Winter

WATERSIDE WALK

 

This past week, it was unusually foggy, warm and wet for mid-winter. My mother and I went walking in the part of Stamford, CT, aptly named “Waterside”. The birds were ecstatic to find it 55F instead of 20F; us, too.


picture: a bird-planted juniper bush with a crabapple to the left. Stamford CT January 2005

Where we were walking was a roadway around a man-made inlet off the Long Island Sound. Many years ago, when the inlet had just been excavated, it had been landscaped with junipers, crabapples, pussy willows, and a few larger pines. It was interesting to see what native and alien plants had added themselves to the landscape.

The water had an unusual jade-green cast which was variously explained as an optical effect caused by the fog and the result of excessive run-off from the recent rains.


picture: invasive Asian bittersweet overwhelms its neighbors along the shore of the Long Island Sound. Stamford CT January 2005

Summer

THE WEEDS OF SUMMER

In early spring, the understory wildflowers to advantage of the sun filtering down through bare tree branches to put on their breath-taking annual show. By mid summer, the forest floor is thickly shaded and the color comes from mushrooms and ripening berries. Out in the in the meadows and swamps, and along the roads, however, the summer bloomers are making the most of the August sun.

As a suburban walker, my “beat” is the tiny wild areas along roadsides, between the lots, and behind the parking lots. It’s amazing how much of the summer manages to squeeze into these untended spaces. Many of the denizens are aliens of at least mid-level invasiveness. Some are natives.

The question with the aliens is our ability to restore the wild lands to their pre-Columbian status. Laudably, many try to fight the tide with laws against the continuing sale of the worst invaders and massive clean-up projects on protected lands. Some feel that “rooting out” the entrenched invaders is a hopeless task. To name just a few, how can we ever clear all of the woods of Norway maples

and winged euonymus (euonymus alatus) all of the streams of loosestrife, and all of roadsides of Porcelainberry, and Asiatic Bittersweet?

We can stop new invaders by refusing to plant them in our gardens. We can protect the native treasures being overwhelmed in the wilds by turning our gardens in “gene banks” for them. In the wilds, we can, with continuing vigilance, save some space for the original flora.

Meanwhile, we can enjoy the beauty along the roadsides, regardless of origin. If you’re harboring the easily-spread aliens; it’s important to dead head them before the birds and wind can spread their seeds. The reverse is true of the natives. Leave the seeds for continued interest, often through the winter, and for the birds’ lunch. And let’s hope they do spread back into the wilds.

Spring

NATURE WALK DOWNTOWN –LOOK UP; LOOK DOWN

 

To me, the action as a naturalist is downtown. It’s not that hard to find something to appreciate in a pristine forest (assuming that there are any left). The challenge is to find the beauty under our feet and above our heads in the parking lot.

So if you look up in Hoyt Street Alley, you’ll find this eastern cottonwood (a poplar like the aspen) turning luscious caramel buds into gorgeous catkins.

pictures: eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) bud to catkin (flower) , Hoyt Street Alley, Stamford Ct. April 2005

Some of the other local trees with catkins are from the Betula (birch) clan: the river birch, paper birch and alder (male alder catkins are the long ones: female are the shorter redder ones).

Fall

WALK : SEPTEMBER 2005

 

WALK : SEPTEMBER 2005
September 18, 2005, Issue 179

By mid summer, the forest canopy closes over the woodland floor, blocking so much light that it’s hard to take photos without a flash; most of the spring wildflowers go dormant until next year. Color comes from an endless array of fungi, ferns and moss, accented by a ripening berry here and there. From late August through last week’s Equinox, the woods are wonderful: the gnats and mosquitoes have thinned out, the temperature and humidity are down a bit (usually) but the still-green forest canopy keeps the forest dark even at noon; the forest’s summer treasures are still on view but the walk is much more comfortable.

