Drought Tolerant Plants: Blue Flax

“Lewis’s prairie flax is a pretty garden ornamental suited to hot, dry sites. Each morning delicate sky blue flowers open on slender arching stems, only to fall off in the afternoon and be replaced by others the next morning. In spite of its fragile appearance, it is quite sturdy and may put out a second flush of blossoms on new growth in late summer.”Common to the This Country: Botanical Discoveries of Lewis and Clark by Susan H. Munger


When selecting plants for a waterwise garden, it is imperative that at least a portion of the plants are easy to grow and maintain and are adapted to a wide variety of conditions. This will ensure a more successful garden, both functionally and aesthetically. Luckily, there are a number of drought-tolerant plants that pretty much anyone can grow without too much trouble. Blue flax, in my opinion, is one such plant.

You may be familiar with flax as a culinary plant, known for its edible seeds which are used to make flour (i.e. meal) and oil. Or perhaps you’ve used linseed oil, a product of flax seeds, to protect wooden, outdoor furniture or in other wood finishing projects. You may also think of linen when you think of flax; and you should, because linen is a textile made from the fibrous stems of the flax plant. All of these products generally come from a domesticated, annual flax known as Linum usitatissimum – a species that has been of benefit to humans for millenia. Various species of flax have also been planted for erosion control, fire breaks, forage for livestock, and in pollinator-friendly gardens. Flax seeds, a common ingredient in bird seed mixes, provide food for birds and other small animals. All this to say, humans and flax share a long history together, and it deserves a place in your garden.

The flax species profiled here is actually two species: Linum lewisii and Linum perenne. That’s because these two species look nearly identical and are both used as garden ornamentals and in wildflower seed mixes. They are also both known as blue flax, among myriad other common names. Due to their similiarity, L. lewisii is considered by some to be a subspecies of L. perenne.

Linum lewisii is found across western North America and received its name after being collected by a member of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The plant collection was brought back from the expedition and determined to be new to western science. It was described and named by Frederick Pursh. Linum perenne is a European species which was introduced to North America as an ornamental and has since become widely naturalized. In 1980, a naturalized selection of L. perenne was released for use in restoration plantings under the cultivar name ‘Appar’ with the understanding that it was L. lewisii. A genetic study later revealed that the cultivar was instead L. perenne. The study also provided evidence that “North American Lewis flax and European perennial blue flax are reproductively isolated,” suggesting that they are indeed two separate species.

Despite being separate species, telling them apart can be a challenge. Blue flax plants grow from a taproot and woody base and are multistemmed, reaching two to three feet tall. The stems are thin yet stringy, wiry, and not easily torn, which helps explain why flax is such a good plant for making textiles. Short, slender leaves are alternately arranged along the length of the stems, while flower buds form at the ends of stems in loose clusters. Flowers bloom early in the day and are spent by the afternoon. They are 5-petaled, saucer-shaped, and a shade of blue – from whitish blue to deep blue – depending on the plant. Small, round, 10-chambered seed capsules form in the place of flowers, each chamber housing one or two flat, shiny, dark brown seeds. Flowers bloom daily in succession up towards the ends of stems even as the fruits of spent flowers lower on the stalk mature.

seed capsules of blue flax

A close look at their flower parts is really the only way you might be able to tell these two species apart. Blue flax flowers have five stamens topped with white anthers and five styles topped with little, yellow stigmas. The flowers of L. lewisii are homostlyous, which means their styles are all the same length and are generally taller than or about the same height as the stamens. The flowers of L. perenne are heterostylous, which means their flowers can either have styles that are much longer than their stamens or stamens that are much longer than their styles. Each plant in a population of L. perenne has either all long-styled flowers or all short-styled flowers. In a mixed population of L. perenne and L. lewisii, separating the long-styled L. perenne plants from the L. lewisii plants presents a challenge (at least for me).

long-styled blue flax flower
short-styled blue flax flower

Due to the similarity of these two species, it’s easy to see how the plants or seeds of blue flax could easily be mislabeled and sold as one species even though they are the other species. This could be a problem in a restoration planting where seed source and identity is critical, but in your garden, it’s really no big deal. Both species are great for waterwise and pollinator gardens. They are equally beautiful and easy to grow and care for. If nothing else, perhaps the challenge in identifying them will encourage you to take a closer look at your flowers and familiarize yourself with their tinier parts – an act all of us amateur botanists could stand to do more often.

