Wood ducks adorn our swamps and creeks


Wood ducks (Aix sponsa) are by far my favorite duck species. They’re beautiful and I love to listen to them in flight. I can close my eyes and tell the males from the females. Males whistle and females make a squealing noise.

These birds are among the most colorful of all ducks. Drakes have heads that are bright green with feathers that stick out above their backs. Their breasts are a rich reddish-brown with light-colored markings and their sides have a finely striped tan appearance. The colors seem to be accentuated by patches of white.

Despite being colorful birds, they can hide exceptionally well. I’ve flushed numerous wood ducks while fishing, and sometimes I’ve been so close that they startled me.

When I was a teenager, I loved hunting them. My favorite method was sneaking up on them in the late afternoon with my camouflaged canoe. I’d lie back in the stern with netting on me and ease downstream and wait for them to break. When they began taking off, I’d lean forward and try for a shot.

Occasionally, I’d see one perching in a tree. That was usually easier. I remember a few times getting a few while basically lying on my back.

I kept working on my stealth technique. Sometimes I’d ease the craft to within a few feet of them before they flushed.

My method in the morning was more typical. I’d sit and listen for them in a homemade blind near some decoys at the edge of a patch of wild rice. There was a lot of wild rice on the river behind my house.

That was part of the reason I quit duck hunting though. I didn’t have a dog who would retrieve, and I knocked too many birds down only to lose them to the weeds. I hated killing and not retrieving them.

I have no interest in killing any wood ducks anymore. I love watching them too much. I’d still like to get close enough for a few good camera shots though. Wood ducks are gorgeous birds, especially the drakes.

Years ago, the wood duck numbers were very low, but conservation efforts have changed that. Wood ducks nest in trees, especially hollow ones. Sometimes their nesting cavities are over 50 feet high. Often there aren’t enough good natural places for them to nest.

Efforts to create more homes by building nesting boxes has helped increase their numbers dramatically. Wood ducks are now probably our most common duck, particularly inland and on the smaller waters. Our cypress and tupelo swamps are full of them.

When provided with safe and dry nesting places wood ducks can be quite productive. They often raise two broods per year. Each clutch might contain over a dozen eggs.

In Maine where I grew up, wood ducks lived there during the breeding season but left before winter. In this area, they are year-round residents. Some folks even refer to them as Carolina ducks. I see them in our swamps at any time of the year. Let’s hope that doesn’t change.

This mount of a wood duck drake shows how beautiful they are.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Winter foraging can be fun and challenging


Collecting edibles near your home can be a satisfying and money-saving hobby. It’s fun realizing there are things right under your nose that are tasty and available in quantities needed for a family meal.

Winter is a lean time of the year though. Squirrels are steadily cleaning up all the pecans and planting them everywhere, especially in our flowerbeds. They have a slightly harder time moving black walnuts around, so many of them could be lying around near the trees. If the grass is thick you might need a rake to find them.

Live oak (Quercus virginiana)  are the only acorns I collect. They’re often fine to eat without any treatment at all. However, squirrels like them too, and bushytails can clean up a tree in a hurry.

Another favorite that often hasn’t been ravaged by squirrels or deer is the beechnut (Fagus grandiflolia). These require a little processing, but they can make a great addition to a pancake or biscuit mix. Collect the little triangular nuts and roast them on a cookie sheet at a low oven temperature. Crush the nuts and separate the meal from the chaff. Add to your favorite baking mix. The taste will remind you of buckwheat.

Most fleshy fruits like crabapples (Malus sp.) are falling prey to birds. Grapes have long since passed. Rose hips are a possibility. They don’t usually develop well on knock out roses, but the ones on rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa) are very tasty and loaded with vitamin C.

Here in eastern North Carolina, our winters aren’t severe, so there’s a lot of plant growth still going on. It’s not like summer, and selection can be limited, but if you’re a fan of greens, you’re in luck. Flavors are many and varied.

If you like mild greens that can be consumed raw or cooked with equal delectable results, then common chickweed (Stellaria sp.) is for you. It’s coming out in full force now and should be in good supply throughout the winter. Plants are tender and pointed teardrop-shaped bright green leaves emerge in groups of two.

There’s also another benefit from foraging this one. You won’t have to fight it in your flowerbeds next spring. For best results, get chickweed before you see the white flowers.

