Thursday in the Naturehood

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His Eye is On the Sparrow!!

Many sparrows frequent the Teaching Garden and environs – particularly in the winter months – looking for ragweed, crabgrass and various stray seeds.  This White-Throated Sparrow was seen foraging the nearby hedgerow.

There are many references to sparrows in the Bible.  Because they are a noisy and social bird, the “lone” sparrow  became a symbol of  deep loneliness. ( Psalm 102)   Sparrows were allowed to build their messy nests in the eaves of the Temple, because the “insignificant” birds were sold to the poor for ritual purposes. (Leviticus 14)  In fact, if you bought four sparrows at a copper coin a piece, the money changer would throw one more in for free!  It was this “extra” sparrow that prompted Jesus’ teaching that God’s care for the created order is so great that even the tiniest sparrow is noted and observed.  (Luke 12)  

November 14

Tuesday Treasures

Sempervivum tectorum

Sempervivum tectorum

One of the plants that continues to thrive through the winter months is the common houseleek.  The scientific name, Spempervivum, means “live forever,” as indeed it does.  The species that we planted is Sempervivum tectorum.   “Tectorum” is translated “of roofs.”   Apparently, Charlemagne, ordered all villagers to plant houseleeks on their sod, or thatched roof.  The plant was also known as “Jupiter’s beard” and believed to ward off all lightning bolts cast by the God of Thunder.  Interestingly, that’s also how the term “house plants” began.  Rather than bring the nature indoors, house plants were literally grown on the house. 

November 7

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Tuesday Treasure  -   The Radish

Even though radishes probably originated in northern China, historical record indicates that they have been cultivated around the globe for millennia.  Those who built the ancient Pyramids of Egypt are said to have been paid in radishes.  Ancient Greeks used radishes for their medicinal value.  The Roman admiral, Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) wrote of the healing oil that can be extracted from radish seeds.

Radish is from the Latin, meaning root.   The beer halls of Bavaria still use the term, “radi,” which are served with their renown veal sausages, sweet mustard and (of course) “liquid” bread – or craft bier.  In fact, Bavarians stoutly contend that a steady diet of beer and salted radishes keep them in good health throughout the long winter months.  And why not?  Radishes contain enough vitamin C to ward off colds and scurvy.  Zum Wohl!     

Thursday in the Naturehood

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Winter Wrens

I caught my first glimpse of a winter wren this week.  They are certainly active little birds, so it’s difficult to get them to pose for a photo.  While most songbirds migrate south in winter when insects are scarce, winter wrens will stick it out.  They are also known as “cutty” wrens, because of their short, stubby tails.  Once the snow flies, winter wrens will retreat to holes close to the ground, in masonry, or wood.   Their short tails enable them to fit into teeny, tiny spaces.  We’ll see them occasionally darting in and out of our stone walls.  They don’t stay put, often flitting from place to place.  It is said that they inspired the expression, “home is where the heart is.”  They are very sociable, often sharing their space and huddling together for warmth during cold spells. 

October 17

Tuesday Treasures

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It’s pumpkin-carving time!! 

Here are the pumpkins and a few odd watermelons that were harvested from our inaugural patch this weekend.    Actually pumpkins were not the first vegetable ** to be carved to make All Hollow’s Eve lanterns. Celtic people in the Old World carved turnips (or rutabagas) to make the lanterns that ward off any evil spirits that may be lurking in the night.  When Irish immigrants brought the custom to America, they found that native pumpkins were much easier to carve.  Why are they called Jack O’Lanterns?   Well, there are many fascinating “Stingy” Jack tales surrounding that tradition, but alas too earthy for this page.  Have fun researching those on your own.  

** Actually, pumpkins are fruit.  Many fruits which are not sweet - such as tomatoes, beans, peppers are popularly thought to be vegetables

Turnip Jack O'Lantern

Turnip Jack O'Lantern

Thursday in the Naturehood

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Oriental Bittersweet

I have mixed feelings about bittersweet.  For years, we decorated our home every Thanksgiving with hand-woven garlands and wreathes of bittersweet.  I have a soft spot in my heart for this whimsical harbinger of autumn.  Having said that, it’s a pernicious plant that strangles trees and smothers entire native plant communities!  While there is native “American” bittersweet, chances are the vines wrapping their tendrils around your conifers are “Oriental” bittersweet.  A native of East Asia, this variety was introduced to the United States and planted on walls and fences because spreads quickly and tolerates harsh conditions.  It was later used to control erosion along roadsides. It produces tons of seeds that are widely distributed by birds.  Horticulturists strongly advise removing the vine.  And no matter how beautiful it looks, DON’T bring it home to decorate your home for Thanksgiving!!

