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The Distracted Horticulturalist
By Paul Hetzler
Cornell Cooperative Extension
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The Distracted Horticulturalist

A sight for sore eyes and Other ailments

First published: August 25, 2015 at 1:04 am
Last modified: August 25, 2015 at 1:04 am

In recent days our North Country pharmacy has come into its own, really blossomed. Just to clarify, that’s not a financial report, it’s a botanical one. I have no idea how the drugstore business is faring, but a couple of our most storied medicinal herbs are flowering right now, and they’re a sight to behold.

The “pharmaceutical” plants are purple-flowering Joe-Pye weed, the doctor, and the nurse, boneset, sporting a crisp white cap. One of the reasons they’re a visual treat is that they often grow in vast swaths in poorly drained soils and near the edges of wetlands. Sometimes they co-mingle, and other times you’ll drive past an undulating wave of pale purple Joe-Pye weed, followed by one of bright white boneset. I suggest doing an image search of these plants so you’ll know what to look for.

Tradition has it that Joe Pye was a Native American who used this plant to treat New Englanders for typhus. Joe-Pye weed, Eupatorium purpureum, was recognized by the medical community as a bona-fide drug in the 1800s. Among herbalists it is still well respected for its effectiveness. Its roots are used to treat a number of ailments, especially kidney and bladder stones, and for this reason some know it as gravel root.

“Nurse” boneset is a native plant that is closely related to Joe-Pye weed, and it is no less important as a medicinal herb. Though never sanctioned as a legitimate drug, boneset, which I always think of as Eupatorium perfoliatum (true story, sadly) was reportedly used widely in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was taken to reduce fever and congestion, and even today some people drink tea made from its leaves when they have a cold or the flu.

Valerian is a European immigrant which can be found in the same habitat as Joe-Pye weed and boneset. It’s easily recognized by its bright white flower clusters as well as by its sweet, sometimes cloying, fragrance. Unfortunately it has just finished flowering in most places, so it’s less conspicuous than Dr. Joe-Pye and Nurse Boneset.

Valerian root is a common ingredient in herbal supplements intended to help relieve anxiety and sleeplessness, and has been used throughout Europe and Asia for at least a thousand years. It’s seldom sold as a bulk herb, though, because of its smell. Some compare its odor to stale perspiration, but I think that’s an unfair claim. It’s much worse than that. Valerian is very powerful, and should be used with caution, and never on a long-term basis.

While medicinal herbs can be beneficial, it’s essential to check with your doctor before taking any, and to only use them under the supervision of an experienced herbalist. Medicinal plants are exactly that, medicine, some much stronger than others. They have the potential to react with prescription drugs, and in rare cases can aggravate conditions such as high blood pressure and glaucoma.

Whether or not you ever make use of these medicinal plants, they’re putting on a show right now, and I hope you enjoy the performance.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Bad Metaphors For Tree Harvesting Health

First published: August 18, 2015 at 1:39 am
Last modified: August 18, 2015 at 1:39 am

What do you call a dairy farmer who spends decades improving the genetics of a herd, then abruptly sells all the best animals to start a new herd from scraggly, unproven stock? Crazy, perhaps, or foolish at the very least (or maybe someone with gambling debts). Under normal circumstances, no livestock farmer culls their best animals to start over with random ones.

Yet it’s common for woodlot owners to sell all the large, well-formed trees during a timber sale and leave nothing but small and defective trees to regenerate the next forest. OK, so my metaphor isn’t perfect—nobody shows up with a tank of liquid nitrogen to help with your tree breeding program—but it’s a reasonable comparison in a lot of ways.

Genetic variation in trees works just like it does in other organisms. If you take a thousand seedlings, some are going to have a slight genetic advantage.

Maybe they are more efficient at photosynthesis, or they’re less apt to develop weak (narrow) branch attachments that are prone to breakage. When an unusually straight, fast-growing tree rises head and shoulders above its peers, it’s generally more than mere chance—that tree probably has something the others don’t, and that’s the one you want seeding the next forest.

The multigenerational process of choosing superior genetics in trees is called silviculture. Ideally a forester marks defective trees to cull for firewood, and marks some of the mature trees for harvest. She or he intentionally leaves some of the very best trees for seed.

This kind of timber production is sustainable in both an economic and ecological sense. Not only does the overall gene pool improve, but periodic select harvesting creates openings in the forest canopy, increasing habitat diversity as it releases understory trees.

Many forest owners have heard of silviculture but continue to practice what some foresters call “silver-culture,” maximizing short-term gain at the expense of long-term forest health.

The prevailing opinion seems to be that doing the right thing for the environment will hurt you financially. Although that may be true in some instances, it is definitely not the case in forestry.

Dr. Ralph Nyland, Professor of Forestry at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse stresses that forestry is a very long-term endeavor. He believes we have to start thinking much farther into the future.

Dr. Nyland illustrates why good forestry make the most cents—and dollars—in the following example:

Assume you and your neighbor have identical 100-acre woodlots with salable timber (everything 16” in diameter and larger) worth $20,000. Your neighbor goes for a diameter-limit cut and gets that entire amount. But you mark a select cut, harvesting $10,000 worth of timber and leaving trees of equivalent value standing. It sounds like your neighbor made out better, right?

The next time you can harvest is fifteen years later. By that time, your timber is worth $34,000. You harvest half, leaving $17,000 worth standing. Your neighbor doesn’t have enough salable timber for a harvest yet.

Thirty years after the first cut, your neighbor again has salable timber valued at $20,000.

Their total income plus residual value after 30 years is $40,000. Your timber, though, is now worth $77,000, which means that your total income plus residual value after 30 years is $104,000. Now we have two winners, both you and your woodlot.

OK, what do you call a poultry farmer who kills the goose that lays one golden egg each day just to get his hands on two or three gilded ova all at once? Well, for starters you’d call them fictional, but also dumb as a rock. Don’t manage your woodlot like that.

Good forestry will give you a healthy woodlot and a heathy bank account. “Silver-culture” will give you bad metaphors, less money and fewer good trees.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Jewelweed Doesn’t Deserve ‘Weed’ Name

First published: August 11, 2015 at 1:23 am
Last modified: August 11, 2015 at 1:23 am

By definition, a weed is any plant growing where you don’t want it. To clarify, this holds true only in the garden beds or acreage under your cultivation. “Weeding” flowers in a park planter because they offend your sense of aesthetics is frowned upon.

To a plant, having “weed” embedded right in its name is probably akin to having a “Kick Me” sign on your back. Right out of the box there is bound to be a bit of prejudice against you, fair or unfair. Spotted knapweed, goutweed and Japanese knotweed are all pernicious invasive species, and deserve all the bad press they get. But occasionally an innocent bystander suffers from this name game.

The native plant commonly known as jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) is one of those exceptions.

A succulent plant that thrives in rich moist soils, it is nearly always welcome no matter where it is found. It’s an annual that is just as happy at the edge of the Arctic Circle as near the equator. Jewelweed has dappled orange, cornucopia-shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds and humans, though not necessarily for the same reason.

Hummingbirds and butterflies have been sipping nectar from its blossoms for who-knows how many millennia. While early settlers began dragging it back to north and central Europe as an ornamental beginning in the 1700’s, native peoples have valued it for thousands of years. Jewelweed may be unique in that it is at once a visual treat, a tactile diversion and a medicine.

Jewelweed is sometimes called touch-me-not, which might suggest one shouldn’t touch it. On the contrary, it should be handled. Jewelweed is “armed” with projectile seeds, and if you touch a mature seed capsule it will burst with surprising force, strewing seeds in all directions. Touching touch-me-nots is an activity that can amuse children (and some of us who never grew up) for long periods of time.

Poison ivy and jewelweed aren’t friends, but they like the same habitat and seem to have reached a certain rapprochement.

Toxic urushiol oil in poison ivy produces dermatitis in most people and a severe allergic reaction in some, but urushiol is neutralized by jewelweed sap. Jewelweed’s thick jointed stem is easily crushed, and you rub this juicy pulp over the skin where poison ivy has contacted it. It helps relieve itchiness caused by insect bites and nettles as well.

Although its reputation as a treatment for poison ivy and other rashes goes back centuries in oral traditions, jewelweed sap has not been well investigated for this purpose in controlled trials.

However, the sap has been used to treat athlete’s foot and other fungal conditions, something which does have has a basis in science—research has confirmed that jewelweed is antifungal.

A close relative of the ornamental impatiens varieties that we love for shady areas, jewelweed is not susceptible to impatiens downy mildew, a disease that has destroyed traditional impatiens in the past few years. Perhaps the key to developing resistant impatiens lies with jewelweed.

Its name may come in part from the way its leaves sparkle when held under water. The leaves are hydrophobic, not wettable, and myriad gemlike air bubbles adhere to them when submerged. It’s possible, too, that it was dubbed a jewel because of its important medicinal uses. Now if we could just get rid of the “weed” portion of its name.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Volcanoes in Northern New York State

First published: August 04, 2015 at 1:16 am
Last modified: August 04, 2015 at 1:16 am

When you think about it, trees in our landscape have it pretty rough. They don’t get to choose their neighborhood; good, bad or indifferent. Depending where they’re planted they may have to contend with “visits” from territorial dogs, “materials testing” by late-night fraternity mobs, entanglements with errant kites, and other issues.

Rooted in one spot day in and day out, year after year, they suffer from—well boredom, I imagine. And from restricted root area, drought stress, competition from turfgrass, reflected heat from pavement and buildings, deicing salt in the soil, that sort of thing.

But in recent years there has been an epidemic of seismic proportions that threatens the well-being of our beloved shade trees. Volcanoes. That’s right, over the past ten to twenty years we’ve had an outbreak of mulch volcanoes. They seem to erupt at the base of landscape trees, particularly young ones, and the results aren’t pretty.

Seismologists and botanists are hard at work trying to account for this phenomenon. Until a cure can be found, though, the public is urged to watch for rouge volcanoes in their neighborhood, and to report them to property owners. Be on the lookout for sudden eruptions of much around the base of trees. It can happen seemingly overnight, especially on commercial and institutional properties.

Banking mulch around the trunk of a tree can have severe detrimental health effects (for the tree, just to be clear). For one thing, insect pests are chickens. Like vandals and Internet trolls, they rarely do their dirty work in the light of day. No, they like it dark, and preferably damp, like under a pile of mulch (or in Mom and Dad’s basement, in the case of trolls). Wood borers and bark beetles love a mulch volcano because it gives them free access to the tree trunk.

Who doesn’t like a cute rodent? OK, some of us probably don’t. Trees aren’t fond of rodents either. Mice, meadow voles and pine voles all enjoy the taste of tree bark. The trouble is, eating it takes them a long time, during which they’re vulnerable to predators. But under a mulch volcano, lunch is on.

Tree roots need oxygen. This may seem obvious—of course they do, and they get oxygen through their veins, right? Well, no. Trees have vascular systems and they do make oxygen via photosynthesis, but they lack something akin to hemoglobin to transport oxygen to all their parts. Turns out that roots get their oxygen through the soil surface. Anything that obstructs access to the surface will smother roots. So, how long can you hold your breath?

Another problem is adaptation. Generally that’s a good thing. To the extent possible, trees are “self-optimizing.” They adapt and respond to changes in their environment. But mulch volcanoes are a different story.

When their trunks become buried by a mulch volcano, which limits oxygen to their natural roots, trees begin making adaptive, or adventitious, roots to compensate. Fine rootlets issue from the trunk in response to being smothered by wood chips. However, over time as the mulch volcano breaks down and subsides, those tender roots dry out and die, stressing the tree.

Finally there’s the issue of water. Transplanted trees may need additional water for several years. The rule is one additional year of watering for each inch of trunk diameter. Mulch volcanoes act like a thatched roof, shedding water very effectively. For a mature tree that’s not a problem, but a young tree may have all or nearly all its roots under that mountain of mulch, (not) nice and dry.

Maintaining two to four inches of mulch around a tree (twice the branch length is ideal) is beneficial, as long as the mulch doesn’t contact the trunk. Help stamp out mulch volcanoes in your lifetime!

For more information on tree care, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension, or new York State Department of Environmental Conservation office.


Late Blight Could Arrive Early This Year

First published: July 28, 2015 at 1:31 am
Last modified: July 28, 2015 at 1:31 am

The term ‘blight’ strikes fear into the heart of anyone who grows tomatoes and potatoes, but it actually has no strict definition. It can refer to any number of plant diseases, from the innocuous to the truly pernicious.

For example, early blight, also known as Alternaria, is a soil-borne pathogen that kills the lower leaves of tomatoes and progresses up the stem throughout the season. Every garden has early blight, and while it’s usually not serious, it can be bad in wet years or if a lot of disease spores have built up in the soil.

Late blight, however, is a completely different kind of pathogen. Of all the plant maladies, I think the only one that deserves the fearsome moniker ‘blight’ is late blight, Phytophthora infestans. Its Latin name, roughly translated, means “highly contagious plant-destroyer.”

Late blight is airborne, so you can’t protect against it through crop rotation and other management practices the way you can with early blight and other garden-variety (so to speak) diseases. It affects leaves anywhere on the plant, not just the lower ones. It also infects stems and fruit, and can kill entire stands of tomatoes and potatoes in just a few days.

Weather plays a big role in the spread of this disease, and this year has been, well, the perfect storm for late blight. Sunlight kills late blight spores in less than an hour, but if it’s cloudy they remain viable for days, travelling long distances. Also, late blight needs moisture to germinate—it won’t infect a dry leaf. What have had in abundance this summer? Yeah, clouds and rain.

Late blight does not overwinter in New York, although it could potentially survive on an infected potato tuber. With the exception of that latter scenario, late blight spores get here from the far south on storm fronts. But once here, every infected plant becomes one of its spore factories, hastening its spread exponentially. This is why it’s so important for gardeners and farmers to destroy infected plants by bagging them up promptly.

Typical symptoms of late blight are large dark watery lesions (similar to lettuce that has been frozen and then thawed) on leaves, and dark brown lesions on stems. Brown, very firm lesions with a “greasy” look and feel will appear on tomatoes. In damp conditions some grayish “fuzz” may grow on the margins of these lesions.

As of late July, late blight has been confirmed in six NY counties, and two in western Vermont. Essentially we’re surrounded, and the weather continues to favor late blight’s spread.

If you think you may have it, don’t destroy your plants until you get confirmation. Bring a sample of leaves, and fruit if it’s tomatoes, to your Cornell Cooperative Extension office for diagnosis.

To protect tomatoes and potatoes, organic growers can use copper-based sprays to protect their plants, and home gardeners can use products containing chlorothalonil. Neither of these will cure late blight or even halt its spread, but are only meant to protect against initial infection.

Commercial growers with a pesticide applicator’s license can buy products which stop late blight. Chuck Bornt of Cornell’s Eastern NY Commercial Hort Program advises commercial growers:

“Once you see LB [late blight] on your farm or if you’re downwind of a farm that has LB, use the systemic or translaminar products such as Curzate + Previcur Flex (or other material) + a protectant. Tank-mix Curzate and Previcur Flex because Curzate has a short residual (especially in hot weather), but very good “burn out “activity. Adding Previcur Flex or another labeled translaminar material will greatly improve control. Because of resistance issues with Ridomil, I would wait until the strain has been identified before using it, although so far this year most of the LB strains identified have not been resistant to Ridomil.”

For daily updates on late blight, visit

PESTICIDE DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to provide correct, complete and up-to-date pesticide recommendations. Nevertheless, changes in pesticide regulations occur constantly, human errors are still possible. These recommendations are not a substitute for pesticide labeling.

Please read the label before applying any pesticide and follow the directions exactly.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Have respect for the elders

First published: July 14, 2015 at 12:53 am
Last modified: July 14, 2015 at 12:53 am

Throughout the ages, elders have been essential to human survival, handing down learned knowledge, handy tips like “This-here plant killed your great-grandpa. Don’t eat it.” But in the world of an arborist, ‘elder’ is also an amazing shrub.

As someone who’s approaching elder status, I feel confused more than I used to. I’m adamant that elders should never be confused—with alders, that is. You know, alders, those spindly, soft-wooded wetland shrubs that grow in dense thickets that aggravate hikers and fly-fishers. Just the same, alders are handy, as they’ll let you know where the poorly drained areas are. If you’re considering where to build your house or to put the garden, the presence of alders will tell you to move along.

And elders should not be confused with boxelders (yep, it’s one word), which are also known as ash-leafed maples, California maples or “those !#*! weed trees.” Though they’re the messy, weak-wooded poor cousins to the sugar maple, boxelders can yield a respectable syrup.

The elder that arborists know best is the elderberry. Well actually there are two species, the ’real’ one, black elder and the (fortunately) less-common red elder, whose toxic berries ripen in June. “Red, you’re dead; black, you’re alright, Jack,” is a saying I’ve heard, though it’s not clear if it applies to the general public or just those named Jack. Black elder, also called American elder, bears copious “umbrellas” loaded with tiny dark purple (almost black) berries that ripen in early September.

