Gathering the Laurels

I grew up enjoying the site of mountain-laurel blooming in profusion each June. It is a common understory shrub in the Hudson Highlands, one of the northeast-southwest-trending chains of mountains that make up the northern Appalachians through downstate New York. Kalmia latifolia is an evergreen member of the Ericaceae (heath family), but it is definitely most noticeable when it flowers. The pink-tinged white blossoms are arranged in corymbs; the petals are attached to form pentangular bowls. The corymbs are several inches across; each flower is about an three-quarters to an inch in diameter. It is a showy plant.

Mountain-laurel in flower in Maryland.

Mountain-laurel in flower in Maryland.

In addition to their large size, the flowers are set against glossy, dark green foliage. K. latifolia has the tendency to form large, continuous thickets, sometimes covering part of an acre on rocky, well drained hillsides. In the southern Appalachians, they can attain the size of a small tree (over 20 feet tall), but in the northeastern states they are usually five or six feet tall.

I haven’t seen any mountain-laurel on Martha’s Vineyard yet, but it does occur here and is likely to be found “up-island” in the towns of West Tisbury, Chilmark, and Aquinnah. The Gay Head and Martha’s Vineyard Moraines create a series of northeast-southwest-trending ridges that form the upland portion of the island. The terrain is dotted with large boulders (especially in the Gay Head Moraine areas) and was apparently originally forested with more beeches and maples (Northern Hardwood assemblage), tempering the dominant Oak-Heath presence that still dominates the down-island portion of the island, which a sandy outwash plain formed by the erosion of the moraine.

Sheep-laurel. (Photo: Bob Cunningham)

Sheep-laurel. (Photo: Bob Cunningham)

The most common member of the heath family in the outwash plain is the sheep-laurel, Kalmia angustifolia. This is a much smaller plant than K. latifolia, getting only about three feet all, but it has the same tendency to grow in extensive thickets. It is a common part of the Oak-Heath assemblage wherever it is found. It has evergreen leaves that hang down at a sharp angle. As its trivial name implies, the leaves of sheep laurel are narrow. It can also be distinguished from other Kalmia species because its branches end in terminal whorls of leaves, while the flowers emerge from the stem beneath the terminal leaves. The flowers resemble those of mountain laurel, but are a deep pink and much smaller.

The third member of the genus that is found in the northeastern U.S. is Kalmia polifolia, the bog-laurel. While the other two species are associated with mesic or even dry habitats, K. polifolia lives up to its name and is strongly associated with hydric conditions, although not necessarily bogs. K. polifolia is distinguished from K. angustifolia by the position of its flowers, which are terminal rather than growing further down the stem like the sheep-laurel’s. K. polifolia also blooms in the spring (April or May) rather than in the early summer.



All Kalmia prefer acidic soil conditions. But while sheep-laurel grows on a variety of sites ranging from wet sphagnum bogs to dry jack pine forests, bog-laurel is confined to wetlands (it is also called “swamp-laurel”). Mountain-laurel, on the other hand, prefers drier sites, but can tolerate moist soils at the edges of wetlands. While the sheep-laurel is widespread on Martha’s Vineyard, the bog-laurel is not found here at all.

The fourth member of the heath family found in the Northeast is Kalmia procumbens, the alpine-azalea, but as its name suggests, it is confined to the tundra-like areas on the higher peaks of New Hampshire and Maine and grows to be only 4 inches tall.

All parts of all members of the genus are poisonous to many mammals. The sheep-laurel gets its name for its morbid effect on that species, but the plant is poisonous to all livestock, as well as to humans. Some mammals, caribou for example, can tolerate it, and many birds depend on the fruits for winter forage.

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Holding the Beach in Place

I guess I had never visited the dunes of the Atlantic coast in September before, because I was surprised to discover the seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) growing amid the beach grass (Ammophila breviligulata) on South Beach, Martha’s Vineyard last weekend. It is an odd-looking goldenrod; most Solidago species have toothed leaves, usually with rough surfaces, and the individual flowers are tiny. Seaside goldenrod flowers are larger than those of other members of the genus and the leaves and stems are fleshier and thicker, an adaptation to living in a salty, windy environment, where preservation of water is important.

Seaside goldenrod at South Beach, Martha's Vineyard

Seaside goldenrod at South Beach, Martha’s Vineyard

Coastal beaches on Martha’s Vineyard consist of un-vegetated beach faces and berms, sparsely vegetated foredunes dominated by American beach grass and seaside goldenrod and more stabilized and densely vegetated inner dunes with bayberry, saltspray rose (Rosa rugosa), poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and winged sumac (Rhus copallina).

S. sempervirens gets its trivial name (“always green”) from its habit of holding on to its leaves through much of the winter and sprouting new ones in February or March. They are red when they emerge and then turn green. It begins flowering in August, along with the other goldenrods, but keeps flowering into November, after the other goldenrods have been felled by frost. Seaside goldenrod can be from 3 to 6 feet tall (some sources say up to 8 or 10 feet all); it is shorter in more exposed and nutrient starved locations and taller elsewhere.

S. sempervirens var. mexicana growing at Delaware Seashore State Park

S. sempervirens var. mexicana growing at Delaware Seashore State Park

There are two subspecies. S. sempervirens var. sempervirens, which has showier flowers and grows south to Connecticut, and var. mexicana, which is smaller and grows from Massachusetts south to Texas. It also hybridizes regularly with rough-stemmed goldenrod (S. rugosa).

It is quite salt tolerant and has spread inland in some areas, where it is confined to heavily salted roadsides. It occurs naturally not only from Newfoundland down the east coast of the United States, but also down the St. Lawrence River valley to the Great Lakes. It has spread further into to the Great Lakes region, becoming established in saline areas where few other plants are present to compete with it. It is not regarded as invasive, as it does not spread out of these marginal areas.

Because it is adapted to dune dwelling, seaside goldenrod is one of the species is that is replanted in areas where beach and dune restoration is underway. Beach grass is the primary species to be planted in these projects, but S. sempervirens, beach pea (Lathyrus japonica), beach plum (Prunus maritima), bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) and bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica) are all planted as well.

Replanting at Bend in the Road Beach, Martha's Vineyard

Replanting at Bend in the Road Beach, Martha’s Vineyard

I haven’t seen any references to a restoration of South Beach on Martha’s Vineyard and the beach grass/goldenrod community in the dunes there is likely natural. But Joseph A. Sylvia State Beach, a barrier beach between Oak Bluffs and Edgartown, on the northeast side of the island, sees more heavy use and it has been restored using dredged materials 12 times since 1997. In 2008 the Friends of Sengekontacket commissioned the Woods Hole Group to do a study of the state beach and it produced a plan that serves as a guide to managing the beach in the face of heavy use and rising sea level. In November 2012 Hurricane Sandy badly damaged the barrier beach and the sand replenishment and revegetation effort after that event was the most restoration.

In addition to growing on beaches and sand dunes in coastal areas, seaside goldenrod grows in high parts and along the edges of fresh, brackish and salt marshes. It is found in parts of the marsh that are irregularly flooded by tides. It can play an important role in providing nesting habitat for shorebirds like willets, killdeer, and black skimmers.

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Who Is This Joe Pye?

Joe-Pye weed has an identity crisis on a couple of fronts. First, its classification has recently changed from Eupatorium to Eutrochium. All the purple-flowered members of the old genus have been place in the new one. The purple-flowered species also have mostly whorled leaves, while those of Eupatorium are generally opposite.

Eutrochium maculatum

Eutrochium maculatum

I have written about Joe-Pye weed before as an enthusiastic volunteer in our meadow garden. It, along with boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), were colonizers of the wetter portions of the side yard that we let go unmown until the first week of November each year. Now that I live in a different part of the village I see Joe-Pye and boneset growing together in the ditches everywhere.

Both have loose clusters of flowers—sort of a sloppy corymb–at the top of the plants and in some species sprouting from the stem joints. The plants tend to be about three feet tall, but they can be much taller. This year, perhaps because of the drought, the Joe-Pye weed seems to be done with flowering early; the blossoms are faded and ragged at the end of August. They are usually beautiful right into October.

The second identity crisis is the question of Joe Pye himself. Sometimes common names can have only tenuous connections to real people: what does Queen Anne have to do with Queen Anne’s lace? There has also been the suggestion that “Joe Pye” is a corruption of a native American word jopi or jopai for typhus, which a decoction of Eutrochium is said to have cured.

Eutrochium purpureum

Eutrochium purpureum

In the case of Joe Pye there is an oft-repeated story that doesn’t seem to have any substance at all. In many places (that is, blogs and plant information sites), you will read of Joe Pye as a native American healer from Salem, Massachusetts, who saved colonists from an outbreak of typhus. It was said to induce sweating. This is interesting in that one of the symptoms of typhus is fever.

An excellent blog post by Richard Pearce at, a site owned by a land stewardship and ecological restoration company, uncovered the likely true story of Joe Pye. Pearce identifies him as Shauquethqueat, a member of the Stockbridge “tribe” of western Massachusetts. Most of the surviving Algonquian people of New England took “Christian” names, at least in part because their own were so badly corrupted by the colonists. There were a lot of Pyes in the Stockbridge area, according to census records from the early 20th century. Shauquethqueat lived in the late 18th century and was a sachem for his people, which meant he probably did have knowledge of herbal medicine.

Goldenrod and late summer Joe-Pye weed

Goldenrod and late summer Joe-Pye weed

Pearce tracks down Shauquethqueat by following the earliest references to “Joe-pye weed” as a common name for various Eupatorium species. The first mention is in Amos Eaton’s Manual of Botany from 1818. In a revised edition of 1822 he adds a footnote that leads Pearce out into western Massachusetts; the president of Williams College reports curing himself of “an alarming fever” that Eaton implies was typhus-caused using a tea made from Joe-Pye weed.

Rationalist that he is, Pearce makes a tea from Eutrochium flowers that he buys in a story and finds that it does not induce a fever (but tastes delicious). He allows that his store-bought herbs may not be as efficacious as fresh ones, but does wonder whether Joe-Pye weed would really be effective against typhus. He cites a mortality rate of 10 to 20 percent for typhus. Typhus and typhoid fever are two different diseases, and he seems to be citing the dangers associated with the latter, which is said to kill 25 percent of victims without treatment. Typhus can kill up to 60 percent of its victims without treatment.

At any rate, Pearce makes a convincing case for the identity of Joe Pye, although its effectiveness as an herbal remedy is left in question.

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Inferior Rubber, Superior House Plant

Rubber tree as house plant

Rubber tree as house plant

The rubber plant that you see so often in corporate lobbies, doctors’ offices, living rooms and other large, bright, indirectly-lit rooms is a member of the family Moraceae, which includes mulberries and figs. Ficus elastica is native to the Himalayas, India, western Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. It has become naturalized in many other parts of the world including the Mediterranean, Caribbean, and even south Florida.

It was not the primary source of rubber before the petroleum era. That was Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree, which, as its name indicates, is originally from Brazil, but through the 19th century was planted all over the tropics, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Both plants produce a latex material that can be processed into rubber, but that of F. elastica was inferior to that of H. brasiliensis. Latex is found in 10 percent of all plants in one form or another and seemed to have evolved independently many times. It has been shown to be a defense mechanism against herbivory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that latex allergies are common in humans.

Rubber tree as street tree in Brazil

Rubber tree as street tree in Brazil

F. elastica is popular because it is easy to take care of and grows to a relatively large size—8 or 9 feet—relatively quickly. There are dozens of websites that tell you how to take care of these plants. Its biggest problems are overwatering and too much direct sunlight.

As is common among tropical plants, F. elastica is actually fairly drought-tolerant. You should wait until the potting soil is dry to the touch before you give it more water. Then you should really soak it until the water begins to run out the bottom of the pot. It doesn’t like to sit in water, however, and the tray should be empties after the pot finishes draining. If it is over watered the leaves will turn yellow and drop off.

This particular fig likes bright light, but it should not be direct, as the plant does not like temperatures above 85 degrees F. Leaving the plant in bright sunlight will cause it to get stringy. Like a lot of figs, it doesn’t like to be moved around a lot, although some care sites recommend seasonal changes in location.

Ficus elastic flower

Ficus elastica flower

Although it gets to be a big house plant, this is nothing compared to its wild state, where it becomes a substantial tree 90 to 100 feet tall. It is also noted for developing, like the related banyan (another fig) it produces aerial and buttressing roots that hold up the limbs of the tree and give an architectural look.

Like all figs, F. elastica has an unspectacular flower that is pollinated by a local species of fig wasp. Where the wasp does not occur, e.g. Hawaii, the species can grow, but not reproduce sexually. Unless the flower is fertilized, it will not produce fruits.

The new leaves of the plant are first visible as curved, rose-colored spikes sprouting between existing leaves. Eventually the rosy sheath falls off and the deep green leaf unfurls.

The leaves of the rubber plant should be keep clean and moist. They should be wiped with a damp cloth if they get dusty and misted with warm water in the morning if the plant is being kept in hot, dry conditions (e.g. houses warmed by electric heat).

There is mixed information about how often rubber plants should be fertilized. One source recommends once a year in late March or early April. Other sites recommend more frequent applications. This may be related to whether or not the plant becomes dormant or not. Fall to late winter is considered to be the dormant season and watering should be reduced.

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An Actual Norwegian

A lot of people love Norway spruces (Picea abies). It has whole websites devoted to extolling its virtues as a landscape tree, as a source of lumber, and as a windbreak and a good species to plant on reclaimed land. I have great memories of climbing them as a kid. One in particular was right outside my window when I was between the ages of 10 and 18 years old.


Mature Norway spruce

When my mother and stepfather took us to look at what would become our home on Spy Hill in Beacon, the first thing my brother and I did was look for trees to climb. The house was at that time over 80 years old and some of the trees on the property may have been that old too. There was a Norway spruce planted in front of the south-facing porch and it was probably over 80 feet tall. It had branches right down to the ground because it had been grown in the open. It was especially wide because one of the lateral branches had decided to grow upward and had become a sort of mizzen mast to the main trunk.

The lower branches become angled downward in old trees; they descend from the trunk and rest on the ground all around the tree. The needles are attached to small, pendulous branches that hang straight down from the lateral branches that extend outward from the trunk in whorls. The overall effect is to give Norway spruces the appearance of being covered with needled drapery that sweep outward in a broad skirt near the ground.

Pendulous branches and cones

Pendulous branches and cones

My brother Ray and I both climbed the tree, but either he started up it before I did, or he was just more excited to be up there. In any case, he did not come down when my mother called for us. Instead he went all the way up to the top of the tree and stood amid the little branches there crowing, “Look at me. I made it to the top!” and waving his arm around while making the crown of the spruce sway wildly back and forth. Mrs. Grady, the elderly woman who was about to sell us her house, just about had a heart attack.

We moved into that house when I was 10 years old and just starting to get interested in natural history. (My first Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds (third edition) was in a pile of debris the Gradys left on the front lawn.) I identified the huge conifer as a Norway spruce and have seen them pretty much everywhere for the rest of my life. Native to central and northern Europe, they grow at all altitudes from Norway to the Ural Mountains and south to southern Poland and also in the Alps and the mountainous regions of Germany and the Balkans.

