Some wild birds rely on people

There are over three dozen species of sparrows and roughly 75 percent of them can be found in North Carolina. Most inhabit open areas with a few trees. Some have distinctive calls. However, there is one sparrow never found truly in the wild, and that’s the house sparrow, commonly called the English sparrow.

House sparrows originated from the middle east. From there, they moved to Europe and Asia. Eventually, many stowed away on boats to the Americas, Australia and many other places.

House sparrows only live in places inhabited by people. Be it in cities, suburbs or farms, there is always one constant. People are nearby. Humans give them protection without realizing it.

Most bird watchers or casual feeders of birds don’t particularly like these squatters eating the feed meant for other songbirds. However, people don’t often hunt sparrows down and kill them either. Consequently, over hundreds of years, these birds have lost most of their fear of humans and are comfortable within a few yards of them.

That’s not true of many predators of these house sparrows. Hawks, foxes and other predators will not often venture that close to humans, so essentially sparrows use people as a shield from predators. Some will fall prey to cats, but there are still far fewer predators for them to worry about. Even feral cats usually won’t venture as close to people as sparrows will.

In town, sparrows eat discarded food, birdseed and pet food, but they also eat weed seeds and insects. They will even follow lawnmowers to get bugs stirred up by them. On farms they eat grain, livestock feed, flies on and around livestock and various weed seeds.

As these birds gain familiarity with individual people, they often can be trained to eat out of one’s hand. This is especially true in winter when food is scarce. When I was growing up, I remember several times after big snowstorms I could entice them to perch on my finger. I was sitting in the driveway grilling trout and eating crackers one summer evening, and I coaxed one to perch on my finger. I think I still have some pictures of that.

House sparrows prefer to build their nests in human-constructed structures with openings they can pass through. Streetlights, roof overhangs and vines growing on buildings make great nesting sites. Sometimes they build nests in shade trees or shrubbery near homes. They usually recycle their nests, too.

They are prolific breeders. Females lay up to eight eggs per clutch, and they often raise four broods per year. Eggs take a little less than two weeks to hatch.

Like chickens, sparrows develop a pecking order and are quite territorial. I was waiting at a local fast-food drive-through and watched several sparrows scavenge for scraps. It was obvious which ones were dominant and which ones had to wait their turn. The darker colored birds appeared to be the most aggressive.

Except for domesticated animals, we don’t always think about how one species relies on another. People generally don’t purposely feed sparrows, nor do we want them nesting in or near our homes. Still, they do it anyway and aren’t overly obnoxious, so they get away with it.

This little bird was hungry and trusting.



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Writing spiders are spinning their webs everywhere

I’ve always called them writing spiders or yellow and black garden spiders. Other names this arachnid goes by are the banana spider, the zipper spider, the black and yellow Argiope, and the golden orb-weaver.

They’re called writing spiders because of the thick white zig-zag pattern in their webs. The orb-weaver name means that these spiders spin circular webs. Argiope is the genus name of these spiders.

These large colorful creatures are totally harmless. In fact, they’re quite helpful at ridding our exterior domain of many pesky insects. They won’t hurt our plants as all spiders are carnivorous.

Furthermore, they aren’t aggressive. I guess you could get one to bite you, and that bite might get infected. Any spider bite should be cleaned thoroughly and coated with antiseptic ointment or cream. However, people are not on their menu or enemy list for that matter.

Arachnophobia seems to be common. I see it a lot with teenagers. However, most spiders in this area are harmless. The only two poisonous ones to my knowledge are the black widow and the brown recluse. This big yellow one is as beautiful as it is innocuous, especially the females. Female spiders are often ten times larger than males.

In many spider species, females kill and eat the males during or after mating. In this species, male spiders frequently don’t survive the mating process, since the females are so aggressive and so much larger. Killing and eating the male is not the goal of writing spider females though.

After mating, the female produces 1-3 brown, papery egg sacs. Each one contains well over 1000 eggs. She attaches each one of these egg sacs to the web.

Young spiders usually hatch in the fall, but they don’t emerge from the sacs until spring. In the meantime, many predators, especially birds, raid these egg sacs and eat all the spiderlings. Others become parasitized by other insects. Very few of the baby spiders make it to adulthood, so laying a large number of eggs is important.

There is a considerable argument as to why these spiders spin the zipper pattern into their webs. Some entomologists think it is mostly to attract prey. Others postulate it might be for visibility, so large animals won’t get entangled and destroy the web. Still, others say it is to purge themselves of excess silk, so they can recharge their silk glands.

