Spiderwort is a low maintenance native perennial

Some people call them widow’s tears. Others confuse them with daylilies. Still others have never even heard of them. Spiderworts are tough native plants that don’t choke out the rest of your garden residents. Our most common one is the Virginia spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana).

More and more people are looking for native plants to add to their landscaping. Naturally, they also seek out perennials as these plants don’t need to be planted every year. Usually, water usage is a concern and spiderworts are miserly on water once they become established.

Gardeners desiring to help the environment also want plants that attract butterflies and pollinators. Spiderworts do. Several species of native butterflies and bees love them.

Spiderworts tend to grow in clumps.  They grow best in moist, well-drained and slightly acidic soil, but they tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. They perform best in partial shade but will tolerate full sun as well as shady locations. They won’t bloom much in shade.

Foliage is grass-like and resembles that of daylily or spider plant. Triangular shaped flowers with three petals grow in clusters on the ends of stalks and are usually blue to purple. Some plants have white or pink flowers. I’ve also read where air pollution can influence flower color and make normally blue types light pink. Individual blooms only last for one day.

Walk through any old cemetery or abandoned homestead and you will likely find some. Maybe that’s where the “widow’s tears” comes from. They’re rarer in wilderness places and are considered threatened in much of North Carolina. You should not collect them from the wild.

Spiderworts bloom in mid spring to early summer. Deadheading the old flowers will lengthen the blooming period, so it’s a good practice if bloom is what you’re after. Let flowers mature if you wish to collect seed.

Spiderworts transplant easily as they have a strong fibrous root system. Usually they will benefit from dividing every three years or so and they propagate successfully this way. They also establish readily from seed.

Spiderworts have few insect or disease problems. However, slugs and snails can be a problem to young shoots. While occasionally damaged, they are far from the first choice to be gobbled up by deer, rabbits and the like.

Spiderworts originally got their name because they were used to treat spider bites. When crushed, stems and leaves emit a sticky sap. This sap was applied to the wound. It was also used for general itching caused by mosquito and other insect bites. Plant roots also have laxative properties.

Flowers and leaves are both edible for most people. Leaf sap causes minor skin irritation to some, so try a small quantity first to see if you are affected. Leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads or cooked as a pot herb and both are used as herbal teas.

Culinarily speaking, I’m not a big fan so I don’t collect them. They don’t bother me, but they don’t store well in the refrigerator. If you forage some they must be prepared right away or they will turn to black mush.

Blooming widow’s tears covered with dew

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

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Bull thistle sure is tough like a bull

You’ve probably seen that tall spiny plant with purple flowers along the roadside. Sometimes the flowers are yellow. It’s called bull thistle and related to the artichoke. Playing ball in a pasture field teaches kids to learn to identify this one in a hurry. Fall or step on it once and you’ll pay more attention the next time.

True bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is a biennial. It produces basal rosettes of leaves the first year along with a thick taproot. The second season it sometimes attains heights of six feet. Despite the diminutive stature of the first year foliage, spines at midribs and tips of leaf lobes are still just as aggressive as older specimens. The yellow flowered type (Cirsium horridulum), sometimes called yellow thistle or horrid thistle is an annual. When you look at the spines you can see where the horridulum came from.

These spiny menaces grow best in sunny areas and thrive in most types of soil. Thistles are a problem in overgrazed pastures, because seeds take advantage of any available bare soil. Bull thistle can be problematic on forest clear cuts too. Plants grow fast and can shade out young tree seedlings. Seeds can remain dormant but still viable for several years.

Fortunately, the only reproduction is by seed. There are no tubers, rhizomes or other vegetative structures. However, the seed is prolific and gets spread by wind, much like dandelions. Sometimes huge clouds of thistledown spread seeds great distances.

This plant can be quite invasive and is considered a noxious weed in most states. An exotic species, bull thistle is originally from Eurasia. Flowers emerge in summer and it’s best not to let them mature unless your goal is to attract finches. They love the seed.

Controlling bull thistle by non-chemical means usually involves some type of physical protection. I’ve hand weeded them, but I always use welder’s gloves and wear long pants and long sleeves. Even then it can be a struggle because the roots are often large. Once plants flower they are easier to pull, but you’re playing with fire if the seed is mature.

On larger areas it can be kept under control by mowing it regularly so it can’t set seed. That still won’t solve your problems if you or your children like to walk barefooted. Numerous herbicides will kill it also, but on pastures they also can damage desirable species. In lawns they are rarely a problem. Always read the label thoroughly.