It is not particularly widespread in Norway, growing in the central portion and along the border with Sweden in the south, but it is at least more aptly named than the Austrian pine, which barely grows in Austria at all.

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

Rockefeller Center Christmas tree

In the U.S. I have frequently encountered it growing in the woods where it has survived after being planted as a landscape tree and then abandoned. It grows quickly—two to three feet per year—during the first 25 years of its life and can be planted in shade or in the sun. It can be planted in the middle of a grassy pasture and it will outgrow the grass. It is used in Pennsylvania and Indiana to replant strip mined areas.

Because it grows quickly and requires little maintenance, it is often planted as a Christmas tree. The enormous tree required by Rockefeller Center each year is frequently a Norway spruce.

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A Bowl of Cherries

Cherry trees are notable for producing splashily beautiful flowers in the spring, deliciously edible fruit in the summer, and hard, strikingly grained and colored wood. In the United States, the cherry species that meets possesses all of these characteristics is the black cherry (Prunus serotina). It is the largest North American member of the genus Prunus, which also includes several small trees that are referred to as plums rather than cherries, and so the only decent lumber producer. Its fruit are not as sweet as those of the European P. avium (“sweet cherry”), but the taste is thought to have more character and they are therefore often used in liqueurs and added to ice cream. P. serotina‘s flowers are not the garish pink of the hybrids (P. sargentii X) and species (P. serrulata) that famously line the Potomac basin or haunt the public spaces and art of Japan, but their white racemes are abundant and a hallmark of spring.

Prunus serotina

Prunus serotina

Like a lot of trees, black cherries blossom as they leaf out. This means that when you look at a forested hillside in the Northeast in early May, amid the varying shades of green there will be bright explosions of white marking the locations of the various wild members of the rose family. In addition to the cherries and plums, the shadbush or serviceberry (Amelanchior spp.) also stand out at this time.

In the inland portions of the Northeast we have two other common cherries, both of which are smaller than P. serotina, and neither of which produce fruits that are particularly edible to humans, although birds love them. P. virginiana, or the chokecherry, is closely related to the black cherry, but only grows to 30 or 40 feet tall. The black cherry is a canopy species, albeit an early pioneering member, and can be 100 feet tall. Both bear the characteristic five-petaled white flowers of the rose family and these two species bear them in racemes. Their leaves two are similar, finely serrated and oblong with pointed tips, but P. serotina‘s are shinier and deep green on both sides, and P. virginiana leaves are broader. The fruit they produce is usually a purplish-black, but it is red before it ripens and chokecherries may remain red. Cherries are technically stone fruit (drupes) with a hard pit at the center, not berries.

Prunus virginiana

Prunus virginiana

Because they grow rapidly and can be bushy, chokecherries are planted en masse as screens and wind breaks. They aren’t fussy about where or how they are planted. In spite of its name, it does produce edible cherries. The later they are harvested, the sweeter they will be. You have to beat the birds to them though, as species like robins and waxwings love them. Deer love to graze on all parts of the plant, so if you don’t want to attract deer, don’t plant them. Furthermore, the stems of the cherries and the leaves are toxic to humans, so make sure to clean them out of any harvest before you make something with it. In large quantities the leaves are toxic to cattle and sheep. The toxicity is caused by a compound that is metabolized into cyanide.

The other small northeastern cherry is the pin cherry (P. pensylvanica), which is even weedier than the chokecherry. Its leaves are serrated, but narrow to the point of being lanceolate. The flowers are the familiar white, but they are borne in corymbs or umbels. The cherries are bright red when mature and have an acidic taste, but the trees are known to produce them in great abundance.

Prunus pensylvanica

Prunus pensylvanica

This is a pioneer woody plant, being among the first move back into clear cuts and strip mined areas. They are given credit for keeping nutrients in the soil by preventing them from leaching away in runoff. They can attain the height of 35 to 50 feet and do so quite rapidly.

