Wild fennel is an invasive weed, but I still like it.


Actually, it’s not truly wild. It’s escaped and naturalized, and it has been for a long time. Wild fennel is like fennel found in nurseries and stores, and you can find it anywhere.

I ran into a bunch of it the other day. From a distance, I thought it was dill, but when I ventured closer, I could see it was fennel. Fennel has delicate foliage that develops a strong licorice-like aroma and flavor.

That’s one thing that makes it a safe foraging plant. Fennel resembles wild carrot and even poison and water hemlock, but the anise-like aroma is absent in the others and very prevalent in fennel.

Young leaves are edible and useful in salads and cooking. Once leaves become mature, they get tough. That doesn’t mean you can’t use them. They make a great simmering potpourri. They also can be used medicinally.

When plants grow older, they can get quite tall. I’ve seen them achieve heights of over six feet. Mature plants have copious inflorescences of bright yellow flowers. These flowers produce huge quantities of seed.

Horticulturists recommend growing fennel in sunny places on moist well-drained soil. I often find it growing in pavement cracks or on the edges of ditches. It’s an adaptable plant.

There are two types of fennel. The bulb type rarely makes its way into the wild. The type called sweet fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

is the one I encounter. It can be used to replace its domesticated cousin in thousands of recipes, and food consumers will rarely catch on.

As popular as fennel is as a culinary herb, it might be even more popular as a medicinal one. Fennel seeds are a popular digestive aid. They are used to relieve heartburn, gas, bloating and loss of appetite. The seed oil is also used as a flavoring in some laxatives.

Fennel tea is often prescribed to detoxify the body. It is high in antioxidants. It is also high in anti-inflammatory substances. It even has been recommended to reduce blood pressure.

On the negative side, fennel can slow blood clotting, so people with bleeding issues might want to avoid it. Chemicals in fennel also interfere with estrogen found in birth control pills rendering them less effective. Fennel also interferes with the effectiveness of the antibiotic Cipro.

It’s easy to get confused and even scared by some of the things you read about the toxicity, medicinal value or edibility of plants. If any part of a plant might be a problem at any stage of growth, some book or list will report it as poisonous. It’s important to look further. Sometimes just the seeds are toxic.

Many of the plants we consume regularly are considered poisonous plants. However, there is a difference between the quantity eaten as a spice and the amount that might be needed to produce an extract for medicinal use.

It’s always best to look at many different sources and still consult your medical professional. As far as spices go, unless you’re allergic you should have no complications using fennel in seasoning quantities.

Wild Fennel growing in a drainage ditch near a greenhouse

Wild Fennel growing in the cracks at the edge of the walkway

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Lily of the valley is a blast from my past


When I was young, my grandfather had a huge patch of these tiny fragrant white flowers all around his house. I used to pick them and place them in jars to bring some aroma inside. Nobody ever cautioned me about them. My grandmother simply filled a low vase with water for me.

These flowers are lily of the valley (Convallaria majalis). We now live in a paranoid society. Look up this plant and you’ll be inundated with how poisonous it is. I never had any desire to eat them, but they were pretty, and they smelled nice.

Cultivation of this plant goes back to biblical times. They have a huge worldwide range. Despite the name, these delicate flowers are not a lily at all, though some botanists still place them in that family. They are in the asparagus family.

Flowers are white, cuplike and slightly nodding. They have six points on them. Leaves are broad, about six inches long with parallel veins and remind me a little of wild leek. I guess that could be a problem for some, as wild leeks (ramps) are a common foraging plant and lily of the valley is poisonous to eat. All parts of the plant are poisonous if consumed orally.

These perennial flowers bloom in spring and thrive in cool weather. We can grow them in eastern North Carolina, but they must be in protected shady spots. They won’t tolerate hot sunny locations in our climate. They do well in places where they have some shade from deciduous trees in summer but have more sun during the blooming season. Early morning sun is great.

Plants thrive in moist soil. Once established they hold well in dry shady places too. They require little care, and while the blooming season is usually less than a month, their fragrance is worth it. Whenever I see or smell them, I can’t help but think of my youth.

Lily of the valley is easy to propagate. I think division is the easiest method. I usually dig up a clump and split it into sections. This method is most successful when they are dormant, but I’ve had good luck when plants are in active growth, too.

As stated, plants are poisonous, but that can be a good thing. Deer and rabbits won’t touch them. Lily of the valley also has few disease and insect pests.

These versatile perennials also can make great houseplants. Since they don’t require much light, they adapt well to the indoor environment. Indoors, they grow better if placed in an east-facing window.