If you like a little more bite to your greens, try collecting some bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It has featherlike leaves that radiate around a central stem. Its flavor reminds me of kale, and this one’s also great fresh or cooked. As spring advances, the foliage will get progressively more pungent. Sowthistle (Sonchus sp.) makes a good green raw or cooked, but it gets fibrous when it gets old.

If pungent is your pleasure, most grassy areas have a good supply of wild field garlic (Allium vineale). I’m always surprised when I talk to folks about this one. It’s not poisonous. All parts of the plant are edible, but I don’t often mess with the below-ground portion. It’s a lot of work cleaning up each bulblet. I prefer to clip the green above-ground portion.

These happen to be some of my favorite wild winter foods. Always be aware when collecting from any area that pesticides were not used. It’s not worth the risk.

common chickweed is in all my flowerbeds

bittercress has a delightfully spicy flavor.

Sowthistle makes a great salad green.

Field garlic has the flavor to spice up all sorts of things.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Stormwater management is important but underappreciated


In northeastern North Carolina, we have many places that flood following a storm. If we happen to live in one of these areas it is important to us. Unfortunately, many folks don’t worry about what doesn’t directly affect them.

Despite the best efforts of soil and water conservationists, in some places, the flooding problems continue to get worse. It’s not a simple problem. A big reason why flooding in many areas is worse than it once was stems from construction, which often changes natural water flow and creates impermeable surfaces. Roads, parking lots and buildings don’t allow water to absorb into the soil beneath. It must run off onto adjacent land.

When a series of hurricanes, among them hurricane Floyd hit this region in 1999, the event was termed a 500-year flood. I maintained at the time it was not because 500 years ago there was no infrastructure that would prevent the natural flow of water. Had the storms occurred in 1499, flooding wouldn’t have been so severe.

When it comes to localized flooding, I don’t think many folks realize in many cases they are responsible for floodwater that leaves their property and winds up on their neighbor’s land. Building structures or drainageways that divert water onto the property of another can make that person liable for property damage. Dumping contaminated water from a swimming pool into a nearby ditch can be problematic too. Filling up ditch drains with grass clippings and other debris is another troublesome issue.

Some folks think ditches are unsightly and dangerous for small children, so they culvert them to drain the water into a stormwater drain. This is often acceptable, but it must be approved by a professional to ensure the water won’t wind up on someone else’s property.

Sometimes wildlife can cause flooding. In recent years beavers have made a comeback around here. Beaver dams can flood large parcels of land. This is exacerbated when a few inches o0f rainfall are added to the mix. We can’t kill the beavers, so what do we do? Destroying the dams is one option, but it’s a perpetual job.

A few miles north of here in southeastern Virginia, they have flooding problems due to storm surge. Politicians whine about rising sea levels and blame it totally on climate change. This could contribute to part of the problem, but it’s not the whole deal.

A hundred years ago there was a fraction of the construction and population there is now. People require water and we generally suck it out of the ground. Then we spew our used excess on top of it. As a result, the land subsides to a certain degree. Add to that the loss of permeable surface and it’s no surprise a problem has developed.

No person likes to be told what to do with his own land, but there are logical reasons we have laws pertaining to stormwater. We can’t let what we do with our land affect another’s property. We have the right to improve our property, but we can’t devalue another’s in the process.

It’s dry now, but this ditch empties into a parking lot.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Black ducks face a survival challenge from mallards


Recently I discussed a genetic cross between different species in plants. The result was a new plant that was infertile. This happens quite often in ducks. Usually, male mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) are the reason why.

Mallard males will cross with female black ducks (Anas rubripes). Mallard males are larger and far more aggressive than their black duck counterparts. Consequently, they usurp the opportunity to breed with any black duck female they wish.

These two species are closely related enough to produce offspring. The problem is that both male and female ducklings will be infertile. Eventually, black duck populations will be depressed and there’s not a whole lot anyone can do about it. It’s not a problem in places where their ranges don’t overlap, but if breeding areas are the same, black duck populations will continue to decline.

It doesn’t end there. If male mallards and female black ducks form a bond in their winter range, this could sustain the relationship to the breeding grounds. This will result in many more black mallard hybrids. For the past 60 years or so the eastern expansion of the mallard has cut pure black duck numbers significantly.

So what about the female mallards? There’s no worry there. The mallard drake is a very sexually active critter. He’ll take care of them too.

Normally, when a wildlife species population decreases, we can relate it to human activity such as habitat destruction. In this case that might be slightly true. Well-meaning folks who feed ducks could cause range expansion as could increased grain production in some places. Food plots aren’t natural habitat.

