Black gum is an underused landscape tree

Trees are beginning to change color. One of the earliest and most spectacular is the black gum. You won’t see much of it in domestic landscapes around here, but maybe you should.

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a common forest tree in most of the eastern US, but it is most abundant in the southeast. It is easily recognized by its branching pattern. Limbs generally are dense, slender and emerge from the trunk at nearly right angles. In fall these early foliage transformers become a glorious deep red.

They are quite resistant to wind damage. Strong breezes blow right through the canopy, as branches are dense in number but don’t fork much. Wider branching angles are also stronger. The wood itself is also strong and the roots are deep.

Smooth edged, egg-shaped leaves emerge singly from the stems. Trees can be quite tall and trunks are usually straight. The overall shape of the canopy is uniform and elongated. Pruning needs are slight and trees tolerate a wide range of soil conditions.

This might lead one to question why they aren’t used in the landscape more. One of the biggest reasons is that once they grow several feet high they become difficult to transplant. Black gums have a tap root type root system and they are difficult to dig up and move once they reach attractive size. This can be overcome by growing trees in containers or planting smaller specimens.

Another name for this tree is sour gum and one taste of the fruit will confirm that. These single-seeded blueberry sized fruits (drupes) are edible, but be ready to add some sugar. They make a pleasant tasting and attractive jelly and often it’s easy to collect enough for a batch. Only some macho survivalist or woodland creature would ever eat a whole lot of them raw. I’ve been out in the woods hunting and thought a few might quench my thirst. They don’t.

Many species of birds and small mammals love these tart fruits. Prior to that, bees and butterflies gorge nectar from the flowers. Black gum is a type of tupelo and tupelo honey is sought after by many honey connoisseurs. It is usually very light-colored and seldom granulates. Sometimes it has a slight greenish hue.

Some may wonder why not all trees bear fruit. Black gums are usually dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Some trees have perfect flowers. A perfect flower has both male and female parts. Blooms are small, greenish-white and quite inconspicuous. For those sensitive to pollen, it isn’t. Male flowers produce copious amounts and that can bother people with allergies.

In my past, I’ve cut, split and burned a lot of wood. One species I always avoided (except for use as a chopping block) was black gum. It has twisted interwoven wood fibers and is virtually impossible to split with an ax. I’ve broken handles and buried ax heads trying. Even hollow black gum logs won’t split unless you use a hydraulic log splitter. Even at that, I recommend a powerful one.

Leave already changing color and dropping in mid-September

A few fruits resting on the pavement


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Hydrangeas are many and varied

Asking if you like hydrangeas is like asking if you like dogs. There are so many types. There are bigleaf hydrangeas, mountain hydrangeas, smooth hydrangeas, oakleaf hydrangeas, panicle hydrangeas, and climbing hydrangeas, just to name a few.

Hardiness and adaptation vary somewhat among types. Smooth, panicle and climbing hydrangeas are most adapted to cooler places. These types bloom on the current season’s growth. They grow here but really thrive further north. I remember growing up and picking white flower heads as big as volleyballs from the smooth hydrangeas in my grandparents’ yard in Augusta, Maine.

Panicle (often called Pee Gee) and climbing hydrangeas must be planted where they aren’t in the mid-day sun more than a short time in our climate. Further north it doesn’t matter as much.

Panicle types have elongated clusters of blooms. Oakleaf can vary in shape and often have a pink blush. Climbing hydrangea flower clusters tend to be flat. They also are more shade-loving than most hydrangeas.

The most common types are the bigleaf hydrangeas, often called French hydrangeas. They flower on both this and last year’s growth. These are the blue and pink types. They flower blue in acid soils and pink in neutral ones. Sometimes they bloom purple or even red.

If flower clusters are uniform, we call them mophead types. Lacecap types have broad sterile flowers around the outside of the cluster and tighter fertile ones toward the center.

Mountain hydrangeas are often grouped with the bigleaf types and also flower largely on the previous season’s growth. That’s one reason they are somewhat less adaptable further north. They are also a pink or blue type but are normally much shorter than bigleaf varieties. Pretty much all other hydrangea types have white flowers.

All hydrangeas benefit from deadheading. They also thrive in soils with high organic matter. On sandy sites, it’s often necessary to incorporate organic matter or mulch heavily. These plants are not especially drought tolerant and will usually wilt on hot afternoons.

Also, while some folks like pink hydrangeas, adjusting the pH too high can be detrimental to their health. Even slightly acid soils will yield pink hydrangeas. Soil pH should be 5.5 or slightly less for blue blooms. Purple flowers often result from soil pH levels around six.