The photos in this post were taken at Idaho Botanical Garden in Boise, Idaho.

More Drought Tolerant Plants Posts:

All the Plant Shows, part two

Plant podcasts are big these days, or at least that’s what it seems, which is why this has turned into a multi-part post (see part one). While in the process of compiling a list of plant podcasts that I’ve become aware of, I keep stumbling onto more. Which is great! It’s a trend that I hope continues. As it continues, I will go on compiling them here until we have ourselves a list of All the Plant Shows!

Planthropology – Plants plus anthropology equals Planthropology. This podcast covers all the many ways that plant lives and human lives intersect and features conversations with plant people about their love of plants and the work they do that involves plants. Vikram (the host) is a chatty and genial guy and a great twitter follow.

The Plant Prof – Another Vikram joint. This spin-off of Planthropology features Vikram sans guests talking about an assortment of plant-related topics. Each episode is only a few minutes long. Quick, casual, and easy to digest.

Plant Daddy Podcast – Houseplants are quite popular these days, likely due to the growing number of people living in dense urban areas. Apartment living generally means that if you want to garden, you have to do it indoors and/or on a balcony. With increased interest in indoor growing comes a slew of podcasts about it. Plant Daddy Podcast is one of the best. Matthew and Stephen really know their plants and have years of combined experience caring for a vast number of species. Other plant experts occasionally join the show to talk about the specifics of cultivating and caring for plants in small spaces.

Plantrama – Mainly a gardening podcast, but very plant-focused. C.L. and Ellen are experienced gardeners and quite knowledgeable about plants. Episodes come out regularly, and each one is under 30 minutes. In that time, the hosts cover at least three topics. Juniper berries, begonias, and orchid pots, for example. Or cherry tomatoes, silverberry, and saving seed. It’s two good friends having a chat about plants, and you get to listen in.

The Plant Kiki – A kiki is a casual conversation among friends. When plants are a major theme of the discussion, it’s a plant kiki! For each episode, Colah, of Black in the Garden podcast (another must listen), brings together a group of friends to talk about plants and whatever else comes up. The conversations are lively, humorous, insightful, and fun. If you enjoy exploring questions like “If Beyoncé were a plant, what plant would she be?” this podcast is for you.  

Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t – Joe is a self-described misanthrope. He doesn’t care much for people, but he loves plants (and geology). This podcast is similar to Joe’s You Tube channel of the same name, in that it’s mostly him describing his time botanizing in various locations across North America and beyond. Expletive-filled rants help fill the time. Occasionally Joe brings on a guest to talk about plants (or trains). With hours and hours of content available, this is easily one of the best and most entertaining plant shows around.

The Taproot – A podcast produced by Plantae, a plant science hub created and managed by the American Society of Plant Biologists. Each episode is an interview with an individual who is working in or studying plant science. There are discussions about the work that went into a particular plant science journal article, as well as conversations about navigating academia and professional life. It’s a great source of information for students and professionals, with excellent tips on how to succeed in educational pursuits and beyond.   

PlantNetwork Podcast PlantNetwork is an organization that supports public gardens and professional gardeners in Britain and Ireland. Their podcast is a series of short interviews with people who work at public gardens or in some other capacity in the horticulture industry.

Speaking of public gardens, educating the public about plants is a mission of botanic gardens and arboreta. Some botanic gardens do this through podcasts. Below are a few that I have come across. If you happen to be aware of others, please let me know.

