Rich Finzer

Ear to the Ground November-December 2013

by janem on November 13, 2013

newJanepicii

Rich Finzer’s article on invasive woody species in the last issue caused quite a stir. One reader questioned whether Mr. Finzer was really talking about Russian olive, Elaeagnus angustifolia, or if he meant autumn olive, E. umbellata. Below, another reader disagrees with two native plants being lumped in with invasive aliens. Keep those letters coming. We love them!

—Jane

Dear Ms. Milliman,

I have just read the article “Invasive Species” in the September-October 2013 issue. Clearly it was written by someone who manages his land with some environmentally unsound practices, as noted by the interjected editorial comments. One can only imagine how much compaction of the soil and carbon emissions Mr. Finzer has contributed with his pickup truck. He does have some valid points about the invasiveness of alien species and how they have filled the niches of native plants that provide habitat for wildlife. However, while he initially seems to promote biodiversity, he does not discuss replacing these alien species with competitive native plants.

I am bewildered that on his eighty-acre farm, he cannot tolerate the native staghorn sumac, an attractive succession shrub or tree, that provides nourishment for many birds in the dead of winter when few other food sources are available. According to [native plants expert] William Cullina, sumacs are the larval host food of the red-banded hairstreak butterfly. I could not find any references online or in books that state that rabbits consume the fruit and are the primary dispersers of the seeds. Sumacs retain their fuzzy, red fruit throughout winter at the tips of their branches, making them accessible only to birds and climbing mammals. Rabbits mainly gnaw on the bark and nibble off young shoots, so they may actually help curb the spread of sumacs. Mr. Finzer describes the wild grape as a “bane of landowners everywhere” and I do not agree. It too, is a native that is a natural source of food for wildlife and can be controlled without the need for complete eradication. Without the hardy, robust rootstocks of Vitis riparia and other native grapes, viniculture might not be possible in North America.

In my opinion, these two native species should not be lumped into the same category as Japanese honeysuckle, Russian olive, multiflora rose, and giant hogweed. It appears that Mr. Finzer has based his article largely on personal experiences and less on scientific research. I hope that in the future, your publication will improve its refereeing and the content of the information presented to the public.

Sincerely,

Judy Bigelow, M.S., D.V.M., Master Gardener CCE Monroe County

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Natural Selections: Invasive Species

by janem on September 5, 2013

Invasive Species

By Rich Finzer

One of the greatest strengths of any woodlot, forest or open stretch of ground is its biodiversity. The greater the variety of species, the less chance disease or insects will ravage the entire area. Ironically, biodiversity may also become a glaring weakness, particularly if land begins hosting invasive species. Here in Cayuga County, we’re plagued by several of these invaders and unfortunately we’re not alone. Many invasive plants range across wide swaths of the U.S. Of the time spent managing my woodlot, a good portion is devoted to eradicating these unwelcome and often alien pests.

Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) is a perfect example. Introduced into the U.S. in 1806 to help combat soil erosion, no one anticipated how invasive the plant would become. On my farm, the shrubs proliferate where the cropland meets the edge of the woodlot. Every spring, while the ground is soft, I make a concerted effort to rip out as many as I can. Fortunately, the shallow rooted honeysuckle is easy to identify and easy to dislodge. [We had a hard time with the italics in this story and decided to just omit them. You know where they go. —Ed.]

Japansese honeysuckle
Japanese honeysuckle

The flowers, which occur in pairs, range in color from pure white to a creamy whitish-yellow. The ovate leaves are set opposite on the woody branches. Following pollination, each bloom produces a black berry containing a single seed. As birds eat the fruit, the seeds are deposited in their droppings, accounting for the speed with which the plant can overtake an area.

One of the other invasive trees I regularly confront is white mulberry (Morus alba). Native to China where it is used to feed silkworms, it was introduced during colonial times as our British masters tried to establish a fledgling silk industry. The trees produce a tart edible fruit about the size of a raspberry. Wild birds, especially robins and bluebirds consume them and deposit the seeds in their droppings. The plants are stubborn to remove, and even if cut off at the ground line will often re-sprout. While I like songbirds, I’m no fancier of white mulberry. The only sure-fire method I’ve found for completely killing one is cutting it flush with the ground and then auguring a hole into the center of the stump. Following that, I insert a funnel filled with bleach. Once the roots absorb the bleach, it’s curtains. [While this is undoubtedly an effective method, using bleach—or any substance not labeled an herbicide—to kill plants is actually illegal, and we therefore cannot recommend it. —Ed.]

