Longleaf pine is a unique native tree

I admit I’m not like everyone else. Most people go to Florida to see Disney World or just sit on a sunny beach. Roberta and I drove down there for a wedding and stopped on the side of the road several times to take dozens of pictures of longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) at various stages of growth. I shot off several rolls of film.

At that time we hadn’t spent much time in coastal Carolina where there are also significant populations of the species. The longleaf pine range extends from coastal Virginia through Florida except for the extreme south. They also spread westward to easternmost Texas and substantially inland into Georgia and Alabama.

Longleaf pines are quite unique. They undergo a grass stage. I know of no other tree that does this. For one to seven years trees resemble a clump of grass. Long needles protect a white fuzzy growth tip.

Eventually, when roots have grown sufficiently, this bud shoots vertically and the tree develops. Long flexible needles in groups of three congregate at the tips of the branches. Young seedlings and limbs almost resemble bottle brushes.

Longleaf pine seedlings tolerate fire extremely well during the grass stage.  Sometimes at this time, seedlings may become infected with a fungus called brown spot needle blight. Needles shrivel and fall off. When infestations are severe young seedlings die.

This pine species generally develops straight trunks with few branches. It is the leading tree for utility pole production in the southeast. Wood density is high, making it stronger than most pines. Quality is far better than other common species like loblolly pine. Loblollies are the most common pine tree in North Carolina.

Longleaf pine also yields the highest quality pine straw for mulch. As the name indicates, this species has longer needles than any other pine species. Longer needles are easy to bale. They also keep their shiny reddish color longer. These needles last longer too, so re-mulching is less frequent.

Probably the biggest reason longleaf pine isn’t used more in pine plantations is that it can be difficult to establish. Proper planting depth is critical as are moisture levels and planting time. Once established, trees grow exceptionally on otherwise poor soils.

Like nearly all pines, longleafs are what we call shade intolerant. This means seedlings require sunlight to grow. One rarely finds young trees amongst older ones. That’s a major reason why pines are adapted to a clear-cut type harvest system. Eventually, if we selectively cut them we would have none left, since we wouldn’t reduce shade sufficiently.

Longleaf pines have other uses as well. Large cones are often used in crafts. They can be the size of footballs. Longleaf pine resin is antimicrobial and in a pinch can be used to dress cuts and scrapes.

Those desiring to increase their intake of vitamin C might wish to try pine needle tea. Steep a handful of green needles in hot water for a few minutes and enjoy the unique flavor. Too much might give your kidneys a workout. It’s also a fairly strong diuretic.

clump of grass stage longleaf pine

Longleaf pine branch tip


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

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Common rush is a useful native wetland plant

Last week I wrote about scouring rush which isn’t really a rush at all. Common rush (Juncus effusus) is a native plant that graces our ditches and pond edges. Ornamental versions have also found their way into our perennial gardens and flower pots.

Sometimes called soft rush, this plant is characterized by its medium green round spear-like leafless stems. These rushes actually have leaves, but they are reduced to sheaths along the stem bases. From a distance, these plants strongly resemble chives.

In the wild common rush is most visible in wet places. Plants can live semi-submerged for long periods. However, they thrive in dry sites as well, and plants are very tolerant of acid soil. They aren’t heavy fertilizer users either.

Livestock and most wildlife usually leave rushes alone, although muskrats will eat young growing stems. They also dig out the roots and eat them. Many songbirds enjoy the abundant seeds.

Rushes spread by underground stems and they usually form dense clumps. These underground stems, or rhizomes, help make this species a great conservation plant as they trap soil sediments before they can enter the water. Removing potential pollutants from our waterways is a valuable commodity in a plant.

Common rush plants sometimes produce large seed crops which are spread by wind, water and birds. Seed crops are larger when plants are grown in full sun. Flowers aren’t especially showy but they add summer curiosity.

In recent years different ecotypes of common rush have been selected for their spiraling growth habit. Wild types don’t often display it, but selections have been bred for this unique twisting. All of a sudden they have become popular for ornamental use.

These ornamental soft rushes are hardy as far north as Zone five. Some cultivars rarely get taller than eight inches, while others can be as tall as three feet. Their most promising use is with water gardens but they add contrast and curiosity to drier places. They even grow well in pots. Best of all, they have few insect or disease enemies.

Once established, plants require practically no maintenance. The only complaint I’ve heard is that on some sites they can become invasive. High seed yields are likely responsible for this.

Invasiveness need not be a problem. These twisted stems are great in floral arrangements, both fresh and dried. Native Americans used the wild version of this plant to make high quality baskets. Common rush has also been used to make rope and paper.

As you might suspect, this species has also been used medicinally. This plant contains compounds that are fairly strong diuretics so they aid in ridding the body of excess water. Preparations from stem pith have been used to treat sore throats, jaundice, and urinary tract infections.

Since I’m not an herbalist this is one plant I won’t be ingesting. Many sources list it as possibly toxic. A bigger problem is that as of yet I haven’t been able to determine specific responsible chemicals. There are so many proven safe herbs out there that I’m not interested in trying a mystery.

healthy clump of twisted rush ready to divide.

Another clump of twisted rush showing thick root and rhizome zone


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

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Scouring rush is a unique wetland plant with landscape potential

They are not overly common around here, but scouring rushes can add a different texture to a perennial garden. Some people know them as horsetails. The scientific name of Equisetum hyemale has a horse-like ring to it. It’s not by accident. In the wild they usually grow along stream beds.

These unusual plants don’t have flowers or seeds. They also don’t have true leaves. Hollow stiff green stems can sometimes be six feet tall. These stems are jointed and look a little like bamboo without the leaves. Plants do not branch and they’re not related to true rushes at all.

I’ve often thought scouring rush might be used as an ornamental, although until recently I’ve not seen any planted on purpose. Gardeners with poorly drained soils often struggle to grow common landscape plants. These will even thrive in four inches of water. They also tolerate drought.

In addition to their aesthetic value in a perennial be or rock garden, scouring rushes make a great addition to floral designs. They dry well and can be used in dried arrangements too.

One might wonder how these plants reproduce if don’t have flowers or seeds. First of all, they are very successful at it. Scouring rushes are primitive plants that reproduce by spores. Ferns do too. They also spread by aggressive underground stems called rhizomes.

Scouring rush came by its name honestly. The rough textured stems are high in silica. This makes them ideal for scrubbing pots and pans. I’ve even used them like sandpaper to clean dried algae from wood or stone.

Many folks consider them weeds and struggle to control them on pasture land. Livestock will eat them and small amounts aren’t a problem. Large amounts, particularly in winter can be a problem, especially in horses.

Scouring rush contains nicotine and a chemical called thiaminase. This compound inhibits the production of Vitamin B1. This vitamin is necessary for efficient metabolism of carbohydrates, so animals could lose weight. This would stress them and make them more susceptible to other problems.

Eradicating scouring rush from pastures can be a tedious process. The stiff stems have a thick waxy coating. This makes them somewhat impervious to chemical sprays. Often multiple applications are necessary and incorporation of the maximum labeled amount of surfactant should be used. Surfactants are soap-like chemicals used to help pesticides stick to their targets.

Scouring rush has a long history for use as a medicinal herb. When consumed it is a strong diuretic, so it’s often employed to treat kidney stones. Scouring rush increases urine production making it easier for patients to pass stones. Some use it to treat BPH, an inflammation and enlargement of the prostate gland.

As mentioned earlier, these plants are high in silica. Modest amounts can help the body retain calcium. This could be of benefit to those suffering from osteoporosis. Medicinal claims abound for this unique plant.

Proponents of holistic medicines sometimes only tell one side of the story. The other side often doesn’t get published. To a lesser extent this is the same for some pharmaceutical products. Always research as thoroughly as you can and consult your medical professional. Don’t self-medicate.

Scouring rush in a wetlands garden showing the jointed stems resembling bamboo


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

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Ironweed is a dreaded pasture weed with ornamental potential

My father-in-law would turn over in his grave. Ironweed is now a highly promoted ornamental perennial plant in many garden centers. He spent much of his life trying to get rid of it.

Ironweed (Vernonia sp.) is a tall perennial plant with bright purple flowers. It got its name because of the toughness of its stems. Some farmers might actually admit ironweed is a pretty plant if it didn’t take over pastures like it does.

The biggest problem with ironweed in pasture fields is that livestock won’t eat it. It’s not especially harmful to animals. It’s simply not palatable. Ironweed contains chemicals called lactones, but they must be consumed in large quantities to pose a problem.

Consequently, over time it spreads and that means ironweed plants take up more space in pastures. There’s less room for desired species that are constantly being grazed.

For dozens of decades farmers have fought this weed. They’ve clipped it. They’ve tried to grub it out. They’ve sprayed it. All methods have limited success.

There are broadleaf pesticides that will kill ironweed, but they also kill desirable pasture plants like clover and other legumes. Often reseeding of preferred forage crops is necessary.

Spot treating this weed can be effective and often eliminate the need for reseeding. However, it’s time consuming and often can’t be done while sitting on a tractor.