When they are young all of these cherries have smooth brown bark with raised horizontally-oriented lenticels that resemble those of the birches. As they mature, however, the P. serotina bark becomes dark and scaly and is said to resemble black potato chips. P. virginiana bark becomes scaly, but remains brown and the scales are larger and more elongate than those of P. serotina. P. pensylvanica bark is reddish brown in maturity and appears more tight-fitting than that of the other two species with a more imbricate appearance.

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Dahlias: the Plethora From Mexico

People in northern temperate climates will probably think twice about growing dahlias because you have to dig them up each fall, store the tubers carefully over the winter, and then plant them in the late spring when the ground temperature reaches 60 degrees. And yet dahlias are incredibly popular, with dahlia societies in major cities around the world.

Dahlia coccinea, a wild Mexican species

Dahlia coccinea, a wild Mexican species

The origins of this cultivated plant are in the highlands of Mexico and Central America. It was important to the Aztecs and the Toltecs, who may have been responsible for spreading it southward through Central America into northern South America. Europeans first encountered it among the Aztecs, who may have been growing them to eat them and perhaps to use as medicine. The conquistadores brought along botanists who found the Aztecs to be growing what is now called the tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis), which can get to be 20 feet tall and has hollow stems. It was called acocotli or “water cane”.

A portion of the medicinal lore of the Aztecs was preserved in the Badianus Manuscript written in 1552 by Juannes Badianus, an Aztec student in themselves Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco in Mexico City. An illustration in this book shows a red, eight-petaled flower that resembles a plant later described as D. coccinea.

Later in the 16th century Philip II of Spain sent Francisco Hernandez to Mexico to discover medicinal plants in Mexico. Hernandez produced Rerum Medicarum Novae Hispaniae, which includes illustrations of several apparent Dahlia species, including one that is a doubled-flower, suggesting it has been cultivated.

Dahlia pinnata, Mexico's national flower

Dahlia pinnata, Mexico’s national flower

Jose Antonio Cavanilles, director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Spain, was responsible for sending back to the Old World the first dahlia plant materials that could be grown. In 1789 he sent seeds back to Europe. By 1791 they had produced plants. He called them Dahlias after Swedish botanist Andres Dahl and called his first species, a doubled-flowered plant, D. pinnata. By 1796 he had named D. rosea and D. coccinea.

As successive generations of seeds are sown, an enormous variety of flowers is produced. These are given species names at first, but eventually it is realized that these are hybrids. Much later it will be discovered that dahlias are polyploids (octoploids in this case) with multiple sets of chromosome pairs in each cell. In addition, transposons, genes that readily migrated from chromosome to chromosome, are quite common in dahlias. These qualities allow for tremendous variation in each generation that is cultivated.

Over the years dahlias have been classified and reclassified. At one point the amount of variability in the group caused German botanists to begin an entirely new genus, Georgina, later shown to simply be more hybrid dahlias.

A so-called "cactus" dahlia

A so-called “cactus” dahlia

Much of the variation in the flower shapes is derived from reshaping of the petals. In some varieties they curve up and then down longitudinally; in others they curve down and then up; in yet others the petals roll up latitudinally. This sort of variation produces 14 groups of cultivars, many of them named for their resemblance to other flowers (e.g. peony, orchid, anemone, and waterlily) and some for their overall shape (e.g. pompon and ball).

Their enormous variety and many different colors (almost everything but blue) contribute to their popularity. In addition, they flower for months on end. Their origins in the Mexican highlands mean that they cannot make it through the winter if the frost penetrates more than 6 inches into the soil. Storing the tubers in the winter requires that they be kept cool and not too moist (a bit like some begonias or gladiolus).

They are sensitive to herbicides and fertilizers, so the soil they’re planted in shouldn’t be amended with potting soil. Dahlias prefer good old-fashioned dirt.

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