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 (

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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 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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Wet weather can have an impact any time of year

This has been a mild winter. We haven’t had any snow or at least none that has stuck to the ground. We also haven’t had a night below 20 that I recall. That’s a far cry from last winter.

Trees and shrubs are flowering almost a month before they normally do. Peaches are blooming. Ornamental pears have already started. Many red maples have already finished blooming and daffodils are in full bloom. Mosquitoes have made their appearance in significant numbers.

There is one similarity to last winter though. The last several months have been very wet. Last winter was one of the wettest I have ever experienced here. It was so wet I lost a 20-year-old white pine tree.

Northeastern North Carolina escaped the hurricanes of last fall, so our soils weren’t saturated for long periods like those from Little Washington southward. Recently we have been making up for it. Ditches are full. My yard looks like an impoundment.

A week ago, folks were discussing the spring planting season. Their reasoning that it was near was based on the mild winter. Water plays a big role in any type of agriculture at any time of the year.

Water is a unique substance. It has a high heat capacity. That means it takes a lot of energy to change its temperature. We can have warm days, but soil temperatures will remain cold for a long time if they’re wet.

Furthermore, soils can’t be worked if they are wet. Our flat terrain causes our soils to collect water even if they are sandy. Naturally, clay soils have greater water problems.

Long-term forecasts continue to predict a wet spring. Regardless of air temperatures, this will signal later planting times. We shouldn’t rush things. If soils are too wet and soil temperatures are too cold, we shouldn’t plant flowers, vegetable gardens or anything else.

Planting in wet soils compacts the ground and destroys soil structure. This will hamper drainage and if weather becomes dry it will hinder water uptake as well. Roots won’t develop properly if they can’t obtain oxygen either. The bottom line is that plants will suffer whenever people try to stretch the season on the front end.

Soil is a collection of different sized particles. Clay soils have tiny particles. Therefore, spaces between particles are small. Small spaces hold water. Larger spaces, like those on sandy soils, will hold air. The sandier the soil the less likely its structure will be destroyed by tilling it when it is wet.

That said, plants still will not thrive when roots can’t obtain oxygen. Roots won’t get any if the soil is saturated with water. Furthermore, wet soil is cold soil. Phosphorus uptake is important for seedling growth, and it is limited in cold soils.

There is an old saying that patience is a virtue. It certainly is. I’m as sick of all this rain as anyone. However, it’s only the end of February. I might be a little nervous if we were facing this situation in mid to late May. It’s too early to panic.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Corkscrew willow and Corkscrew hazelnut have striking winter interest

Many plants have unique features that are displayed during the growing season. Some have unusual foliage. Some have unique flowers. Incorporating plants with attractive winter features can be a challenge.

Two common plants are corkscrew willow (Salix matsudana) and corkscrew hazelnut (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta), the latter often referred to as Harry Lauder’s walking stick. Both have gnarly branches that are far more showy in winter than in summer, but they still have plenty of summer interest.

Corkscrew willow, sometimes called curly willow is a large shrub to small tree. It has typical willow-like foliage and it is a fast grower. It is also one of the first trees to leaf out in the spring. Like most willows, it tolerates wet soils very well. It also can be a problem when planted too close to foundations and septic systems. Willows are also relatively short-lived.

Willows like sunny locations and this one is no exception. When taller trees begin to shade them, they lose vigor quickly. In a few years, they begin to die out. To keep this from happening they should not be planted directly north of taller shade trees. They also benefit from frequent pruning. Occasional severe pruning will usually prolong their lifespans.

Harry Lauder walking sticks have similar growth habits but are slower growing and better suited to drier soils. They also are shrubs and not trees. Plants rarely grow taller than 10-15 feet. Foliage appears later in spring, but prior to that, the attractive male catkins make their appearance.

Female flowers are present as well, but the male ones are far showier. Flowers are present throughout winter, but when they open in spring their yellow color can be breathtaking. These corkscrew hazelnuts have edible nuts, but often plants don’t fruit heavily.

Pruning corkscrew hazelnuts can be more complicated than pruning willows. Plants tend to become thick and they often accumulate dead wood. This must be removed to preserve plant health and attractive form. Usually, these shrubs sucker at the base and this detracts from the overall beauty and vigor.

Both these species are commonly used in floral arrangements. They add texture and character to make ordinary floral pieces stand out.

When it comes to propagation these two plants show a stark contrast. The hazelnuts are relatively difficult to root from cuttings and the willows are a cinch. Curly willow cuttings will root in any wet spot. I’ve had the most luck with dormant cuttings in late winter.

Neither curly willow nor Harry Lauder’s walking stick has many problems with insects or diseases. All willows are prone to foliar feeders like aphids, lace bugs, caterpillars and beetles. They are relatively easy to control with systemic insecticides.

Hazelnuts have few insect disease problems, but there is a fungal disease that can be a problem. I have no experience with it, but it attacks walking sticks and is called Eastern Filbert Blight. This is a systemic ascomycete fungus disease that enters the plant during wet weather and cankers begin to form the following year. Once they appear plants usually never recover.

Curly willow branches

Harry Lauder’s walking stick

Harry Lauder’s walking stick showing a close-up of the gnarly branches

Harry Lauder’s walking stick showing a close-up of male catkins


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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