Ironweed spreads by seeds, so mowing plants before they go to seed can help. Plants also spread by underground stems called rhizomes. Ironweed also has an extensive fibrous root system. That makes it very tolerant of drought. In short, ironweed is one tough customer.

Ironweed is tolerant of just about every soil type. It even thrives in poorly drained and acidic soils. It grows in sun to partial shade as do most forage crops.

Unlike many problematic weedy plants, ironweed is not exotic. It’s a native plant. That’s one reason it’s gaining popularity as an ornamental. Plant breeders are developing more compact strains. Natives are all the rage right now.

I think this weed, I mean plant, has great potential for perennial gardens. I wouldn’t plant it near pastures, but it’s pretty and durable. Invasiveness is gradual, so gardeners should be able to keep it under control on a small scale. A small flower garden isn’t forty acres.

On the plus side, ironweed is a great attractor of pollinators. Bees and butterflies flock to it. Monarchs, painted ladies and tiger swallowtails are just a few of the butterflies you can see gracing the flowers.

Additionally, since livestock won’t touch it you might suspect deer and rabbits would follow suit. You’d be right. I’ve yet to see evidence of deer damage to ironweed, regardless of grazing pressure.

As is the case with many native herbs, ironweed has been used medicinally for centuries. Root concoctions have been used to regulate menstrual blood flow.

Herbalists have also prescribed ironweed to treat stomach pain and general bleeding. Root infusions supposedly help firm up loose teeth. Few side-effects have been reported. Allergic reactions causing skin irritations are possible though.

Ornamental ironweed in flower

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

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Evergreen bagworms are a major problem in our landscapes

A short time ago I received an email encouraging me to write about bagworms. I haven’t written about them here and they are quite evident now so I’ll gladly address the subject.

There are numerous types of bagworms, but the one of greatest importance to our area is the evergreen bagworm. This is somewhat of a confusion to many. Evergreen bagworms prefer coniferous evergreens like junipers, arborvitae and Leyland cypress, but they also attack broadleaf evergreens and even deciduous trees and shrubs.

These insects are more likely to cause lasting injury or even death to coniferous species though. Bagworm larvae attack branch tips first.  As larvae grow larger, feeding damage becomes more noticeable. Severe infestation can kill host plants, especially evergreen species because their leaves do not sprout and replenish as readily as those of deciduous species.

Despite the name, bagworms are not worms at all. They are moths. The larval stage is wormlike, so that’s where the name originates. The bagworm lives its entire life inside the security of its bag, which it constructs with its own generated silk and interwoven bits of foliage.

When the hatchling larvae emerge from their cocoons, they spin a strand of silk that catches the wind and drift to another place. Then they begin work on their protective cocoon. They weave foliage fragments into the silk they produce. The result is what we call the bags.

These voracious insects are often hard to spot until they have caused substantial damage, especially on conifers. The little camouflaged bags appear at branch tips. These structures look a little like buds or cones until we scrutinize them. Once the bags begin to turn brown and nod downward they are much easier to spot. However, at that point major damage could already have occurred.

Only the adult male moth leaves the security of the bag when it is ready to mate. Adult males are black with roughly clear wings. Length and wingspan are each about an inch long. Neither the male nor the female adult feeds. Females live a week or two while males emerge, find a bag with a female, breed and are dead within two days.

Females produce a pheromone to attract males or this process would be far less efficient. When females are finished laying their eggs they either mummify around them or exit the bag and die. Either way the eggs rest safely in these bags and each bag could contain up to 1000 eggs.

Bagworms do have enemies. Several species of parasitic wasps can help control them. Many birds also like them, but usually they don’t eat sufficient amounts early enough to prevent damage.

Several insecticides are effective at killing bagworms but early treatment is necessary. Biological insecticides, such as those containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis can be effective too, but early treatment is still necessary. Once bags develop major damage has occurred. Inspect plants early in the growing season and hand pick and destroy bags whenever you see them. It’s a challenge.

Evergreen bagworms attacking Leyland Cypress

Single bagworm long since gone

Bagworms killed this Leyland Cypress

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

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Rediscovering the sweet pawpaws

Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native fruit that is common but easily overlooked. Nearly every fall people ask me about these curious fruits but they’re often hesitant to try them. Ripe fruit are shaped like green link sausages. They have soft bright yellow very sweet flesh and curious large dark flattened seeds.

Flavor is somewhat similar to a combination of banana and mango. They’re also juicy and soft like mangoes. Some people confuse pawpaw with papaya but I consider them nothing alike. They’re not related taxonomically. Fruits don’t have similar flavor or texture and seeds are totally different.