Elderberries are prized for both their culinary and medicinal uses. The flowers, which bloom in mid- to late June, are very palatable, and I can attest that the flat-topped flower clusters dipped in batter make very tasty fritters. Some people dry the flowers for a sweet, soothing wintertime tea. The berries make wonderful jam and pie, and are famous for giving elder wine its exquisite color. Elderberries are low-acid, though, and need lemon juice or citric acid added to them when canning elder preserves, juice or whole berries.

For centuries, elderberries have been used to help assuage the symptoms of colds, coughs and flu. As medicinal plants go, the elder is not considered potent, but as it is a pleasant remedy to consume, no one complains. To start off with, elderberries have 35 mg. of vitamin C and 600 IU of vitamin A per 100 mg. Of fruit. Research has shown that the berries as well as the flowers, are a mild anti-inflammatory.

Some claim that elder has a very slight diaphoretic action; that is, it helps induce sweating, although I’ve enjoyed elderberries for years and haven’t noticed that. There’s also a tradition of using a cold infusion of elder flowers as an eye wash to treat conjunctivitis. Clearly, more research is needed to investigate these and other potential uses of elder.

The elder has additional historic uses. The stems have a soft pith which can be easily pushed out to make a hollow tube. Native peoples and early settlers put these to use as maple spiles when gathering sap. The twigs and berries have been used for dyeing cloth and other fibers. Plus, they’re easy to grow, and provide great food and cover for songbirds. There are just so many reasons to respect our elders. Of all kinds.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Get Ticked Off

First published: July 07, 2015 at 1:13 am
Last modified: July 07, 2015 at 1:13 am

Summer should be a carefree season full of picnics and swimming, a time for hikes and barbecues on the deck, not a time to fret about tick-borne illnesses. We want limes, not Lyme. Yet we can’t afford to stick our head in the sand and ignore the issue. We’d probably end up with grit in our ears, which is uncomfortable. Worse yet, we could contract a tick-borne disease, leaving us too ill to enjoy summer.

As few as ten years ago it was unusual to find even one brown dog tick or lone star tick on your person after a weekend of camping in northern New York state. Now in many places all you have to do is set foot in the brush to get several black-legged ticks, commonly known as deer ticks, which are harder to see than other ticks.

The deer tick is known to transmit Lyme disease as well as babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus and other serious illnesses. In fact it’s possible for two or more diseases to be transferred to a host, human or otherwise, by a single tick bite.

Most infections come from an immature or “nymph” stage deer tick, which can be tinier than a poppy seed and nearly impossible to detect (at least for those of us over fifty) without magnification. The adults are not exactly huge, being a bit smaller than a sesame seed. To avoid being bitten by ticks, people who work or play outdoors need to start taking precautions that weren’t necessary in the past.

This isn’t to say we need to panic (though feel free to do so if you like, of course). According to the National Institutes for health (NIH), only about 20 percent of deer ticks are infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the spirochete bacterium that causes Lyme. In most cases, ticks must feed for 24-36 hours in order to transmit disease. And even in the case of transmission, prompt treatment cures Lyme in the majority of infected people.

However, it’s not always as simple as taking pills and feeling improvement. Unlike a tissue infection where antibiotics usually provide relief within days, Lyme symptoms can persist for weeks or months after the standard 3-week treatment has ended. In rare cases it can be a year or more. This is called “Post-Lyme Syndrome,” and its causes are not well understood. Lyme is not a disease to take lightly.

Avoiding ticks is the first order of business. Ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to cling to the next warm body that brushes against them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend using products containing 20-30 percent DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with products containing the active ingredient permethrin. Hikers should stick to marked trails.

Homeowners can clear brush, weeds and tall grasses from the edges of their yards. Ticks like to hide out under leaf litter (which is why sprays are not generally effective against them), so maintaining a yard perimeter that’s raked clean can help discourage ticks.

Pets should be treated regularly with an anti-tick product so they don’t bring deer ticks into the home. Talk to your vet about getting your pets vaccinated against Lyme (sadly there is no human vaccine at the moment).

