Saturday, July 8, 2017

A Prelude to the Understory



After two full seasons of intensive looking, I still find unfamiliar plants. Sometimes I photograph, sometimes I pluck a specimen (depends on the quantity). A fraction of those make it to the concentrated search for identification. Of course, identifying a plant isn't always remembering it, and that takes something more: a drawing perhaps, a meal, maybe, or some other triangulation of anchoring interactions that commits a new identity to memory.


Mosquitoes in the dark and damp woods can make any phone photographer's shot a blur. When in doubt and plenty, pluck a branch, preferably in flower. If you can get to it quickly, bring the pluckling to your computer. If you can't, photograph it on the hood of a car, and get to it later. Here, a plant that beguiled me through the garlic mustard harvest. I now know it as Canadian Wood Nettle, Laportea canadensis.



Above, a plant that must've been easier to miss across prior years in a dark woods. Now, freed from other obsessions, I saw it everywhere, understory. It's form is suggestive of both invasive species and Eastern Forest native, a counter distinction to the many invasive forbs that to a degree appear "out of place" in our woods. Awareness of such differences is both a product of experience within the Eastern Forest, but also a diminished plant blindness.

This "new" plant was challenging due to its small white or maybe green-yellow flowers, its casual umbell, and my age-induced farsightedness. The umbell, trifoliated habit, and seed tipped identification toward an anxiety-producing, naturalized reversion of Aegopodium podagraria, goutweed or bishop's weed to you and me. We have two large colonies of goutweed on the southern slope, but something wasn't quite right about this ID. I had to dig deeper. I had to zoom closely on the seeds, had to engage with leaf sheaths, and most importantly, I had to learn to see double serrated leaves. Those cues in hand I was able to find this plant's true identity: Canadian Honewort, Cryptotaenia canadensis. Why this subtle plant has a name composed of "hidden" and "tapeworm," I do not want to discover.



Sedges fill a minor savanna between the road to the east and the house to the west, the little wetland and great wetland bounding it on the north and south sides. Oaks used to dominate this dry mound, but basswood and maple are encroaching.



Oaks die or fall in storm winds, as this large one had two summers back. The oaks, when dominant, create a canopy pierced by sunlight, an environment the sugar maples do not provide. The understory is complex; already colonized by sedge, ephemerals, and a lower dose of garlic mustard than is typical in more moist, down-slope locations. Maybe the clearing's relative isolation has allowed more native species to proliferate than in other tree-fall clearings nearer the house and adjacent, cultivated properties.



I was overjoyed to spot a strongly growing specimen of poke milkweed, Asclepias exaltata, a foot from the fallen oak. I tray-planted 50 seeds of this less common milkweed last year. Only six sprouted, then five took faint hold along the edge of our septic field; five that have since been moved to the new, mostly shady clearing behind the studio. I've decided that poke is not as easily grown as swamp or common milkweed, but it is the only milkweed common to shadier, woodland locations, and I'd like to have some growing out there. Maybe I will try again, next year.

Although I intended to keep the mound of fallen oak and poke milkweed clear, time and garlic mustard always seem to get away from me. Askance of plans, among mosquitoes excited by a coming storm, a moment was wedged to clear any observable, green seedpod-bearing garlic mustard. As the lightning became daylight visible and thunder claps louder, I decided to discontinue what is always an ever expanding circumference of mustard weeding. Today, nearly all remaining second year garlic mustard is yellow fading into beige. Seeds by the thousands are lined up for distribution on sites already occupied by thousands more. If a rift in time should open, I will get into the woods, shod in mosquito net cap, to clip and bag the drying stems from areas newly colonized.

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I spend a fair amount of time identifying plants: weeds, natives, and cultivated for myself as well as others. Texts roll in with pictures of pokeweed or Fallopia japonica, multiflora rose and daylily. Most pictured plants are easy to identify because most are coming from yards carved out of the Eastern Forest. In them are cultivated plants or common weed species of Eurasian provenance. In making yards -clearings designed to lessen our work (ha!), lower our exposure to pests, and provide a platform for leisure, we offer opportunity to ambitious plants.

In the process of putting up our studio building, I created about two thousand square feet of opportunity. The area is now covered in subgrade clay over topsoil because when we dig, what is beneath ends up on top. Many desirable plants won't flourish in this subgrade soil, but the adventitious do. Given my positive experience growing native milkweed, I ventured to grow several native plants for the sunnier part of our studio clearing before the weeds take hold.



I imagined a medium height grass and forb savanna underneath the tall basswood on the south side of the building and under the red oak on the north east corner. I winter seeded Prairie Moon's short grass inexpensive seed mix and savanna enhancement mix, both of which had some species from their exposed clay mix. Sowing seeds felt like leaving too much to chance, so I also stratified hundreds of individual species seeds through winter, then cell tray planted them in April. But, an unexpected hot greenhouse day in early May boiled many of my seeds laying patiently under their moisture-preserving cellophane wrap. Most were lost, although some did sprout near the cooler edges, and those are now large enough to be potted up.



Growing native plants from seed is not always easy. Cultivated plants have been bred and selected for viability, commercial or otherwise. Natives, however, maintain their original, sometimes fussy seed-sprouting needs. Multiply cold, heat, or cold and heat by time, then add light or darkness, subtract or add moisture, and you may have a formula that produces a native sprout. I have several more young native plants to pot up, and at least 50 clumps of grasses (mostly blue grama, side oats grama, but also a few rattlesnake and prairie brome) in need of the same. Before planting these in their final places in mid to late August, I will till in a portion of the ten cubic yards of compost mix we had delivered last month. This may give the native plants a fighting chance among the highly competitive weeds.

Some of the remaining compost will make it into raised planters I have been building. Below is one of two I have placed around my already growing potatoes -the only vegetables I got in on time this year. As they grow, I have been adding compost mix. When all is done, there will be eight raised beds, a prospect I am quite happy about. Two years of growing vegetables in beds surrounded by the lawn and excessive summer rains have led to lawn that is nearly seventy five percent creeping charlie. The other twenty five is clover that co-existed nicely with the grass. Raised beds will be easier to work, weed, plant and harvest, but most of all I appreciate the architectural structure they add to the vegetable garden on a small front lawn (of creeping charlie). For all my interest in wild-ish native planting, I still like the perception of order in the vegetable patch.







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