Wednesday, August 27, 2008

EPA meadow

There was an article in the paper yesterday about the native meadow planting by the EPA building on the eastern edge of town, so I thought I'd go out there and see how it was coming along.

They've really done a nice job keeping the invasives out, and I'm impressed that they've done it with minimal chemical use. (On the Wild Ones e-mail list that I'm on, it is often debated whether or not it is acceptable to use judiciously applied Round Up to battle European buckthorn, garlic mustard, et al. I have to admit I'm undecided.) I don't know my grasses well enough to know what's native and what's not, but of the flowers I saw, they were very nearly all native. In bloom now are mostly bergamot and black-eyed susans, with some silphium, goldenrods, and asters. A sunny northland field in the autumn without tansy—imagine that.

The only obvious non-natives I saw were some birds-foot trefoil and various clovers, and they were almost exclusively at or near the mown edge near the sidewalk. What does this teach us about ecology? Most weeds are not as cosmopolitan as you might think; they do not grow everywhere. Look up clovers, creeping charlie, dandelion, thistles, bindweed, etc., in a field guide, and for habitat they'll all list the same thing: disturbed soil, waste areas, and lawns.

There are exceptions—the aforementioned buckthorn and garlic mustard among them—but most of the plants that we think of as weeds are designed to take advantage of weakness, to thrive in poor soil or harsh conditions. They're the plants that, in their natural environment, would be the first to move into an area after a fire or landslide. They have a short life cycle so that they can grow, make flowers, get pollinated, and put out seeds before getting grazed (or, more often in modern contexts, mown), or they spread in other ways, by putting out runners underground. A lot of weeds in North America, actually, including clovers, were purposefully brought over here from Europe to be grown as cattle fodder. The reason they're so hard to eradicate from lawns is because that's exactly the kind of environment they thrive in.

If you do something like what the EPA did, and pull or spray the worst of the invasives, plug in some strong prairie plants, and just stop mowing, over time the weeds will just remove themselves, because they can't compete with the likes of silphium and susans. I've noticed this in my own tiny garden. Last year I dug a new flower bed and put in some bee balm (another monarda, related to bergamot), black-eyed susans, and hyssop. The first year the natives were a little sparse and I had to pull a lot of weeds, and I planted some non-native annuals just to fill in the open space so that it wouldn't look so bare. This year the bee balm just *exploded* and completely took over, and the susans and hyssop are filling in any space that the bee balm didn't. I've even had a few new volunteers, some bergamot and some wild geraniums that I didn't plant but they just showed up. The seeds could have just blown in, or they could have been waiting in the soil for years for the right conditions to germinate.

Natives plants are better for wildlife and insects, too, and at the EPA meadow I found these two grasshoppers. Although to be honest I don't think these particular grasshoppers really cared what kind of flower they ended up on just at the moment.

Thursday, August 14, 2008


I have to admit that I can't really get behind all the principles of Leave No Trace. I mean, it's a good theory, definitely, and I agree with the general concept that we shouldn't go mucking up nature. But taken to its extreme, Leave No Trace removes all human activity from the wilderness experience, and in doing do negates the whole point of the wilderness experience: people are not going to want to protect and preserve things that they don't love, and they're not going to love things they can't tangibly enjoy, and sometimes tangible enjoyment involves things like hunting or fishing or picking wildflowers or hiking off-trail.

Or picking thimbleberries, which are ripe now. They're a little late, thanks to the cold and wet spring, but other weather conditions must have been perfect for them because they are everywhere, much more prolific than I can remember in recent years. I went for a walk through Chester Park, which is mostly mixed deciduous with many sunny patches (in other words, perfect for thimbleberries) and walked about a mile and in the course of my walk ate maybe a pint of thimbleberries. I didn't think there was a limit to how many thimbleberries a person can eat, but there is, and it's about a pint. Not that that really stopped me. The logical part of my brain was thinking, "Don't be greedy. Even if there is so much fruit it's rotting on the vine, leave some for other people, or for critters. Besides, aren't you starting to get a little sick?" But then the illogical, primal part of my brain countered with, "But... thimbleberries! Must gorge self on thimbleberries. Have no choice." Guess which part won out.

Thimbleberries are a fruit that will never be grown commercially, since they are so fragile it is not uncommon for the berries to fall apart in your fingertips; it takes a skilled, delicate touch to be able to pick them without squishing or dropping the berry. As you can probably guess by the berry shape and Latin name (Rubus parviflorus) they are related to raspberries, and the flavor is similar, but much more complex. Think raspberries mixed with tart green apples and just a touch of peppery cinnamon spice. I do not have the facilities (nor equipment, nor experience) to try this myself, but I bet they'd make a really excellent wine.

Thimbleberries (also called large flowering raspberry, white flowering raspberry, or salmonberry) grow on thornless stalks in dense, tangled clumps that often fill in understory of a sunny or freshly-disturbed forest. The plants usually top off around two to three feet tall, and the leaves are huge and maple-shaped, sometimes up to eight inches across. The flowers are equally conspicuous, two to three inches across, white (sometimes purple), and as flimsy as tissue paper. The first time I saw the plant I was convinced that it had to be some alien invasive. Those huge leaves, those huge flowers, that spreading habit—northern plants are not that extravagant. But it's native to the US, and is largely a western species, although the distribution creeps out across the Great Lakes states and into Massachusetts. (I think Thoreau mentioned them... in Wild Fruits maybe? I don't have that book with me at the moment.) In Duluth, the flowers come in late June/early July, and the fruit usually ripens in early August.