In the meadow, along the shore, in the forest glades, and along forest edge, where sun hits the ground, asters, goldenrod, sun flowers, and grasses preview fall’s color and texture.


Picture: Goldenrod at Cove Beach, Autumnal Equinox 2005. There are something like 125 kinds of goldenrod in North America; this one might be a seaside goldenrod but it would take an expert to be sure.


Picture: wild sunflower along the Mill River, Stamford, CT 2004

Introduction

SPECIAL EDITION: ECO-URBAN STUDIES: “LIVING LIGHTER WITH LESS”
Coming this week and next to The Monday Garden are a series of articles on “Living Lighter With Less”

I was drafting, for other use, a collection of thoughts on ways to keep a small home (mostly likely a high-rise apartment) reasonably clean in minimum time with minimum money while leaving a light footprint on the planet and not poisoning ourselves or our pets. Post-Katrina, I’m now rewriting and posting the material on inmygarden.org as this material might be useful to some of the thousands who are now rebuilding the basics. This material is for:

• those starting over from scratch on a minimal budget;
• those doubling and tripling up in a smaller space than they are used to;
• those downsizing from a detached dwelling to an apartment; and
• those who want a clean, attractive home with minimum effort and cost.

If you have a suggestion to add, please post it in the comments section following the article.

Here’s a taste of what’s to come:

• HOW TO COPE WITH APARTMENT AND MULTIPLE-FAMILY LIVING

• THE ONLY CLEANING PRODUCTS AND TOOLS YOU NEED.

• FURNISHING A SMALL HOME ON A SMALL BUDGET: A ROOM-BY-ROOM CHECK LIST

• CHOICES TO CUT YOUR CLEANING TIME IN HALF

• MAKE A HOME GYM THAT FITS IN A 24” BOX FOR UNDER $100.

Cleaning Tools

LIVING LIGHTER WITH LESS : CLEANING TOOLS SIMPLIFIED

 

Right up there with simplifying to under 10 cleaning products is simplifying the cleaning tools. It’s another area where you can go crazy on cost and on bulky gear, and, yet, not get all that much for your money. If you live in a small space, choosing the right cleaning tools can make all the difference in keeping clean with minimal effort and leaving space in the closet for your clothes.

THE CLEANING TOOLS (NON-ELECTRIC)


Picture: the essential cleaning tools are also compact and simple.

CLOTHS, BRUSHES, SPONGES, AND TOWELS:

Terry wash cloths: Terry cloth washcloths are one of the all-time best cleaning inventions. Nothing works better or is more versatile, and you can pop them in the wash with the regular laundry. You can buy a pack of 4 to 10 for $5 to $10, depending on quality, brand, etc. Keep a stack in the bathroom. In the kitchen, a stack of terry cloths serves as the dust cloth, counter–wiper, dishrag, dish dryer, floor mopper, re-useable paper towel, etc. etc. Since they are small, you can use several a day, so you always have a clean, dry cloth at hand. Wiping the cat and dog down weekly with a damp washcloth controls pet allergens.

For the garage, rip your old towels into squares. To distinguish the “good” terry washcloths for the bath and drying dishes from the serious dirt rags, buy slightly different washcloths each time you get some new ones, so they are instantly “color–coded”. Periodically, pre-soak with oxygen cleaner to de-stain.

Cotton and linen dish towels: Pretty cotton and linen dish towels are decorative and add color to the kitchen but for save them for lining the bread basket and keeping the veggies fresh. Let the washcloths do the heavy work. For long-lasting fresh veggies: wash, then swing the wet veggies in a towel (preferable outside) to get out excess water; store in the refrigerator in plastic shoe boxes form the Dollar Store lined with clean, dry cotton dish towels.

Paper towels: If you have plenty of re-useable terry cloths, and cotton dish towels, you seldom need paper towels, so don’t buy the 6-roll pack – it takes up too much space. Paper towels are good for lining the microwave and for cleaning up stinky or oily spills where you will need to toss the clean-up rag immediately. (Oily rags area fire hazard – they can spontaneously combust). Brown (unbleached) paper towels are better for the environment.

Brushes: A sink-vegetable brush is very handy, and one with a long handle keeps your hands out of the water. Stick the brush in the dishwasher at least weekly. It is also good to have a few small, stiff scrubbing bushes with long handles, including a bottle brush or two. For big jobs, buy a flat floor scrub brush that screws into a pole. A separate brush for toilets is a must. Complete your brush set with some old toothbrushes. A cat/dog grooming brush is also good.

Sponges: You don’t really “need” sponges if you have washcloths and a sink brush, but if you like them, you can get a pack of small square ones with scrubber backs in the Dollar Store for about $1. You can keep sponges clean longer by running them through the dishwasher.

BOWLS AND BUCKETS

Stainless steel bowls: A set of nesting stainless steel utility bowls, from mini to the largest size your cabinet can hold, serves as extra sinks and buckets that are good for everything from floor mopping to plant transplanting and baby washing. You can often get good deals on stainless steel bowls in the thrift store.

Plastic utility buckets: Buy 2 matching plastic utility buckets at the same time so they fit together. Use the top one to store your under-sink cleaning equipment. Slip the bottom bucket off for mopping floors, roof leaks, and the like.

MOPS, BROOMS, AND THE LIKE

One broom-stick length pole with screw-on attachments: Tools with broom-length handles take up closet space. If you have several, they are always tangled up in a small space. You can save a lot of space and money by buying one removable, wood pole or aluminum telescoping pole, from the hardware store. To go with the pole, get a flat-head scrub brush , a squeegee for windows, and a large soft broom head for hard floors. The screw-on heads can also be used separately as hand tools. For dusting, mopping and drying floors, you can wrap a terry cloth around the scrub brush or, what works great with a washcloth for dusting and mopping the floors, is one of those handles sold for use with disposable chemically-treated dust cloths (see picture below).

Carpet sweeper: A carpet sweeper, if you haven’t used one, is a long handled, mechanical dust pan. They run $20 to $50. The $20 ones work fine. Carpet sweepers clean floors and carpets almost as well as a non-HEPA vacuum and have the blessing of being quiet and non-electric. Most fold flat for storage. In a small home or a home without much carpet, you can use a carpet sweeper instead of a vacuum. If you have both, use the sweeper outdoors, for quick indoor clean ups, and for sweeping up objects that might damage the vacuum.

Cleaning Products

LIVING LIGHTER WITH LESS: ALL THE CLEANING PRODUCTS YOU NEED

 

We all know that, regardless of a home’s type, size and cost, keeping the home reasonably free of dirt and mess is critical to mental and physical well being. The smaller the home, and the more humans and other creatures living in it, the more that sanitation and neatness count.

However, time and resources for cleaning are often limited. So what are some ways of keeping a home, large or small, reasonably clean in minimum time with minimum money? While we’re at it, why not try to make product and material choices that leave a light footprint on the planet and are healthiest for you and yours? The ironic part, it turns out, is that, despite all the hoopla for the new-better-different this and that, when it comes to cleaning, healthiest is also simplest and cheapest.

ALL THE CLEANING PRODUCTS YOU NEED

There are so many cleaning products on the market. However, if you’re not vigilant, you can run up a big bill and bring unwanted chemicals into your home. Then there’s the cabinet–choking clutter created by all the bottles and stuff. So what cleaners do we really need? We can keep the home clean under ten products and do it while SAVING money ANDprotecting the environment.

THE BIG FOUR: These are the only four cleaning products that you actually “need”. They are all cheap, versatile, readily available, and user-friendly.

1. Liquid vegetable-oil soap: One foaming soap will do for hands, dishes, body, and plants. There’s no need for separate products, except in advertisers’ minds. Any vegetable oil-based soap works fine. It is cheapest to buy a large container and decant into smaller re-usable bottles for the tub, and each sink. An organic product is extra good for you and the planet, if you can get it, and can afford it. Dr Bronner’s castile soap, available on-line and in health food stores, is an old-timer favorite which can also be used as toothpaste, hair and dog shampoo, and as a general household cleaner. In a pinch, any liquid dishwashing soap will do.

2. White vinegar: White vinegar is a wonderful all-purpose cleaner. It is distilled from grain and can’t hurt you unless you get it in your eyes. With its high acid content, white vinegar is a natural antibacterial and degreaser. Dilute with about 2/3 water for windows, mirrors, blind slats, and daily cleaning of appliances, cabinets and woodwork. You can mix the vinegar and water in bowl or use a spray bottle if you have one. White vinegar rinses clean. Use it straight or diluted only by 1/3 for de-scaling coffee makers and terra cotta pots. White vinegar is probably the cheapest cleaner on the market; a pint bottle costs under a dollar, a gallon jug is about $2.

3. Baking soda: Baking soda has some magic ingredient that coaxes most pans to self clean after soaking for an hour or two. Likewise, baking soda happily absorbs odors in everything from sneakers and the cat liter box to the trash can and the bathroom. It makes a gentle scouring powder for fresh vegetables, greasy hands, woodwork, appliances, sinks, leather goods, and counter tops. Put some in the dishwater and the laundry to boost your soap’s cleaning power. Baking soda is very cheap and so versatile that you can use it on skin rashes and insect bites, brush your teeth with it, stick a box in the refrigerator to control odors, and pour it down a clogged drain mixed with salt and hot water. Rub in on the cutting board to get out onion smells. Put a new box in the refrigerator and later rotate it under the sink for use as a cleaner.

4. Hot water: The number one all-time cleaner is plain, old hot water. (See the related artilce on cleaning tools for steam-cleaners).

THE OTHER SIX:

5. Citrus oil degreaser-solvent: A citrus oil degreaser-solvent is great for the most stubborn label glue and grease. Any strong spot remover-degreaser, though, may dissolve plastics or strip color, so test first. A 2 oz bottle of citrus oil solvent at the Dollar Store cost a dollar or less and lasts a long time as you only use a drop at a time. (Query: can we cross this one off the list and use full-strength lemon juice instead? What’s worked for you?)

6. Powdered oxygen cleaner: a generic hydrogen peroxide-based “oxygen cleaner” (about $3.50 in the Dollar Store) is all you need for cleaning grout and the toilet bowl, for whitening the laundry, and for major kitchen floor stripping. Treat an oxygen cleaner with respect like chlorine bleach, though: let the oxygen cleaner solution sit for a while to work; watch where it drips as it can strip non-fast colors; use properly diluted and rinse thoroughly. It is “natural” but, like most of “nature”, not harmless. The powdered form is the cheapest and most versatile.

7. Dishwasher soap: If you have dishwashing machine other than the kids, you normally use a soap specially made for the machine. Loose powder is the cheapest but some like the convenience of the pressed tablets. What can be skipped are the pricey chemicals to finish, dry, etc. If the dishwasher seems gunky, or the glasses don’t sparkle, throw in vinegar or baking soda with the next wash. If you want a cheaper dishwasher powder, there are recipes on the web for a mix of borax and baking soda.

8. Laundry soap: If you can, choose a hypo-allergic, biodegradable, fragrance-free, low suds, concentrated laundry detergent. All you need for the clothes is the detergent plus oxygen cleaner for whitening and pre-soaking stains, and a cup of white vinegar for very stinky clothes. I hate to hurt the manufacturer’s feelings but you don’t “need” laundry conditioners and dryer sheets. Some say that they can be harmful to health. I do know that laundry conditioners and dryer sheets seal cloth so it doesn’t absorb moisture – a horrible thing, I think, in a T-shirt, bath towel or bed sheet.

9. Salt and lemon juice: Like white vinegar, table salt and lemon juice are cheap and can be used as cleaners, disinfectants, food preservatives, and food seasoning. They can also be used to boost the power of baking soda or vinegar. Try salt as a metal cleaner. They say to rub salt on the flatware before washing, and to scour the greasy frying pan with it. Salt is also used spot remover— try it dry to absorb the wine out of the rug and diluted with water for upholstery stains. Lemon juice is a great natural disinfectant, degreaser and odor remover. Lemon juice is supposed to work for windows — about about 1/4 cup to a gallon of water. Let me know if it works for you.

10. Specialty cleaners: Depending on taste, need, and budget, you might also want a specialty cleaner or two such as hair shampoo (generic baby shampoo works as well as most shampoos), facial cleansers, shaving cream, toothpaste, and nail polish remover (a handy solvent).

CLEANING NOTES:

RECIPES: There are hundreds of recipes for make-it-yourself home cleaning solutions. They usually don’t work for me because I find most recipes too complicated, too hard to remember, and too much clutter to keep handy in paper form. If you’d like to try some, do a web search for “vinegar”, “salt”, “borax” or “baking soda” plus “clean”.

READ THE LABEL. If there are cautions or warnings on the package, why do you want the stuff in the house? Everything goes in the mouths of human babies, puppies and kittens. Likewise, you and your animals absorb household chemicals through fumes in the air and residues on the floor. Small amounts that don’t seem harmful to an adult human can be serious for a 10 lb. cat. Remember also that tons of these chemicals are produced and released into the environment each year solely because you and I buy them.

POLISHES : You really don’t need much in the way of polishes. If you’re using a rinse-free, non-steak cleaner like white vinegar, you can skip the specialty polishes for counters, appliances, and stove tops.

Wooden objects: Baskets and wood boxes last longest if sealed with stain, lacquer and/or enamel. Wood floors and furniture also want a sealer or stain. Then, mist occasionally for hydration and clean with a slightly damp cloth. Some say that baskets like to be quickly dipped in cool water once a year.

Non-wood floors: Whatever you use on the kitchen and bathroom floor is going right in the baby’s and dog’s stomach. Try just mopping with one of the safe cleaners mentioned above. So what if the floor’s not so shiny?

INSECTS: Aerosol poisons are worse for you then bugs, arguing and denial will not change this fact. Second fact: cockroaches are a part of life in multi-family dwellings, rich or poor. The best way to discourage roaches is to guard all food sources. Store food only in sealed metal, plastic or glass containers. Clean up after ever meal and serve food in dishes that don’t spill easily, like low soup bowls rather than flat plates. Food garbage goes out daily or is kept in a sealed container.

For all bugs, fly swatters are good as is a feral-born, insect-eating house cat. If you must, put out insect traps where kids and animals can’t reach them but lay off the poisonous sprays and liquids. For plant bugs, toss the plant or use plain water, dish soap, insecticidal soap, rubbing alcohol or a sticky-glue trap (make your own with strips of red or yellow duct tape).

ALLERGENS AND GERMS: Many think that daily exposure to small amounts of germs (bacteria and virus) keeps our immune systems properly functioning. Accordingly, too much disinfecting and germ-avoidance can be a bad thing except for infants, the elderly, and others with weak immune systems.

Allergens, though, are different. Current thinking is that allergies are cumulative and that the more exposure to allergens can be reduced, the more the body can tolerate the allergens that it has to handle. So if you have someone in the house with asthma or severe allergies, the more you can reduce that person’s exposure to dust, molds, pollen, etc., especially in their bedroom and other places where they spend significant time, the more likely they are to be able to tolerate the cat, outdoor allergens and the like.

