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.

Posted in general nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in foraging | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in general nature | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Green Lawns in Winter

If you want a green lawn in winter, you have two choices. The first is to have a tall fescue lawn. That can be a challenge in summer considering the extreme heat and drought we have faced in August and September.

The second option is to overseed with a temporary grass. Both annual and perennial ryegrass are fine for this. Each has its merits. In either case, we are fast approaching planting time.

Annual ryegrass establishes faster and the seed is cheaper. It’s also easier to transition back to the summer grass when the time comes. The disadvantages to annual ryegrass are that it grows faster and more upright. It also is a coarser texture. During an extremely cold winter, it often shows freeze damage and develops a whitish cast.

Perennial ryegrass is far more attractive in lawns and athletic fields. The texture is finer and the color is usually a darker green. Also, it can be mowed at a lower cutting height without looking stemmy. In this region, perennial ryegrass is totally winter hardy and should not show signs of cold damage.

Seedling establishment is slower than for annual rye, but it’s still better than any other option. Perennial ryegrass doesn’t transition back to a warm-season grass like bermudagrass quite as easily since the growth habit is lower.

In either case, returning to the summer grass usually involves letting the winter turf get a little long when the summer species first begin to break dormancy. Scalping the turf will stress the ryegrass and the bermudagrass will take over. If warm weather follows the scalping process, the transition will be rapid.

Some people choose to spray the ryegrass right before the Bermudagrass breaks dormancy, but I don’t recommend it. The mowing method works well, and it’s safer for the turf. Leave the spraying to the professionals.

The best time to overseed is when day temperatures are warm but not hot and night temperatures are around 50F. Soil temperatures are usually ideal in the fall, and with a little water the grass will really take off.

If the turf contains abundant thatch it’s usually beneficial to mow closely, dethatch and possibly aerate the turf before overseeding. Also, athletic turfs are often overseeded several times and the process is started earlier in the fall. Whenever major disruption of turf is required, it’s best if the grass is in ideal growing conditions.

On home lawns, many folks are often discouraged when they overseed. Surprising as it may sound, the rate for overseeding often exceeds the rate for seeding a new lawn. When seeding lawns later in the fall, preparation of the existing summer turf is usually less. Bermudagrass can be damaged when disturbed too much later in the fall.

Both annual and perennial ryegrasses are bunch type grasses. They don’t spread by creeping above ground or underground stems. Therefore, they must be seeded thick or the resulting turf will be patchy and clumpy. When bunch type grasses are included in any lawn, they should comprise the major share of the grass plants. The same is true for tall fescue.

Keeping your lawn green in winter is a little extra work and expense. Some think it’s worth it. Some don’t.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

Posted in general nature | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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.

Posted in general nature | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments