The fall colors in North Texas not only appear to be more vibrant this year, but the timing of their autumn palette is perfect as it is Thanksgiving week, 2013. As I look out my 3rd story window at work, I see the greens, reds, russets, and yellows of live oaks, maples, red oaks, and elms, along with the gorgeous medleys of fall colors typically found on Bradford pears.
It can be puzzling that some fall seasons are more colorful than others. It can also be frustrating that one year your maple keeps its deep red leaves right up to winter and the next; it drops its leaves before there is time for its true colors to be shown.
While I must admit there aren’t many 100% absolutes in gardening, there are a couple of reasons our season is especially beautiful this year.
First of all, it is important to understand that it is the vital substance chlorophyll that gives plants their green pigment. I spoke of this in an earlier blog post regarding my albino sunflower seedling find and how I was disappointed to learn it wouldn’t survive long without chlorophyll. Along with being an essential element, the green color of chlorophyll dominates most other pigmented substances found in a plant. However, as sunlight lessens with the shorter days of fall, the production of chlorophyll gradually slows and allows the subdued carotenoids (yellow, orange and brown pigments), ever present but overshadowed by the green of chlorophyll, to burst through the leaves. And, again, while chlorophyll is indeed crucial to plants, our temperate trees and shrubs are programmed to prepare for its reduced production in the winter by storing up essential sugars throughout the warmer growing seasons. In fact, when sugar production is at its peak during the early fall, it is the excessive sugar found in the leaves of some trees that is responsible for the third type of pigment we see in the fall – anthocyanin, accountable for red and purple hues.
So what is it that has brought us in North Texas such beauty this year exactly at the right time? A perfect combination of temperature and moisture conditions:
According to the US Forest Service,
Of course, there are other temperature and rain combinations that will produce good results earlier in the season, and on the contrary a premature hard freeze can cause leaf drop and abort the process.
I conclude today’s post by giving thanks for our beautiful trees as they surround us with an array of autumn hues at optimal timing to enjoy during our holiday weekend. The summer drought and the recently warm, pollen-filled days have offered us a small blessing after all.
Until next time,
I was born with puffy eyes, it seems. In general, I am indeed always a little puffy around the orbs but when the fall season comes around and ragweed makes its undeniable appearance, I puff up tenfold.
I recall as a child looking forward to attending the State Fair of Texas every year in October. It was a wonderful time of year – Dallas students received a full day off school and free passes to the fairground, along with a round trip bus ticket. I would start “Fair Day” excited about and anticipating all the amusement rides and exotic food I’d experience. However, by mid-morning I’d be swelled up to the point passersby would often ask me if I was lost and if not, then why was I crying? As vain as I admit I was, I learned in my high school years that if I was going to venture out to the fair or any activity outdoors during the fall, I may as well leave the mascara off and wear large sunglasses to hide my red, weepy eyes! Those were the days when antihistamines just weren’t all that commonly used – or at least they weren’t common within my socioeconomic circle. Nowadays I can venture outside in the fall as long as I am fully loaded with a couple of different acting antihistamines and keep to a few practices (I’ll share these with you in the end.)
As much as I dislike the effects of ragweed, the subject IS timely so I thought I’d share bits of information I have learned about this plant firsthand through my trials navigating the outdoors during the months of August through November - or sometimes - through December. Disclaimer: Keep in mind I am not a doctor, nurse or any other type of health care professional. The information contained here, again, is gleaned through my experience as a 4++++ member on the allergy testing scale for all types of ragweed. –Yes, unfortunately there is more than one culprit of this fall weed!
There are actually 17 species of ragweed in the United States. A species or two or three can be found in essentially any part of the country. It is thought ragweed has become more prevalent these days due to land development and ragweed’s ability to very easily germinate and grow in disturbed soils of all types. The ragweed plant produces many tiny flowers that in turn, produce a multitude of pollen each. As ragweed blooms and the cool, dry winds of fall sweep across the US, billons of pollen grains are widely dispersed. I read where ragweed pollen can be found 400 miles off the US coastline and 2 miles high in the atmosphere.
What does this mean to those of us that suffer from seasonal hay fever? It means we simply can’t escape contact with ragweed pollen and instead of attempting to do so, we should strive to limit exposure and reduce symptoms.
Before I share what has worked for me regarding my allergies, I wish to explain a few more things about the ragweed plant itself:
First of all, it is not the pretty, golden-yellow weed we see waving along the country roads in the fall. That is goldenrod (see below). While a person can certainly be allergic to goldenrod, it is usually not the offending plant of fall – it just so happens to bloom at the same time and gets a bum rap!
Ragweed is actually not very pretty. Oddly, its scientific name, Ambrosia, translated from Greek, means “food of the gods”. Researching the origins of such an ironic name, I’ve discovered the jury is still out on why this scientific name was given to such a tormenting plant. It is thought the name and its ancient meaning may have been designated to the plant to be purposely sarcastic. Then again, some feel it was meant to denote that only mythological gods (non-humans) could tolerate eating such a plant. Then again, another person notes it was named after a botanist with the last name Ambrose (of whom I could not locate a definite citation, by the way.)
For all of the havoc it causes, ragweed does seem to have a purpose – for every living thing has a purpose on earth, correct? Among the few benefits I discovered, the most interesting one to me is that ragweed is thought to rid the soil of lead. Having grown up in one of the most heavily lead contaminated areas of Dallas (we lived one neighborhood over from a lead smelter) I find this trait fascinating. I also understand ragweed is the natural field crop preference of sheep. Also, some non-allergic gardeners plant ragweed as a companion plant to peppers to lure pests to the weed instead of the food crop. And lastly, if you search the Internet for the benefits of ragweed, you will find ragweed tincture is thought to ease numerous ailments. However, even these websites warn of severe allergic reactions and some mention ragweed leaves are oftentimes confused with those of poisonous plants – thus I hesitate to list any herbal or medicinal uses here!