 

Ragweed

GOLDENROD, RAGWEED AND MUGWORT

GOLDENROD: The goldenrod’s blooming, so it must be fall. Goldenrod’s a lovely fall bloomer that’s gotten an undeserved bad rap as a major source of allergy-causing pollens. While it’s not pollen-free, it’s not the really bad guy. Goldenrod’s a friendly, photogenic native, beloved of birds, and bees, and other beneficial insects. There are at least 130 goldenrod species in North America. There’s even a seaside variety and a white one (“silver rod’). It’s a great late summer garden plant, too.

The villains are some of those easy-to-overlook weedy things with greenish flower stalks. The worst is the wind-pollinated ragweed, which blooms at the same time, and often grows in the same place as goldenrod, and which also belongs to the Aster (Composite) Family. And then there’s ragweed’s close relative the ubiquitous mugwort, which is also coming into bloom now.

RAGWEED: Starting with ragweed, not only is it the source of much human misery; but we have only ourselves to blame. All ragweed needs to get started is freshly-turned earth to expose the seeds buried in the soil, and a bit of sunshine to wake the seeds up. The seeds will wait in the soil for 40 years for the right conditions to come along before germinating.

Like poison ivy (Issue 74 and Issue 118 ), ragweed’s what we call an “enhanced species” because human behavior gives it a major ecological boost. Ragweeds thrive where the earth has been disturbed. In a way, it’s Mother Nature’s revenge for leaving her earth naked to dry out and erode. Almost daily, I read yet another new article about research confirming that we should disturb the soil as little as possible, and that we need to mulch, mulch, mulch. mulch.

Ragweed, for example, didn’t get out of hand until the European settlers along the East Coast cut down much of the forest and plowed up the land. Indeed, once I read that archeologists date the mud at the bottom of the Long Island Sound by the ragweed pollen count, which rocketed upwards in the 1800’s.

There are a good 2 dozen kinds of ragweed; our local ragweeds come in three basic types: common ragweed (Ambrosia artemisiifolia), western ragweed (Ambrosia psilostachya), and giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida). The common’s usual knee height or less and has deeply cut “raggy” looking leaves. The Western looks like the common only it’s a lot bigger. The giant have rounded leaves with 2 to 5 pointy-tipped lobes and can reach shoulder height or more. The common and giant are annuals; the western can be annual or perennial, spreading by underground roots.

The three ragweeds have very similar flowers. The tiny flowers along the flower spikes are facing downward; so what you see are the scalloped green flower bases with the flower parts peeking out from underneath like a petticoat. The giant ragweed has tiny gold-yellow flowers; the common ’s are tan.

The giant ragweed’s flower stalks are striking green candelabras dusted with gold; the common’s are smaller and closer together so they like more like a crowd of slightly curved green spires

MUGWORT: Now for the mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris), also called “common wormwood”. This one’s an alien, so again, we only have ourselves to blame. It’s another one of the Euro-Asian imported herbs that got out of hand. Along long the East Coast, across the Midwest and in the Northwest, you’ll see the silvery, plumy colonies of mugwort along sidewalks, backyards, parking lots and roadways where we’ve disturbed the earth. It’s related to absinthe and sagebush (not the cooking herb known as “sage”).

USES: Ragweed is useful to non-humans. The oil-rich seeds are good bird food, particularly in winter. Mugwort and ragweed are used in homeopathic medicine. Mugwort, in particular, seems to have a number of useful herbal applications. For example, it’s recommended as an herb for a “sleep pillow” and it’s sold as a lice and mite repellant for caged birds.

Invasive, common-as-mud, allergy-causing mugwort is still sold in nurseries and on-line. The variegated “Oriental Limelight” highbred seems to be very popular. One of my fellow Master Gardener Interns spotted it in a Connecticut nursery this past week, at the amazing price of over $10 a pot. (I wonder what the hapless buyers thought when they later saw mounds of it growing wild by the parking lot!)

Clematis

VIRGIN’S BOWER AND THE ASIAN TWIN

 

Here’s a tale of two vines: a Great American and its Asian twin. The picture taken in a Stamford churchyard is of the foreign twin, escaped from someone’s garden and running wild on a privet hedge. It’s called sweet autumn clematis (clematis terniflora or clematis paniculata).