Branch Out – A plant science podcast produced by The Royal Botanic Garden Sydney with a catalog consisting of six seasons covering a wide array of plant-based topics. Vanessa geeks out about plants and nature with a bevy of incredible guests. No surprise, much of the content concerns Australian plants, gardens, agriculture, and ecology. But who isn’t fascinated by Australia’s flora and fauna? The production on each episode is excellent, and the stories are captivating. 

Plant Power – A short series of podcasts produced by North Carolina Botanical Garden highlighting just how essential plants are to life on earth. Brief conversations about climate change, protecting pollinators, growing and conserving native plants, etc. 

Botanical Mystery Tour – A delightful podcast from Chicago Botanic Garden that takes the stories of plants in popular culture and explores the science behind them. In each episode, a staff member at CBG joins the hosts, Jasmine and Erica, to discuss the topic and talk about their work at the Garden. Whenever botany shows up in popular culture, it’s an event worth celebrating. It’s good to know there’s a podcast devoted to this cause.

Unearthed: Mysteries from an Unseen World – A podcast series from Royal Botanic Gardens Kew hosted by James Wong. Each episode is a mini audio documentary investigating a particular mystery, story, or current event involving plants (or, in the case of one episode, fungi). This podcast has great production and excellent, fact-based storytelling – exactly the sort of thing you’d expect from a place like Kew.

———————

These certainly aren’t all the plant shows. Part three is in the making. In the meantime, is there a particular plant-themed podcast (or podcast episode) that you enjoy and would like to recommend? If so, share it with us in the comment section below.

All the Plant Shows, part one

Podcasts are among the most accessible and powerful mediums through which we can tell and hear the stories of plants. The popularity of podcasts is evidence that if we want to share our love of plants with the world and get others to love them too, we have to be using podcasts to do it. They are essential tools in the communication of plant science and, when used effectively, they may even help the plant-indifferent gain a lifelong appreciation for the botanical world.

As a longtime listener of podcasts and a lover of plants, I have been on a constant search for podcasts about plants. I’ve even included reviews of some of those podcasts here on this blog (see reviews for Gastropod, In Defense of Plants, Native Plant Podcast, The Field Guides, Botanical Mystery Tour, and Plants and Pipettes). I’m not sure if it’s just me, but it seems that in the past few years, plant podcasts have experienced a boom. There are definitely more plant-themed podcasts out there now than I recall seeing when I first went in search of them nearly a decade ago, and I imagine there are more out there than I’m even aware of. Seeing that, I figured it was time to collect all those podcasts into a single post (or series of posts). Each podcast is deserving of a post of its own, but in the meantime, a few sentences will have to do.

When I say plant podcasts, I realize that could include gardening podcasts. Why shouldn’t it? After all, what’s gardening without plants? However, this isn’t a gardening blog, and even as an avid gardener (and a professional one), I don’t really listen to many gardening podcasts. A few gardening or gardening-adjacent podcasts are included here either because I particularly enjoy them or because they tend to go beyond the act of gardening and are particularly known for giving plants the center stage.

In Defense of Plants – Long-running and consistent, this is the go-to podcast (and website) for learning about plants and plant science. It’s adamant about telling the stories of plants for plant’s sake. A typical episode features the host, Matt, interviewing experts and plant science professionals about their specific area of study or work.

Native Plant Podcast – Going strong for 5 years now, this podcast is exactly what it says it is – a podcast about native plants. There is a major focus on gardening and landscaping with native plants, which the main host, John, has been doing since before it was cool. Every episode ends with a pet story and a toast.

The Field Guides – Easily one of my favorite podcasts, largely because the hosts are so affable and are clearly having fun, but also because the format is so unique. Each episode, Steve and Bill pick a natural history topic and then walk around in a natural area talking about it – the sounds of footsteps and the wildlife around them included. Not specifically a plant podcast, but plants come up in every episode even if they aren’t the main topic of discussion.

Plants and Pipettes – A podcast focused mainly on what’s going on inside of plants – molecular plant biology, in other words. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, give it a shot anyway. The hosts are fun and funny, good at explaining things, and find lots of other plant and plant-adjacent things to talk about in addition to molecular biology. Plus, you are probably more interested in cellular-level interactions than you think you are.

Plant Crimes – True crime stories involving plants. Well-researched and well-crafted tales about things like missing water lilies, redwood poaching, and how lemons and the mob are related. Ellen interviews people involved in or knowledgeable about the incidents and weaves excerpts from those conversations into her storytelling. I’m anxiously awaiting the second season.

Plant Book Club – Ellen (of Plant Crimes) and Tegan and Joram (of Plants and Pipettes) read a plant-themed book and then talk about it. Everything you love about their individual podcasts combined into one. It’s a tour de force!

Botanize! – An audio series produced by Encyclopædia Britannica. Each episode is a brief exploration of a plant, group of plants, or some other plant-centric topic. It’s way more entertaining than reading an encyclopedia entry. Melissa is a charismatic host who is clearly excited about plants and nature. Her and her occasional guests add personal experiences to the science of plants.

Cultivating Place – This is a perfect example of a more-than-just-gardening gardening podcast. In Jennifer’s words, “gardens encourage a direct relationship with the dynamic processes of the plants, animals, soils, seasons, and climatic factors that come to bear on a garden, providing a unique, and uniquely beautiful, bridge connecting us to our larger environments — culturally and botanically.” Each episode features a conversation with a grower, gardener, naturalist, scientist, artist, or otherwise and, while many of the episodes are garden-focused, others go beyond the garden to discuss other plant-y things like seed banking (see this recent episode with Dr. Naomi Fraga).

A Way to Garden – This is perhaps a more typical gardening podcast, but easily one of the best ones out there. My belief is that gardens ought have a purpose that goes beyond their aesthetic qualities. They should be ecologically functional, acting as habitat rather than destroying it. Margaret seems to think so too. Plus, she loves birds and is a great conversationalist, and who can resist her regular check-ins with Ken Druse?


This is part one of (at least) two. There are many more podcasts to highlight here. In the meantime, is there a particular plant-themed podcast (or podcast episode) that you enjoy and would like to recommend? If so, share it with us in the comment section below.

Weeds of Boise: Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden

Anyone who has maintained a garden or small farm knows that with all the work it takes to keep up on the garden itself, outlying areas can quickly become overtaken by weeds. Low on the list of priorities, areas outside of our garden borders are ideal locations for wild urban vegetation to thrive. Pulling all the weeds within the garden is a big enough task as it is; thus, weeds out of our reach are left to their own devices, occasionally getting mown down by a string trimmer or brush mower (if time allows), but otherwise living largely unscathed. And so, places such as these are excellent for familiarizing oneself with our wild urban flora.

I found an example of this scenario at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden in Boise, Idaho. This community garden is a partnership between Congregation Ahavath Beth Israel (CABI) and Global Gardens, providing refugees in the area an opportunity to grow food for their families and participate in community activities.

When I visited this site, it was clear that the weeds on the edge of the garden had been mowed down at some point. New plants had popped up after the fact while others were in the process of recovering from the “haircut” and putting on new, shrubbier growth. The mowing and the fact that it was late in the summer made identifying remnants of earlier weeds too difficult to bother. Most of the weeds that I did find were either summer annuals or perennials. A visit in the spring would reveal an entirely different cast of characters.

I stayed on the border of the garden, not wanting to invade anyone’s plot or snoop around too much. The point of the visit was to highlight weeds found outside of the borders of a garden anyway. I would imagine that, since the garden is used to grow annual fruits and vegetables, most of the weeds in the beds would be annuals as well. Longer-lived weeds don’t generally tolerate regular disturbance and instead find refuge in unkept areas outside of cultivation.

Below are a few photos from the site along with a preliminary list of the weeds that I found.

salsify (Tragopogon dubius)

puncture vine (Tribulus terrestris)

field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis)

Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila)

common mallow (Malva neglecta)

black medic (Medicago lupulina)

Weeds found at the Ahavath Beth Israel Synagogue Garden:

  • Amaranthus spp. (pigweed)
  • Bassia scoparia (kochia)
  • Chenopodium album (lamb’s quarters)
  • Chondrilla juncea (rush skeletonweed)
  • Convolvulus arvensis (field bindweed)
  • Conyza canadensis (horseweed)
  • Digitaria sanguinalis (crabgrass)
  • Epilobium brachycarpum (tall annual willowherb)
  • Euphorbia maculata (spotted spurge)
  • Hordeum jubatum (foxtail barley)
  • Lactuca serriola (prickly lettuce)
  • Malva neglecta (common mallow)
  • Medicago lupulina (black medic)
  • Oenothera biennis (common evening-primrose)
  • Plantago lanceolata (narrowleaf plantain)
  • Polygonum aviculare (prostrate knotweed)
  • Rumex crispus (curly dock)
  • Setaria sp. (foxtail)
  • Sonchus sp. (sow thistle)
  • Taraxacum officinale (dandelion)
  • Tragopogon dubius (salsify)
  • Trifolium pratense (red clover)
  • Ulmus pumila (Siberian elm)
  • Verbena bracteata (prostrate vervain)

Like all posts in the Weeds of Boise series, this will be updated as I identify and photograph more of the weeds found in this location.

Flowers Growing Out of Flowers (Things Are Getting Weird Out There)

I’m sure that anyone living through the events of 2020 would agree, these are truly wild times. So, when I stumbled across some purple coneflowers that appeared to be growing flowers out of flowers, I thought to myself, “Of course! Why not!?!” The world is upside down. Anything is possible.

As it turns out, however, this phenomenon occurs more frequently than I was aware. But it’s not necessarily a good thing, particularly if you’re concerned about plant health. We’ll get to that in a minute. First, what’s going on with these flowers?

Flowers in the aster family are unique. They have the appearance of being a single flower but are actually a cluster of two types of much smaller flowers all packed in together. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a great example of this. Its flower heads are composed of dozens of disc flowers surrounded by a series of ray flowers. The minuscule disc flowers form the cone-like center of the inflorescence. The petals that surround the cone are individual ray flowers. This tight cluster of many small flowers (or florets) is known as a composite. Sunflowers are another example of this type of inflorescence.

Flowers are distinct organs. Not only are they the reproductive structures of flowering plants, but unlike the rest of the plant, they exhibit determinate growth. Flowers are, after all, plant shoots that have been “told” to stop growing like other shoots and instead modify themselves into reproductive organs and other associated structures. Unlike other shoots, which continue to grow (or at least have the potential to), a flower (and the fruit it produces) is the end result for this reproductive shoot. This is what is meant by determinate growth. However, sometimes things go awry, and the modified shoots and leaves that make up a flower don’t develop as expected, producing some bizarre looking structures as a result.

An example of this is a double flower. Plants with double flowers have mutations in their genes that cause disruptions during floral development. This means that their stamens and carpels (the reproductive organs of the flowers) don’t develop properly. Instead, they become additional petals or flowers, resulting in a flower composed of petals upon petals upon petals – a look that some people like, but that have virtually nothing to offer the pollinators that typically visit them. Because of their ornamental value, double-flowered varieties of numerous species – including purple coneflower – can be found in the horticultural trade.

double-flowered purple coneflower

Genetic mutations are one way that odd looking flowers come about. It is not the cause, however, of the freak flowers that I recently came across. What I witnessed was something called phyllody and was the result of an infection most likely introduced to the plant by a leafhopper or some other sap-sucking insect. Phyllody, which has a variety of causes, is a disruption in plant hormones that leads to leaves growing in place of flower parts. As a result, the flowers become sterile and green in color. In the case of purple coneflower, leafy structures are produced atop shoots arising from the middle of ray and/or disc florets. In other species, shoots aren’t visible and instead the inflorescence is just a cluster of leaves. In a sense, the reproductive shoot has returned to indeterminate growth, having switched back to shoot and leaf production.

Phyllody can have either biotic or abiotic causes. Biotic meaning infection by plant pathogens – including certain viruses, bacteria, and fungi – or damage by insects. Abiotic factors like hot weather and lack of water can result in a temporary case of phyllody in some plants. Phyllody plus a number of other symptoms made it clear that the purple coneflower I encountered had a fairly common disease known as aster yellows. This condition is caused by a bacterial parasite called a phytoplasma, and is introduced to the plant via a sap-sucking insect. It then spreads throughout the plant, infecting all parts. The phyllody was a dead give away, but even the flowers that weren’t alien-looking were discolored. The typical vibrant purple of the ray flowers was instead a faded pink color. The flowers that had advanced phyllody – along with the rest of the plant – were turning yellow-green.

This inflorescence isn’t exhibiting phyllody yet, but the purple color in the ray flowers is quickly fading.

Hundreds of plant species are susceptible to aster yellows, and not just those in the aster family. Once a plant is infected with aster yellows, it has it for good and will never grow or reproduce properly. For this reason, it is best to remove infected plants from the garden to avoid spreading the infection to other plants. As cool as the flowers may look, infected plants just aren’t worth saving.

Further Reading: 

Ground Beetles as Weed Seed Predators

As diurnal animals, we are generally unaware of the slew of animal activity that occurs during the night. Even if we were to venture out in the dark, we still wouldn’t be able to detect much. Our eyes don’t see well in the dark, and shining a bright light to see what’s going on results in chasing away those creatures that prefer darkness. We just have to trust that their out there, and in the case of ground beetles, if they’re present in our gardens we should consider ourselves lucky.

Ground beetles are in the family Carabidae and are one of the largest groups of beetles in the world with species numbering in the tens of thousands. They are largely nocturnal, so even though they are diverse and relatively abundant, we rarely get to see them. Look under a rock or log during the day, and you might see a few scurry away. Or, if you have outdoor container plants, there may be a few of them hiding out under your pots with the pillbugs. At night, they leave the comfort of their hiding places and go out on the hunt, chasing down grasshoppers, caterpillars, beetle grubs, and other arthropods, as well as slugs and snails. Much of their prey consists of common garden pests, making them an excellent form of biological control. And, as if that weren’t enough, some ground beetles also eat the seeds of common weeds.

Harpalus affinis via wikimedia commons

Depending on the species, a single ground beetle can consume around a dozen seeds per night. In general, they prefer the seeds of grasses, lambsquarters (Chenopodium album), pigweeds (Amaranthus spp.), and various plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae). The seeds of these species are small with seed coats that are easily crushed by a beetle’s mandibles. Providing suitable habitat, avoiding insecticides, and minimizing soil disturbance (i.e. reducing or eliminating tillage) are ways that healthy ground beetle populations can be encouraged and maintained. Ground beetles prefer dense vegetation where they can hide during the daytime. Strips of bunchgrasses and herbaceous perennials planted on slightly raised bed (referred to as beetle banks) are ideal because they provide good cover and keep water from puddling up in the beetles’ hiding spots.

The freshness of weed seeds and the time of year they are available may be determining factors in whether or not ground beetles will help control weed populations. A study published in Weed Science (2014), looked at the seed preferences of Harpalus pensylvanicus, a common species of ground beetle that occurs across North America. When given the choice between year old seeds and freshly fallen seeds of giant foxtail (Setaria faberi), the beetles preferred the fresh ones. The study also found that when giant foxtail was shedding the majority of its seeds, the density of beetles was on the decline, meaning that, at least in this particular study, most of the seeds would go uneaten since fewer beetles were around when the majority of the seeds were made available. Creating habitat that extends the ground beetles’ stay is important if the goal is to maximize the number of weed seeds consumed.