So – let me conclude by providing you a few simple points on how I survive, and sometimes thrive, during ragweed season. Of course, while a highly allergic person should limit outdoor activities as much as possible, I would not recommend anyone becoming a hermit during the glorious days of fall! Instead, a few of the tips below should help you continue your usual activities, yet make your home a safe refuge when you need to reduce exposure.
Well, here's to enjoying the beautiful and crisp weather of autumn, with or without allergies!
Until next time,
Important Disclaimer: All content, including but not limited to, recipe and health information provided is for educational purposes only. Such content is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the diagnosis, treatment and advice of a medical professional. Such content does not cover all possible side effects of any new or different health program. Consult your medical professional for guidance before changing or undertaking a new diet or exercise program. Advance consultation with your physician is particularly important if you are under eighteen (18) years old, pregnant, nursing or have health problems.
Monday nights for me are generally reserved for easy dinners and an hour of one of the only two TV series I watch fairly regularly – Longmire. Sometimes I watch Rizzoli & Isles on Tuesdays. At any rate, on this particular Monday my boyfriend, Mike, was out of town so I resolved to eating leftovers and was excited about watching the season finale of Longmire completely uninterrupted. I had even drawn a foot bath in which to soak my feet during the show for a quick pedicure before bed – a very rare indulgence. After the much awaited finale ended, it was 10 p.m. and close to my bedtime. My cat, Biscuit, was meowing yet again for more treats at the pantry and I decided she needed a meal instead of a “meal of treats”, so I opened a can of food for her in the sunroom before retiring to bed. (The sunroom is a small built-on addition to the house and is the perfect place for Biscuit’s food, water and litter box (and a host of plants, of course!) A doggie door allows her to go from inside the house into the sunroom. There is also a doggie door installed in the exterior door of the sunroom, allowing a pet to go outside. While Biscuit rarely ventures outdoors, my soon-to-be dog will surely take advantage.)
Entering my bedroom, I was considering a quick coat of nail polish on the metatarsals before dozing off. Prior to completing the pedicure, I lied back to take a last look at work email on my iPad when I felt Biscuit jump on the bed and let out a long, drawn-out, gargled meow. I wish I could have smelled the oily scent before she landed on the bed, but it happened oh so fast I think I only began smelling the skunk odor after witnessing Biscuit’s soaking wet, puffy face at only 6 inches from mine.
If any of you have had the pleasure, Ahem, of getting up close and personal with a skunk-sprayed pet, you may be able to recall the caustic fumes that aren’t quite recognizable until they have dissipated a bit. I couldn’t even fathom what Biscuit had gotten into at first. My initial instinct was to pick her up and run to the bathtub and toss water onto, what appeared to be, her melting face. I silently prayed that whatever it was she had gotten into, the water would not make it worse. Of course, she enjoyed this splash bath just about as much as being sprayed by the skunk - so under the bed she fled – taking small pieces of my flesh with her.
Bleeding from the chest, I decided I needed to give chase. Cell phone in hand, I called the emergency animal clinic as I watched Biscuit crouched under the bed attempting to clean her eyes over and over again with licked paws.
The conversation with the emergency clinic went like this:
Me: Hello, I think my cat was just sprayed in the face by a skunk and her eyes are swelling up. Are you on Park Drive? If so, I can be there in a few minutes.
Young Lady: Ma’am, there really isn’t anything we can do for your cat that you couldn’t do yourself.
Me: I think she might be having an allergic reaction. She’s really puffy and looks miserable. Are you on Park Drive?
Young Lady: Is she wheezing?
Me: No, but her eyes are extremely red and puffy.
Young Lady: You need to flush her eyes with saline solution.
Me: I don’t have any of that. I don’t wear contacts. Will saline nasal spray work?
Young Lady: My God – why on earth would you put nose spray in your cat’s eyes!! (Translation: What kind of idiot are you?)
Me: I’m referring to the nasal SALINE packets used for Neti pots. Will that help? I think I really just need to come up there.
Young Lady: No ma’am. Unless your cat is wheezing, she will probably be better soon. (Translation: Why on earth would I want to experience of the odor of your cat?)
Me: (Big sigh of defeat.) I’ll take her elsewhere. Thank you.
Young Lady: Don’t hang up. It’s really not necessary to take your cat to a clinic. What you need to do is go to the grocery store and buy Dawn dishwashing liquid, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide and create a bath for your cat.
Me: Um . . . I’m not sure I can give my cat another bath – she is pretty freaked out.
Young Lady: If you at least wash her face with a cloth drenched in the solution, it will help. Be sure and get the original Dawn liquid detergent that they use for oil-slicked penguins – the blue colored liquid.
Me: OK. Thank you. One more question - I think the skunk came in through the doggie door when I was feeding my cat. The skunk may still be inside. Do you know if Animal Control will come out at midnight?
Young Lady: I know they have a recording on their phone after hours.
Me: Hmmm – OK, I’ll figure out a way to coax it outside myself since it is so late.
Young Lady: My God! Do NOT approach a skunk. It could be rabid! (Translation: You ARE an idiot!)
Me: I don’t plan to get near it. I'm pretty sure it is in the sunroom and I’ll just lure it out one door or another.
Young Lady: Ma’am, you cannot approach a skunk! Oh geeze! Let me go ahead and give you the non-emergency police number. Don’t say anything to them about the open doggie door or feeding your cat. Just tell them you discovered a wild animal in your house and you need help right away. (Translation: If you say too much they, too, will think you are a complete idiot!)
Me: Thank you. I appreciate your help. Goodbye.
So, after having an alarm system just installed at the house due to the increasing number of burglaries in the area, I am being asked to call the police because I have a 4-legged, stinky intruder that I unintentionally lured inside my house with cat food? Not sure I want that reputation just yet. I opt for going to the store to get the goods for Biscuit’s second baptism before I resort to making such a call.