The American twin is virgin’s bower (Clematis virginiana) is a native clematis in the buttercup family. It ranges from Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia south to at least Florida. (There’s a western variety Clematis ligusticifolia, with the Spanish name “yerba de chivat”, so technically we’ve got triplets). While most sources say that sweet autumn clematis is “Asian”, New Zealand claims it as a native, with the Maori name “puawhananga”.

Both vines grow rapidly to about 20′ and look wonderful draped over a fence or climbing up a tree. The bees, butterflies and other pollen gathering insects love the fragrant flowers; birds like to nest in the thick, tangled vines. The flowers are followed by attractive feathery seeds. Neither plant appears to have much forage or medical value. Since many clematis are high in poisonous alkaloids, this may also be true of virgin’s bower and sweet autumn clematis. Sweet autumn clematis is readily available for sale in local nurseries and via the Internet. Many garden experts recommend it.

The flowers look alike so the best way to tell the vines apart is by their leaves: the native plant has toothed leaves and the foreign one has round, smooth edged leaves.

Since it’s much harder to find a seller of the native plant, I suspect that the Asian plant is easier to propagate, like the Asian bittersweet. So is sweet autumn clematis a kudzu in the making? It has gotten loose and is said to found in the wild from Southern Connecticut to Florida and west to the Mississippi. I see it climbing over hedges and fences in Stamford urban areas. While it’s not high on the Canadian and USA invasive menace lists, it is starting to make a few, particularly in the Southeast.

BTW: there are many, many lovely highbred clematis vines that make great garden plants. They come in a wide range of colors and if you shop around you can find ones that bloom most of the summer and a great mixer with roses (that tend to quit in the heat). Most these “garden” clematis like their roots kept cool and moist in shade but must have their tops in good sun to produce flowers. They take a couple of years to get started but are worth the wait. To my knowledge, in the northern USA and Canadian, none are invasive; but in the South and West, a few varieties are listed as potential trouble makers.

Burdock

A CURE FOR THE COMMON BURDOCK

I used to think that tropical-looking burdock would be great as the star in a garden of pest and drought resistant, edible, native and naturalized plants. Then I found out what happens when burdock gets out of control.

BURDOCK FAMILY

Common burdock: Burdock is a member of the composite (daisy) family, like its roadside companions, chicory and dandelions. There are at least three kinds of burdock present in North America, all Eurasian imports. The best know is the “common” or “lesser” burdock (Arctium minus), which is pictured in this article. Common burdock has flower stalks rising knee to shoulder height. Common burdock is reported to be found in all providences of Canada and all parts of the USA mainland except Florida and, perhaps, some areas near the Great Lakes. I believe that it has also found its way into Mexico.

Great and woolly burdock: Also naturalized are the great burdock (Arctium lappa), and the less-weedy woolly burdock (Arctium tomentosum). The great burdock has towering flower stalks up to an amazing 9 feet. You can tell great burdock from the “common” form by the size, and by the arrangement of the flowerheads. The great burdock‘s flowerheads are arranged in flat-topped clusters at the top of the stems. The woolly burdock has fleece on the outside of its flowerheads.

Japanese gobo: Lastly, in the vegetable garden and truck farm, there is gobo, the Japanese cultivated version of great burdock.

CULTURE AND REPRODUCTION

Growing conditions: Burdocks like sun or part shade, and any type of soil, as long as it is well-drained. Burdocks have long-tap roots that hold about half the biomass of the plant, up until flowering time, making the plants seriously drought resistant.

Burdock is a biannual. Under ideal conditions, burdocks are bi-annuals, forming a basal rosette (low circle) of leaves the first year, and then dying after they flower in their second summer. A 1994 University of Manitoba study by Norm C. Kenkel and Kelly Graham, however, indicates that if conditions aren’t ideal, common burdock will remain in its immature stage for up to 5 years. The flowers, of course, are followed by the notorious seed-burs.