A bigger problem might be releasing human reared mallards into the environment. Sometimes this is accidental, but often it is done on purpose. Mallards are easy to raise, and eggs are readily available, so many escape into the wild. Some start out as pets but are deliberately released as owners tire of them. Many of them escape predators long enough to mate.

Mallards are among the most adaptable of all ducks. They are found in all 50 states. These guys are comfortable anywhere a water source is available. The water need not be deep, either. Conservation of black duck habitat won’t keep the mallards from encroaching.

Mallard and black ducks naturally migrate to related environments. Both have similar diets. Also, they are both dabbling ducks. This means they usually don’t dive underwater to obtain food. They simply stick their heads underwater leaving their butt in the air.

Crossbreeding of waterfowl is a fairly common thing. I’ve highlighted the most common cross, but others occur. Mallards will cross with pintails, widgeons, shovelers, teals and gadwalls.

I have a cabin in northeastern Maine. Ranges of black ducks and mallards don’t overlap in that breeding ground. Only black ducks live there, so if little pockets like that exist, black ducks should not become extinct. Moreover, there is little agriculture in that area to lure other species in.

That means populations will remain low but dominated by black ducks. Sometimes limited food and low populations are a good thing.

A small family of black ducks

young black ducks

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Yellow poplars are great shade trees but can also pose problems


Yellow poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), also called tulip trees are tall straight fast-growing trees with great fall color. Trees often attain heights of a hundred feet or more. They also require little or no pruning to develop a uniform and dense canopy. These attributes make them a good choice for landscape shade trees.

Another plus is that yellow poplars are also native trees. An increasing number of folks are concerned about the invasive effects of exotic species.

They grow well in moist soils but sometimes struggle on dry sites. Trees also don’t tolerate pollution or salt spray very well. They also can be susceptible to aphids and tulip tree scale as well as verticillium wilt if drought-stressed.

Yellow poplars also have relatively soft wood and loads of foliage and fruit residue to deal with. That’s not so good, but I don’t think it’s bad enough to reject using them.

Along property lines they are awesome. Yellow poplar also can be well suited to large lawns since they grow tall enough to be planted well away from structures and still provide shade to the yard.

The foliage of these giants is intriguing. Leaves are large and shaped somewhat like the face of a cat. The upper two lobes are pointed and look like the ears. The sides stick out like a cat’s cheeks. In the fall, these leaves turn a bright yellow. The bark is an attractive light gray color. Flowers resemble tulip flowers.

From a forestry standpoint, they are a very valuable tree, but they aren’t really a true poplar. They are in the magnolia family. Their wood does resemble the true poplars, which we commonly call aspens.  Their wood is soft, but it is straight-grained, lightweight and easy to work.

These magnolia relatives also self-prune effectively. This means they naturally shed their lower branches, so lumber has few knots. Copious quantities of clear boards can be sawed from each tree. We use the wood for construction lumber and fencing, and because of the straight uniform grain, they take stain and paint evenly.

In nature, yellow poplars often form pure stands. This is because they are what we call intolerant trees. Seedlings must have full sunlight to develop, so they establish in abandoned sites or after clear-cut timbering operations, assuming mature trees are nearby.

Historically, herbalists have used these trees to treat a variety of ailments. The bark contains an alkaloid called tulipferine. Native Americans once chewed it as an aphrodisiac. This sounds interesting; however, I have no personal experience with it.

Inner bark from yellow poplar species here and in China are steeped into teas to treat fever and digestive problems. Many early settlers used the bark this way. The tea is a natural diuretic, so people also used it as a quinine substitute. These preparations are rarely used now, but there have never been any reported ill-effects from them.

It’s amusing. Yellow poplar is one of our most common and recognized trees but one not often used ornamentally. With the trend toward using native species for landscaping, I bet that might change.

Leaf with catface appearance

 

yellow poplar foliage beginning to turn

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Giant puffballs are common and nearly impossible to misidentify


Those who know me know I’m paranoid about leading foragers astray, especially mushroom hunters. Recently, someone asked me to identify a picture of a mushroom in her yard, and it was a giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) They’re common this time of year. They’re also edible when young.

These fungi live on dead plant material. Usually, we find them in the same place each year. This is likely because of the increased spore concentration in that area along with the food source of dead material.

Some mycologists suggest the mushrooms might also form relationships with living plants.  These associations are called mycorrhizal, where the plant helps the fungus and the fungus helps the plant.