The strong odor snapping me back to reality, I realize I must first see if I can confirm the skunk is in the sunroom and isolate it before leaving for Kroger. Yikes! As I open the interior door to the sunroom I instantly hear a loud and wild hissing sound. I close the door quickly because I can’t see a thing in the shadows and for all I know I am dealing with a rattlesnake, opossum or perhaps a whole band of skunks.
I locate a flashlight in the kitchen and shine it through the glass window of the sunroom’s door. There it is – a somewhat small skunk – hunkered in the corner. I attempt to open the door again, but instead of running out of the sunroom in great fear of me, the little skunk insists on lunging in my direction, ferociously stomping his feet and hissing. OK – I don’t know at this point if the thing can spray more than once during an episode but I sure don’t wish to find out this way!
Through the glass, I look at the small doggie door in which the skunk entered and I have an idea. I run through the garage, into the back yard and quickly open the outside door to the sunroom, propping it with a heavy citronella candle from the patio. Although the skunk entered through the doggie door, I am hoping a wide exit will expedite his departure. I run back into the house. Interior doggie door securely barricaded, I am counting on the skunk leaving out the open door while I complete my midnight run to Kroger. So off to the 24 hour store I go, Biscuit safely under the bed and the skunk hunkered in the corner of the sunroom, now with a more than ample escape path.
I made it to the grocery store in five minutes flat. After locating the needed ingredients quickly, I sailed through the self-check with no problem whatsoever. Why is it self-check stands work seamlessly when no one is in the store, but during the after-work, mad dinner rush when folks are breathing down your neck there are always at least two items in your basket that simply will not scan? Namely, the spray paint you are using for touch ups around the house coupled with a discount bottle of wine - the appearance of which gives you the reputation of planning quite an illicit party!
At any rate, I’m back at the house in record time.
I hurriedly mix up the skunk oil-riddance solution and begin the mission of relocating Biscuit. She is no longer under my bed. I find her wedged behind furniture in another room. I must remove drawers to get to her. I already have my cat-wrapping towel in hand as I do not wish to lose any more flesh. I quickly grab Biscuit and rapidly wrap the towel around her body to where only her head is sticking out. She has morphed into a giant cloth wiggle-worm. I hold her tight and quickly take the wash cloth and wash her face and head repeatedly with the magic solution while she is still in burrito form. She fights and fights and eventually manages to kick out from the towel and take more flesh. I release her as I yell out in anguish. Blood is shed, but mission is accomplished - at least by 75%.
As Biscuit runs off to lick her wounds, I am curious if the skunk has left the premises. Nope, it is still in the exact place it was 30 minutes ago – in the corner of the sunroom under a wire rack. I decide to turn off all the lights in the house and use the small flashlight to monitor its whereabouts. This is when I decide to crack the door ever so slightly and snap the picture above. (Yes, I guess I could be the idiot referred to previously.) Before I left for the store, I mentioned I had barricaded the interior doggie door so the skunk could not possibly enter the main house. Mike has no full set of anything in his house, and thus it isn’t surprising there are no original covers to the doggie doors to be found. I used a handy ottoman as an interior barricade. I decide to sit on it and wait out the skunk.
As I sit patiently on the comfortable barricade, I grab the iPad to get a head start on learning about ways to rid a house of skunk odor. P.S. There aren’t too many ways. However one of the websites I found states to use the same concoction I used on Biscuit’s face, to wash any exposed linens and such. I decide to gather up the throw rugs I knew Biscuit had raced on through the house, the cat burrito towel and the magic washcloth, and I toss them in the washer while they are still ripe. I pour in the left-over Dawn, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide solution from Biscuit’s “bath” and start the machine.
I take another look out of the glass door and hooray, the skunk is on the move. Having been so terribly frightened of Biscuit only an hour earlier, the silly thing now swaggers bravely around the sunroom like John Wayne. He finally walks in a very slow fashion out the propped door. I follow the skunk with my weak flashlight (from behind the glass door) as I watch it finally exit onto the patio.
I swoop into the sunroom (holding my breath), kick the citronella candle away from the propped door and slam it shut. I then proceed to barricade the offending doggie door by using cardboard, paint cans, pool toys, a Hallmark bag, Mike’s flip flops and just about anything else I can find nearby. No original doggie door cover, no problem. The skunk is not coming back in!
Skunk out of the house, my focus goes back to Biscuit. She’s run back behind the furniture, so I take out all the drawers again to get to her and I decide to just leave them out. After all, that particular area is going to need to be aired out anyway. While Biscuit will not let me touch her, I can see she is no longer licking her face constantly and her eyes appear to be de-puffing. I think the Dawn, baking soda and hydrogen peroxide concoction has helped. Whew!
Well, the de-skunking solution worked so well on Biscuit I decide to stop the washing machine mid-wash and let the exposed items soak really good overnight in the active ingredients.
Changing back into my nightgown about 2 a.m., I decide to look again at the various skunk odor remedies on my iPad before drifting off to sleep. I found where ceiling fans and sunlight are beneficial in expediting the odor from your home. In fact, it is recommended that clothing and other fabrics exposed to skunk spray and which are able to be washed, are air-dried outdoors in the sunlight for a few days versus being thrown in the dryer. It is also recommended to change out A/C filters around the house as soon as possible. As I continue to read about remedies and suggestions, I came across an exact “recipe” for the concoction I used on Biscuit. It worked well in the end, but I had not received measurements from the emergency clinic and winged it by sloppily combining ingredients in haste. It seems I may have added a bit more of each ingredient than necessary. Oh well, I think.
Moving on down the recipe webpage I notice where it says, “DANGER: Do not place any of the leftover mixture in a closed container as it will explode.” What? Zing! My brain kicked into gear as I remembered I was soaking the rugs and towels in the washing machine with the lid down – in a much higher concentration of the ingredients! I leapt off the bed and made a beeline to the laundry room. I closed my eyes, quickly threw back the lid of the washer and high-fived the agitator.
Another disaster averted, I relented to sitting on the couch outside the laundry room to wait for the wash cycle to complete. Around 2:30 a.m., I finally made it back to bed – too exhausted to be concerned with where Biscuit had originally landed on the sheets and whether I was imaging the strong skunk odor or if it was really there. I would be showering in the morning, after all.
It has been three days since the encounter yet remnants of the skunk’s visit remain apparent, of course, including the odor. The odor is much weaker, but certainly not gone. Biscuit will again allow me to pet her, but I cannot pick her up for more than a minute just yet. I try often, especially when coaxing her to go back into the dreaded sunroom where she was accosted. Nonetheless, her litter box and food reside there and she must eventually make the effort. Mike, who has been out of town during this entire incident, will arrive on Labor Day weekend to a home complete with an unwelcoming fragrance, every fan in the house on full blast, strewn about furniture and drawers, and rugs and towels adorning every chair on the patio. Hoping to have made a few minor home improvements while he was away, I’ve really only managed to catch up on lost sleep.
Well, that’s not exactly true – I managed to become more educated. As wild and crazy as this incident was, I learned quite a bit from it. Most importantly, I learned about an awesome skunk odor remedy that is safe for pets (other than ye olde tomato juice). You can find the recipe online or at: http://home.earthlink.net/~skunkremedy/home/sk00001.htm (This one states to use Ivory liquid soap, but I bought Dawn like the vet assistant recommended. Either brand appears to work.)
Secondly, I learned additional information about skunks other than the commonly known detail of their defense mechanism. Prior to spraying any perceived predator, a skunk will hiss, spit and stomp at their opponent. This is what I encountered with the critter as I attempted to open the interior door to the sunroom. When these tactics don’t scare away a perceived predator (apparently Biscuit didn’t heed warning), the skunk will then resort to spraying – which usually works very well in fending off any attacker as the oily liquid is extremely irritating at first exposure. I’ve also learned a skunk can spray 5 - 6 times in a row at up to 10 feet in distance before exhausting itself. Good thing I heeded the spit, hiss and stomp warning!
Skunks are native to North America and eat insects (mostly grubs and worms), reptiles, and amphibians as well as some plant matter. However, in cities and suburbs they are not opposed to eating a wide variety of other food via our garbage. A side note about skunks eating grubs and worms - those little divots in your lawn that you may be blaming on squirrels may actually be caused by skunks, especially if you notice they are appearing overnight. Solitary and crepuscular creatures, skunks are usually found alone when scavenging lawns and garbage cans at dusk and during the night.
A very unusual and interesting fact I learned about skunks is that they are considered a primary predator of honeybees. Apparently they will scratch at a beehive to cause a disturbance and then eat the guard bees that come out to protect the hive. A skunk’s thick fur keeps them from being stung. Who would’ve thought?
Lastly, I learned that skunks can’t see well at all – only up to 10 feet in front of them - but they have an incredible sense of smell. Unfortunately, Biscuit and I learned the hard way that canned cat food is one of their favorite aromas and they can smell it a quarter mile away. Although skunks typically shy away from social contact*, once on the path toward a cat food feast, it is simply hard to deter or detour them.
No doubt, I’d say!
Until next time,
*While they are a vector animal for the rabies virus, skunks rarely make unnecessary contact with humans or pets. Of course, all joking aside, rabies is a very serious reason to avoid contact with skunks or any other animal that is unusually brave enough to wander into your garage, basement or house. Although I kept myself behind closed doors and the skunk was relegated to an outdoor sunroom, it is always best to call a professional to remove the animal. Had my propped door- wait it out tactic not worked, I would have resorted to calling the non-emergency police number.
I had three little visitors last evening as I sat on the patio eating dinner and enjoying the unusually mild August summer night. While I call them visitors, actually they are natives returning home as they had recently hatched in a hanging basket, overflowing with an asparagus fern, dangling under an eave not far from where I sat.
The three tiny Carolina Wrens continue to stay close to each other after having left their nest only about a week ago. It was funny watching them hop-fly from fence post to wire trellis and into the midst of a different hanging basket than that which they were born – one full of somewhat dried Dahlberg daises and red verbena. (Dried daisies because it is August, after all!)
The tiny wrens chattered non-stop while they ran around deep inside the hanging basket, popping their heads up through the straw-like foliage now and then. It appeared they were playing chase with one another, but perhaps since they were born and raised inside a coconut-lined hanging basket they have developed an affinity for them.
I had thought when I first saw the parent wrens jumping in and out of my asparagus fern a few months ago that they were chasing the moths and other insects I often see fly out of the baskets when watering them. I did not realize the birds were instead seeking out a nesting place and I had no idea a nest had eventually been built. It wasn't until I witnessed the parent wrens taking turns bringing worms into the fern that I understood a nest was present. You see, when I watered the fern, it did not disturb the eggs or nestlings because the parent wrens had built their typical "cup", or covered, nest. I have since learned that Carolina Wrens prefer to make their nests in cavities and containers and aren't too shy about nesting near human activity. A friend of mine consistently has broods of Carolina Wrens in her hollowed-out birdhouse gourds. My sister has had wrens hatch in a decorative box situated on a high shelf just outside her back door. However, in open containers, such as my asparagus fern hanging basket, the birds will usually construct a dome-like nest to "create a cavity" for added protection.
Above is an amazingly clear photo I was able to capture with my cell phone of the fledglings about a day before they left the nest. Don’t fret, I did not remove the hanging basket from its post, nor did I stick my head in the fern, nor did I dig around in the fern looking for the nest. I waited patiently for the parents to leave and then I simply reached up, placed my phone near the edge of the basket and, whoa-la – I captured an incredible pic . If you look closely, you can see the nest is "cupped" around the birds.
Speaking of chasing moths, wrens are classified in general as carnivores. I know what you are thinking – I, too, think of lions and tigers when I hear the word carnivore, but many birds and other less threatening animals are considered carnivores or “meat-eaters” as well. Actually, you can break the diet of carnivorous birds down a bit further and differentiate between those that primarily eat fish (piscivores) and those that primarily eat insects (insectivores). Wrens are insectivores and as such, they eat spiders, caterpillars, moths, crickets, grasshoppers, and roaches among other insects. They have been known to eat very small lizards and snakes too - more like a carnivore, I’d say! And, as you can see by my (rather blurry) photo below, you can indeed find wrens at your bird feeder but usually only when you’ve placed out a mix that includes berries or fruit. Although seed isn't typically a part of their diet, wrens do enjoy a bit of fruit pulp now and then.
Carolina Wrens are quite brave for their size. This one has no problem sharing the bird feeder with a squirrel. Blue jays and doves, much larger birds, usually stand by and wait for the squirrels to leave.
Like doves, blue jays, herons, etc., there are also several species of wrens. In my area of North Texas I predominately see the Carolina Wren and have come to learn its habits through direct observation. In researching wrens in general, I have discovered most have the same or very similar characteristics as the Carolina:
Small – 4 to 5.5 inches
Muted in color – browns, rusts and grays
Prefer the warmer climes of their range
No noticeable difference in appearance per sex or age
Sings and chatters loudly - especially in relation to their size!
Very active – doesn’t stay in one place for long
Performs short flights from one perch to another
Hops while on the ground
And, probably the most endearing and identifiable trait – they hold their tails upright (see intro photo)
While wrens share the majority of the above traits, there are a few distinct differences amongst the varieties, surprisingly, in relation to their mating and parenting behaviors. The sexes of some wrens share jointly in nest building and in the feeding and caring of their young while other varieties have separate responsibilities. Some wren species mate for life (such as the Carolina Wren), while others (such as the House Wren) will actually steal the favor of a female right out from under another male who has already built a nest for her – the new couple using the other male’s nest to bring up their chicks. Unfortunately this rogue-like behavior continues with House Wrens forcefully occupying the completed nests of non-wren species – destroying any "foreign" eggs already there. Very diverse stances amongst wren species relating to mating, no doubt!
Well, although the House Wren may be the most aggressive of the wrens, it is also amongst the most ingenious. To eradicate its nest of mites, that almost always plague hatchlings, the House Wren will add a spider egg sac when building, or taking over, a nest. The spiderlings eventually hatch and eat mites to their fill, leaving the newly hatched chicks healthy and parasite free. Thereafter, any lingering, well-fed spiders will most likely become a meal for the growing birds - an interestingly parasitic, symbiotic, and "circle of life" type relationship between mites, spiders and birds.
In conclusion, despite the sometimes unpleasant mating activities of the House Wren, it remains beneficial to welcome wrens of all types into your landscape – especially if you are a gardener. These small, energetic birds will adorn your foliage with cuteness and charm, fill the air with passionate song, and rid your space of pesky insects!
Until next time,
If you read my last blog post you are aware I recently returned from my first trip to Hawaii. I feel very blessed to have been able to go to such a wonderful place, witnessing the remarkable and interestingly, contrasting, plant life of the islands. The rainforests to the north and east on the islands are abundant with what we in the 48 grow as “houseplants”, yet the terrains south and west on the islands are arid and complete with sun-loving lantana and varieties of cacti. Not only are there vast differences in rainfall on each individual island, but there are also great variances in altitude and thus, correspondingly variances in temperature. The abundance and variety of greenery in Hawaii makes it not only a paradise for vacationers in general, but truly the pinnacle experience for plant lovers.
Exhausted mother plants and ratoons/pups.
Today I’d like to focus on bromeliads. Probably the most popular plant of the Bromeliaceae family is the pineapple. As a curious plant lover my entire life, I hate to admit I had no idea pineapples grew on the stalk of a relatively small plant (see below) versus growing on a tree. After all, the pineapple is a rather large fruit and I felt its mother plant would be comparable in size. To my credit, I was aware pineapples are related to the colorful bromeliads we typically see in our nurseries - yet I still felt sure they were derived from larger, taller plants than their ornamental cousins.
Another interesting tidbit I learned when touring a pineapple winery on Maui is that each plant bears only one fruit per long season and after the third season the plant has usually exhausted its fruiting ability. The first season’s fruit is large and sweet and is harvested from the primary stalk and the next two years’ fruits can be somewhat smaller and are borne from offshoots of the mother plant called ratoons. While I found this remarkable about pineapples, it shouldn’t have been surprising since this is similar to the behavior of most ornamental terrestrial bromeliads. Typically they produce one beautiful, colorful center stalk, or bloom, if you will, and fortunately this bloom stays fresh and vivid for many months. After the center stalk matures, fades to brown, and falls away, the mother plant has essentially exhausted its ornamental abilities. However, about this time one or two offshoots (ratoons or pups) can usually be found at the base of the mother plant. These offshoots can be left as they are to grow as side plants (although again, the mother plant may look a bit drab in comparison and the ratoon crop will not be as vigorous) or better yet, you may wish to separate them from the mother and transplant them to create a new, center-oriented mother plant. Last year, I performed this task with a bromeliad I received as a gift. Right on cue, as the center stalk faded, two ratoons appeared. (Look closely at the base of the mother plant below and you'll see two new stalks have formed.)