Burdock spreads only by seed: The seeds are definitely spread via the hooked burs hitch-hiking on passing birds, humans, and furry critters. It may also be that birds eat and spread the seed. However, while there are innumerable reports of birds roosting on burdock, eating the seeds, and using the seed fluff for nesting, there are some reports that burdocks seeds may be poisonous to some birds. Further, while burdock pops up under bird-roosting places, I haven’t found any studies that confirm that the seeds are spread via bird-gut. It is said that it took common burdock some 200 to 300 years to spread to the West Coast, a slow creep which would be more likely if the seeds had to hitch-hike, rather than fly, at least most of the way.

Burdock needs infrequently distributed soil. Burdocks are normally found along roadsides, barnyards, fence lines and the like where the soil has been disturbed. The disturbed soil allows the burdock seeds to germinate and the seedlings to get a foothold. The period of disturbance has to then followed by a period of non-disturbance long enough for burdock to complete its multi-year cycle and make more seeds. Lastly, more disturbance is need for the new seeds to get going. Thus, burdock’s spread is inhibited by its need for once-in-while disturbed earth. Burdock can’t get established in undisturbed areas, in fields that are tilled every year or in areas that are mowed too frequently to allow the plant to flower.

Burdock as an isolated planting: Because of the special needs of a bi-annual that spreads only by seed, common burdock often occurs only as a isolated plant or two. When confined to isolated plantings, as it is usually is in the sub/urban environment, burdock “plays nicely with others” and is not in the same class as mugwort which crowds out almost everything in its path. In the ‘burbs, burdock is not generally as harmful to the environment as the sub/urban sprawl itself, and, in many ways, is just a part of the sprawl.

Burdock as a dominant species: Unfortunately, when conditions are ideal, common burdock also occurs in large patches. The University of Manitoba study was occasioned by common burdock becoming the “dominant understory species” in the Manitoba Delta Marsh area. I’ve been told that the area is open woods, with enough sun for burdock. (I wonder: what provided the necessary occasional disturbance of the earth? Could it have been the good ol’ white tail deer?)

HAZARDS OF COMMON BURDOCK:

Burdock is considered “low risk” by the poison centers, but tell that to human parents and animal caretakers. The burs can cause serious injury if they get in the eyes or are ingested (very rare). Mostly, they’re just very difficult to get out of hair and fur. (I once suffered a major haircut after crawling through a mess of them.)

Common burdock is a bird-killer!!! Now, here’s the bad part: there are several reports on the Internet of hikers finding the dead bodies of small birds such as goldfinches, kinglets, and hummingbirds that became trapped in burdock burs and then died of starvation and exposure. See an eyewitness report on the site of my colleague, Walter Muma.

When I first read about the bird-killing on Walter’s earthcaretaker.com site (thank you Walter for publishing this!), I was astounded. You can find innumerable pictures on the web of birds happily posing on burdock. I’ve known common burdock my whole life as a live-and-let-live neighbor, hair-snarling issues aside. Now, I find out it is a mobster. How? The best I can figure out is that, since all the bird-killing reports I’ve read came from hikers, the bird trapping tends to happen in the wild where burdock gets loose and grows densely enough that the burs can ensnare the little guys. If any reader has better explanation, please let me know as I can add to this article.


After this article was written, the following was received from noted ornithologist, Todd Jason Underwood, who has studied the issue:

“Regarding your question about where entanglements occur, from my observations, they seem to occur where there are large concentrations of burdock plants. I have only found one or two birds (out of about 30) entangled where there are isolated plants. Entanglements also appear more common where birds are concentrated during migration as most entanglements occur during fall migration. Another important thing to note is that burdock entanglement occurs with other animals as well. Insects are commonly caught as well as bats. I even found a dead northern leopard frog hanging by its mouth from a burr.”