Believe it or not bull thistle can be a valuable survival food. In their first year roots are edible and when cooked they strongly resemble Jerusalem artichoke. If you’re inclined to try them, take a shovel and cut the tops off before digging the roots. Once roots reach their second year they become too woody to eat.

According to many sources, young leaves make a fair cooked green. The spikiness gets tempered by cooking, but collecting them would not be a pleasant experience. Some even recommend using young leaves in salads. That almost seems like joke to me. I’ve never consumed bull thistle foliage raw or cooked, but then again I’ve never been starving to death either.

Yellow bull thistle plant. I’ve been waiting to find some decent pictures before posting this.

Close-up of yellow bull thistle

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Confessions of a potato snob

My father was a plant pathologist specializing with potatoes. He was a private pilot and one of the pioneers at using aerial infrared photography to detect late blight in potatoes. Some cultivars were more susceptible than others.

Since potatoes paid the bills at our house, we ate a lot of them. As a result, I could not help becoming somewhat of a connoisseur. All potatoes are not the same and I learned that at an early age.

I just assumed everyone knew that. There were certain varieties, such as ‘Red Pontiac’ and ‘Katahdin’ that were great for boiling and making potato salad. They weren’t worth a thing for baking, at least in my eyes. I like a dry mealy baked potato that soaks up the butter and sour cream. I don’t like foil on them either. Crunchy skins are my favorite.

On the other hand, other cultivars like ‘Belrus’ and ‘Russet Burbank’ made the fluffiest baked potatoes imaginable. They were totally unacceptable for potato salad. When boiled, they turned to mush. A few were fine in soup because they thickened it. ‘Kennebec’ was fairly versatile and could be used for either. ‘Atlantic’ chips well, but storage is problematic.

The reason for cooking texture differences stems largely from the specific gravity of the tubers. That’s influenced by the amount of starch relative to the amount of water in the potatoes. High specific gravity potatoes are good for baking and chipping. High specific gravity cultivars usually yield lighter colored more brittle potato chips. Nobody wants soggy dark colored chips or fries.

Low specific gravity potatoes are better for canning. They also hold together well when boiled, so they make good potato salad. They also hold together better in soups.

To a large extent specific gravity levels are genetic. That’s why specific varieties are grown. However, certain growing and management conditions can raise or lower starch to water content. Farmers who grow and sell to chip processers are acutely aware of this.

When I moved to West Virginia for graduate school I reunited with an old friend and colleague of my dad’s. The late Dr. Bob Young was also a potato man and he furnished me with experimental potato clones to test. I enjoyed that and it helped with my grocery bill.

Some types didn’t convert sugars completely to starches. That ruined their frying quality as they caramelized too much. Unfortunately, some of my favorites never made it past the experimental number stage.

When developing new cultivars, often cooking qualities take a back seat to yield, skin quality and disease resistance. I guess the general public isn’t as discriminating as this potato snob. Most people blame the cook if the product is subpar. I sit in the restaurant and ask myself why they chose to bake a variety not bred for that purpose.

I still remember questioning my then girlfriend as to why she chose to bake Pontiacs when she fixed supper. She said they were unblemished and pretty. I told her they’d be soggy. They were, but she married me anyway. Life is good.


Visually, sometimes it’s hard to tell – to the left are boilers. Bakers are center and right.

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

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Pound for pound smallmouth bass are tough fighting fish

I’ve heard people say that four pound smallmouths fight harder than eight pound largemouth bass. I agree. They’ll usually leap and shake first. If that doesn’t work they dive to the bottom and try to get under something.

They don’t leap or run like a salmon, but they never quit. If you don’t have a net you’re in trouble. Get them to the boat and they still have enough in the tank to get away.

I remember once catching three on one cast. A little one hit the bait first. Before I could crank the reel three turns another one attacked him. A few feet from the boat a huge smallmouth nailed that one. I had a boat full of witnesses too.

I wish we had smallies around here. Growing up in Maine they were the most common

gamefish. Nearly every lake had some. In eastern North Carolina we don’t have the proper conditions for them to spawn.

Smallmouths (Micropterus dolomieu) need to have a gravelly bottom to lay their eggs. Preferably this is adjacent to a rocky drop-off. Rivers in the coastal plain don’t have these conditions. We might have accumulation of sand, but gravel is not part of the geologic makeup.