Males construct webs too, but they are not as impressive as those the females construct. Often webs can be four feet across. They can easily fill a seldom-used doorway, and this can be menacing for people trying to enter.

Spiders hunt by ambush. They wait for prey to enter the web and become entangled. Often, the spider is not on the web but close by it. Sometimes spiders contact the web so they can feel the vibrations when something gets caught.

Despite their relatively large size, writing spiders can catch and eat prey much larger than themselves. Dragonflies, frogs and even hummingbirds sometimes make the mistake of venturing into the web and they’re toast.

Large female writing spider in one of the greenhouses

Beautiful orb weaver showing the zigzag pattern on the web


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Viburnums are underused native landscape shrubs

Last week I discussed hydrangeas. This week I feel it is only appropriate that I cover viburnums. Many people confuse these two groups of shrubs since they have many similar features.

There are numerous different species of both, but far more species of viburnums exist than hydrangeas. There are over 150 different viburnum species and numerous cultivars of many. From a distance, both often look similar. Upon closer inspection, viburnum buds are basically upright, while hydrangea buds tend to lay down more.

Both have leaves that emerge from stems in groups of two. Hydrangeas and viburnums usually have large flower clusters. The snowball viburnum looks a lot like the snowball hydrangea. Both have large clusters of white flowers.

In general, viburnums have more fragrant flowers, and flowers are almost always white. A few are pink. Korean spicebush and Burkwood viburnum are white and especially fragrant. Most viburnums also usually grow much taller than hydrangeas.

Being taller, viburnums are often less suited for use in foundation plantings. They might be more appropriate for taller buildings though. Their primary landscape use is as accent or specimen plants.

These versatile shrubs can grow in full sun to partial shade. Some types do better in sun, while others like ‘Chindo’, a cultivar with shiny leaves, can tolerate moderate shade. Most viburnums prefer well-drained soils and endure drought very well once established.

Viburnums almost always bloom on the previous season’s wood. This means that viburnums should never be pruned in the fall. Most types bloom in early spring. One should deadhead blooms and prune the plants when flowers start dropping their petals. Otherwise, no pruning is necessary.

As far as hardiness goes, viburnums display a wide range. Many are hardy in northern Canada, while others are adapted to the deep south. Some are deciduous, and other types are evergreen. Still, others are semi-evergreen. This means that in mild winters plants often keep most of their leaves, while in hard winters they lose them.

One nice thing about landscaping with viburnums is that they respond well to renewal pruning, so if plants begin to get too large, they may be cut to the ground much like forsythia can. New shoots will spring up and the training process can begin again.

Most viburnums usually set fruit, which is utilized by wildlife. Highbush cranberries have red fruit that hangs in clusters and resembles cranberries. They are totally unrelated to true cranberries. Other viburnums with red berries are hobblebush and nannyberry. Both have sweet fruit that is delicious fresh and often eaten by wildlife. Fruits make good jelly, too.

Other viburnums can have blue or black fruit. Many of these are edible for humans, but they’re usually sour. Maple leaf and arrowwood viburnums have blue fruits and are highly prized by many different wildlife species. Black haw viburnum is a native black-fruited type that makes beautiful dark jelly.

With a huge array to choose from, viburnums should find their way into almost any landscape. Most are native and that is important to many gardeners, also.

Next year’s flower buds are developing now on this snowball viburnum.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Black gum is an underused landscape tree

Trees are beginning to change color. One of the earliest and most spectacular is the black gum. You won’t see much of it in domestic landscapes around here, but maybe you should.

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a common forest tree in most of the eastern US, but it is most abundant in the southeast. It is easily recognized by its branching pattern. Limbs generally are dense, slender and emerge from the trunk at nearly right angles. In fall these early foliage transformers become a glorious deep red.

They are quite resistant to wind damage. Strong breezes blow right through the canopy, as branches are dense in number but don’t fork much. Wider branching angles are also stronger. The wood itself is also strong and the roots are deep.

Smooth edged, egg-shaped leaves emerge singly from the stems. Trees can be quite tall and trunks are usually straight. The overall shape of the canopy is uniform and elongated. Pruning needs are slight and trees tolerate a wide range of soil conditions.

This might lead one to question why they aren’t used in the landscape more. One of the biggest reasons is that once they grow several feet high they become difficult to transplant. Black gums have a tap root type root system and they are difficult to dig up and move once they reach attractive size. This can be overcome by growing trees in containers or planting smaller specimens.