Harpalus pensylvanica via wikimedia commons

Of course, the seeds of all weed species are not considered equal when it comes to ground beetle predation. Several studies have sought to determine which species ground beetles prefer, offering seeds of a variety of weeds in both laboratory and field settings and seeing what the beetles go for. Pinning this down is difficult though because there are numerous species of ground beetles, all varying in size and activity. Their abundances vary from year to year and throughout the year, as do their food sources. Since most of them are generalists, they will feed on what is available at the time. A study published in European Journal of Entomology (2003) found a correlation between seed size and body mass – small beetles were consuming small seeds and large beetles were consuming large seeds, relatively speaking.

Another study published in European Journal of Entomology (2014) compared the preferences of ground beetles in the laboratory to those in the field and found that, in both instances, the seeds of field pansy (Viola arvensis) and shepherd’s purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) were the preferred choice. The authors note that both species have lipid-rich seeds (or high “energy content”). Might that be a reason for their preference? Or maybe it’s simply a matter of availability and “the history of individual predators and [their] previous encounters with weed seed.” After all, V. arvensis was “the most abundant seed available on the soil surface” in this particular study.

Pterostichus melanarius via wikimedia commons

A study published in PLOS One (2017), looked at the role that scent might play in seed selection by ground beetles. Three species of beetles were offered the seeds of three different weed species in the mustard family. The seeds of Brassica napus were preferred over the other two by all three beetle species. The beetles were also offered both imbibed and non-imbibed seeds of all three plants. Imbibed simply means that the seeds have taken in water, which “can result in the release of volatile compounds such as ethanol and acetaldehyde.” The researchers wondered if the odors emitted from the imbibed seeds would “affect seed discovery and ultimately, seed consumption.” This seemed to be the case as all three beetle species exhibited a preference for the imbibed seeds.

Clearly, ground beetles are fascinating study subjects, and there is still so much to learn about them and their eating habits. If indeed their presence is limiting the spread of weeds and reducing weed populations, they should be happily invited into our farms and gardens and efforts should be made to provide them with quality habitat. For a bit more about ground beetles, check out this episode of Boise Biophilia.

Further Reading:

Using Weeds: Soapwort

Over the past year or so I have written about several edible weeds in an effort to highlight useful weeds. However, weeds don’t have to be edible to be useful. In fact, many weeds are most certainly not edible, but that doesn’t mean they are of no use to humans. Soapwort, for example, is poisonous, and while it does have a history of being used internally as medicine, ingesting it is not advised and should only be done under the direction of a doctor. A much less risky activity would be to make soap out of it.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Saponaria officinalis, commonly known as bouncing bet, hedge pink, fuller’s herb, scourwort, and soapweed or soapwort, is an herbaceous perennial native to Europe. It has been planted widely in flower beds and herb gardens outside of its native range, desired both for its beauty and utility. Capitalizing on our appreciation for it, soapwort has expanded beyond our garden borders and into natural areas, as well as vacant lots, roadsides, and other neglected spaces. Even in a garden setting it can be a bit of a bully, especially if ignored for a season or two.

The stems of soapwort grow to about two feet tall, are unbranched, and sometimes tinged with pink, purple, or red. The leaves are oblong and oppositely-arranged, and their bases form prominent collars around the stems. Showy clusters of flowers are found atop the stems throughout the summer. Like other flowers in the pink family (Caryophyllaceae), they are cigar-shaped at the base and opened wide at the end, showing off 5 distinct petals with notches at their tips. The petals of soapwort flowers bend backwards, with their sex parts protruding outwards. In his description of the flowers, John Eastman remarks in The Book of Field and Roadside that “the reflexed petals surrounding the sexual organs give the impression of flagrant thrust; this is a gaudy, unshy flower.”

collared stem of soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

The fragrant flowers are pink to white in color. They open in the evening and remain open for a few short days. In an individual flower, pollen matures and is mostly shed before the stigma is ready to accept it. This helps reduce the chance of self-pollination. Cross pollination occurs with the assistance of moths who visit the flowers at night, as well as bees and other flower-visiting insects that come along during the daytime. Soapwort fruits are oval capsules containing as many as 500 kidney-shaped seeds. Seeds aren’t essential to the plants spread though, as much of its colonization occurs via vigorous rhizomes.