As well as being a great colorful landscape shrub, hydrangeas are great in cut-flower arrangements, both fresh and dried. Sometimes there is no substitute for a huge flower cluster and hydrangeas fit that bill.

Another tribute to their versatility is their use as medicinal plants. Smooth hydrangea is the major species used, and the most common maladies addressed are urinary tract and prostate problems. Teas and other preparations act as a diuretic and cause a loss of water.

Those taking lithium should refrain from using hydrangea for these problems. Roots and rhizomes are the parts of the plants most commonly used medicinally.

One thing I like most about hydrangeas in the landscape is that they don’t usually require much pruning, and they can’t really be hurt by pruning. I like forgiving plants with multiple uses.

Bed full of hydrangeas at the Pasquotank County Extension Office

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Surprise – They’re back

Now that fall is here, take a walk along the roadsides and you’ll see them popping up everywhere. Clusters of stems with reddish flowers and no leaves seem to come from nowhere. Sometimes we see them where an old homestead was. Occasionally they are near the edge of a ditch. Native to Japan, these naturalize extremely well.

Most people call them surprise lilies (Lycoris squamigera). Others refer to them as spider lilies or naked ladies. Some even call them hurricane lilies as they bloom during hurricane season, especially after strong rains.

In winter to early spring clusters of leaves similar to but smaller than daffodils emerge. Many people don’t notice since daffodils and other spring bulbs are up then. After a few weeks, this foliage dies, but in late summer flower stems appear and the plant continues its lifecycle. Flowers usually bloom for two to three weeks and are about 12 to 18 inches tall.

Bulbs might remind one of small daffodil or Amaryllis bulbs. Usually bulbs are about eight inches deep in the soil, so they aren’t readily pulled up by animals. This is good as the bulbs contain the alkaloid lycorine which is poisonous, but less concentrated than in daffodils.

Some people use the bulbs internally for medicine, but they treat them to leach out the toxin. Their primary medicinal use is as a topical treatment for burns, but they aren’t really a major player in the herbal industry.

I consider them somewhat of a grand finale for the perennial garden. When everything else is waning, they push out of the ground and explode with color. They have a certain tropical appearance. I think they can find a use somewhere in every landscape and their adaptability makes that possible.

Plant a bunch in a bed of ivy, periwinkle or other low ground cover and they will bring the bed alive in the fall. They’re also great in between shrubs in foundation plantings.

Primarily considered a full sun perennial, I see individual clumps thrive in dense shade. They tolerate wet and dry soils. Plants prefer a slightly alkaline pH but will grow in all but the most acidic environments. Deer even leave them alone.

Maintenance is basically zero. Spring foliage is far less noticeable and objectionable than that of daffodils and it blends in with other plants. When leaves die back, they shrivel up. There is no great need to clean them out of the bed.

Their only real drawback is that the flowering season is relatively short. Of course, dogwood, flowering cherry, quince and crabapple and many other trees and shrubs also have short showy seasons. Most irises don’t bloom very long either. Sometimes a short span of impact makes them worth it. Surprise lilies are worth it.

When flowering is over, cut back the stems or let them die naturally. There’s no need to try to keep them alive like you should with daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. Leaves will come later to fortify the bulbs. Sit back and enjoy the surprise of the spider lily.

Hurricane lily on the eve of Hurricane Dorian

Close-up of hurricane lily flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Industrial hemp is a potentially lucrative crop for eastern North Carolina

I’ve been tempted to write about this one for a while. I get asked about it all the time, and there seems to be so much confusion concerning it.

Hemp is the same species as marijuana (Cannabis sativa), but it doesn’t accumulate the chemical THC that is responsible for the hallucinogenic effects. It is being promoted largely because the plant also contains chemicals with therapeutic properties. The major one in question is called cannabidiol or CBD for short.

This CBD oil is extracted from the flowers of the plant. It has been prescribed to treat seizures, inflammation, anxiety and insomnia. Many cancer patients swear by it to help control nausea from chemotherapy. Evidence for control of epileptic seizures is overwhelming, but other claims appear to require more study.

CBD oil is not the only reason many agriculture institutions are recommending planting hemp. The plant produces high-grade fiber for making rope, cloth and paper. Hemp fiber is strong, supple, absorbent and durable. There are types better suited to oil and others better suited for fiber.

All hemps have a greater cellulose to lignin ratio than most plant fibers. Lignin is the chemical that gives plant stems their woodiness and stiffness. The low lignin content makes hemp cloth comfortable to wear.