White mulberry with berries just beginning to ripen
White mulberry with berries just beginning to ripen

Another invasive species is Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia). Native to southern Europe, it was brought to the U. S. during the late 1800’s. Like other introduced alien plants, it too will quickly overtake native trees. Its leaves are slender, shiny on top and a fuzzy olive-gray underneath. The tree produces hundreds of tiny yellow flowers that bloom at the base of the leaves. Following pollination, each forms a small olive-colored fruit roughly the size of a chickpea. The plant prefers partial sun, and removing one can be nasty business, as the branches are armored with 1 to 3 inch thorns. If Russian olive has a sole redeeming quality, it’s that the thorns afford great protection to nesting birds, particularly catbirds. As a nod to my avian friends, if I encounter one, I generally spare it until nesting has concluded. I am not nearly as merciful with wild roses.

Russian olive in blossom
Russian olive in blossom

The wild or multiflora rose, (Rosa multiflora) is another challenging adversary native to China. Brought to the U.S. sometime during the 1700’s, the plant is covered with long, extremely sharp thorns, tough enough to pierce heavy leather work gloves. It proliferates by sending out runners, rooting its drooping canes to the soil and by seeds. According to some biologists, a single plant may produce as many as 17,000 seeds during a single growing season!  If I locate a large one, I attach a cable noose around the main trunk and tear out the entire plant using my pickup. In Midwestern states like Ohio, wild rose is subject to massive state-sponsored eradication programs. According to USDA estimates, it infests as many as 45 million acres. How much land is that?  It’s roughly the combined land area of New York and Connecticut.  I don’t blame anybody for anything they do to eliminate this scourge. Have at it.

Roadside berm infested with multiflora rose Multiflora rose blossoms
Roadside berm infested with multiflora rose; Multiflora rose blossoms

While many invasive plants were imported, one native species, staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), is equally challenging to control. Classified as a woody shrub, sumacs are shallow rooted and spread by both rhizomes and seeds. After flowering, the familiar rusty-red, fruiting head begins forming. It’s actually a compact cluster of fruits known as drupes.  Drupes measure 1/4 inch in diameter and contain one seed. Interestingly, the germination rate of sumac seeds is enhanced after passing through the digestive systems of rabbits. So if you’ve got lots of sumacs, you probably have a thriving bunny population too. Sumacs prefer sunny locations and are often the first trees to grow on abandoned farmland. The yellow 12-inch flower plumes emerge in early June. By late summer, the ripening drupes take on their trademark rusty-red hue. I’ve found the easiest method of destroying sumacs is tearing them out by the roots.  For larger ones, I sometimes employ my truck and a length or two of logging chain.

Staghorn sumac flower plume Reddish clusters of sumac drupes
Staghorn sumac flower plume; Reddish clusters of sumac drupes

Up until now, the plants I’ve described might be classified as troublesome or stubborn, but giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) is justifiably described as vile. It’s extremely invasive and it’s extremely poisonous as well. It’s a phototoxic plant. When exposed to the UV rays in sunlight, the sap from the stalk is capable of burning exposed flesh (a condition known as phytophotodermatitis). If even a small amount of sap gets near your eyes, it may cause blindness! A mature plant can reach a height of 15 feet, and the main flower growing atop the stalk may attain a diameter of 30 inches. Giant hogweed is native to Central Asia, and was introduced into the U.S. during the early part of the twentieth century as an ornamental (what were those idiots thinking?). Classified by the USDA as a noxious weed, it is a perennial and once fully established is nearly impossible to eradicate. Regular mowing keeps it under some measure of control, but for total elimination only two methods are known. The main taproot must be severed about 6 inches below the ground or the plant must be killed chemically. Regrettably, giant hogweed prefers moist soils, particularly along stream banks and gullies, making it difficult to reach. Five summers ago, I discovered a lone plant growing along the bank of the creek bisecting my property. While wearing heavy gloves, heavy clothing and eye protection, I sprayed the entire plant with herbicide. After drenching the entire plant, it quickly perished. [The DEC instead cautions citizens to use only the manufacturer’s recommended dose. For more on controlling hogweed with herbicides, see dec.ny.gov/animals/40961.html. —Ed.] If you encounter a solitary plant as I did, you may be able to destroy it on your own. However, if a large colony develops, you may require the assistance of professionals with their arsenal of federally regulated herbicides. Either way, it must be killed wherever it’s found. The DEC has taken notice of giant hogweed too. Since 2008, a 14-person team regularly attacks and destroys the plants whenever/wherever its presence is reported. To report giant hogweed, contact the DEC’s Hogweed Hotline at 845-256-3111.

Giant hogweed plant over 6 feet tall  Giant Hogweed plant
Giant hogweed plant over 6 feet tall

Rounding out the rogue’s gallery is another streamside pest, the wild grape (Vitis riparia). Also known as riverbank grape, it flourishes along creeks or streams. Growing to an ultimate height of 50 feet, this woody vine looks to surrounding trees for support, growing into the crowns until it smothers them. Found across the entire northern half of the U.S., it’s the bane of landowners everywhere. Small plants may be pulled out by the roots; larger specimens with their shaggy bark should be chopped off at the ground line and the woody vines pulled down.

Newly sprouted wild grape leaves and a bud cluster which will mature into fruit
Newly sprouted wild grape leaves and a bud cluster which will mature into fruit

The beauty of our woodlands, stream banks and fields is something too many folks take for granted. But responsible stewardship requires every landowner to rid their space of any invasive species they encounter.  It’s hard work. It requires persistence, coupled with the enthusiasm of a fanatic; and it’s worth it.

Additional Information: Visit www.usda.gov or the individual websites listed below.

Raised in Chili, NY, Rich Finzer resides on an 80-acre farm near Hannibal. He is a regular contributor to Living Aboard, Life in the Finger Lakes and Dollar Stretcher magazines.

Photos by Rich Finzer

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Natural Selections: Woodlot Wildflowers

by janem on June 5, 2013

Story and photographs by Rich Finzer

There’s no doubt about it—I adore wildflowers; it doesn’t matter what kind. It could be a lush stand of Joe-pye weed growing in a damp ditch, or the azure-blue blossoms of chicory sprouting from roadside gravel. Here in upstate New York, we’re blessed with both an abundance of wildflowers as well as scores of wildflower species. As the owner of a 40-acre perennial garden (my woodlot), some of my favorites are the early springtime arrivals found growing there.

Once the woods sheds its blanket of snow and sunshine begins warming the ground, the flowers that remained buried all winter reawaken. Only during early spring, before the deciduous canopy leafs out, will the sun’s rays will reach the forest floor. During this fleeting weather window, lasting only 4 to 6 weeks, is when woodland wildflowers must complete their flowering and pollination cycles. Following that, the ground is enshrouded in deep shadow and the sunny window closes for another year.

The vanguards of the flowering cycle are spring beauties, or Claytonia virginica. These tiny little blossoms poke through the dried leaves by late March or early April. The plant’s miniature blossoms, borne on slender, 2-inch stems, measure less than ½ inch across, smaller than the diameter of a dime. Each has five tiny petals lined with veins of color ranging from light pinks to deep magenta. It’s been said that, like snowflakes, no two spring beauty petals are identical. I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that my small forest is chockablock with them. I’ve read that these tiny plants are endangered, but given their profusion in my woods, you couldn’t prove that by me. I do know this. If it had been left up to me, I’d have named them spring “cuties.” And once their buds open, the emergence of the trout lily follows close behind.

Trout lily (Erythronium americanum) is known by several other colloquial names as well. It’s frequently referred to as adder’s tongue, owing to the resemblance of its pointed purple mottled leaves to the mouth of a snake. Some field guides also refer to it as dogtooth violet. Until I acquired guidebook listing them, I simply called them “forest lilies.” A mature plant produces a pair of leaves and a single bright yellow blossom borne on a stalk 5 to 6 inches high. If soil and growing conditions are optimum, trout lilies will proliferate into vast colonies.

In my woods the plants seem to prefer growing on well drained, gently sloping ground with a western exposure, ensuring each receives the maximum amount of available sunlight. The soil type is Colonie, a mixture of coarse sand and gravel that drains extremely well. A trout lily can sometimes be difficult to spot if the blossom points slightly downward. The outer color of the petals is purplish-brown which blends into the background of dried leaves littering the ground. So tread gingerly when seeking out these tiny woodland gems lest you crush one accidentally.

You certainly won’t confront that problem looking for white trillium (Trillium grandiflorum). Its snowy-white blossoms and deep-green foliage stand in vivid contrast against the dead leaves and gray tree trunks it grows amongst. Also known as great trillium or white wake-robin, these plants have a native range extending across much of the eastern U.S. and southern Canada. As its name implies, everything about trillium is about the number 3. The flower has only three petals and the plant has only three leaves. The deeply veined foliage forms far up the stem and the flower emerges just above them on a short stalk. The plants typically reach an overall height of roughly 12 to 15 inches. Framed against the drab surface of the forest floor, white trillium instantly garners your attention.

