoes.

Assuming we have enough to process, we must first separate the soft flesh from the skin and seeds. A colander can get the process started but usually handwork is also necessary.

A pair of rubber gloves makes the process less messy and more sanitary. Usually seeds need to be hand cleaned for higher yield. The resulting pulp resembles a puree. It freezes very well. I’ve never tried it, but I bet it would be great in ice cream, sorbet, or a smoothie.

I’ve modified a banana bread recipe and it was pretty good. When I get another batch I’m going to modify my sweet potato pie recipe.

According to my research, flavor is best preserved when the fruit is prepared in unheated creations. Perhaps folding pureed pawpaws into vanilla pudding and serving it chilled in a pie shell would be tasty.

Small ripe fruit showing seeds

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Fall vegetable gardening can be a productive pastime


It seems most vegetable gardeners look forward to spring for their home grown produce. I won’t argue with that but fall is a great time too for many reasons.

Assuming water is available in late summer, seed germination should be pretty good because soils are warm. Weeds can be a problem, but that’s mainly because growing conditions are good. Transplanting seedlings is another possibility. Water is the chief limiting factor there too.

One problem I have with my spring-summer garden is that summer is the only time I have to vacation. If I’m gone a couple weeks the garden can be so overtaken by weeds I feel like plowing it under. Cleaning up a weedy garden in oppressive heat is no fun. That’s less of a problem in fall.

Crops that grow well and will mature in cool weather are cabbage and all its crucifer relatives like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, collards and kale. Turnips and mustard are productive too.

Most leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce are great fall crops. Radishes and watercress grow quickly and are great in a salad. Onions can be planted anytime.

Don’t forget the root crops like beets, carrots and parsnips. Parsnips especially should be grown in fall as freezing enhances sweetness. Many folks around here are unfamiliar with them but sautéed parsnips are one of my favorite dishes.

Carrot foliage dies back somewhat after several hard frosts but the roots may be left in the ground all winter. Sweetness becomes even greater and they don’t get tough. Beet greens get damaged by hard frosts but add some mulch and the roots don’t get hurt around here. Your garden can be one big underground refrigerator.

Without a doubt broccoli is my favorite fall vegetable. In most years broccoli can be harvested all winter. The only problem is that successive harvests don’t hold for a long time before they flower. When it’s ready you need to pick it.

Spring collards don’t have the same flavor as those grown in the fall. Frost is essential for proper flavor and texture. Most collard lovers will tell you that.

Probably my biggest reason for liking a fall garden is that the air temperatures are cooler. That makes weeding less of a chore. Also, once plants become established, cooler temperatures mean less watering too.

Post frost pest problems are usually less. However, deer and rabbit damage could be worse as other food sources become depleted. A good fence helps. So does hunting season.

If crops aren’t in the ground yet, time is getting short for some. It might already be too late for Brussel sprouts. Cauliflower and beets are close. We still have plenty of time for lettuce, spinach, radishes, watercress and onions.

Here in eastern North Carolina we can have produce from our own gardens year round. You might not get corn and melons in winter, but you’ll get some of the sweetest carrots and crunchiest broccoli you’ll ever eat. Also, it really picks up ones spirits in the winter to see things growing.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Here in the south, fall is a great time to landscape


We are all accustomed to planting in the spring. There are many reasons for this, but is it really the best time for long term plant survival? I guess that depends on a lot of things. There is no easy answer.

On the downside plant availability is better in the spring. Garden centers know then they sell most of their plant material and that is in the spring. That often means nurseries have healthier plants at their disposal then.

However, stress on newly installed plants is much less in fall around here. Growth of leaves and stems slows down and goes dormant. Trees and shrubs require less water when they enter dormancy. Watering becomes less critical than it is in spring. In short, it’s easier to take care of new landscaping.

Another reason to plant in the fall is below ground. Root growth is much more vigorous in fall. This only makes sense. Soils are warm and they take longer to cool than air temperatures because water has a high heat capacity.

Because of this, roots continue to grow well into the fall. They put down a network for water absorption that will help with the following summer’s heat stress. In our area summer stresses most plants more than winter does. Winter rarely damages deciduous trees and shrubs at all unless soils are too wet.