Hemp cloth is coarse fibered. This makes it somewhat unattractive for garments, though clothes made from hemp are durable and keep increasing in comfort with every use, much like leather. The original Betsy Ross flag was made of hemp. Hemp paper absorbs ink uniformly and it degrades far less than conventional wood fiber paper.

Hemp also can produce more pounds of fiber per acre per year than any other commonly used plant. Furthermore, when oil is pressed from the seeds, the hemp meal can be a very useful livestock feed component.

As I see it, the biggest problems with hemp are public perception and the difficulty separating it from drug marijuana. In the field, there’s no way to distinguish pot from industrial hemp. They both look and smell the same. Unless a quick field THC test was developed, law enforcement people would have a difficult time enforcing current drug laws.

As far as hemp farmers are concerned, there is also a risk. Crops must be tested for their THC content. If samples are taken back to the lab and found to have a concentration of greater than 0.3 percent THC, the entire crop must be destroyed. This could be a risky business.

I expect hemp production to spike dramatically in the next few years. I also expect conflict regarding hemp vs marijuana legal issues. Some farmers might be forced to destroy crops. Still, other folks might try to play the game of disguise and plant both.

Companies are already trying to harness the novelty of hemp products. Expect to find hemp in common nutritional supplements. Hemp seeds might become as popular as poppy seeds, flax seeds or sesame seeds, and you soon could find them on hamburger buns. Whatever the case we certainly have not heard the last about industrial hemp.

Hemp plant in a field in eastern North Carolina. (Photo courtesy of Nettie Baugher)

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Canning can be a rewarding hobby

When I was young, home-canned fruits and vegetables were a mainstay of our diets. I especially loved the jams and jellies, particularly wild strawberry. There was never a problem finding canning supplies in stores. The home-canning supplies seemed to dwindle until the last few years. Now there seems to be a resurgence, and I couldn’t be happier.

Back in 1983, I drove to rural West Virginia to spend the weekend with my future wife and her family. They were into canning even more than I was. The first thing her mother showed me was their cellar, where she kept all the preserved goodies. The place was stacked to the ceiling wall to wall.

The second item was the yearly recording of everything she put up that year. Every year Elloise and the family canned over 300 quarts of green beans and nearly that many quarts of tomato juice. The rest of the place was filled with jelly, vegetable soup, peaches, apple sauce, deer meat chunks, pickles and just about anything else they harvested, wild or domestic.

That’s how most country people made ends meet years ago. They had a garden and they didn’t waste it. My family did much the same, just not on quite the same grandiose scale. My mom preferred to freeze most things and we made a ton of pickles.

It was fun, and we made it a family project. Everyone helped, even my father. We used to experiment with spices, and that was always interesting. I remember making some great garlic dill pickles. The best recipe was less vinegary, but the jars had to be kept cool.

This past summer Roberta and I were busy with conferences and we let a huge gob of cucumbers get overripe right before we were to go on vacation. We took the cucumbers to our off-the-grid camp in northeastern Maine and processed them out in the bush.

Years ago, my mother gave me a recipe for ripe cucumber pickles that is simple and fantastic. We made 24 pints of the prettiest sweet relish imaginable. I couldn’t bring myself to waste those cukes even though we were on vacation. We sterilized our jars over a converted turkey fryer, and every jar sealed.

When I peruse the grocery aisles, I now notice a greater array of jars, lids and other supplies. That tells me more folks are taking advantage of their hidden talents. Home-canned stuff just tastes better.

In fact, there are some commodities I’d rather eat canned than fresh. I love fresh peaches or pears, but I’d much rather eat a jar of canned ones. We can our own apple pie filling and the store-bought stuff just can’t hold a candle to it.

I must admit I still miss my mother-in-law’s green beans. I remember helping them pick and clean a few bushels of beans one day and for dinner, we ate a couple jars of her canned ones, because everyone liked them better. We usually drank her canned tomato juice too, because fresh juice didn’t keep long in the fridge.

The best part about preserving food at home is the satisfaction people can derive from it. Home-made jellies, pickles and such also make great gifts.

Vacation off-the-grid pickles and relish

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Many poisonous mushrooms await foraging greenhorns

I’ve never been one to promote mushroom foraging even though I do it myself, and there are many relatively safe fungi out there. Too many poisonous lookalikes abound. I’ve taught long enough to know that no matter how concrete and specific I think my instructions are some people will misconstrue them.

Mushrooms have specific anatomical characteristics for identification just like green plants do. If you think you might like to learn about foraging mushrooms there is no substitute for practical assistance from an expert. That coupled with some formal training can get you started. Experience is as critical as it is in learning to drive or fly an airplane.