These versatile perennials are often used in floral work. They make a great wedding flower, but blooming is seasonal. Still, they can be a great choice for spring weddings.

Toxins from this plant affect the heart. Therefore, one might assume herbalists have used it for heart maladies. This would be true. Irregular heartbeat, heart failure, stroke and fluid retention have been treated with this herb. I think I’d rather enjoy its fragrance and think about my grandparents.

I’ll attach a picture as soon as I can find a good one. I looked through my photo library and came up empty.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Mockingbirds are interesting creatures few people notice


Mockingbirds are cool. We have a few at school, and one likes to play games with me. He’ll fly beside me and stop a short distance in front of me while I talk to him. When I get within four or five feet, he flies a little further. Never does he seem intimidated.

I did some research on mockingbirds and found that behavior to be typical. Mockingbirds are smart and have great memories. Like crows, they remember if someone has been aggressive toward them. I haven’t.

A few weekends ago I was working on the greenhouses and this mockingbird shadowed me. He shifted around a little but basically stayed in my vicinity even though I was using power tools. I soon noticed he didn’t have a constant call. He’d make a robin call and a cardinal call interspersed with others I didn’t recognize.

Mockingbirds get their name from mimicking the sounds of other creatures. They copy the calls of other birds to ward off predators, but I think they imitate mostly for the fun of it. That one stayed with me for a few hours while I talked to it and ran saws and drills the whole time.

I’ve read where people have been attacked by mockingbirds, but I’ve never witnessed anything like that. I’ve had swallows divebomb me before but never mockingbirds.

For those not familiar with them, mockingbirds are small to medium sized somewhat long-legged gray birds with white patches on their wings. The underbelly is lighter colored. Their wingspan is slightly over a foot long, and their beaks are pointed and nearly black.

Mockingbirds prefer to live in an edge type habitat, where there are some open places interspersed with trees and shrubs. They like to have a few high perches to choose from. Normally, they nest only a few feet off the ground, but sometimes they make their homes much higher.

Mockingbirds are monogamous. Often you see them in pairs, and they work hard to find a mate. During the spring mating season, they are especially noisy.

Unlike most birds, it is the male who does most of the nest building work. The outer part is constructed of twigs, but the eggs lay amidst finer delicate materials. Each nest takes a couple days to make.

These noisy birds don’t often reuse nests either. Some couples may raise several clutches each year and use a different nest each time.

Females lay three to five pale bluish-green eggs and they hatch in less than two weeks. Only females incubate eggs, but both parents feed the young for 10-12 days. The whole nest construction to fledging process takes less than four weeks. Then they start all over again.

Mockingbirds are not picky eaters. They eat insects when they are available. Beetles, wasps, ants and caterpillars are their favorite. When insects are scarce, they eat seeds and berries.

There are some mockingbirds that migrate southward for the winter and return to breed in northern climates. Around here, they’re year-round residents. Enjoy them, talk to them and they’ll talk back.

The male is busy with nest building duties.

His mate waits patiently in the upper branches of a crape myrtle.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Prime farmland is a precious irreplaceable resource


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against renewable energy, but it pains me to see prime farmland being taken out of production permanently. Food shortage could be a real problem if this trend continues.

With rising worldwide population, we need to take advantage of our most productive land. Converting agricultural land into roads, shopping centers, housing developments and even solar farms is irreversible.

There are plenty of places we can generate power. There are many fewer ones where we can produce high-value agricultural products. I’d love to see more solar powered roofs, for one thing. I’d also like to see more in places where large amounts of vegetation aren’t removed from the environment.

Another problem nobody talks about is the reduction in photosynthesis and therefore the greater potential increase in temperature caused by removing plants from the landscape. Photosynthesis is an endothermic reaction. That means energy must be added for the process to proceed.

Plants capture energy from the sun and sequester carbon dioxide in the form of sugars. In the process, plants take in liquid water from their roots and give off water vapor through transpiration. This happens both by photosynthesis and plant respiration.

When water changes from a liquid to a gas, about 540 calories of energy are required to convert one gram of liquid water to water vapor. This is called the latent heat of vaporization and the process cools the environment.

Therefore, when we have less photosynthesis, we have less potential cooling. We also have less uptake of carbon dioxide. These thermodynamic facts are quantitative and undeniable.

When I was in college in the late 70s, we deliberately burned unvented heaters in our greenhouses to increase carbon dioxide levels and promote plant growth. The theory works, but it assumes that we maintain proper nutrient levels. Lack of nitrogen could mean less chlorophyll production, and that would lower photosynthesis.