October 10

Tuesday Treasures

Cross-striped cabbage worm

Cross-striped cabbage worm

“The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

“All that glisters is not gold.”   William Shakespeare

I’m afraid that this week’s entry must be filed under the “live and learn” category.  Our promising fall season has been all but obliterated by this handsome little guy, or I should say a battalion of these little guys – crossed-striped cabbage worms.  An enduring pest in southern gardens, the cabbage moth caterpillar eventually found its way to southern New England.  Usually cooler weather requires the use of a cloche (those mesh tunnels that protect our plants from nighttime temperatures.)  Since we’ve been enjoying an extended Indian summer, we didn’t set up the cloches, forgetting that the netting also protects plants from prolific egg-layers of all shapes and sizes.  Because we don’t use pesticides (not even ones rated for organic gardens) our usual battle game is to “squish” the foe.   Alas, we have lost the day.    

Thursday in the Naturehood

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Painted Lady

We are accustomed to the annual Monarch migration in the late summer, early fall.  Not as familiar is the migration of the Painted Ladies!!  This pinkish-orange and black butterfly is probably the most common species in the word (with the exception of South America.)  In North America, the migration begins as temperatures climb in northeastern Mexico.  Larger numbers head north and northeast if seasonal rains are heavier than usual.  The factors contributing to their high populations during the summer include good food sources and lower levels of parasites, predators and diseases.  We often see their caterpillars among our thistle in the pollinator garden.  Needless to say they begin to disappear in August as the trek back to Mexico begins.  Unseasonably warmer temperatures in recent weeks may be altering their internal clock somewhat.  But all they need are a few stiff Northerlies, and they’ll be sipping Tequila before frost appears on the pumpkin.

October 3

Tuesday Treasures

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Montauk Daisies

We are introducing Montauk daisies to our pollinator garden this year!  Unlike spring’s Ox-eye daisies and summer’s Shasta daisies, Montauks bloom only as the asters begin to fade … thus providing a little autumnal drama.  Once considered a chrysanthemum because the perennial originated in Japan, botanists now recognize it as a genus within the daisy family.   It was introduced to North America in the latter half of the Nineteenth century and adapted so well to the sandy soils of Eastern Long Island that  it was considered a native species ( hence its name ).  Its’ pungent aroma repels deer and rabbits, although migrating butterflies welcome it among their dwindling options. 

October 2

Monday Garden Walk

Thursday in the Naturehood

Michaelmas Daisies

Michaelmas Daisies ( New England Asters)

Michaelmas Daisies ( New England Asters)

“You thought you knew every twig and leaf by the roadside and nothing more was to be looked for there ... and now to your surprise, the ditches are crowded with millions of little stars.”  

Henry David Thoreau

Today, we are showcasing our Michaelmas Daisies.  Actually, they aren’t daisies at all, but rather asters that bring a much needed touch color to the garden as summer growth is fading.  The reason New England Asters are called Michaelmas Daisies is because they are at the height of their bloom on, or around the Feast of Michael the Archangel (September 29.)

What amazes us about asters is their evolutionary design.   What appear to be the wildflower’s petals were once an outer row of the flower’s circle of stamens that developed into "florets" and, through natural selection, lengthened and changed color in order to attract pollinating insects!!

Identification is frustrating because there are over 250 species of asters, a number that constantly changes because the plant easily forms hybrids.

 

September 26

Tuesday Treasures

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Mums the Word

Fall is for mums!!  Chrysanthemums, that is.   These members of the daisy family have been cultivated for more than two thousand years!! 

The Chinese consider “Ju Hua” an all-purpose medicinal plant.  The fragrant petals are often brewed as a tea and used in detox regimens to bolster the immune system, warding off colds and other respiratory infections.  Rich in antioxidants, mums are said to cure insomnia due to stress or anger.  The tea is also used as a drop to relieve eye strain.  And on the ninth day of the ninth moon (October 28, this year) Chrysanthemum wine will be sipped to ensure long life, as part of an annual autumn ritual.

