Hello, Cicadas!

Discounting their irritating noise and their mind-boggling swarming habits, cicadas are pretty darn cute (if you can think of bugs as being such a thing). With their oversized, toddler-esque heads; prominent, wide-set, often colorful eyes; and a pair of huge wings draping their backs like royal capes, broods of these insects emerge every 17 years, some every 13 years, and still some annual varieties are seen every year. But, whether seen or not, you’ll definitely hear them: Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world, with some species even capable of overpowering the noise of a wailing fire engine at over 120 decibels.

Luckily, the only type of cicada to live in the Minnesota’s local wild are of the annual variety and these are much milder in presence then some of their North American cousins. Typically goldish-brown with dark green wing veins, these cicadas are referred to as dog-day cicadas because they pop up and make noise during the hottest “dog days” of summer.

A [quiet] dog-day cicada rests on a cucumber vine. / Jessica Woken

That was certainly true for the little cicada I spotted resting on a length of cucumber vine a couple weeks ago on one of the warmest afternoons yet this summer. It was a pretty little specimen and, even though it could see me with its two big compound eyes (and maybe even its three simple, jewel-like ocelli in front of its head, used primarily to discern light from dark), it stayed still enough for me to get a close-up shot with my phone’s camera before scooting around the vine and hiding beneath the cover of a cucumber leaf.

Active July through September, these big bugs max out at just over 1¼ inches in length. That’s pretty big, but not bigger than Minnesota’s largest insect (to be discussed next column!). The dog-day cicada’s call—said to sound like the high-pitched whine of a power saw cutting wood—is on the quieter end of the cicada noise span, hitting just over 80 decibels and lasting around 15 seconds per song. Only males make the robust, irritating sound in order to attract females.

Other than their impressive noise, certain cicadas show up in impressive numbers. Dog-day cicadas are of the annual variety, meaning some show up every year, so we in Minnesota don’t experience the massive swarming that other cicada broods are so infamous for imposing upon their resident human populations. This year, a 17-year brood of cicadas known as Brood VIII (8) is expected to show up in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Oklahoma.*

In other cultures, cicadas’ sound is less an irritation and more of the ringing of Mother Nature’s dinner bell. Many cultures globally (and some in the US) regularly enjoy cicadas as food, and the songs of the swarms signal an opportunity to go out and gather a free meal (or more) from the local wild. In an article for Lancaster Online, Isa Betancourt, an entomologist from Drexel University, argues that since “[people] regularly eat the arthropods of the sea and those are the shrimp, lobsters and crabs” why not eat cicadas, because they’re arthropods, too?[i] Indeed, nobody complains about gathering up swarms of crawfish—another arthropod—and putting on a festival in their delicious honor! (The 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest was held just a couple weekends ago, on August 3, at the Smack Shack in Minneapolis.[ii])

From the same article, University of Maryland entomology professor Mike Raupp suggests cicadas “taste a lot like shrimp” and if you’d eat “an oyster or a clam out of the bay [which] lives on the bottom of the bay and filters [feces], but would not eat this delectable insect that’s been sucking on plant fat for 17 years (a cicada)”, that’s just plain weird.

The five eyes of a cicada: two compound and three central jewel-like ocelli. / Doug Bowman, Flikr under Creative Commons license, 24Aug2005.

Even if it does sound off-putting, eating cicadas does make sense nutritionally as well as in the concept of food maximization. Though being an entomophage (a person who eats insects) is taboo in America and other Westernized countries, for many cultures around the world insects are a part of a regular meal and can make up as much as 20% of their diet. Even the United Nations in 2013 put out a report titled “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security” in an effort to encourage entomophagy, the consumption of insects as food.[iii] Are you convinced? Not me, but if I’m ever hungry and in the woods and I hear a cicada calling, you’d better believe I’m hunting him down (and his friends) for a meal!

Aside from cicadas, other regularly eaten arthropods of the insect world include grasshoppers, locusts, crickets, termites, as well as next edition’s “largest insect in Minnesota”, the giant water beetle. Until then, I hope you get a chance to enjoy listening to the cicadas singing, as their song indicates the peak of summer and the oncoming cooler months just ahead for our local wild.

*An interactive chart of cicada broods can be viewed by visiting www.cicadamania.com/where.html.

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References:

[i] Lattanzio, Vince. “17-year cicadas are edible, taste a lot like shrimp”, Lancaster Online. URL: https://lancasteronline.com/news/year-cicadas-are-edible-taste-a-lot-like-shrimp/article_fc7849ba-7950-5759-92ce-ad744f852799.html. Accessed: 09Aug2019.

[ii] 7th Annual Minnesota Crayfest by Smack Shack. Event URL: www.eventbrite.com/e/crayfest-2019-tickets-57550002607#.

[iii] “Edible insects: future prospects for food and feed security”, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Rome, 2013. URL: http://www.fao.org/3/i3253e/i3253e.pdf. Accessed: 09Aug2019.

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A Local Wild Photo Short: Ragweed

Top: Goldenrod. Bottom: Ragweed

If you’ve been sneezing as much as I have lately, you ought to know that the ragweed is in full bloom! So, bust out the tissues and allergy meds, because the next few weeks are bound to be a doozy. 😬😵🤧😷💊

And, remember: Don’t blame the yellow goldenrod! Read more about the pretty yellow herb and why it’s impossible to have an allergic reaction to the fine yellow pollen it puts off.

Snapping Turtle

Have you seen a big rock-like creature lumbering across the road in the last couple months? Congratulations! You’re a lucky eyewitness to the reproductive habits of Minnesota’s largest shelled reptile, the Common Snapping Turtle.

A gravid (egg-swollen) female snapping turtle crosses a paved road on a sunny afternoon, 26June2019 // Trevor Marty (Rochester, MN).

Jokes abound about “turtle soup”, but the truth is wild turtles were historically over-hunted by early settlers and frontiersmen because they made such an easy-to-catch and hearty meal, not to mention turtle shells were a trade good with Native Americans who used the shells for jewelry and medicine, as well as symbolic musical instruments and spiritual items.5,7 Common snapping turtles were listed as a Species of Special Concern in 1984 due to concerns about over-hunting. Other reasons for population decline of all turtle species include habitat alteration and natural predation by raccoon, snake, coyote, and other animals. Thankfully, as a result of conservation efforts, common snapping turtles were removed from the Minnesota list of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern Species in 2013 and they currently hold no special federal listing.

Today, hunting turtles is off-limits unless you have purchased a special license from Minnesota DNR. Of the nine species that live in Minnesota, two—Blanding’s Turtle and the Wood Turtle—are categorized as Threatened Species and therefore a big no-no for anyone to disturb, license or not. Both these turtles are more land-prone and look like those big-shelled, captive-bred box turtles you might see in a pet store. Their friendly appearance makes them appealing for capture as pets, which accounts for some of the decline in these wild turtles’ populations.

What nobody seems to want as a pet, though, is a snapping turtle.

We’re well into July and that means hunters are now in the clear to “take” snapping turtles.3 If happened to have seen these reptiles on the move along roadways, fields, and other open areas in May and June, I hope you stood clear and let the turtle do her thing! What you probably saw was a female snapper trekking across a mile or more of dry land in search of the perfect place to dig a nest and lay her clutch of 25-50 eggs.1 After laying, straight back to the water she went. (Why a “she”? Males snappers simply have no reason to leave the water so are rarely spotted on dry land.)

Turtles aren’t only slow to move: They’re also slow to grow. It takes between one and two decades for snapping turtles to reach reproductive maturity, which is one reason why the DNR requires a minimum shell length of 12-inches for any taken snappers. At this size, snappers are well into adulthood at approximately 15-25 years old. The DNR also imposes a possession limit of 3 turtles per person.6 But, with a carapace (upper shell) length of 14 inches and weight near 45 pounds at full maturity (average catch is 20 pounds), three turtles are more than enough meat to go around.

A side-by-side comparison of a common snapping turtle (left) and an alligator snapping turtle (right). The alligator snapping turtle is much younger than the common. // Axleaxley @ Imgur.com

Even as Minnesota’s largest, our common snapping turtle is still dwarfed by its southerly relative, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, which only travels as far northward as upper Missouri. The alligator snapper can grow to three times the size and weight of the common snapper, topping out around 175 pounds with a 30-inch carapace and a maximum age around 120 years (common snappers in captivity have been recorded to have only up to a 47-year lifespan). The alligator snapper’s appearance is also more aggressive: It’s carapace is bumpier, it’s coloration darker, and it’s jaws broader and more muscular.

If you spot a female common snapper in the road and wish to help her out, here are a few ways you can offer her a hand without, er, offering her your hand.*

  1. Direct traffic. If it’s safe for you to do so, alert other drivers and passersby to slow down and drive around the turtle until she has safely crossed the road.
  2. Scoop up the turtle and move her FORWARD on her journey. Use a snow shovel to carry her, or find a durable wooden stick or rod at least two feet long and allow her to “snap” onto it so you can lift or drag her across the road.
  3. If you’re more daring, grab the back of the shell and lift. A video of a North Carolina zookeeper illustrating this hands-on move can be viewed on YouTube.4

Some warnings: First, just as you ought to never hold up a rabbit by its ears, NEVER hold a turtle up by its tail! A turtle’s tail, like your own coccyx (tailbone), is an extension of the spine. A turtle can be permanently injured if yanked, pulled, or dangled by its tail. Second, wash your hands with soap and water after handling a turtle, as they are carriers of salmonella bacteria.

Remember: You’re helping the turtle, not redirecting her, so move the turtle in the direction she was already going and never, EVER relocate her to a different area that you deem “safer”. You’ll be removing her from her territory and she’ll lose her way back home.

But what of those eggs she laid? Let them be. One-inch-long hatchlings will surface from their warm, sandy nests between August and October, looking very much like miniatures of their adult counterparts. They’ll skitter away toward a nearby body of water where, hopefully, they’ll live happy lives for the next decade or so until it’s time for them to mate and start the local wild process anew.

*It’s merely folklore that a common snapping turtle can bite off your entire hand, although its powerful jaws can do considerable damage. However, alligator snappers have been known to cleanly remove a man’s finger! So, wilderness traveler, beware!

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References:
  1. “Common Snapping Turtle”. Minnesota Zoo, 2019. URL: http://mnzoo.org/common-snapping-turtle/. Accessed: 03July2019.
  2. Gilbert, Jim. “Beware: Turtles Are Moving, Nesting in June in Minnesota”, Star Tribune, 01June2018. URL: http://www.startribune.com/beware-turtles-are-moving-nesting-in-june-in-minnesota/484191941/?refresh=true. Accessed: 03July2019.
  3. Turtle poster, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. URL: https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/eco/nongame/turtle_poster.pdf. Accessed: 03July2019.
  4. “NC Zoo Keeper Shows How To Move A Snapping Turtle”, North Carolina Zoo, 28July2017. URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5xySxUjKz9w.
  5. “North American Indigenous Peoples Used Turtle Shells as Symbolic Musical Instruments”. Sci-News.com, 11Sept2018. URL: http://www.sci-news.com/archaeology/turtle-shell-rattles-06396.html. Accessed: 03July2019.
  6. Recreational Turtle License, MN DNR. URL: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/commercial/turtles.html. Accessed: 03July2019.
  7. Boyle, Robert W. “Trade in The Old West”, Old West Daily Reader, 2019. URL: https://oldwestdailyreader.com/trade-in-the-old-west/. Accessed: 03July2019.

A Local Wild Photo Short: Mulleins Away!

Up, up, and away it grows!

An update on the growth of my front yard mullein since the original column came out just a few weeks ago when it was barely a fuzzy bundle of leaves standing a foot tall. Look at him now!

My mullein stands proud at just over 5 feet tall. They grow up so fast.

My mullein plant has shot up to about 5 feet tall with a little cone of not-yet-blossomed flowers at the top of it’s stalk. The stalk itself grows thicker as the plant grows taller.

I’m looking forward to harvesting the seeds so I can scatter them throughout my garden and yard, hopeful for a plethora of furry mulleins next year!

Umbellifer Lookalikes

I’m beginning to really dislike anything with an umbel.

What’s an umbel, you say? Imagine an umbrella. Now, remove the canopy (fabric) so you’re left with the handle and ribs; top it with a bunch of tiny flowers. Voila: An umbel.

Umbel (illustrated). From “The Home and School Reference Work” by The Home and School Education Society, copyright 1917. Page 2954.

I have never eaten parsnip—a rather plain-colored, carrot-looking root of the same family—but after seeing a PSA [public service announcement] meme on social media about the wild version of our edible vegetable, I’m hesitant. Why?

Because… umbels. It seems almost everything that grows one is dangerous. Wild parsnip is only one of a number of umbellifers (yes, it’s a word) that sports sap which, in combination with sunlight, can produce some serious chemical burns. This reaction results in phytophotodermatitis, a painful rashing, blistering, and permanent to semi-permanent discoloration of the skin.

A cluster of Purple Angelica (left, behind telephone pole) grows behind a row of Wild Parsnip (right) on a residential roadside south of Cannon Falls. / Jessica Woken

Like other dangerous umbellifers, Wild Parsnip is a tall plant and hard to miss once it flowers. Topping out around 5 feet, it’s yellow umbels cast themselves toward the sun June through August (you’ve likely started to see them around already). It grows everywhere in Minnesota and in most of North America, in ditches, fields, highway medians, even growing dangerously close on the edges of parks and yards.

I know, I know… Let’s not get alarmist. A number of perfectly safe wild and cultivated plants grow umbels. For instance, Queen Anne’s Lace (aka wild carrot) is a joyful mark of summertime. For centuries, children and brides have used its umbels to fashion themselves white, lacy crowns; chefs and cooks have used them to make a delicately sweet, floral, slightly citrus-y jelly. Many of our favorite edible plants and herbs grow umbels—carrot, dill, fennel, celery, cilantro. There’s even a native species of giant umbellifer called Purple Angelica used as a decorative addition to gardens because of its bold coloration (psst: It’s also medicinal and the stalks are a favorite of forager-chefs like Alan Bergo of Minneapolis (foragerchef.com/angelica/)).

Technically, yes, wild parsnip root is edible, too, but I wouldn’t suggest it. Even after thousands of years of cultivation, we haven’t been able to breed the phototoxins out of the parsnip plant. Farmers, field workers, and grocers are warned to take care when handling it lest they contract “parsnip rash”, a lighter (yet still painful) version of the wild parsnip’s burning bite.

Other than Wild Parsnip, some of the most infamous wild umbellifers are also some of the local wild’s most dangerous plants. Included in these is Cow Parsnip; Poison and Water Hemlock; and, the big daddy of them all, Giant Hogweed.

The trouble with these plants is that they easily look like a safer doppelganger (lookalike) to the untrained eye! For instance:

  • Highly poisonous Hemlock (of which eating a leaf is enough to kill an adult within hours) is easily confused with Queen Anne’s Lace (wild carrot);
  • Wild Parsnip…
    • umbels look like Golden Alexander (another of the carrot family, though harmless),
    • seedlings resemble young cilantro;
    • may be mistaken for the very common and bee-beneficial Goldenrod;
  • Cow Parsnip may be confused with Purple Angelica (even I was fooled and vigilantly cut down every Angelica in my backyard before I realized the difference!).

There’s a huge row of Cow Parsnip—imagine Wild Parsnip, but taller, more thickset, and with white flowers—growing down my road. I wince every time I drive by. The cluster of plants spreads every year and I have to fight the urge to get a long-armed lopper and get all Queen of Hearts and “Off with their heads!” on them.

And, lucky for us, Giant Hogweed—which looks like a bigger, angrier Cow Parsnip—has not had any confirmed sightings in Minnesota, though that doesn’t rule out the possibility of this enormous umbellifer wandering into our state from our Eastward neighbors. Giant hogweed really embraces the “giant” in its name. It can grow over 10 feet tall; its umbel can be as wide as 2 feet across; its leaves, 5 feet wide; the stems alone can grow up to 4 inches in diameter!

Let’s hope this wildly dangerous plant doesn’t move into our state. If you see Giant Hogweed, please notify the DNR at (888) MINN-DNR (646-6367) so they can track its spread and work on managing, and hopefully eradicating, this invasive umbellifer from our area.

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For Your Reference: The University of Illinois Extension does an excellent job comparing Giant Hogweed with its lookalikes in this graphic:

The Many-Named Mullein

Type “mullein” into your Internet browser and you’ll be inundated with articles on the medicinal uses and health benefits of this big, furry plant. I’ll spare you all that seriousness and simply talk about the variant monikers of polyonymous mullein!

Polyonymous means “having many names”, and if mullein can’t take that title, I don’t know what in the world can. This European native plant has spread globally to everywhere except the Artic. You can readily find it flourishing across all 50 U.S. states, especially on roadsides or recently disturbed land. Because it’s such a world traveler, mullein has adopted a slew of humorous yet lovingly appropriate nicknames along the way. I found over 30 common names for mullein, many—like “Bunny Ears” or “Flannel Leaf”—are a playful ode to the plant’s delightful fuzz, while others pay tribute to its utility in medicine or otherwise.

Mullein-Jessica-Woken_23May2019

A healthy mullein volunteers beneath a choke cherry tree. 23May2019 / Jessica Woken

Let’s make one thing clear: Mullein is big! You can’t miss seeing it once it gets going. The first-year volunteer growing beneath my choke cherry tree is an almost two-foot wide, silvery-green rosette of leaves that have the feel of very fine velvet. Next year, this mullein will shoot up to six feet (or higher!) and display a thick stalk topped with yellow flowers that, among other things, can be used to create yellow, green, brown, or even black dye.

Now, onto the polyonymity! Mother Earth Living calls this plant an “engineering marvel”[1], and its wide variety of funny nicknames pays tribute to that fact. Here’s just a small sampling of the many names mullein goes by and the reasons behind them:

  • Quaker Rouge. Rubbing the leaves on the cheeks as a form of rouge cosmetic, likely the result of the mild contact dermatitis some people get from the down on the leaves.
  • Cowboy Toilet Paper. This name is more popular in the Western U.S. and—yes—mullein’s strong yet supple leaves could easily replace TP if you find yourself needing to make an emergency pit stop on a long road trip (although I’d advise against that practice if you can avoid it. Recall the mild contact dermatitis!).
  • Candlewick plant, Torch plant, Miner’s Candle. The leaves can be tightly rolled to make candlewicks, and the stalks (when dipped in tallow) were used by Ancient Roman’s as torches. Dead, dry stalks also make for good hand-drills for friction fire-making.[2]
  • Witch’s Candle, Hag Taper. Legend has it that witches (hags) would use these torches to light their way… or else villagers would use the torches to repel witches. (Legends can be fickle things.)
  • Poor Man’s Blanket. Fresh mullein leaves have been used as moccasin inserts by Native Americans to insulate and help keep feet warm. The leaves “also release oil that opens up the capillaries to increase blood flow” which would also aid in staving off the cold.1 Hummingbirds have also been known to use bits of furry mullein leaf to line their nests.
mullein-wool_ramblinginthewoods-wordpress-25July2008

Wool yarn dyed with mullein: pale green skein (right) dyed in cast iron pot, the pale yellow (left) was done in stainless steel. / Ramblinginthewoods, 25July2008.

One use of mullein that I couldn’t find an associated nickname for was its history as a piscicide (fish poison) in European and American culture[3]. Mullein plants produce upwards of 100,000 seeds each, and those seeds contain a variety of compounds that are parallactic to fish, causing them to stop swimming and rise to the surface of the water, making them easy targets. This practice is highly illegal today (not to mention unsportsmanlike), so don’t go out fishing this summer intending to use a satchel of mullein seeds to make your catch! Getting caught for such an offense is illegal across the U.S. and could run you into a hefty fine or even jail time, either of which would be neither fun, nor funny.

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[1] “Herb to Know: Mullein (Verbascum Thapsus)”, Ogden Publications, Inc., Aug/Sept 2009. URL: www.motherearthliving.com/plant-profile/herb-to-know-mullein-verbascum-thapsus.

[2] Macwelch, Tim. “How to Identify and Use the Common Mullein for Natural Uses and Survival Situations”, Outdoor Life, 18April2016. URL: www.outdoorlife.com/blogs/survivalist/how-identify-and-use-common-mullein-natural-uses-and-survival-situations.

[3] Wilhem Jr., Gene. The Mullein: Plant Piscicide of the Mountain Folk Culture, American Geographical Society, April 1974.

 

A big “thank you” to the Beacon of Cannon Falls for allowing me to post this column on my site.

Weedy, By Design.

As much as I love to tout the edible aspects of our not-so-beloved local wild plants—like dandelion, Indian paintbrush, goldenrod, and burdock, to name a few—sometimes weed control isn’t just about spraying, pulling, or eating all our yard problems away. Sometimes we really (REALLY) just want to bring our yard back to its pristine and perfect condition, ASAP. Humans tend to default toward forceful eradication (pulling or spraying) to achieve this goal. However, removing the weeds before considering the reason for their purpose removes usable clues to improving our yard’s health. According to a University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources paper, “weeds can play a valuable role in a long-term, successful strategy to displace them and favor the desired turfgrass area.”[1]

“Weeds can play a valuable role in a long-term, successful strategy to displace them and favor the desired turfgrass area.” —University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources

Like us, Mother Nature loves a beautiful balance. When it comes to soil, she achieves this by rotating her crops to create the ideal ecosystem. That’s right: Mother Nature invented crop rotation! Unwanted vegetation is a sign something is out of whack in your dirt. Do you have off-kilter pH, a lack of nutrients (e.g. calcium, oxygen, nitrogen), or another issue like compacted soil or unhealthy drainage? Whether we like it or not, weeds grow in our yards by Nature’s design in order to alleviate and correct these soil imbalances. Understanding how to “read” weeds can help you get your yard beautiful again, sooner.

weed-regrowth-one-year-after-fire-Yellowstone

After one year, weeds are the main cover growing to protect soil after a forest fire. / public domain, Pixnio.com

Weeds are “pioneer plants”. They’re species that rapidly grow to cover bare soil and begin performing one or more vital ecological functions when an ecosystem is at risk.[2] They’re critical to ecological succession, which is the process of transitioning from unhealthy, infertile land to a mature, healthy ecosystem. As much as we hate weeds, their primary job is to bring unhealthy ground back to life, pronto! TenthAcreFarm.com blogger Amy likens weeds to ecological EMTs. Their job is to “stop the bleeding” (stop nutrients and dirt from washing or blowing away), and then “resuscitate breathing” (reestablishing those lost nutrients).[3]

But leaving everything to the weeds takes quite a bit of time, decades, even centuries. Mother Nature is an undoubtedly powerful force, but she’s slower to work sometimes than most people would like! Farmers learned to help her along by adding nutrients to the soil through the cover crop process (a cover crop is “a crop grown for the protection (cover) and enrichment of the soil”) or via use of fertilizers. An example of cover crop is when farmers plant soybeans in order to re-establish nitrogen levels in soil that corn depleted the previous growing season(s). Other nitrogen-restoring legumes used as cover crops include clover, alfalfa, peas, and fava beans.

So, instead of thinking of them as “weeds”, maybe we ought to look at fast-growing plant misfits as Mother Nature’s cover crop, put there to bring back the good.

For instance, as annoying as they are, dandelions are usually put to work in soil that is often too acidic. Their long taproots break up and aerate hard dirt and pull alkaline nutrients like calcium from deeper ground back up to topsoil. Imitating what the dandelions already do will help them finish their job and move on quicker, so to speak. So, if you have a dandelion problem, consider aerating and then adding calcium to your soil with limestone, gypsum, or even powdered oyster or egg shells… and watch the dandelions move on!

clover-cover-crop-into-corn-field_USDA via Flickr

It’s not a weed! A cover crop of clover grows in a field previously used to grow corn to reestablish needed nutrients. / USDAgov via Flickr.com

Clover is another unwelcome cover crop. It’s a legume—like soybeans!—and puts nitrogen back into soil. You can either let it handle the task solo, or you can hurry things along by adding coffee grounds, composted manure, or a nitrogen-rich fertilizer like Milorganite to your lawn.

Some weeds are equal opportunity growers and despite our best efforts remain clumsy compasses for pointing us in the right direction to determine what, exactly, is the matter with our yard’s dirt. Broadleaf plantain is one such weed. It will grow in overly fertile soil as well as poorly fertilized soil; wet soil as well as in dry; acidic as well as in alkaline![4] A difficult weed to read, indeed!

Admittedly, sometimes there’s nothing else to do except kill the weeds. Burdock is one of my huge annoyances (literally huge: They can grow up to 6.5 feet!), especially because it turns ugly, mean, and makes a mess of everything every autumn with its thousands of burrs. Come to find out, burdock probably grows here in droves because our soil is high in potassium![5] One cause of high potassium is soil filled with clay or rocks, which leech the water-soluble mineral slowly into the surrounding earth. Yep. “Rocks” and “clay” pretty much describes all the ground where burdock grows on our property. There’s no way I can remove all the rocks or clay (one tactic to reduce potassium in soil) from multiple acres, so the best bet I have to getting rid of the invasive burdock is to either prevent them from multiplying by cutting off the flowers before they go to seed or spraying them until they’re eradicated. I do both with great pleasure.

That said, sometimes a weed is just a weed in the most basic of terms: annoying, out of place, unwanted. Even if it is there by design.

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Many thanks to the Cannon Falls Beacon for allowing me to post these articles online.

 

References:

[1] V Wallace, A Seigel-Miles. “Weeds as Indicators of Soil and Growing Conditions in Turf,” UConn College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources. 26March2018. URL: http://ipm.uconn.edu/documents/raw2/1296/3-26-18%20IndicatorWeedsofTurf.pdf.

[2] M Schonbeck. “An Ecological Understanding of Weeds”, eXtension Foundation, 20Aug2013. URL: https://articles.extension.org/pages/18529/an-ecological-understanding-of-weeds.

[3] Stross, Amy. “When Weeds Are Good”, Twisted Creek Press, Tenth Acre Farm.com. URL: www.tenthacrefarm.com/when-weeds-are-good/. Accessed: 21May2019.

[4] Plantain is featured in almost every category of this GardeningKnowHow.com article. URL: www.gardeningknowhow.com/lawn-care/lgen/what-the-weeds-in-your-lawn-are-telling-you.htm.

[5] https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/weeds_are_an_indicator_of_a_soils_health.

A Local Wild Photo Short: Burdock Clearing

A quick reminder to anyone considering burdock-ocide this season: Do it before it goes to seed!

Prevent further spread of this invasive plant by chopping it off before it has a chance to reproduce.

This huge hedge took less than a half hour to clear by hand using a long-handled hoe. I use a two-pronged weeding hoe like this one, because the forked end comes in handy to pick up and toss aside already cut stalks, twigs, and leaves that I don’t want to mess with moving by hand. I find using the prongs this way cuts down on work time significantly, and the lightweight fiberglass rod doesn’t fatigue my [obviously super-buff] muscles.

Why cut weeds instead of spray?

Well, for me, I prefer not to use herbicide because there is a waterway nearby into which I don’t want to leech chemicals. Also, these burdock are too big for a homemade vinegar-based weed killer to have any good effect, though the spray works excellently on smaller burdock and other weeds like dandelion and nettle.

Clearing burdock before it goes to seed. Before and after.

 

 

Also, beware of the leftover burrs from last year. They’ll stick to anything, even the leaf of a nearby stinging nettle! No wonder this plant was the inspiration for our modern-day Velcro. 😮😳


Wear long pants, closed-toe shoes, gloves, and long sleeves when working around burdock, especially the old and dried stalks. They shed tiny fibers that are irritant to skin. Itchy!

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The Local Wild: A Local Wild Salad Bar: Dandelions & Greens.

Before anyone out there goes to war with their lawns, I want to touch on healthy eating. Specifically, healthy eating that starts in our yard.

The last Local Wild column addressed the twelve-spotted ladybug’s adoration of early blooming flowers, specifically the oft detested dandelion. Before anything else has even begun to bud, dandelions are blooming and ready to provide a healthy meal of pollen and nectar for these native ladybugs and other critters. Already, fields and yards are showered in bright yellow flowers and no doubt homeowners are getting their weed pullers and herbicidal sprays prepped, too.

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Dandelions aren’t just “for the bears”! Packed with nutrition, dandelions are an excellent food source for animals—like bear and twelve-spotted ladybugs—emerging from their winter hiding. /Eric Danley via Flickr © 2014

But—not so fast! Before you do a clean sweep of dandelions from your yard, consider that this so-called weed is worth a few bucks: dandelion greens are readily found at farmer’s markets and in “wild”-type salad mixes at the grocer; online, you can buy organic dandelion greens for anywhere from $2-$4 per bundle,[1] which is more costly than common herbs like cilantro or parsley.

And it’s no wonder dandelion greens go for a pretty penny: they’re packed with amazing nutrition! Each ¾-cup of cooked greens contain as much as 7,212mcg of lutein, an essential for eye health and key nutrient for significantly reducing the risk of developing cataracts.[2] They’re also stocked with calcium, potassium, fiber, and vitamins A, C, K, and folate (a B vitamin of particular interest to pregnant women). Consuming dandelion (especially the pollen-rich flowers) can also help alleviate seasonal allergies by naturally building up your body’s immunity.

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Nutrition facts of dandelion greens. So much good stuff!

While the entire dandelion plant is edible—from the ugly root all the way up to the pretty flower—most people don’t take the time to dry the roots to make tea or bother with using the flower to make a muscle ointment (dandelion flowers have “mild analgesic (pain-relieving) properties, making them an excellent addition to products designed for sore muscles”[3]). It is a lot of work, no doubt! I, myself, prefer to focus on the easy-to-pick greens, which should be harvested early, before the flowers pop up, to avoid extreme bitterness. If harvested young enough, the bitterness isn’t overwhelming and the vegetable’s flavor is similar to the that of endive, radicchio,[4] or arugula, other bitter greens found in many store-bought salad mixes.

Much of the bitterness can be cooked out to a large degree. Like other bitter greens that are popularly eaten cooked (e.g. kale, collard greens), dandelion greens can be blanched or braised to make them more palatable, or cooked with a flavor-heavy, fatty protein, like bacon. If you prefer your greens raw—as in a salad—you can soak them for 30 minutes or more in ice-chilled water.[5]

I won’t detail through each of these, but here are a few other offerings from the local wild’s salad bar that perhaps you didn’t know were edible. (As always, get a positive and certain identification of plants before collecting and consuming them. If you’re unsure, best to let things growing in the local wild stay wild!)

  • Stinging nettle
  • Creeping Charlie
  • Pheasant Back (Dryad’s Saddle) mushroom
  • Morel mushroom
  • Garlic mustard
  • Broadleaf plantain
  • Pineapple weed
  • Red clover

Consider growing dandelions as an addition to your veggie or herb garden!

If you’d like to try your hand at [intentionally] growing dandelions as an addition to your veggie or herb garden, harvest current plants from an untreated yard or field and transplant them to a more appropriate location.[6] (Stay away from dandelions growing in sidewalks, parking lots, and at the edges of roadways, as these areas, even if not sprayed with herbicide or fertilizer, contain runoff and contaminants from vehicles or maintenance treatments (e.g. sidewalk salt or de-icers).) Use a weeding fork to loosen the soil around the root, then pull the whole thing out and relocate. Dandelions are durable and incredibly resilient, so harvest—and eat them—frequently! Cheers to your good health!

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A big “thank you” to the Beacon of Cannon Falls for allowing me to post this column on my site.

[1] Pricing: $1.99-3.99/lb, depending on area.

[2] “Keen Green Vision”. URL: www.dole.com/Articles/keen-green-vision. 01April2013.

[3] “12 Things To Make With Dandelion Flowers”, The Nerdy Farm Wife. URL: https://thenerdyfarmwife.com/12-things-to-make-with-dandelion-flowers/. Undated.

[4] Fleck, Alissa. “Can You Eat Dandelion Greens Raw?”, Hearst Newspapers, LLC (SFGate). URL: https://healthyeating.sfgate.com/can-eat-dandelion-greens-raw-4710.html. 17Dec2018.

[5] “How To Mellow Out Bitter Veggies”. Plated.com. URL: https://www.plated.com/morsel/mellow-bitter-veggies/. Undated. ©2019

[6] For more details on transplanting dandelions, visit https://tortoisegroup.org/transplanting-dandelions.

The Local Wild: The Pink-Spotted Lady Beetle.

Springtime is lush with local wild activity, so its especially difficult to decide what, exactly, I will write on this week. Already a trove of photos of potential topics clutter my list—garlic mustard, trout lilies, garter snakes, dandelion, stinging nettle—but today I want to revisit a subject touched upon last fall: ladybugs.

As the weather warms, the Asian beetles emerge from hiding. Already, folks are correcting me, saying Asian Lady Beetles are not ladybugs. However, if you recall from last October’s Asian Lady Beetle piece, you’ll remember that those invasive and very annoying species of beetle are, in fact, ladybugs and, to quote that article exactly, “When it comes to Asian beetles, calling them ladybugs is not incorrect, it’s just less specific.”

Now that we’ve got that settled (again), I’d like to introduce you to a native species of ladybug that I stumbled upon while weeding last week: the twelve-spotted ladybug.

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A pink-spotted lady beetle crawls quickly up my arm as I attempt to take a snapshot. / Jessica Woken

This dark pink insect of the Coccinellidae (pronounced “cox-in-elly-die”) family of beetles is one of the more common native ladybugs in the United States. Sadly, like other ladybugs, their numbers are falling as a result of the invasive Asian beetle, which is both a more aggressive predator (and eats the competition’s larvae) and carries a microscopic fungus called microsporidia which can infect and kill native species. Other than the fact that they’re native, what else distinguishes the twelve-spotted ladybug from the much-hated Asian beetle?

First, they’re different in color, shape, and pattern. Color: This indigenous beetle is a hue of dark pink instead of bright red or deep orange we’re used to seeing. And, instead of a perfectly round or domed shape, the twelve-spotted ladybug is oblong like a little pink and black football, and lacks the characteristic white “M” the Asian beetle sports on her thorax. (Author’s Note: While all ladybugs are not female, I’ll be referring to all ladybugs in the feminine for the sake of conversation.) Also, as her name implies, the twelve-spotted ladybug sports twelve spots. Other names for the twelve-spotted ladybug are pink-spotted lady beetle and, simply, spotted lady beetle.

Omit dandelions from your yard, and you’ve just made it that much harder for the twelve-spotted ladybug to thrive.

Entomologists prefer “lady beetle” over “ladybug” because “bug” is a very loose term that can refer to a very broad spectrum of organisms, including microorganisms like bacteria or anything else little and creepy crawly, like worms. However, the terms “ladybeetle”, “ladybird beetle”, and “ladybug” can be used interchangeably and usage is regionally dependent.

As far as mannerisms go, the twelve-spotted ladybug is more ladylike than others. For one, she really likes her flowers! Up to half of the twelve-spotted ladybug’s diet consists of pollen or nectar, which is atypical for the predacious Coccinellidae family. Her flower of choice? Dandelion! This “weed” (it isn’t really) is a favorite of twelve-spotted ladybugs because it is usually the first to bloom in early spring when the insects emerge from winter’s hiding. Omit dandelions from your yard, and you’ve just made it that much harder for the twelve-spotted ladybug to thrive.

Another way this bug is a lady: She doesn’t make a big stink when you bother her. Although all ladybugs emit a noxious yellow fluid from their joints when disturbed, this is a complaint associated more with the Asian beetle than native species because native species are not known to swarm and invade buildings and homes, where their odor lingers for what can seem eons.

MN DNR Lost Ladybug Project poster

A “wanted” poster created by MN DNR for the Lost Ladybug survey project. / Minnesota DNR, August 2014.

Despite dwindling numbers, the twelve-spotted ladybug is still one of the most common native ladybugs in North America. Sadly, three other native ladybugs—the Transverse ladybug, the Two-Spotted ladybug, and the Nine-Spotted ladybug—are so rare that the Minnesota DNR has asked the public’s help in the past in keeping tabs on them. This relates to something called The Lost Ladybug Project, begun in 2000 by Cornell researchers in New York State; the project has since spread across all of North America. More about The Lost Ladybug Project can be read at www.lostladybug.org/participate.php.

There are many ways we can help native ladybug populations thrive, the first being to plant or allow to grow native and naturally occurring flowers like dandelion and milkweed, or to simply let the wild ones grow wild. Herbs like dill, fennel, cilantro, and parsley also make for great ladybug territory. It seems counter-intuitive, but spraying your garden for insects like aphids removes ladybugs’ food sources, thereby removing the ladybugs! Overall, what you want to do is create a ladybug paradise that specifically attracts native Coccinellidae, and, funny, that also means making a bee paradise. Just goes to show that what’s good for bees and butterflies is good for everyone—including ladybugs!

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Many thanks to Cannon Beacon for allowing me to publish Local Wild entries on this blog.

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