It’s no accident that tropical rainforests are much cooler than their desert counterparts in similar latitudes. High levels of photosynthesis have a dramatic effect on climate.

Any time we remove plants and create roads, buildings, solar farms or whatever, we create heat islands. We also lessen our ability to produce food and fiber.

We obviously need roads, homes and businesses, but anything we can do to increase plant growth is beneficial. Renewable energy is also a good thing, for many reasons. Even if they had no ill effects, fossil fuels won’t last forever anyway.

So, what does it all mean? It’s complicated since there is a loss of energy created by longer distances between solar energy production and subsequent use. If we used only barren areas to produce solar electricity, efficiency would suffer. So would profit.

In Europe, many solar farms are elevated so that crops can still grow underneath them. From what I’ve read, the system works. Most pictures I’ve viewed show panels much further apart, which would be necessary for crops to receive enough light.

I’m not sure how practical that is in hurricane-prone places like eastern North Carolina. I also don’t know how much it would cost, but we can’t lose sight of the fact that land, especially prime farmland is a precious irreplaceable resource.

 

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

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Ground cherries are underappreciated wild fruits


The internet is a great place to gain knowledge. It’s also a bastion for false or misleading information. Sometimes I read something and laugh. Then I wonder how many other people read that same thing and were scared by it. It’s all how the author wants to spin the facts.

I was researching poisonous plants recently and found one that I know is not only edible, but it is also quite good. Ground cherry (Physalis sp.is a member of the potato family, just like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and tomatillo. Ground cherry is a wild tomatillo. The fruits are excellent, provided they haven’t been sprayed by pesticides.

So why do so many sources consider them deadly poisonous? Leaves and stems contain alkaloids that are highly toxic, as is potato foliage. Immature ground cherry berries can cause upset stomach, vomiting and diarrhea, but so can many immature fruits.

Eating the proper plant parts at their correct growth stage is a no-brainer for cultivated foods. The fact that something is considered a weed seems to scare some people, and maybe in some cases that’s good. Inadequate education is sometimes worse than none at all.

So where do we find these ground cherries and what do they look like? There are close to 30 different species in the United States and about a third of them grow in Carolina. However, few are present in our area.

Often plants can be found in our gardens or adjacent disturbed places. They tolerate moderate amounts of shade. Wild turkey and other game birds consume the fruits but won’t graze the plants at all.

Ground cherries grow best in well-drained soils with adequate moisture. During drought periods they often drop their fruit. When fully ripe they also do this, hence the name ‘ground cherry.’ Fruits generally ripen in the summer and fall.

Plants have dark green leaves and flowers that are distinctly potato-like. Most species have pentagon shaped yellowish flowers with five fused petals. Usually, there is purplish blush toward the flower centers.

Distinctive fruits are encased in a papery husk, just like tomatillos. Husks are not edible. Though much smaller, berry flavor is mildly sweet like a tomato or tomatillo. Fruits can be harvested before they are completely ripe, but must not be eaten until they soften. Husk color ranges from a light yellowish to orange. Once berries are mature there will be no bitter flavor.

Fruits can be eaten raw or cooked. They can be sweetened and make a great pie filling. They also make a great salsa verde, although the color is more orange and not green. They even can be dried like raisins and used accordingly. Mincemeat lovers can experiment by adding some to their favorite recipe, especially if no currants are available. They also make great jellies and jams or use them fresh in salads.

The biggest challenge in this locale is availability. I rarely see populations of ground cherries like I did in West Virginia. It’s a shame because ripe fruits are not poisonous. We must read deeper than the headlines.

Immature ground cherries

Ground cherry plant with flower

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Mexican petunia is almost as beautiful as it is invasive


I have a thick stand of Mexican petunia (Ruellia brittoniana or Ruellia simplex) next to a couple of the greenhouses at school. The plants have been established for close to 20 years. This past week we replaced the plastic covering on one of the houses, and I didn’t realize the job it would be.

I’ve replaced plastic dozens of times, but never had I been forced to deal with this invasive perennial to get the job done. Roots and rhizomes had really built up over the years.  There was such an overgrowth of plant material that the easiest fix was to put new baseboards above the existing ones and install new locking rails.

Mexican petunia is not really a petunia at all. It’s an upright perennial plant highly adaptable to the southeastern US. It gets covered with purple, pink or white petunia-like flowers in summer, and they hang on well into the fall.

Each flower lasts only a day, but you would never know it. When plants are in bloom they’re loaded. A thunderstorm can strip plants of every flower and the next day these guys are a sea of color again.