Our word, “chrysanthemum," actually comes from a Greek word meaning “golden flower.”   In ancient times, the Greeks donned garlands of chrysanthemums because of their “protective” properties.  Wreathes were woven and placed on front doors to ward off any “wandering spirits.” 

My favorite Chrysanthemum legend comes from Germany where a peasant family was sitting down to their meager Christmas Eve supper deep in the Black Forest.  As they were eating, a wailing sound was heard, but dismissed as the howl of a north wind.   Hearing the cries repeatedly, they opened the door to find a young beggar.  Without pause, the waif was wrapped in blankets and invited to share their modest fare.  Afterwards, he shed the blankets and revealed his shining white attire.  Proclaiming himself the Christ Child, he quickly disappeared into the cold night.  The next morning, two white chrysanthemums were found on the doorstep. Today, many Germans bring white mums into their homes on Christmas Eve, believing that, in doing so, they could be sheltering the Christ Child.    

Happy Fall!

Thursday in the Naturehood

First sign of Fall

First sign of Fall

Spiders are particularly crucial in organic gardening, because we rely on “biological” pest control.   I was reading were 25 million tons of spiders consume over 800 million tons of insects every year!  I wonder what algorithm was used to determine that fun fact!  Nevertheless, if it weren’t for spiders (and birds, of course ) all of our crops would be consumed by pests. 

Each fall, we are particularly aware of the presence of orb spiders as they weave their magnificent webs in conspicuous spots ( like the front entrance of the church!)  Unfortunately, I have a tendency of walking straight into them and getting a face full of sticky silk strands! Nevertheless, I am happy to know they're around.  One spotted orb weaver like the one pictured above means 2,000 less insects eating our plants each year.  They more than earn their pay!! 

September 19

Tuesday Treasure

Newly hatched Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

Newly hatched Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

One of the early signs of fall is the appearance of Black Swallowtail caterpillars on our carrot tops.  Just as the Monarch favors milkweed, the Black Swallowtail prefers to lay her eggs on carrot tops, sometimes dill, celery. or Queen Anne's Lace.  There are years when our carrot tops are heavy- laden with Black Swallowtail caterpillars.  So, we've been concerned that none have been spotted so far.  Well, the wait is over.   While inspecting the carrot crop today,  a little speck was observed.  Upon closer examination, it was indeed our first Black Swallowtail larva!!   This tiny guy will grow and grow into a right jolly ( and more colorful )old elf before spinning a chrysalis and settling in for a long winter's nap.  By springtime,  he (or she) will be flitting the light fantastic.

Thursday in the Naturehood

American Goldfinch

Goldfinch snacking on Echinacea

Goldfinch snacking on Echinacea

This handsome dude will soon molt his fancy “mating” garb and grow a much denser set of olive-colored feathers that will get him through the winter.  Even his legs, feet and bill will change colors.  We attract a number of finches to the pollinator garden because they feed exclusively on seeds – particularly thistles which we have in abundance. Although, this year they flit back and forth in order to binge on our sunflower in the Teaching Garden.  (They are one of the few species that can eat upside down!!)  Goldfinches roost in nearby coniferous trees.  Although once the snow flies, these adept little birds will stay warm by burrowing under the snow to form snug igloos. 

September 12

Tuesday Treasures

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“We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon.  If it were not for pumpkin, we should be undoon.”            Pilgrim verse, circa 1633

Indigenous Americans introduced pumpkins to the early settlers.  These fruits quickly became a vital food source, because they store well through the winter months.  Pumpkin strips were often roasted over open fires.  Its sweet flesh was also baked, parched, boiled and dried.  Seeds were used as a medicine.  Dried pumpkin was often stored and ground into flour.  Shells were dried and used as bowls and storage containers.   As a special treat, the tops of pumpkins were often cut off.  When all the seeds and guts were removed, the inside was filled with cream, honey eggs and spices …then carefully buried in the hot ashes of a cooking fire.  The result was delicious custard.  Someone would eventually get the bright idea of baking the concoction in a pastry shell with perfectly fluted crusts and, then, top it with whipped cream!!

Oh … pumpkin shells were also used as a template for haircuts to ensure a uniform finished cut.  That’s why we New Englanders are known as, “pumpkinheads.”