On plant propagation


This article is the first in a series of articles on plant propagation.

When the first shoot of a plant breaks the ground, waving its tiny embryonic leaves, I am always overcome with satisfaction and elation.

A tiny seed I planted and in days or weeks, has germinated, sprouted and is on its way to becoming an entity that has a vascular system, creates its own food and, will one day bloom, grow its own fruit and seeds, and perhaps provide food for myself, my family, birds and other wildlife, enrich the soil and, eventually be turned into compost, making the nutrients in its leaves, stems and flowers available for the next generation of plants.

Despite their dramatic entrances, embryonic seeds are not the only way of creating new plants. Division, vegetative, layering, cuttings, grafting and budding are also tried and true methods.

My dad knew about grafting and budding long ago. He loved citrus and was rather obsessed on the processes. He and a volunteer from Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service (that’s before master gardeners appeared on the horizon) would assiduously graft and bud different citrus species onto trifoliata stock. Poncirus trifoliata – a close relative of the Citrus genus – is one of the root stocks that growers use to create stronger and more productive plants.

Seeds are the result of sexual reproduction of flowering plants and conifers. As I’m sure most of you reading this are familiar in one way or another with sexual reproduction, I’m not going to bore you with the obvious.

Seeds from different plants have different characteristics. Some need to be sown deeply into soil or growing medium. Some need to be sown shallowly, and some need to be exposed to light before they can germinate.

Some seeds have pulp around them which needs to be removed before planting. Other seeds have extremely hard shells and require scarification (nicking the seed with a knife or rubbing it with sandpaper) to assist the embryo in emerging. Other seeds need to be stratified – soaked or placed in a cold place for a period before they can be planted.

If you’re looking for a gardening hobby to keep you occupied on cold winter weekends, or scorchingly hot ones, this might be something you would want to try.

I will be discussing various methods of plant propagation in future articles.

Photo: Preparing to plant Texas bluebonnet seeds in coconut coir pots. The reddish tint on the photo is a result of using red LED lights to germinate the seeds and help the seedlings flourish. More on that in a subsequent article.

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Winter is a haven for birds here


(Photo: Black-bellied whistling duck. Photo courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although, even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common  terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

 

Winter is a haven for birds


(Photo: Black-bellied Whistling Duck. Courtesy of Cornell Ornithology Lab.)

It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.

Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature  – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.

Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.

 Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.

While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.

Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.

Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.

Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.

Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.

There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Autumn Leaves and Other Musings


I’ve always loved fall. Smokey dusks turning tree lines a subtle purple.  The leaves of ash, elm, maple, pecan, and gum turning their fall colors, backdropped by green aromatic pines, their brushy limbs cleaning the air and the tens of varieties of oaks (Hundreds? Thousands?) squatting down restraining the earth with their roots – trigger my emotions and memories – both sweet and bittersweet.

The fall is when I most often turn my eyes to the sky, looking for birds of prey, those magnificent hawks falcons and shrikes, who tarry here for a while before they begin their journey along the Gulf Coast to Mexico and parts south. They spiral along thermals, or perch on their own lookout station, waiting for an errant mouse or foolhardy rabbit to stray from their warren.

The hawks like to take the long road…as opposed to the millions of hummingbirds, who, like so many of us, head due south across the Gulf and reaching the Yucatan exhausted, to rest on the edges of the quiet jungles before heading southward again.

In the spring, the hawks will again follow the coast from their southern wintering grounds and then turn north when they reach the central flyway, seeking the bounty of the Midwest. Their trip is rather leisurely, as they take time to hunt along the way. The hummingbirds however, will come ashore at High Island and Bolivar Peninsula, exhausted perhaps from a headwind slowing them down or a storm barring their way. No food and a longer than expected trip will leave them winded and hungry.

But this year feels different. I haven’t seen many hawks. Usually they are hulking around promising hunting places, hungry and ready to swoop down for a kill. I have been seeing an aggressive hummingbird recently (she must not have read the notice that they were to fly south months ago).

A very aggressive one has been hovering around what’s left of the flowers on my Turk’s Cap throughout the fall. It’s getting late. As far as I can tell, she has no plans for a winter vacation in Puerto Vallarta.

The native trees aren’t the only ones flashing color. The ubiquitous Chinese tallow, also called Florida aspen (sarcastically, I’m sure), sports brilliant fall hues. This insidious tree is everywhere. In people’s yards (they planted it for the fall color), in tree buffers around commercial buildings, along fence lines, anywhere they can grow.

These vampires of the tree world produce so many seed, grows so fast and spread their roots so quickly that it can outcompete any other tree in the forest. In south Louisiana it has become the dominant tree species, replacing pine and oak forests. The fact that the seeds and leaves are poisonous and the roots put out an allelopathic chemical that discourages other plants from growing around them goes a long way in their invasion. These destructive trees are the gift of beloved Ben Franklin, who imported them from the Far East in 1776, thinking the berries could be used in to manufacture soap. And they can. However, Ben’s idea never took off, but the trees did. Then, during the Great Depression, the trees were planted in the South in hopes of spurring the  idea of creating…you guessed it…a soap manufacturing operation. I haven’t seen many soap factories in my wanderings around the South.

There are other signs of fall and the coming winter. More rain. Cooler weather. Lots of leaves on the ground for the compost bin. Cabbages, carrots, beets, lettuce, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, Swiss chard are filling up fall gardens. Warm clothes are coming out of storage. The sweet smell of wood burning in fireplaces. Gray skies and chilly northwest winds chugging down from the Artic. It’s a magical time for me and for many of my friends.

 

Genetically speaking…


I want to introduce you to my friend and fellow gardener Bernard, a tall Dutchman who lives here and who loves gardening as much or more than I do. His real love is vegetable gardening.

Bernard starts all his vegetables from seed. When he built his house, he added a small space in his garage for his seed propagation area. He has a seed-starting light set up with tray warmers. He’s also got a steady hand. Prying tiny lettuce seedling roots apart for transplant requires the steadiness of a surgeon.

When he was a child in Indonesia, he and his mother were interned in a Japanese prisoner of war camp.   It was there that he learned gardening. Vegetable gardening was allowed, so the prisoners made the most of it to supplement their meager daily rations of a handful of rice. I suppose this experience further strengthened the Dutch proclivity for frugality.

Bernard spent most of his adult life setting up farms in Third World countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the World Bank… and honing his gardening skills.

Things couldn’t be much different between Bernard and me. He’s obsessively orderly. I’m obsessive as well, but I’m on the disorderly side of the coin. Also, as I mentioned, he’s a tall guy and I’m significantly shorter.

Most Dutch people I have met were tall, and I’ve wondered about this. Interestingly, I discovered that scientists also wondered about it. A century and a half ago, the Dutch were some of the shortest people in Europe. Something significant changed during that period. The Dutch are now, on average, the tallest of Europeans. And an interesting side note…we Americans are becoming, on average, shorter.

There are several theories about this phenomenon. Enhanced farming practices which the Dutch are now known for meant better nutrition. Better nutrition meant healthier people. Healthier people began to grow taller. It only took a few generations to happen.

And, it seemed that taller Dutch men and women began producing more children and most of those children tended to be taller. Some scientists believe that what’s happening in Holland could be evolution in progress.

It’s probably a combination of better nutrition, healthier habits and selective procreation. Regardless, the possibilities are interesting.

Now my friend also has a beautiful yard. Plants and flowers (all raised in his little garage greenhouse) are “just so”. He’s organized for sure. He keeps impeccable records of his plantings and their progress, what species and varieties he has purchased, when he bought the seed, where he bought it, how much he paid for it, when he planted  and transplanted, notes he has made about problems with specific species and more items than I can name here.

Myself, on the other hand, find that keeping records with too much detail removes some of the fun and mystery about seed germination.

His back and front yard are immaculately groomed, with lovely, well-mannered plants gracing well-kept beds.

My yard, on the other hand, is what Bernard refers to as a “jungle.” I think what he actually said was “Damn Jungle”. I used to blame the difference between his orderly Teutonic background and my wild “Gallic” background. Looking at me and my slightly olive complexion, it’s easy to assume that my origins are southern European. However, my DNA report came back to let me know that most of my ancestry was Irish, English, and, get this, Nordic.

Genetically, we’re probably similar. Culturally, we couldn’t be more different. But I’m still short and all my children are short. Two different varieties of the same genus and species. Which rather shows how diverse our world has become…and how similar at the same time.

Photo: Genetically, there is little difference between the many varieties of irises. Louisiana, Dutch, Japanese, Bearded, Siberian et. al. are all genetic cousins.

Where have all the fireflies gone?


Hunting frogs at night along dark waterways, edged by cypress swamps is an interesting pastime, especially if the nearest town with streetlights is 10 miles of dirt road away.

The best time to hunt frogs is on a moonless night, where the headlight I wore would temporarily blind the frogs and make them easier to catch. I know this sounds a little barbaric, but how else is one going to enjoy the delicacy of fried frog legs – called “cuisses de grenouille” in five-star French restaurants. But hunting frogs is a story for another time.

The point is that, in the swamp and along the bayous that meander through them, a moonless night is pitch black. Pitch black except for the millions of tiny lights moving in the sky and the countless millions of unmoving stars behind them. The moving lights were not only in the sky. They extended into the dark cypress swamps on either side. They hovered above the black waters.  They swirled directly above my head.

Fireflies! Some synchronizing their chemical bioluminescence in unison, while others blinked on and off in a cacophony of light. Sometimes I would forget the frogs, turn off the headlight and simply drift with the sluggish current, lying back in my skiff as the light show passed above me.

That was, as human lifetimes go, a good many years ago.  A more recent experience occurred along Panther Creek perhaps eight or nine years ago. It was twilight and I was walking Leon, my now-deceased goofy boxer. I thought I saw a tiny pinpoint of light in the corner of my eye. Then another. I had heard from someone that people on the verge of a stroke (or was it heart attack) sometimes saw flashes of light.

Suddenly, a thousand flashing lights emerged. Immediately across the creek was a small meadow and the lights converged on it, floating around the thigh-high tops of native grass. And then, just before all light faded, a small herd of deer walked into the meadow. Their legs obscured by the tall grass, they appeared to be floating on fairy dust. I was speechless. Leon, who would have ordinarily charged after the deer, dropped his jaw and sat. It was one of the rarest and most beautiful sights I have ever seen.

Several years ago, visiting a friend west of Willis, I saw about a dozen lonely fireflies flitting around his 10-acre property. And then nothing. I haven’t seen a firefly in several years, although I must believe that somewhere in southeast Texas and southern Louisiana, they still exist and perhaps thrive.

Fireflies are in the insect family Lampyridae, in the beetle order of Coleoptera. Their glow comes from the chemical luciferin. The name has the same Latin root as Lucifer, which basically means “light-bearer.”

 

Scientists are now studying the effects of luciferin in diagnosing tumors, cancer and muscular dystrophy, which may one day bring some true medical breakthroughs. They are also studying luciferin in preventing food spoilage and bacterial comtamination.

On the other hand, scientists are also studying why there has been such a dramatic decline in fireflies. They think that growing light pollution from enlarging human populations has a direct effect on them, as well as loss of habitat and increased insecticide use has dramatically reduced the populations.

I plan to go back one dark and moonless night to those three bayous and see if things have changed. If not, I may be treated to another awesome light show.

 

 

 

The world under our feet


Living in our urban and suburban world, we most often think of the ground under our feet as a surface to put buildings and roads on, dig canals, and foundations and ponds, meanwhile plopping a few plants hither and thither to create what we think of as “landscapes.”

The “ground” as many of us call it is part of something much greater…part of our living planet, just as much as our dwindling forests, the air we breathe, and the plants and animals we eat…and interestingly, it plays a large part in all those as well.

For the “ground” is soil. It provides habitat for countless beings (there are more living things in a shovel full of soil than there are humans living on this planet). It is, as the Swiss Confederation reported recently, “the connecting element between the atmosphere and the groundwater.”

Our understanding of soil is just beginning to emerge as perhaps one of the 21st century’s greatest scientific breakthroughs.  Soil is the basis for food production, the habitat for innumerable organisms, a water filter and a natural store for carbon and water.

Here in North America, rock, ground down by glaciers, wind, water and other natural events, flowed down streams and rivers, deposited by floods and changing river beds, spread and deposited across the land.

In some places, large inland seas left huge deposits of organic material, as well as rocks and sand.

Sun, rain, frost and soil organisms worked together symbiotically in weathering the rock material, ultimately breaking it down into smaller and smaller particles. Slowly, soil took form. And in that form, plants and land animals began to thrive.

All the living beings that reside in the soil, all the minerals and elements that lay inside that structure, form not just a self-contained ecosystem which exists under our feet, but a truly ancient and rich ecosystem, tied inexorably to all the other ecosystems on the planet.

Plants for hot, hot-hot and hot-hot-hot Gulf Coast summers


That’s right. It’s hot-hot right now. That’s the comparative form of “more than just hot” along the Gulf Coast. And “hot-hot-hot” – is how we describe the superlative. That excessive warmth is going to be here in a few weeks.  I’ve even heard some say “hot-hot-hot-hot” which is pretty darn hot. For those of you who have just moved here, that heat usually arrives here in late August and early September.

Spend 10 minutes out in the sun at the warmest part of the day and whatever you’re wearing is going to be soaked. This is good, not bad, because sweating is our way of cooling off. As your body is depleted of water, you need to drink more fluids you lose through perspiration.

Plants do this too, in a way. They release oxygen and water through their stoma – small pores on the undersides of leaves. But plants don’t open their stomas at night- mainly because this process goes on during the photosynthesis process, and since there’s no sunlight at night, their pores remains closed.

Many plants tend to wilt in the heat. The wilting means they are losing more fluids through their stomata than they can take in through their roots. The deficit of water causes the plants to wilt. At this point, the plant suspends much if not all of photosynthesis action.

Savvy gardeners know that much of this wilting is temporary and not harmful to the plant, which may wilt in the hot afternoon, but perk up again at night, as the roots replenish the water supply. Chances are, though, when heavy wilting occurs, it could mean that the plant is either not native or not adapted to our harsh summer conditions.

Fortunately, there are many beautiful and hardy flowering plants that do exceptionally well along the Gulf Coast. Many of them are natives.

Here are some examples:

Coneflower (Dracopsis amplexicaulis) – Annual. 2-3 feet tall. Blooms April through July, sometimes August. Although it’s an annual, it will reseed readily.

Texas lantana (Lantana urticoides) – Perennial – Part of the verbena family, Texas lantana is a spreading shrub that blooms from April through October. Also called “ham and eggs,” it thrives in poor soil, but the soil must be well-drained. It may get a little unruly but kept pruned, it will do nicely in the yard. Plant it in a hot dry place where nothing else will grow. Cut it back in early spring.

Drummond phlox (Phlox drummondii) – Perennial and reseeding. Flowers are white, pink, rose red, or purple. The plant can grow between 6 and 20 inches tall. It blooms from April through August.

Bee balm (Monarda clonopardia L) – Perennial. This monarda blooms July through September.  White or pink to purple flowers which bumble bees love.

Gaillardia (Gaillardia pulchelle) – Annual, although may reseed. 1-2 ft. In warm winters, it may not die back at all. Blooms May through August. If it rains much, it may. bloom through September and October. Attractive to birds and bees.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) – Perennial. 1-2 ft. Readily reseeds. Blooms June through October. Birds love the seeds of this plant and many people leave them in the garden all winter. The dry seed heads are quite attractive.

Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) – Perennial. 3-6 ft. Has similar characteristics of its smaller cousin, the black-eyed Susan, except the seed heads are much larger.

Hinckley’s columbine (Aquillegia chrysantha) – Perennial. 1-3 ft. Blooms April, May, June. Originally found in Presidio County, Texas. It does well in the shade.

Lance-leaf coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata) – Perennial . 1-4 ft. Forms large colonies. April – through August.  Birds love the seeds in winter.

These plants are only a tiny portion of the native and heat-tolerant plants that do well here. They provide colorful blooms and interesting foliage from native plants who have evolved throughout the millennia to live on available rainfall alone and plants that have adapted to our climate. For more information on native plants, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin has an exhaustive interactive list. The site also provides names and locations of native plant nurseries and seed companies.

 

 

Is the climate changing?  A conversation with a climate-change denier


I have a friend – I’ll call him “Cletus” – who is forever challenging me about climate change. Here’s a recent exchange I had with him. Now, Cletus is a nice guy. He’s gone out of his way to help me with some projects. I’ve done the same for him. But, when it comes to several subjects – like climate change – he becomes cantankerous.

Cletus: I wish you’d get off your liberal high-horse and just admit the truth. You actually don’t know if the climate is changing and you can’t prove it either.

Me: Well, I do know that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is pretty symptomatic of a warming earth.

Cletus: That’s stupid. (Cletus likes that word. He also likes to spit out the word “liberal” as though a bug just flew into his mouth.) We’ve got tons of carbon dioxide in the air and have had for the last 6,000 years since the earth was created. Plants must take in carbon dioxide for photo-whatchamacallit.

Me: That’s true (I refuse to get drawn into the 6,000-year argument). But, there’s a lot more carbon dioxide trapped in the world’s oceans that there is in the air, Cletus.

Cletus: Yeah? So? Let it stay there.

Me: Well, that’s a great idea. But it’s escaping.

Cletus: Escaping? Where to? Outer space? (He says the last two words sarcastically.)

Me: No, into the atmosphere.

Cletus: Well, that’s good, isn’t it? More carbon dioxide for plants to make more oxygen. Which is what we humans need to breath, moron. (He likes “moron” too. Ad hominem remarks are part of Cletus’ repertoire.)

Me: Okay, let’s start over. How much carbon dioxide was in the air, say, 6,000 years ago? (I knew the reference to 6,000 years would get his attention.)

Cletus: How do you expect me to know that?

Me. Well scientists have figured it out. They drill down into the polar cap ice, pull out ice cores, and measure the amount of carbon dioxide trapped in different layers. And, they’ve discovered that there is many more times carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than there was say six millennia ago.

Cletus: That still doesn’t explain anything.

Me: Follow me on this. The sun’s rays warm the earth. Are you okay with that?

Cletus nods.

Me: So during the day, the sun heats up the earth, right?

Cletus nods again.

Me: But if it continued to heat up the earth, eventually we’d burn up.

Cletus: You idiot. That’s what’s night’s for. To cool things off.

Me: (I think I got him). Exactly. The sun heats up the earth in the daytime, and at night, the earth cools off again, right? But what happens if the earth can’t cool off at night?

Cletus: That makes no sense.

Me: Remember the carbon dioxide we were talking about?

Cletus: Yep.

Me: Well, carbon dioxide can act as a sort of blanket. The sun warms the earth up, but the heat can’t escape at night, so the earth gets warmer. The more carbon dioxide in that blanket, the warmer it gets.

Cletus: But I ain’t felt it getting warmer. (I know Cletus knows the different between “ain’t” and don’t, but he likes to go country on me occasionally, just so he won’t lose his rustic charm.)

Me: No, because it’s not a lot right away. Just a little. Not even a degree. Just a small fraction of a degree. But it’s like a rock rolling down a hill. It starts off slow and gains speed the farther down it goes. But in this case, the hill may be 50 to 100 or more years long.

Cletus: So why does the carbon dioxide blanket get bigger.