Despite their name, deer ticks feed on—and infect—many wild critters, particularly our native and ubiquitous white-footed mouse. Because of ticks’ prevalence, people who spend a lot of time outside will eventually have contact with deer ticks. This is where tick hygiene comes in.

Shower and wash thoroughly every evening and then check for ticks. Unfortunately they like hard-to-see places such as the armpits, groin, scalp and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas. If you find a tick has latched onto you, the CDC recommends you remove it by grasping it as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pulling straight up until it releases. You may have to pull hard if it’s been feeding for some time. Don’t twist it or use heat, petroleum jelly or other home remedies to get it to release, as this can increase the chances of disease transmission.

Typical early symptoms of Lyme disease include severe headache, chills, fever, extreme fatigue, joint pain and dizziness. According to the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS is a nonprofit international medical society), fewer than 50% of people with Lyme Disease recall having a red, expanding “bull’s-eye” rash (erythema migraines) that may occur between 3-30 days after the bite. Symptoms can vary widely with each individual. These first signs may go away on their own, but the Lyme organism will cause more serious health issues in the future if ignored. These include arthritis, heart problems and debilitating memory loss and confusion.

If you’ve been bitten by a tick and have these symptoms, see your doctor right away. She or he can order a blood test, or may even prescribe antibiotics based on symptoms. For more information, go to the CDC website at or to the NIH site at A comprehensive website is also hosted by at

Keep yourself and your loved ones ticked off, and have a great summer.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


A Windshield Survey of Back-Country Bugs

First published: June 30, 2015 at 1:32 am
Last modified: June 30, 2015 at 1:32 am

Next time you arrive at your cottage, camp or favorite fishing spot and the car’s grille is bristling with wings and other insect body parts, its windshield greased with bug guts, you should be happy. Those insects develop underwater, and they are an indication that the water quality thereabouts is very good. And that you should bring paper towels and glass cleaner next time.

Flying fish excepted, it seems odd to call an airborne creature aquatic. But these insects spend most of their lives in an aquatic life stage called a naiad or nymph. They breathe through gills that, while well-developed, are readily damaged by sediment and other kinds of water pollution.

Nymphs look nothing like the adults who spawned them. They’re squat mini-monsters with faces even their mother couldn’t love. Depending on species and environmental conditions, they remain submerged for as many as five years.

When it’s good and ready, a nymph will haul itself up on shore, anchor its claws into a log or something and unzip its Gorgon costume. Then an elegant winged creature steps out of the empty monster-husk, spreads its wings and takes to the air. After that impressive magic trick I imagine these bugs are disappointed to learn they may have only a few hours to find a mate before they die.

The insect with the shortest adult life is the mayfly, sometimes known as shadfly. These are the guys that hatch, or more accurately emerge, in such great numbers that your windshield can become an opaque gut-smear in seconds when you pass through a cloud of them. (God forbid you’re on a motorcycle.) Mayflies can be so numerous along the Great Lakes that they show up on Doppler radar. True story.

Mayflies belong to the order ephemeroptera, referring to their brief lives on the wing. Almost all species require running water with high dissolved oxygen and low turbidity, the same conditions trout need. They’re the sheep of the aquatic world, grazing on algae and casting nervously over their shoulders for carnivores like dragonfly nymphs. If they make it to adulthood they emerge to find themselves without a digestive tract and with somewhere between five minutes (no kidding) and a few days to live. Some reward, huh?

Dragonflies are more likely to bounce off a windshield than splat across it, but an unfortunate number end up wedged in car grilles. Ecologists talk about the “edge effect,” because the edge of a clearing is an especially productive habitat. Perfect hunting for dragonflies, except that many roads are long narrow woodland clearings through which speeding steel-and-glass boxes hurtle.

Like their adult form, dragonfly nymphs are efficient predators. Their fearsome hunting gear includes hinged “lips” with sharp grapples on the end, which they deploy with speed and precision. Tadpoles, minnows, other aquatic insects, and on occasion even fellow dragonflies are all fair game. While their pollution sensitivity varies by species, in general dragonfly nymphs are not as fussy as mayflies about water quality, and you can find them in shallow beaver ponds as well as pristine brooks.

Whereas mayfly species are nearly all early-season phenomena, dragonflies emerge throughout the season, often with a noticeable wave early and another pulse quite late in the summer. Adults live to a ripe old age, some making it past their one-month birthday. They eat biting insects and dress in bright colors, which may be why dragonflies figure into popular culture more than other insects.