Plants can become stressed in winter, particularly when they are marginally hardy. I’d be hesitant to plant zone 8 plants too late in the fall. Certain evergreen shrubs or trees like eucalyptus should become established well before they must face cold winter winds. In northern climates this effect is even greater.

Another negative to planting in the fall is that the job generally looks less spectacular. Usually plantings aren’t as colorful as most flowers are dying back. Patience is definitely a virtue here. Plants will jump in the spring.

Incorporating fall flowering plants like mums, pansies and ornamental kale can spice things up. Encore azaleas have been a nice fall color addition. Most perennials like hosta, iris and daylily are best divided and replanted in the fall.

Spring flowering bulbs are planted in fall but they have no immediate impact. Bulbs should never be planed too early in the fall or they might break dormancy and not flower properly.

Around here, tulips are rarely successful over the long term as deer love them. Hyacinths generally aren’t too successful either. Narcissus species like daffodils and paper whites are another matter. They grow fabulously around here and they come back year after year. Deer won’t eat them either.

On balance, I think fall is a great time to plant, especially the basic framework. It’s also cooler and easier on the person doing the planting. For most trees, shrubs and perennials I’d say survival is better under conditions of less care.

Supplementing plantings with spring color is always a plus. Besides, after going through winter I know I’m not the only one who wants to add a little color to the picture. Spring annuals can spice up any landscaping.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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More and more people are discovering lemongrass


When we think of herbs, usually culinary uses come to mind first. We generally learn about other values later. Lemongrass is a fine example and the name fits. You can’t miss the lemon scent.

Lemongrass contains chemicals used to repel mosquitoes. Many people even confuse citronella grass for lemongrass. The essential oils are extracted the same way and the aroma is somewhat similar. Stem bases of citronella grass are somewhat reddish while they are faint green on lemongrass. Lemongrass stems are often red though.

Lemongrass is an herb I always associate with aromatherapy and medicinal uses. However, it’s also a delectable cooking herb. Its upright flowing growth habit makes it a good fit in many ornamental situations. So where do we start?

Let’s first discuss how to grow it. Lemongrass is a hardy annual or tender perennial, depending upon your perspective. It’s marginally hardy in zone 8. Elizabeth City is zone 8. That said, I think we have to consider it an annual here, much like purple fountain grass.

Lemongrass will achieve heights of six feet when plants live through the winter. It’s likely to grow about half that when it needs to be planted from seedlings every year. Another option is to dig some clumps of it, cut them back and keep them as houseplants in a sunny window in the winter. More or less let them remain dormant, only watering to keep the soil somewhat moist.

Plants require full sun and they thrive in the heat. Flowering would be extremely rare in our area as plants bloom late. Fall frosts would have already caused them to go dormant.

This herb grows best in well-drained soils, but it tolerates lots of moisture. In fact, it requires adequate water for rapid growth. When in active growth lemongrass benefits from adequate nitrogen too.

Lemongrass is great in marinades, especially for fish. Young tender leaves or stem bases seem to work best. Leaves are also great to season items on the grill. Some folks use it in stir-fry. Still others make a lemon tea from the leaves or stem bases. I’m only scratching the surface here. Culinary uses abound.

Medicinally, Lemongrass is used for treating digestive system problems, high blood pressure, convulsions, vomiting, cough, arthritis, fever and exhaustion. It also has antimicrobial properties. Some people use essential oil preparations externally to control muscle pain and headache.

Lemongrass essential oil is used as aromatherapy to treat muscle pain and the common cold. Aroma therapists claim it reduces stress, lessens insomnia and relieves general pain. The essential oil is also used in perfumes, soaps and many other general hygiene products.

I probably get more questions about the effectiveness of lemongrass, citronella and many of the scented geraniums as mosquito and tick repellants than any other use. I’m still not totally sold. Yes, they certainly have value, but plant concentration must be high.

Frequent retreatment is necessary to keep these critters away. Continued research will likely improve that. One thing is for sure. The pleasing scent is better than any of the repellants on the market.

Pot of leggy lemongrass that should have been planted

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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