Fruit size can vary tremendously. Around here they usually weigh just a few ounces each, but in other parts of their range they can get as large as a pound.

According to the literature they are rare near the coast, but we have pockets around here that are thick with pawpaws. Fruit set might be poor but plants are plentiful. They’re also easy to spot even though trees are small.

Pawpaw trees have large dark green leaves that emerge from stems singly. They are one of the last trees to leaf-out in the spring. In this area most trees are found on sandy soils near the edge of swamps. In the Midwest they’re considered an upland species.

There’s good reason why fruit set is often poor around here. Pawpaws often spread from root suckers. That means that plants are genetically identical or essentially the same tree. Pawpaws must be cross pollinated to set fruit and pollinators might not spread from one patch of trees to another.

Pawpaws flower in the spring. This means it’s important that we have plenty of spring pollinators. Bees are great pollinators for most crops and they often travel great distances, but they seldom visit pawpaws. Instead, pawpaw flowers are pollinated by beetles and various flies. Generally these insects don’t range very far. Consequently, pollination can be inadequate resulting in poor fruit set.

Assuming we are able to find a good supply of fruit we are met with another dilemma. Pawpaws don’t keep very long. Once fruits are ripe we must eat or process them. We can pick them when they’re not quite ripe and let them ripen like we do tomatoes.

Assuming we have enough to process, we must first separate the soft flesh from the skin and seeds. A colander can get the process started but usually handwork is also necessary.

A pair of rubber gloves makes the process less messy and more sanitary. Usually seeds need to be hand cleaned for higher yield. The resulting pulp resembles a puree. It freezes very well. I’ve never tried it, but I bet it would be great in ice cream, sorbet, or a smoothie.

I’ve modified a banana bread recipe and it was pretty good. When I get another batch I’m going to modify my sweet potato pie recipe.

According to my research, flavor is best preserved when the fruit is prepared in unheated creations. Perhaps folding pureed pawpaws into vanilla pudding and serving it chilled in a pie shell would be tasty.

Small ripe fruit showing seeds

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Fall vegetable gardening can be a productive pastime

It seems most vegetable gardeners look forward to spring for their home grown produce. I won’t argue with that but fall is a great time too for many reasons.

Assuming water is available in late summer, seed germination should be pretty good because soils are warm. Weeds can be a problem, but that’s mainly because growing conditions are good. Transplanting seedlings is another possibility. Water is the chief limiting factor there too.

One problem I have with my spring-summer garden is that summer is the only time I have to vacation. If I’m gone a couple weeks the garden can be so overtaken by weeds I feel like plowing it under. Cleaning up a weedy garden in oppressive heat is no fun. That’s less of a problem in fall.

Crops that grow well and will mature in cool weather are cabbage and all its crucifer relatives like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, collards and kale. Turnips and mustard are productive too.

Most leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce are great fall crops. Radishes and watercress grow quickly and are great in a salad. Onions can be planted anytime.

Don’t forget the root crops like beets, carrots and parsnips. Parsnips especially should be grown in fall as freezing enhances sweetness. Many folks around here are unfamiliar with them but sautéed parsnips are one of my favorite dishes.

Carrot foliage dies back somewhat after several hard frosts but the roots may be left in the ground all winter. Sweetness becomes even greater and they don’t get tough. Beet greens get damaged by hard frosts but add some mulch and the roots don’t get hurt around here. Your garden can be one big underground refrigerator.

Without a doubt broccoli is my favorite fall vegetable. In most years broccoli can be harvested all winter. The only problem is that successive harvests don’t hold for a long time before they flower. When it’s ready you need to pick it.

Spring collards don’t have the same flavor as those grown in the fall. Frost is essential for proper flavor and texture. Most collard lovers will tell you that.

Probably my biggest reason for liking a fall garden is that the air temperatures are cooler. That makes weeding less of a chore. Also, once plants become established, cooler temperatures mean less watering too.

Post frost pest problems are usually less. However, deer and rabbit damage could be worse as other food sources become depleted. A good fence helps. So does hunting season.

If crops aren’t in the ground yet, time is getting short for some. It might already be too late for Brussel sprouts. Cauliflower and beets are close. We still have plenty of time for lettuce, spinach, radishes, watercress and onions.

Here in eastern North Carolina we can have produce from our own gardens year round. You might not get corn and melons in winter, but you’ll get some of the sweetest carrots and crunchiest broccoli you’ll ever eat. Also, it really picks up ones spirits in the winter to see things growing.


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

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