Another name for this tree is sour gum and one taste of the fruit will confirm that. These single-seeded blueberry sized fruits (drupes) are edible, but be ready to add some sugar. They make a pleasant tasting and attractive jelly and often it’s easy to collect enough for a batch. Only some macho survivalist or woodland creature would ever eat a whole lot of them raw. I’ve been out in the woods hunting and thought a few might quench my thirst. They don’t.

Many species of birds and small mammals love these tart fruits. Prior to that, bees and butterflies gorge nectar from the flowers. Black gum is a type of tupelo and tupelo honey is sought after by many honey connoisseurs. It is usually very light-colored and seldom granulates. Sometimes it has a slight greenish hue.

Some may wonder why not all trees bear fruit. Black gums are usually dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Some trees have perfect flowers. A perfect flower has both male and female parts. Blooms are small, greenish-white and quite inconspicuous. For those sensitive to pollen, it isn’t. Male flowers produce copious amounts and that can bother people with allergies.

In my past, I’ve cut, split and burned a lot of wood. One species I always avoided (except for use as a chopping block) was black gum. It has twisted interwoven wood fibers and is virtually impossible to split with an ax. I’ve broken handles and buried ax heads trying. Even hollow black gum logs won’t split unless you use a hydraulic log splitter. Even at that, I recommend a powerful one.

Leave already changing color and dropping in mid-September

A few fruits resting on the pavement


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Hydrangeas are many and varied

Asking if you like hydrangeas is like asking if you like dogs. There are so many types. There are bigleaf hydrangeas, mountain hydrangeas, smooth hydrangeas, oakleaf hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, and climbing hydrangeas, just to name a few.

Hardiness and adaptation vary somewhat among types. Smooth, panicle and climbing hydrangeas are most adapted to cooler places. These types bloom on the current season’s growth. They grow here but really thrive further north. I remember growing up and picking white flower heads as big as volleyballs from the smooth hydrangeas in my grandparents’ yard in Augusta, Maine.

Panicle (often called Pee Gee) and climbing hydrangeas must be planted where they aren’t in the mid-day sun more than a short time in our climate. Further north it doesn’t matter as much.

Panicle types have elongated clusters of blooms. Oakleaf can vary in shape and often have a pink blush. Climbing hydrangea flower clusters tend to be flat. They also are more shade-loving than most hydrangeas.

The most common types are the bigleaf hydrangeas, often called French hydrangeas. They flower on both this and last year’s growth. These are the blue and pink types. They flower blue in acid soils and pink in neutral ones. Sometimes they bloom purple or even red.

If flower clusters are uniform, we call them mophead types. Lacecap types have broad sterile flowers around the outside of the cluster and tighter fertile ones toward the center.

Mountain hydrangeas are often grouped with the bigleaf types and also flower largely on the previous season’s growth. That’s one reason they are somewhat less adaptable further north. They are also a pink or blue type but are normally much shorter than bigleaf varieties. Pretty much all other hydrangea types have white flowers.

All hydrangeas benefit from deadheading. They also thrive in soils with high organic matter. On sandy sites, it’s often necessary to incorporate organic matter or mulch heavily. These plants are not especially drought tolerant and will usually wilt on hot afternoons.

Also, while some folks like pink hydrangeas, adjusting the pH too high can be detrimental to their health. Even slightly acid soils will yield pink hydrangeas. Soil pH should be 5.5 or slightly less for blue blooms. Purple flowers often result from soil pH levels around six.

As well as being a great colorful landscape shrub, hydrangeas are great in cut-flower arrangements, both fresh and dried. Sometimes there is no substitute for a huge flower cluster and hydrangeas fit that bill.

Another tribute to their versatility is their use as medicinal plants. Smooth hydrangea is the major species used, and the most common maladies addressed are urinary tract and prostate problems. Teas and other preparations act as a diuretic and cause a loss of water.

Those taking lithium should refrain from using hydrangea for these problems. Roots and rhizomes are the parts of the plants most commonly used medicinally.

One thing I like most about hydrangeas in the landscape is that they don’t usually require much pruning, and they can’t really be hurt by pruning. I like forgiving plants with multiple uses.

Bed full of hydrangeas at the Pasquotank County Extension Office

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Surprise – They’re back

Now that fall is here, take a walk along the roadsides and you’ll see them popping up everywhere. Clusters of stems with reddish flowers and no leaves seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes we see them where an old homestead was. Occasionally they are near the edge of a ditch. Native to Japan, these naturalize extremely well.

Most people call them surprise lilies (Lycoris squamigera). Others refer to them as spider lilies or naked ladies. Some even call them hurricane lilies as they bloom during hurricane season, especially after strong rains.