Some common anatomical features that should throw a flag are a ring (annulus)on the stem-like structure (stipe). A bulbous sac (volva) at the base of this stipe is usually problematic too. Unless you are positive of your identification, stay away from mushrooms with white spore prints. Spore dust emanates from undersides of the caps.

My first general rule of thumb is to learn a few species extremely well. Pick ones that are common and distinctive. Always verify your collection with an experienced mycologist. Never collect anything without supervision until you are absolutely sure of the species you have. Try to get every sample verified by a mushroom expert before proceeding further.

Another important consideration is to learn the typical characteristics of poisonous mushrooms. Amanitas are the most common group of poisonous mushrooms. They have white spore prints, a ring on the stipe, a cup at the base of the stipe, and a membrane called a veil that connects the ring to the edge of the cap.

A frequently encountered Amanita is called the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). These fungi are usually orange to red and have a flaky crust on the upper surface of the cap. They are poisonous but not deadly so.

The problem is that there is a white-capped version of this fungus, and it looks like several edible species. That is until one notices the cupped base and the white spore print. It’s important to be very observant.

There are other Amanita species that are far more poisonous and just as easily confused with edible mushrooms. The destroying angel is often found growing among and edible species called the meadow mushroom. From a distance, they look nearly identical.

Upon closer inspection, the gills are a different color and the spore print is much different. Some people don’t have the patience to wait for a spore print. This is a mistake, especially for beginners. Simply handling poisonous fungi can make some people sick. Wearing rubber gloves is often a good idea for newbies.

Another important rule to remember about foraging mushrooms or green plants is to only consume a small quantity the first time. What might be perfectly agreeable to one person might make someone else very sick. Subsequent meals can be larger.

Folks who make a concerted effort to learn poisonous fungi will have more success as mushroom foragers. Amateur mycologists should remember that they are always in the learning stage.

White versions of the fly agaric fungus


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Joe-Pye weed is a pasture nightmare but a hot perennial ornamental

My father-in-law fought this weed voraciously. It would sometimes fill up the hillsides and bottoms, hiding his cattle. Sometimes it seemed the more he clipped it, the thicker it got. He would turn over in his grave if he saw folks plant it on purpose.

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) is a common pasture plant that most livestock generally avoid. Because of this, it can be a dominant plant in fields where animals graze. Consequently, less land is available for more desirable forages.

Low palatability means poor meat production, and that’s why my father-in-law disliked it, ironweed, milkweed, dogbane and several other pasture plants. He certainly wasn’t the only cattle farmer who felt that way, and many farmers tried to avoid chemical control in fear of making their animals sick. However, thick underground stems make mechanical control ineffective.

Many folks now take a different view of this aggressive plant. Joe-Pye weed is becoming a popular ornamental wildflower for several reasons. It’s easy to grow. It has beautiful pink to purple flower clusters from mid-summer until early fall.

The nectar from these fragrant blooms helps feed many species of butterflies, notably monarchs and swallowtails. Bees like it too and so do hummingbirds. Seed heads persist well into winter and become food for many species of birds, particularly chickadees and finches. Joe-Pye weed is common throughout much of the country and Canada.

These conspicuous perennials can get large, often attaining heights of seven feet or more. They grow in full sun to partial shade and tolerate a wide variety of soil conditions, especially wet places. Long pointed toothed leaves emerge from the thick stems in groups of three or four.

Many ornamental cultivars are being developed. Most are much shorter and more compact than the wild types. Still, they are very winter hardy and adaptable. They make a great privacy screen because of their height and density.

Another selling point is that they are a native species. Actually, there are numerous related species of Joe-Pye weed scattered throughout our range. Some require a skilled botanist to differentiate them.

These plants also have few disease and insect problems. Deer and rabbits don’t often bother them either. The flowers also can be used in flower arrangements both fresh and dried.

Joe-Pye weed has been used medicinally to treat a myriad of maladies. Its diuretic properties make it useful for kidney stones and bladder infections. It also can help treat inflammation. Other claims are treatments for headache, fever, sore throat, digestive problems, asthma and impotence.

On the downside, Joe-Pye weed contains alkaloids that can be very harmful. They can block blood flow and cause liver damage. Joe-Pye weed use has even been linked to cancer. Those taking lithium should also avoid supplements containing Joe-Pye weed, also called gravel root.

I’ve seen commercial supplements containing this plant in stores and on the internet. They’re usually sold under the name of gravel root. However, due to potential side-effects, I’ve never had any urge to try them.

close-up of Joe-Pye weed flowers



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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