Me: We may have been a little naughty. Burning things like fossil fuels adds to the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Not only that, but as the earth gets warmer, the ocean, which has a lot more carbon dioxide than is in the air, begins to let go of the carbon dioxide trapped there. And the planet gets warmer still.

Cletus: Well, that all sounds well and good, but I still haven’t felt it getting warmer.

Me: But other creatures have. Seen those black-bellied whistling ducks around? They used to live no farther north than the valley. They’ve moved here. Why do you think that?

Cletus: Better places to eat?

Me: Well, yes. But birds and fish are much more sensitive to climate change than we are. Crested caracaras, also known as the Mexican eagle, have been spotted on the Harvey Toll Road. Heck, I’ve seen them just outside of Fredericksburg. Cedar waxwings are moving north out of Texas. Armadillos, the state mammal, has moved as far north as New York. A hundred years ago, the farthest north it ranged was southern Texas. Now, I don’t have a problem with those New Yorkers having to deal with armadillos digging up their backyards and vegetable gardens, but their movement up there is telling us something else is happening.

Cletus: Even if you’re right, a couple of degrees either way won’t matter.

Me: A couple of degrees can change or inhibit breeding and migratory patterns among wildlife. It can also change the kind of plants that animals feed on.

Cletus: I still think you’re an idiot, but you sure can speak gibberish good.

Me: We can talk some more about it when you want. Just come on over. I’ll be picking leaf-footed bugs off my tomatoes and dropping them into soapy water.

Cletus just gazes at me with that “ I’m so sad for you…how can you be so stupid” look before he jumps into his eight-cylinder dually, steps on the gas and roars down the road.

 

Neonicotinoids – Still killing butterflies and bees


A friend of mine purchased some plants at one of the big box stores the other day…some pretty pentas and salvias, along with a few other “fill-ins.”

When she removed the plants from their plastic pots, she was amazed – and horrified – to find, behind the plant marker, another smaller marker indicating that the plant had been treated with neonicotinoids.

In case you didn’t know, neonicotinoids are a new class of insecticides related to nicotine. The name actually means “new, nicotine-like insecticide.” Neonicotinoids affect receptors in the nerve synapse of insects.  Particularly toxic to insects, they can also harm vertebrates.

In a 2015 paper from the Environmental Science and Pollution Research group, an EU-sponsored organization,  neonicotinoids  can have lethal consequences on smaller bird species, and dangerous, but non-lethal effects on fish and mammals, including humans. See the report here.

Many growers treat seeds with neonicotinoids.  Since neonicotinoids are water soluble, they are also used in a spray. Neonicotinoids are systemic, which means once they are applied, they distribute throughout the plants vascular system – the stems, leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. They can exist in the plant anywhere from one to three years.

They are most dangerous to bees, for a number of reasons. Bees sipping nectar from a plant treated with neonicotinoids, or drinking moisture exuded from a plant (for instance corn sweats at night and bees are drawn to the moisture, are directly affected.

Growers know that aphids make plants less attractive, so they use neonicotinoids to kill the aphids. Aphids emit a sweet substance, that bees find attractive. Bees will also drink this.

Bees will also take neonicotinoid-affected pollen back into the hive with them, infecting larvae and adults alike.

Bees aren’t the only beneficial insects killed by neonic chemicals. Aphids love milkweed. Growers and nurseries spray milkweed with neonics to prevent aphids. But milkweed is the food source of the monarch butterfly larvae. When the monarch caterpillars hatch and begin eating the leaves, they die.

Home Depot and Lowes, two major big box stores, have pledged to phase out all neonicotinoids by 2018, and Home Depot has gone as far as to label those plants treated with neonics. However, gardeners need to look closely at the labels.

Ask your nursery if neonicotinoids have been used on the plants you are thinking of buying. Many locally-owned nurseries already know the dangers, and have taken measures to keep neonicotinoids out of their product stream. It still doesn’t hurt to ask.

Here is a list of brands that make and sell neonicotinoids, and under what names they are sold.

 

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