I allowed the ratoons to continue to grow for several weeks along with the mother plant. Once they were of the same height as the mother, I took the entire group (mother and ratoons) out of the pot and sliced the pups from the central plant using a sharp knife, making certain I maintained as many roots as possible on each piece. I then transplanted the pups into their own pots filled with potting material with good drainage ability (I used equal parts regular potting soil combined with orchid mix). As a side note, the bromeliad family is comprised of epiphytes (plants that grow in debris-filled crevices of trees) as well as the terrestrial plants I am focusing on here. As such, they all enjoy growing in coarse, rich, organic material that drains well.
Well, unfortunately only one of the pups mentioned above survived my transplant process. For several months now, the thriving “baby” has been situated on my desk at work, in a prominent spot near a northwesterly window. Each week its center stalk appears to be getting more and more tinged with magenta. Part of its success, I know, is the fact I water the bromeliad, as recommended, predominately through its center stalk. While you may wish to moisten the soil around the base of the plant to alleviate very dry conditions on rare occasions, bromeliads should be watered almost solely through their center stalks, allowing excess water to cup within the leaves of the plant. Be careful not to water too often at the base of the plant or allow too much overflow from the leaf cups as bromeliads can be prone to root rot. Having had the pleasure of seeing not only pineapples in Hawaii, but many other varieties of bromeliads, most of which were found on the windward side of the island in sun filtered, humid rainforests, I was able to witness the natural pooling of rainwater in their center stalk and at their leaf bases. I didn’t realize the practice of watering bromeliads in that manner was based on imitating Mother Nature. But after all, she does know best! (See rainwater within the bloom and leaf cups in the photo below and the intro picture above, compliments of Chris Smith, who took many botanical photos on our group's recent trip to Hawaii as we toured the equally beautiful Garden of Eden Botanical Gardens and Arboretum and the Ali i Kula Lavender Farm on Maui.)
Speaking of the wonder of Mother Nature, the rain caught in the leaf cups of bromeliads in the wild not only nurtures the plant itself, but it also provides fresh water nourishment for reptiles, amphibians and small mammals of the tropical forest.
In conclusion, if you are looking for a unique and striking house plant with blooms that last for months and months and afterwards, offers you the opportunity to bring up its offspring, you may wish to try your hand at bromeliads. There are numerous varieties and colors available, including variegated types, and I’m sure there is one or two that will fit your home and/or office decor. There is even an ornamental dwarf pineapple available if you are so inclined to give it a try. (Ornamental pineapples are non-edible, and incidentally the true pineapple bears the one and only edible fruit of all bromeliads.)
A few reminders from above to keep in mind when raising bromeliads:
Until next time,
Played: 4453 | Download | Duration: 00:09:50
A few weeks ago, I had occasion to take a peek at my neighbors' gorgeous back yard. We were doing a one-day dog-sitting stint for their beautiful and very well-mannered golden retriever. I could go on and on about how wonderful this particular dog is, but I'll save my comments about Molly for another time!
What was quite astonishing about this backyard was that in the midst of winter it exuded a lush, tropical feel. As I glanced around I noticed several outcroppings of deep-green, long-leafed plants throughout the area. Having had a few in my own yard at one time, I recognized the plants as Aspidistra elatior, or Cast Iron Plants. The strategic placement of these 2 ft X 2 ft, evergreen, perennial plants in my neighbors' backyard had definitely added vibrancy to their winter poolside decor and will most certainly enhance their summer landscaping as well.
If you happen to have a skillet, pot, fence or garden decor item made of cast iron, you can surely attest to its durability. And this is exactly the attribute by which the Aspidistra elatior obtained its common name - incredible durability, or otherwise, its ability to endure.
The Cast Iron Plant, a member of the lily family, is indeed one of the easiest plants to grow both indoors and outdoors. For those of you who claim to have brown thumbs - this is the plant for you! It it can withstand weeks of neglect and amazingly doesn't need much in the way of nutrients or sunlight to survive.
In Zones 6 - 11, you may sow the Cast Iron Plant outdoors in areas of deep shade to part sun, in dry to moderately moist soil, with acidic or alkaline ph, and/or any combination thereof. Full sun will burn its leaves and consistently wet soil will eventually rot the roots -but other than these two extreme scenarios, the Cast Iron Plant should thrive. But while it doesn't do well in full sun, the plant can endure very hot ambient temperatures. So - if you have an isolated corner, strip along your patio, or a vacant spot in your landscape that simply could use a little greenery, the Cast Iron Plant will bring a refreshing tropical feel to these otherwise barren areas - spring, summer, fall and winter.
Speaking of a tropical feel, it is important to clarify that I am speaking of the wide, green, strap-like leaves (sometimes spotted or variegated depending on the variety) of the Cast Iron Plant. Although a "cousin" to the beautiful Daylily and Tulip, the Cast Iron Plant produces flowers that are a very inconspicuous brown and which develop at the soil level. Needless to say, the plant isn't grown or displayed for its flowering capabilities. Nonetheless, it is a wonderful backdrop to other plants that do flower and is sometimes used in beds as a tall, year 'round ground cover.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cast Iron Plant can also be grown indoors with ease. Like other houseplants such as Sansevieria (snake plant), Dracaena (corn plant) and Aglaonema (Chinese evergreen), the Cast Iron Plant can survive in very low light. In fact, it may be able to withstand the darkest corner of a room or hallway moreso than those previously mentioned. A variegated or spotted Cast Iron Plant variety would further serve to brighten these indoor areas. Best of all, it is a very forgiving plant should you simply forget to water or otherwise attend to it from time to time.
Well, as promised in my last blog post, I wanted to bring you a planting option this spring for those areas in your landscape in which you haven't had much success in growing anything in the past - whether it is due to poor soil, poor lighting, poor location or for reasons unknown. And if I may reiterate - this particular planting option, the Cast Iron Plant, is an extremely tough, perennial evergreen and thus, a one-time planting will decorate your landscape year 'round for many years to come. And don't forget - the Cast Iron Plant can be utilized as a houseplant in the most difficult of indoor areas as well, benefiting you with natural air filtration year 'round.