Trillium prefer moist humus-rich ground and seem to favor growing amidst beeches or maples. Like trout lilies, trillium will also form vast concentrations. The accompanying photo was taken near the sunny edge of my woodlot. In it you can clearly see the delicately ruffled edges of the trillium petals, but the entire colony stretched back almost 200 feet, disappearing down the back of a slope. I’d estimate there were at least a thousand individuals in the group. If witnessed firsthand, these huge groupings are genuinely impressive. However, despite its apparently profligate nature, white trillium is an extremely delicate plant. Picking the flowers or carelessly knocking off a leaf will usually result in the plant’s death. Because of this, several states including New York, have banned picking wild trillium. Fortunately, these regulations do not ban transplanting it, with permission of the landowner.

Many homeowners in my locale have successfully moved trillium from their woods into their yards. If you attempt this, relocate them to a moist shady spot with rich soil and good exposure to the springtime sun. I suppose I could take a whack at it myself, but why bother? I prefer leaving them to their own devices, revisiting them every spring when they reappear. And while I renew my affection for them, I’m constantly on the lookout for another member of the family; red trillium.

Red trillium (T. erectum) is sometimes called purple trillium—or stinking Benjamin owing to its scent that mimics that of rotted meat. As wild bee colonies may still be dormant when red trillium commences flowering, it relies on carrion flies for pollination. My woodlot is separated into two distinct sections and each species of trillium seems to favor one over the other. The white ones thrive on the slightly higher drier ground where beeches and sugar maples predominate, while the red cousins grow exclusively near my creek, sharing space with black cherry trees and red maples.

Red trillium grows slightly taller than the white variety to a height of about 18 inches. The flowers have 3 petals possessing a deep rich burgundy-red hue. As the blooms age, the color gradually fades to a crimson red and finally a tired pink. This makes an excellent yardstick for determining how long a plant has been in flower, as this transition takes place over about 3 weeks. However, aside from the differences in color and size from its white brethren, the plants are equally delicate and equally protected by the same picking ban.

Like the pages in a book, or the days of the week, the disappearance of one wildflower variety signals the emergence of another. So as the blossoms of the red trillium begin fading, wild violets take their place in the growing cycle.

An ancient logging road bisects my woodlot and from its compacted surface, longspur violets (Viola rostrata) spring forth in compact little groups. As with most other woodland flower varieties, the violets prefer well-drained soil. Much like the venue favored by the trout lilies, the old road also sits atop a seam of Colonie soil. Aside from the humus provided by decaying leaves, it contains virtually no organic matter, but the violets don’t seem to mind. At my place, this is their preferred growing location. The small blossoms have five petals and their color varies plant to plant from a deep rich bluish- purple to royal blue and on to even lighter tints. They usually emerge about the same time the @#$%&* black flies start hatching and trees begin leafing out.

Soon the forest canopy will fill in and as the ground beneath cools in the shade, it signals the conclusion of the flowering cycle. Only where the sun’s rays still reach the ground will flowers continue to flourish. On my farm, that remaining sunny area is the mushy mud flat flanking the creek.

Growing atop that guck are verdant clumps of marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris). Early English colonists referred to these flowers as “cowslips” due to their striking resemblance to the cowslip plants of their native land, and that name has stuck with the flower ever since. Call them what you may, they produce a dazzling display of bright yellow flowers.

Each bloom is formed of five petals and measures roughly one inch across. Contrasted against their dark green foliage, the blossoms are easy to spot. Some of my neighbors have been successful transplanting these flowers too. As with the white trillium, I haven’t bothered. Digging around in that muck does not excite me. I’d rather leave them in their natural habitat.

After enduring the harshness of our winters, when spring mercifully arrives, the fleeting appearance of our woodland wildflowers is the reward we upstate denizens receive in return for our patience.

Additional Resources/Information
Field Guide to Wildflowers; Northeastern/North Central North America; Peterson/McKenny
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center: http://www.wildflower.org/

Raised in Chili, NY, Rich Finzer resides on an 80-acre farm near Hannibal, NY. He is a regular contributor to Living Aboard, Life in the Finger Lakes and Dollar Stretcher magazines.

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