Smallmouth bass sweep nesting areas free of debris before the females lay their eggs. Usually these spots are a couple feet across. Often times they lay next to a sunken log. I remember paddling a canoe in the spring searching for nesting sites when I was a kid. Once eggs were laid the males would defend the area aggressively. They might even ram a boat.

Surprisingly, it is the male that builds the nest. Males guard them too. Usually these areas are a few feet deep, but sometimes they can be more than ten or less than a foot deep. A male will lure a larger female to his carefully prepared nest and hopefully she will lay eggs for him to fertilize. Then she leaves. Protecting the nest is his job.

Once the fry hatch and begin to grow his job is over. It is now that the male smallmouth bass has developed an insatiable appetite and will attack food voraciously. Fishermen love this post spawn period.

Smallmouth bass are generally active in cooler water than their largemouth cousins. During the summer they tend to hang near the bottom during the day. In the last hour or so of daylight they often hit the surface and this is when they are fun to catch.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had plenty of deep water success with bronzebacks. Sinking a large live baitfish on the bottom along a drop-off can often lure huge specimens. I’ve caught smallmouths in excess of six pounds with this technique. My son caught a thirty-one inch chain pickerel the same way.

I know largemouth bass are bigger and plentiful around here, but you fishermen will never regret heading out to smallmouth territory. Mountain rivers as well as northern lakes offer tremendous smallmouth fishing. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.

Some pretty nice fish spread across the two by eights. There were close to 20 pounds of bass and a 28 inch pickerel

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Cherries need not be ornamental varieties to have landscape value

We’ve all seen the breathtaking pink blooms of the Kwanzan, Yoshino and other cultivars of ornamental cherries. They make great small shade trees and specimen plants. Blooming season is a bit brief, but they’re pretty dramatic for a couple weeks.

Edible cherry cultivars can fit well in your landscape too. They have an attractive mass of flowers and also yield tasty fruit. Two major types are common and both have desirable qualities.

Sweet cherries (Prunus avium) are usually eaten fresh, are often larger and often require a different cultivar for cross-pollination. Some cultivars don’t. Bing is a common type often found in stores. It needs a pollinator, but Stella, Black Gold and North Star do not. Many people think sweet cherries are more versatile, but this is not true.

Some people cook with sweet cherries. Pies and other creations are darker and usually mushier. Make sure to check the recipe or you might concoct something much sweeter than you had in mind.

Sour cherry cultivars (Prunus cerasus) are self-fruitful and are definitely the choice for pies, juice and jellies. Color will be bright red. They are a little tart for fresh eating, but they’re good in a salad where a little tartness is acceptable. They can also pollinate sweet cherry cultivars if they flower at the same time, but they usually bloom later. Using another sweet cherry cultivar will yield better results.

Wild black cherries are very common around here. Some folks say that wild black cherries will pollinate cultivated varieties too, but I’ve read conflicting information which makes me skeptical. These wild cousins are tasty in their own right, but they’re small and birds usually beat you to them.

Cherries grow best in well drained slightly acid soils. When drainage is less than ideal they are more susceptible to root and stem diseases. Sweet and sour cherries both have similar growth requirements, but sour cherries are more winter hardy.

When it comes to insects, Japanese beetles love cherries, the foliage that is. They don’t bother fruit, but defoliation greatly affects fruit yields. Eastern tent caterpillars ravage black cherry, but they don’t seem to attack cultivated cherries as much. If you just have a few trees you can usually control them by physically removing the webbing when you see it.

As with apples, cherries are available in dwarf, semi-dwarf and standard sizes. Make sure you pay attention to this when you pick out your trees or they might not fit your landscaping. In general, sweet cherry trees are usually taller.

One might think that birds would cause more damage to sweet cherry trees. Unfortunately, this is not true. Birds like both of them. Robins and cedar waxwings appear to like the sweet ones best. Chickadees and sparrows usually eat more sour ones. Most other birds don’t seem to care.

As far as nutrition goes, sour cherries are much higher in anti-inflammatories than sweet types are. Research indicates they might have several uses medicinally. As a result, a plethora of supplements are available on the internet and in health food stores.

close-up of cherry leaves showing distinctive nectar glands on petioles


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Amaryllis aren’t just for indoor viewing

I won’t deny that amaryllis (Hippeastrum sp.) is one of the most striking flowering houseplants. Huge clusters of flowers are dramatic and that’s why people pay so much for a single bulb. Most people don’t realize those huge bulbs are hardy in our area. However, many people struggle trying to grow them.

Raising amaryllis outside requires different management than daffodils and other Dutch bulbs. Most bulbs should be planted several inches deep. I generally figure about three times the diameter of the bulb.