I can't think of anything more versatile, yet resilient - other than items actually made of cast iron!
Until next time,
Ahhh - it is March 4th and 88 degrees here in North Texas today. It is definitely a day that will promote a little Spring Fever!
Bare arbor alit with mini-stringed solar lights. Will be prettier once foliage grows among the lights.
Texas shaped birdbath in corner of fence behind a holly- where it is difficult to grow ornamentals.
Taking into consideration the above tasks - and the fact spring actually doesn't arrive on the calendar until March 22nd - there is plenty we can do to satisfy our early Spring Fever/Spring Cleaning urges these days. While spontaneous and/or accidental successes in gardening are indeed quite pleasant, there is great satisfaction in beginning with a plan and seeing it through, step by step, to success - not to mention the time, money and effort you may save along the way.
Until next time,
Although one of my 2013 New Year's resolutions was to become more active, I had not started doing too much in the way of dedicated exercise until last weekend. Yes, I know, I'm six weeks late as it is mid-February!
At any rate, my boyfriend, Mike, and I decided to take a Saturday morning walk in the neighborhood to kick-start our hopefully "routine" fitness routine. It was quite gray and chilly here in North Texas, but the brisk walk was well worth it for reasons more than just the physical. Our senses were enveloped by the serenity of the late winter landscape.
Among the peaceful yet barren suburban yards, every so often we would see snippets of salmon-colored buds or bright golden bells. These flowering buds were without the typical background of green leaves as they were borne on winter bare limbs.
I'm speaking of Flowering Quince and Forsythia - very early bloomers of the coming season. Crocus, Hyacinth and Jonquils are early bloomers as well, but considering Flowering Quince and Forsythia are shrubs - it is indeed a surprise to see them flowering when temperatures have been steadily cold.
Autumn Sage & Flowering Quince in Carrollton, TX Feb 2013
(Both of these shrubs are straggly by nature and thus, are good companions.)
Forsythia in Carrollton, TX Feb 2013
Hyacinth & Jonquils in Carrollton, TX Feb 2013
Flowering Quince and Forsythia share many attributes in addition to their simultaneously early blooming times. Both shrubs are hardy from Zones 5 - 8, with some of each seen stretching to Zones 4 and 9 on occasion. They are deciduous and can be planted in part shade to full sun, however, the more sun they receive the more abundant and vibrant their flowers will be. Both may be planted in a variety of soil types, i.e. sand, clay or loam, as long as drainage isn't a problem. However, they each will benefit from a supplement of peat or landscape mix now and then as they tend to grow stronger in nuetral to slightly acidic environments. Flowering Quince and Forsythia are relatively fast growing and typically reach 6 feet in height at maturity but both can grow up to 10 ft in height and 8-10 ft in width if not pruned. Speaking of pruning, these shrubs should be pruned after they bloom as the next year's buds will appear on the matured wood. If you wait to tidy them up in late fall or winter, you will diminish the blooms of the following spring. Blooms occur on these shrubs prior to leaves appearing. Unfortunately, another common trait among the two is their vibrant flowers only last about two weeks - just long enough to provide us an "appetizer" for the coming warm weather!
Now, for a few differences:
While both Flowering Quince and Forsythia are considered informal, irregular shrubs, Forsythia is the more attractive of the two after its leaves begin to appear. It is often utilized in landscapes as a specimen plant. Quince, on the other hand, has been described as having a tangled, spindly appearance - even after having leaved out. Except for new and improved cultivars, Flowering Quince also produces large thorns. As such, Quince is best situated in either an out of the way location or, in contrast, as a barrier shrub.
Forsythia produces bell shaped flowers in varying shades of one color - yellow. Flowering Quince, on the other hand, produces cup-like flowers in multiple colors - red, pink, salmon, orange or white.
Unlike Flowering Quince, Forsythia may add color interest to your landscape in the fall months as well as in spring. Several varieties of Forsythia produce leaves that turn deep purple to bronze in autumn, before ultimately shedding them.
With regard to their history and uses, both Flowering Quince and Forsythia shrubs are usually found in rural areas and mature urban/suburban yards. In past times, the small fruit of Flowering Quince was used for jellies when apples or other fruit was scarce. Forsythia's fruit is used in traditional Chinese herbal medicine to detoxify the body and treat fevers, among other things. Keep in mind today's cultivars are ever-changing and it is always recommended to consult a licensed health care provider before eating any unusual plant or taking any herbal remedy.
In conclusion, as you begin to notice trees, shrubs and flowers budding out in your landscape this spring, you might consider one of these two shrubs for that odd, difficult location in your yard in which you haven't found anything to thrive. Considering Flowering Quince and Forsythia are perennial, they are moderate growers, they can be pruned or left natural, they grow well in most soil types (except bogs) and they tolerate a wide range of sunlight conditions, one or both of these shrubs may be just what you are looking for. Needless to say, their adaptability is one of their best shared characteristics.
And while they may not be among the most glamorous shrubs in the landscape throughout the year, they certainly make a spectacular first impression!
Until next time,
I love geckos.
I love them for many reasons:
In the wintertime, I truly miss the geckos that usually greet me, clinging like live decorations to the brick walls of my doorway on warm nights. As most of you know by now, I live in the southern US where the winters are relatively mild. I would expect to see geckos out and about during the week-long warm spells we have now and then in January & February.
Not so, and I'll tell you why -
Brumation is what reptiles do in the colder seasons, very similar to the hibernation activity of mammals.
Although reptiles are cold blooded and can withstand fluctuations of temperatures very well, their bodies instinctively seek rest and added protection as the days grow shorter and the temperatures become consistently cooler. Their metabolism also gradually slows during this period - to the point they will not eat, yet they are able to maintain a healthy weight.