Mexican petunia tolerates wet soils. It will even grow in ponds. Plants can be maintained at less than waist height but left unpruned they can grow six feet tall in rich wet soil. For best flowering, plants should be in full sun. They make a great screen and they’re easy to grow.

Propagation is easy. Stem cuttings root well without the need for rooting hormone. Division is another productive method. They also naturally spread from seed. Butterflies and hummingbirds are attracted to the tubular flowers.

The problem is that Mexican petunias don’t play nice. If used in the landscape, they must be planted alone and a place where they can’t spread.

Purple types are the most aggressive. White and pink flowered types are usually somewhat shorter and don’t spread as quickly.

Recently, plant breeders have developed shorter less aggressive cultivars in all three colors. The drawback is that most of them are also less winter hardy. Last winter killed all my dwarfs but none of the full-size types.

This exotic perennial has few insect or disease problems. Mine get covered with mealybugs, but they don’t seem to be bothered by them. Deer generally save their foliage for last.

Chemical control is usually successful. Most broadleaf herbicide mixtures will control Mexican petunia as will glyphosate. The problem is that they will also kill or injure most other ornamental plants in your perennial garden.

Fortunately, we are near the edge of the hardiness zone for Mexican petunia. When planted in open areas, winter will spank them every few years. Those planted in sheltered places are rarely killed or even injured.

We don’t propagate very much Mexican petunia for our school plant sales anymore. We used to sell a lot and some people still ask for it. Its bloom can be spectacular. However, its invasiveness is a turnoff, and I can’t bring myself to promote it.

Plants beginning to emerge in mid-March.

 

Purple Ruellia making its way under the greenhouse walls

Mexican petunia covered with mealybugs

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Pineapples can be nutritious, delicious, medicinal, and ornamental


I remember the first time I ate fresh pineapple. Before that, I’d only eaten canned. It was wonderful and I had a whole new appreciation for it. I gained a similar experience after eating fresh grilled tuna for the first time. It was spectacular.

When I was a kid, fresh pineapple was expensive. It was not unusual to see them for five dollars each in Maine grocery stores. Consequently, we never bought any. I recently found some for well under a dollar each, and they were of good quality.

Pineapple is a very nutritious fruit. It’s loaded with large amounts of vitamin C and a ton of fiber. Yes, it is sweet and contains large amounts of sugar, but this bromeliad can help you lose weight. A cup of pineapple contains only about 80 calories.

The secret to success is a chemical called bromelain. It’s an enzyme used as a meat tenderizer among other things. Bromelain partially breaks down proteins before cooking, making the meat easier to chew. It also has strong anti-inflammatory properties. Anti-inflammatory substances are critical for good health.

Bromelain is found in pineapple stems in greater quantities than the edible parts. Supplements are usually extracted from the stems. Some researchers claim that when bromelain helps break down proteins in the stomach, it aids in reducing unwanted fat. I think this may be embellishing the chemical a little bit, but numerous claims are out there.

However, while bromelain probably doesn’t directly cause weight loss, it does reduce inflammation. Reducing inflammation means less pain. This helps people become more active and lose weight. It’s difficult to exercise when you’re in pain.

Bromelain has also been shown to improve intestinal health. Eating pineapple provides fiber, and that’s helpful. Moreover, bromelain limits cytokine production. This may promote less inflammation of the intestinal tract and less bloating and diarrhea.

Another bromelain benefit is that the chemical helps keep platelets from sticking together. This could be a good thing for reducing heart attacks. Too much could possibly prolong bleeding from wounds or excessive menstrual bleeding.

Eating too much pineapple at a time can cause mouth soreness in some people. That’s likely because the bromelain is breaking down some of the protein in the cells inside your mouth. Your stomach has an environment where this won’t happen. I suggest rinsing your mouth with a few swallows of water after a large intake of pineapple. Hot coffee would likely work, too. Heat inactivates bromelain.

Pineapples also make cool houseplants, provided you have a well-lit place for them. Pineapple tops are easy to root. Let the top callus over for a day or two. Then set them on moist but not wet soil. Don’t plant them too deep. Sometimes propping them up with a couple toothpicks can help.

Within a few weeks they will begin to root, and in about a year and a half, you might be rewarded with a ripe fruit. Setting them outside for the warm summer months will increase the likelihood for success. Fruit or no fruit, they make an interesting and attractive houseplant.

Rewards of nearly two years of waiting. The plant looks a little sick, but it doesn’t matter.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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