If you find a stonefly in your automotive bug collection, you’re in the neighborhood of some of the cleanest waterways one can find. Stoneflies are not as numerous as mayflies or as noticeable as dragonflies so they are easy to overlook. Similar in size to a mayfly, they are more flattened and have long slender antennae. They hold their membranous wings directly over their bodies, which gives them a very narrow profile at rest.

Stoneflies aren’t rare but their nymphs only survive in the clearest and most highly oxygenated water. Equal-opportunity diners, they munch on algae and other insects alike. Turn over a rock in your favorite back-country stream and you’re likely to find one clinging to the underside.

Blackflies and deer flies are also aquatic insects, but their habits make them less prone to becoming hood ornaments. Mayflies, which are not even capable of biting, get plastered across cars and trucks but we seldom bag a single blackfly. Life is so unfair. That’s it; I’m taking the day off to go fishing.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


Basswood Best for Wood Bass

First published: June 23, 2015 at 1:40 am
Last modified: June 23, 2015 at 1:40 am

When I got my first pocket knife at age eight, I wasted no time in launching my career as a famous sculptor. How hard could it be, I thought, and gathered a pile of two-by-four lumber scrap ends to carve. Thinking I should warm up before producing a Remington-inspired bucking bronco, I set about to make a fish.

Fresh from a rigorous Sharp Object Safety Class (“Always cut away from yourself. OK, have fun.”), I was careful with the blade. However, that lumber was tough and knotty, and after a while my hand started bleeding. Thus I learned about blisters. As they healed, I lowered my sights from carving to whittling sticks to mere shavings for no good reason, a task to which I remain well-suited.

It’s no surprise I tried to carve a fish. I was familiar with perch and bullhead and bass. If only I’d been familiar with basswood, and the idea that there’s a difference between softwood, which is wood produced by conifers, and soft wood. Dimensional lumber like two-by-fours comes from softwood, which is soft enough to drive a nail through without splitting, but may not readily yield to a blade.

Soft wood, on the other hand, often comes from deciduous “hardwood” species, and is too soft for use as structural lumber. Poplars and willows are soft-wooded, but for carving, basswood is tops. Not only is the wood soft, it’s also consistent across grain and resists checking, or cracking.

Basswood, also known as American linden, Tilia (its genus) or lime (go figure, right?), is a fast-growing native tree that prefers deep rich soils where it attains heights of 80-100 feet. Presumably named for the striped pattern of its bark, basswood’s broad heart-shaped leaves have double-serrated margins, and its small round seeds are and dry and grayish. Basswood flowers are exceptionally fragrant and are sought by honey bees, and harvested both casually and commercially for herbal teas and sleep-aid supplements. (Look on the ingredients list for Tilia or lime blossom.)

While it’s an obscure claim to fame, basswood is one of the best materials for making fire by friction. This is not as mysterious or difficult as it sounds—with a little practice you can start a fire in a minute or two with a bow drill and a dry basswood spindle and fire board.

Equally obscure, but just as fun and probably more useful is the fact that basswood’s inner bark is the strongest plant-based fiber in our region. The bark, which peels readily in spring and early summer, is soaked 3-5 days until the inner bark separates into thin flexible strips. These can be braided and/ or reverse-wrapped into rope and string. It’s something you can do while chatting or watching a movie, much like knitting. I’ve made basswood ropes more than a hundred feet long, and it never felt like work.

I haven’t taken a stab—so to speak—at carving in quite a while. I marvel at the exquisite detail in some basswood carvings, such as the song birds wrought by “The bird lady of Pierrepont,” Hazel Tyrell, in whose house I now live. If only some of her sculpting ability, or at least inspiration, rubbed off on me.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County


The Root of the Problem

First published: June 16, 2015 at 1:42 am
Last modified: June 16, 2015 at 1:42 am

As far as trees are concerned, root damage is the source of all evil. Well, most of it, anyway—chainsaws and forest fires aren’t so kind to trees, either. But regardless of the worrisome signs a tree may develop, whether early fall leaf color, tip dieback, slow growth, or even some diseases and insect infestations, the problem is below ground in the majority of cases.