Interestingly, pet geckos that enjoy warmer household temperatures and artificial lighting may still instinctively brumate. Their bodies may sense even the slightest decrease in indoor temperatures and send them into brumation, however their reactions may not be quite as dramatic as those of the lizards that live outdoors. If you have, or have had, reptiles as pets, you may recognize this period as the time when your lizard becomes slightly lethargic and just doesn't eat as much as usual. Perhaps this is the month or so that your lizard consistently leaves a few live crickets in the tank whereas he usually gobbles them all up.
Geckos that live outdoors will seek shelter in warm crevices, hollow logs, deep leaf mounds and mud as nighttime temperatures begin to dip below 50 degrees. Don't be surprised if you accidentally disturb a gecko or two brumating in your outdoor planters should you decide to sow a few winter or early spring flowers! My mom innocently dug up a number of brumating bullfrogs one year that were overwintering in the terra cotta planters situated on her sunny porch. Don't fret, though - disturbing reptiles and amphibians during brumation will not hurt or kill them, it only inconveniences them a bit.
Conversely, when weather conditions become extremely hot and dry, cold-blooded animals will often estivate - or seek cool, moist, shaded areas in which to rest to help them better survive the severely arid period. Lizards that live in desert areas are often found in an estivation stage under rocks and deep inside ledges during the hottest of the summer months.
Back to the gecko in particular . . .
During my research about why I rarely, if ever, see geckos during the wintertime, I learned a few more points I'd like to share with you in conclusion:
Distribution of the Mediterranean House Gecko
As I close this post, I ponder the differences in how humans, animals, birds, insects and plants adapt to the seasons. Some of us hibernate, some of us brumate, some of us migrate and some of us transform. I think if there is one commonality here, it is that we should respect and listen to the nature of our bodies.
If we are tired, we should seek rest. If we have overindulged, we should seek moderation. If we are too hot or too cold, we should seek shelter. Lastly, if we are unhappy, we should certainly seek contentment.
Nature is nurture, after all.
Until next time,
Played: 1786 | Download | Duration: 00:08:10
Covered sago palm during first freeze in North Texas - 2012.
'Tis the season to preserve and protect your plants!
Even those of us who live in areas of mild winters should take heed and protect our tender perennials and otherwise delicate outdoor plantings when the cold winds blow our way. Living on the cusp of Zones 7b & 8a I have been fortunate to salvage a few of my prized plants during frost and freeze snaps without actually bringing them indoors. Of course, in North Texas we may have freezing temps one day and highs in the 70's the next. Thus, if I brought plants inside every time there was a chance of a frost or freeze, I'd be carting them back and forth more times than I care to do!
However, if you reside in an area that is steadily cold in the winter, I would indeed suggest you bring your tender perennials inside, if you can, or invest in a semi-permanent protective garden row cover to place over your prized possessions. As the days begin to warm in the spring, you may only need to remove the covers from your plants every now and then.
Protecting plants from cold is actually very easy and economical. Truly, the hard part is staying ahead of the weather. This shouldn't be too difficult in consistently cold areas but may be difficult in fluctuating temperate areas such as where I live. On sunny days after a frost, if I accidentally leave a plant covered with transparent plastic it could actually burn.
Below are a few suggestions on how to protect your plants during sporadic hard frosts and freezes:
Contrasting periwinkles in ground and in a pot after first freeze in North Texas - 2012.
I'm sure if you follow the above tips, you will be very pleased when your plants "spring" back!
In the meantime, now is the time to be jolly . . . and to protect your plants too!
Until next time,
I sincerely hope every one of you has a very wonderful holiday season, no matter the holiday you chose to honor. In my tradition of gift-giving at Christmas, I'd love to share a packet of Moonflower seeds with you. Send me a comment or email and according to postage restrictions, I'll send you a packet to sow and enjoy during your summertime, whenever it is! Your information will remain confidential.
Rectangular or House-style Birdfeeder
What I have learned through trial and error is that if you wish to attract a wide variety of birds to your home you need to provide a variety of food options nearby. Some of you may believe there aren't that many types of birds living in your area but I am certain we all have hidden beauties to be discovered in our cities, neighborhoods and rural areas. I assure you once you set out a wide selection of cuisine you will be surprised to see how many diverse avians will come to breakfast! Before I go on, please know I find nothing at all wrong with catering to our friendly sparrows and finches, but by simply adding a little something extra to your yard or routine you can entertain many other types of birds in your landscape as well.
Providing sustenance to birds is especially important in the late fall when a number of them are migrating from their summer homes to their winter homes. It is even more important to do so throughout the barren winter months when those birds that remain in the colder climates find it difficult to locate insects, seeds and fresh berries through the ice and snow. Mother Nature does a good job of providing for and directing our wildlife, but it certainly doesn't hurt to help her out a bit when the going gets a little tough on our feathered friends.
Providing a smorgasbord for the birds can be accomplished through several means - by planting berry producing shrubs, allowing flowers and vines go to seed and of course, placing a bird feeder or two around your yard - perhaps a customized one (more on this below.)
If you browse the aisles at a nearby specialty shop, local home improvement store, or neighborhood superstore, you are sure to find a wide array of bird feeders from which to choose. If you are a beginner or have recently moved, I'd suggest a nice platform bird feeder as it allows all types and sizes of birds to dine. It will serve as your main attraction, so to speak, and later on you can add a couple of different feeders, if you wish, once the birds have recognized your home as a feeding station.
The list below is not at all exhaustive, but I'd like to share my experience with plants and feeders and the various birds they have attracted - keeping in mind I reside in North Texas:
Plants Producing Berries (mockingbirds, starlings and cedar waxwings)
Holly Berries in December 2012
Flowers to let go to Seed (chickadees and cardinals)
Types of Bird Feeders
Played: 2359 | Download | Duration: 00:11:09