This fungus is truly gigantic. I’ve seen some bigger than basketballs, and they grow very fast. If you’re thinking about cooking one, simply cut it open. If the inside is white and firm but slightly spongy, brush the mushroom off and slice it up. Don’t soak them in water to clean them or texture will suffer.

There are many ways folks eat them. Some like them sautéed in butter or olive oil. Others bread them first. I don’t bother with them anymore since I’m not crazy about their flavor. Mixed with other things in a stir fry they’re fine, but when cooked alone I’m always disappointed. I’ve read that they can be substituted for eggplant in certain recipes, but I’m not a big eggplant fan either.

If the inside shows even a slight bit of dark color, look for another specimen. Taste and texture will be a major disappointment, but they’re still not poisonous.

When cutting one open, if you see anything but uniform homogenous tissue, throw it away. There are a few poisonous Amanita mushrooms that could fool you when puffballs are extremely young. Once these things are several inches across, nothing can be confused with them. Avoid little ones.

These mushrooms are best if eaten fresh. They can be dried, but they get leathery when reconstituted. I’ve never tried canning or pickling them, but I assume they would retain their texture in the brine solution. Freezing puffballs is not an option as they get soft and mushy when thawed. I tried that once years ago.

Once these fungi mature, they dry up and the entire inside becomes a mass of black powdery spores. There can be several trillion spores in a single fruiting body.

These spores have styptic properties, meaning that they can slow or stop bleeding. Spores can be collected and stored in an airtight container to be used on wounds. The spores won’t germinate and grow fungi on you. People with allergies to dust and pollen might be affected if too many of these spores are inhaled.

Like all fungi, puffballs grow and develop quickly. Depending upon the weather, their fruiting stage can last as little as a few days and their prime edibility can be less than a day. If the temperature turns cool, their metabolism slows, and they persist longer. Sometimes they can last in the fridge for several days.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Fatsherdera is a versatile artificial cross


I guess you could call it a GMO. The plant is an artificial combination of two entirely different plants. They are in the same family but not even in the same genus, let alone the same species. It is a cross between English Ivy (genus Hedera) and Japanese aralia (genus Fatsia). Fatshedera was originally developed in France over a hundred years ago.

Another name for the plant is bush ivy, and while it was artificially contrived, it doesn’t exactly fit the modern definition of a GMO. Neither does Leyland cypress, also a cross of two plants from different genera.

To be a true GMO a plant must be infused with a gene or genes from another entirely different species. In addition, the plant must remain the same species and not be some separate hybrid one. GMO corn is still corn and GMO soybeans are still soybeans. The difference with Fatshedera is that the resulting offspring is entirely different than either of its parents.

English ivy is a trailing vine that climbs using aerial roots. Japanese aralia is an evergreen shrub. Combination of the two yields a plant that is naturally sprawling. It can cover a trellis or be used as a ground cover. With frequent pruning, bush ivy is easily trained into a shrub. These stem cuttings root easily, usually without rooting hormone.

Shiny leaves are much larger than those on English ivy but much smaller than Fatsia leaves. Plants may be either variegated or solid green. Fragrant flowers show themselves in late summer and fall and are in ball-shaped clusters of white flowers.

From my experience, bush ivy is slightly more winter hardy than Japanese aralia but far less hardy than English ivy. In a hard winter, some of the tips will die back a little. This is because it grows well in cool weather and doesn’t go into full dormancy until late in the fall.

Fatshedera also thrives in a wide variety of soil types. It probably grows best in partial sun situations, but it readily handles full shade and tolerates full sun quite well.

This cross also makes a great houseplant. It has few pest problems. Occasionally scales and mealybugs attack it, but it tolerates salt spray and pollution very well. Spider mites don’t seem to bother it as much as they do either of its parents. Bush ivy can grow in the brightest to only moderate indoor light levels.

Fatshedera will not reproduce from seed. Propagation by cuttings is the preferred method to increase the numbers of this plant. This isn’t surprising, as most crosses from different species are infertile. Mules are the cross of a male donkey and a female horse, and they’re sterile too.

Since these plants won’t reproduce by seed there is very little chance that they could become invasive. One drawback is that all parts of the plant are poisonous if swallowed.

Fatshedera is an interesting plant that few people cultivate. It is easy to contain and works well in the ground or in a pot. It also makes a tough houseplant.

 

Fatshedera cutting ready to be planted

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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