Part of the issue stems from a flawed understanding of tree biology. There is a lot of tree-root apocrypha floating around the public consciousness. One myth—let’s call it the Legend of the Big Taproot—maintains that trees make enormous deep taproots. While the legend allows that a few side roots may branch off, the key element is the Big Taproot.

It’s true that trees such as oaks and walnuts have a significant taproot when they’re young, but in maturity their root systems look like a pancake, not a carrot, the same as other tree species. Most of us have seen trees that have blown down, but that monster taproot has yet to be spotted. It’s no coincidence that the flat root system one sees on a windthrown tree is referred to as a root plate.

About 90% of tree roots are in the top ten inches of soil, and 98% are in the top eighteen inches. A tree’s roots extend, unless there’s an obstacle like a road or building, at least twice the length of its branches. This is a tree’s root zone, a broad, shallow, vulnerable mass of roots.

Sadly, the Big Taproot Legend has dreadful health implications. For trees, at least—who knows what it portends for your well-being. If we believe tree roots like it deep, we won’t think twice about adding soil or fill, or even paving some of the root zone.

What’s wrong with that? To survive, roots need oxygen, which they get directly from soil pores. Even though they make oxygen when they photosynthesize, trees can’t transport it through their vascular tissues that work so nicely for carrying water, sugars, and nutrients. Soil compaction from driving vehicles or equipment within the root zone causes the same problems. In wet soil conditions, even excessive foot traffic can cause enough compaction to mash soil pores shut and exclude oxygen. In these cases, roots slowly suffocate, and the tree will eventually show symptoms of decline.

Excavating or trenching within a root zone severs some tree roots and usually compact the rest. Sometimes root damage will kill a tree outright within a few years, but more commonly there will be a prolonged decline over five to ten years or more.

Because of the time lag, secondary, opportunistic agents often get the blame.

As with relationships, where trees are concerned the problem at hand is often not the real issue. Imagine glancing out the window one day to see wood chips the size of baseballs raining down from your favorite white pine. You rush outside with your Kevlar umbrella and discover an army of Jig Sawflies, their carbide blades freshly sharpened, power-sawing their way down the trunk. As they smirk at you atop the mound of pine chips, you search the Internet for an exterminator, knowing you’ll miss sitting under the pine’s yellow foliage.

Wait a minute! Yellow foliage? How long was it like that? Maybe there’s something else going on here. A strong, happy tree will be able to respond to insect feeding by manufacturing chemicals known to scientists as Bad-Tasting Stuff to repel them (bugs, not scientists). It will endure some loss due to insect feeding, but it will be able to keep the balance in its favor.

Let’s think back on your white pine. Wasn’t that the one that you worked so hard not to hit with the backhoe when the septic went in six years ago? Or was that the one the gas company trenched near ten years ago? It doesn’t matter. Human activity compromised the root system, resulting in the demise of the tree years later. Sawflies or no, that pine was doomed.

By now you may be thinking, I could sure use another coffee, or, how do trees in those little concrete squares (tree pits) in the sidewalk survive? The difference is that they are put there as little tykes and never come to depend on a normal root system. They’ve adapted to available root space and are considered “unhappy.” Mature trees that have a large root system suddenly cut or damaged to the size of tree pits are considered “dead.”

You can preserve trees in a construction site by cordoning off the root zone at least to the drip line with snow fence before the project begins. Keep in mind that even stockpiling material under trees causes damage.

If driving near trees is unavoidable, adding four to six inches of wood chips or gravel (two inch or larger) to the traffic pathway will help.

If excavation within the root zone is unavoidable, cut roots cleanly, flush with the trench wall. If possible, lay wet burlap over the root ends until backfilling is done. If over 50% of a tree’s root system is to be cut, it’s probably best to remove it. Any significant root damage, including compaction, can lead to future instability of the tree.

To repair damage already done, act quickly—once symptoms show up years later it’s usually too late. Hire a tree care company to loosen the soil with high-pressure water or air injection. Soil injections of beneficial microbes in a solution of dilute sugars and various natural compounds have been shown to be valuable. If this isn’t in your budget, aerating on a 2-foot grid using a soil auger (1-2” dia. By 18-24” long) will help.

Don’t add soil to the root zone or create raised bed gardens around trees, and try not to drive or park within the root zone. As long as the soil isn’t wet, Morris dancers are acceptable, but not on a regular basis, and only if they first remove their bells.

Paul Hetzler is a natural resource and horticultural educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County

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