In winter to early spring clusters of leaves similar to but smaller than daffodils emerge. Many people don’t notice since daffodils and other spring bulbs are up then. After a few weeks, this foliage dies, but in late summer flower stems appear and the plant continues its lifecycle. Flowers usually bloom for two to three weeks and are about 12 to 18 inches tall.

Bulbs might remind one of small daffodil or Amaryllis bulbs. Usually bulbs are about eight inches deep in the soil, so they aren’t readily pulled up by animals. This is good as the bulbs contain the alkaloid lycorine which is poisonous, but less concentrated than in daffodils.

Some people use the bulbs internally for medicine, but they treat them to leach out the toxin. Their primary medicinal use is as a topical treatment for burns, but they aren’t really a major player in the herbal industry.

I consider them somewhat of a grand finale for the perennial garden. When everything else is waning, they push out of the ground and explode with color. They have a certain tropical appearance. I think they can find a use somewhere in every landscape and their adaptability makes that possible.

Plant a bunch in a bed of ivy, periwinkle or other low ground cover and they will bring the bed alive in the fall. They’re also great in between shrubs in foundation plantings.

Primarily considered a full sun perennial, I see individual clumps thrive in dense shade. They tolerate wet and dry soils. Plants prefer a slightly alkaline pH but will grow in all but the most acidic environments. Deer even leave them alone.

Maintenance is basically zero. Spring foliage is far less noticeable and objectionable than that of daffodils and it blends in with other plants. When leaves die back, they shrivel up. There is no great need to clean them out of the bed.

Their only real drawback is that the flowering season is relatively short. Of course, dogwood, flowering cherry, quince and crabapple and many other trees and shrubs also have short showy seasons. Most irises don’t bloom very long either. Sometimes a short span of impact makes them worth it. Surprise lilies are worth it.

When flowering is over, cut back the stems or let them die naturally. There’s no need to try to keep them alive like you should with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Leaves will come later to fortify the bulbs. Sit back and enjoy the surprise of the spider lily.

Hurricane lily on the eve of Hurricane Dorian

Close-up of hurricane lily flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Industrial hemp is a potentially lucrative crop for eastern North Carolina

I’ve been tempted to write about this one for a while. I get asked about it all the time, and there seems to be so much confusion concerning it.

Hemp is the same species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa), but it doesn’t accumulate the chemical THC that is responsible for the hallucinogenic effects. It is being promoted largely because the plant also contains chemicals with therapeutic properties. The major one in question is called cannabidiol or CBD for short.

This CBD oil is extracted from the flowers of the plant. It has been prescribed to treat seizures, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Many cancer patients swear by it to help control nausea from chemotherapy. Evidence for control of epileptic seizures is overwhelming, but other claims appear to require more study.

CBD oil is not the only reason many agriculture institutions are recommending planting hemp. The plant produces high-grade fiber for making rope, cloth and paper. Hemp fiber is strong, supple, absorbent and durable. There are types better suited to oil and others better suited for fiber.

All hemps have a greater cellulose to lignin ratio than most plant fibers. Lignin is the chemical that gives plant stems their woodiness and stiffness. The low lignin content makes hemp cloth comfortable to wear.

Hemp cloth is coarse fibered. This makes it somewhat unattractive for garments, though clothes made from hemp are durable and keep increasing in comfort with every use, much like leather. The original Betsy Ross flag was made of hemp. Hemp paper absorbs ink uniformly and it degrades far less than conventional wood fiber paper.

Hemp also can produce more pounds of fiber per acre per year than any other commonly used plant. Furthermore, when oil is pressed from the seeds, the hemp meal can be a very useful livestock feed component.

As I see it, the biggest problems with hemp are public perception and the difficulty separating it from drug marijuana. In the field, there’s no way to distinguish pot from industrial hemp. They both look and smell the same. Unless a quick field THC test was developed, law enforcement people would have a difficult time enforcing current drug laws.

As far as hemp farmers are concerned, there is also a risk. Crops must be tested for their THC content. If samples are taken back to the lab and found to have a concentration of greater than 0.3 percent THC, the entire crop must be destroyed. This could be a risky business.

I expect hemp production to spike dramatically in the next few years. I also expect conflict regarding hemp vs marijuana legal issues. Some farmers might be forced to destroy crops. Still, other folks might try to play the game of disguise and plant both.

Companies are already trying to harness the novelty of hemp products. Expect to find hemp in common nutritional supplements. Hemp seeds might become as popular as poppy seeds, flax seeds or sesame seeds, and you soon could find them on hamburger buns. Whatever the case we certainly have not heard the last about industrial hemp.

Hemp plant in a field in eastern North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Nettie Baugher)

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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