That’s not true for amaryllis. The tip of the bulb should actually rest above the soil surface. That’s usually most people’s first mistake. Planting them in areas with inadequate drainage is the second. Sometimes raised beds are necessary.

Those living in slightly cooler climates can still grow these impressive blooming plants outdoors. However, the bulbs must be dug in the fall and allowed to dry down indoors. Cool temperatures are best, but don’t let them freeze. When soils begin to warm in spring plant the bulbs back outside but leave at least a third of the bulb above ground.

Regardless of whether we dig the bulbs or leave them in the soil, amaryllis must be planted on well drained sites. Bulbs may require frequent watering in their first year, but established plants are fairly tolerant of drought.

They also need full sun for much of the day. Hot afternoon sun should be avoided if possible. However, too much shade will cause reduced bloom. In fall, mulch the beds with at least two to three inches of shredded mulch or pine straw. Rake the mulch away from the bulbs in the spring.

Unlike most bulbs which don’t require much feeding, amaryllis responds to regular applications of fertilizer. Avoid turf type fertilizers. These plants should not be fed too much nitrogen. A 1-2-2 ratio like 5-10-10 or 10-20-20 is better.

Fertilize them when green first appears, then when plants begin to show buds, and one more time after flowering. Slow release fertilizer is good too. Only one application is usually necessary.

As with all bulbs, encourage foliage to grow as long as possible. When leaves turn yellow and fall over, it’s fine to cut them off.

Amaryllis responds to separation every few years. Dig them and break offsets from the main bulb. Leave them attached to the mother blub if they aren’t very large. Tiny offsets may take several years to bloom.

If plants fail to bloom you likely have one of three problems. First, there may be inadequate light. Second, soil drainage might be poor. Finally, post bloom foliage growth might be insufficient to provide energy to the bulb. This could result from the first two reasons or the product of impatience. Sometimes we get in a hurry to remove yellowing leaves.

The next time you receive an amaryllis as a gift, plant it outdoors when you’re through enjoying it. It will come back in your garden year after year. Just remember not to plant it too deep and make sure the soil is loose and well drained.

This huge two toned amaryllis always draws attention

I wish I’d planted these beauties in the ground.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Bats have far more positives than negatives

Many people see bats fluttering around at dusk and get nervous. Some get downright scared. There’s no need for this hysteria. Bats fill an important role in the ecosystem and provide us comfort at the same time.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone accuse bats of diving and trying to hurt them. This is never true. Bats are going after the mosquitoes and other biting flies that are attacking humans and other animals. Bats have no interest in humans and won’t get tangled in people’s hair. Also, they’re not blind. Bats navigate mostly by sound waves, but they can see.

It’s true that bats can carry the rabies virus, but very small percentages are infected. The only time I’d be nervous is if I saw a bat active during the day. They’re naturally nocturnal, so seeing a solitary one when they should be sleeping might throw a flag.

However, one is far more likely to contract rabies from raccoons, skunks or foxes. They are all basically nocturnal too. Even feral cats would be a greater risk as people would be more likely to come in contact with one.

Also, the only way to contract rabies from bats or other animals for that matter is to get bitten by one. The rabies virus is passed through saliva. Coming in contact with bat droppings won’t inoculate someone with the virus.

I realize people don’t want bats making homes in their attics. Getting rid of them can be complicated. First of all, since they are active at night, sealing up entrances and exits during the day might serve to seal them in. That’s not good.

If you have a bat problem, it might be best to call a professional. They have some techniques that could solve the problem without harming the bats. Bat waste is not something we want in our homes. It has a smell similar to that from mice, so it’s not aesthetically pleasing.

North Carolina is home to 16 species of bats. Some can consume as many as 600 mosquitoes per hour. Mosquito borne diseases are a major problem worldwide. Bats also consume insects that damage farm crops. They also help pollinate plants too.

We can help establish a healthy bat population by planting flowers that attract insects. This will give bats a food source to supplement their appetite for mosquitoes. We can also build bat houses. This can also lure them out of places we don’t want them, like our attics.

Why should we be concerned about bats? More than a third of all bat species are either threatened or endangered. Once we lose them they are gone forever.

I remember when I was a kid we used to throw rocks in the air at dusk and see if we could get the bats to follow them. It was cool to watch these tiny mammals fly around. I was always amazed at how quick they were and how it never took them long to realize our rocks were a false alarm.

This family treasure in Gray ME built in 1855 has seen its share of bats.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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