In fact, vegetative reproduction is the means by which soapwort forms such expansive, thick patches. It also helps that it’s poisonous. The saponins – its soap making compounds – that it produces in its roots, shoots, and leaves deter most insects and other animals from eating it. It has a reputation for poisoning horses, cows, and other livestock, and so is unwelcome in pastures and rangelands. Saponins are also poisonous to fish, so growing soapwort near fish ponds is not advised.

soapwort (Saponaria officinalis)

Soapwort occurs in a variety of soils including sandy, dry, and rocky sites and is surprisingly drough-tolerant, fine qualities to have when colonizing neglected sites. While most other organisms ignore soapwort, it has a friend in humans. Eastman sums this up well: “Soapwort’s most important associate – as is true of most plants we label weeds – is undoubtedly humankind, without whose helpful interventions the plant would surely be much rarer than it is.”

I made a soapy liquid out of soapwort by following a recipe that can be found on various blogs and websites by searching “saponaria soap recipe.” Basically it’s a cup of fresh leaves and stems along with a cup of dried leaves and stems added to a quart of distilled water brought to a boil. After simmering for 15 minutes and then allowing it to cool, strain the mixture through cheese cloth, and it’s ready to go.

This gentle but effective soap can be used for cleaning countertops and other surfaces, as well as dishes, fabrics, and skin. Several sources say it is particularly useful for cleaning delicate fabrics. Sierra and I both found it to have a cooked cabbage or spinach scent to it. This can be masked by adding a few drops of essential oil. Despite its odd aroma, both Sierra and I were impressed by its cleansing power and plan to use it more often.

dried leaves of soapwort

soapwort soap

Field Trip: Green Spring Gardens and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Last month, Sierra and I were in Washington D.C. for the American Public Gardens Association annual meeting. We didn’t get to visit nearly as many gardens as I would have liked. Time was limited, and rain spoiled things a bit. However, we did get a chance to take an all day field trip to a few gardens in nearby Virginia. A couple of the gardens we visited on that trip were Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria, VA and Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna, VA.

Both gardens are quite large – Green Spring is over 30 acres and Meadowlark covers over 90 acres – and there wasn’t time to get the full experience at either location. Thus, my photos are scant and obviously not fully representative of either place. Either way, we had a good time visiting both gardens.

Green Spring Gardens

The Fairfax County Parks Authority owns and operates Green Spring Gardens. Among other partnerships, they receive considerable support from a non-profit organization called Friends of Green Spring. Although it was the wrong time of year to see them in bloom, Green Spring Gardens has a nationally accredited witch hazel collection that I’m sure would be worth checking out in the winter months. I enjoyed walking through the native plant garden, seeing the newly planted crevice garden, and learning about magnolia bogs from a friendly and enthusiastic volunteer.

the pink form of smooth azalea (Rhododendron arborescens) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

bush honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicera) in the Virginia Native Plant Garden

hornbeam inflorescence (Carpinus sp.)

newly planted crevice garden

rain lily (Zephyranthes sp.) in the crevice garden

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens

Meadowlark is owned and operated by NOVA Parks. Its immense size made it difficult to decide what to check out in the little time we had, but we were happy with our decision to stop by the wetlands (to see the knees on the Taxodium distichum) and walk through the forested nature trail. We also had fun watching all the bumblebees lumber about from flower to flower.

lichen on Yoshino cherry (Prunus x yedoensis)

bumblebee on common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

bumblebees climbing inside leatherflower blossoms (Clematis viorna)

scarlet beebalm (Monarda didyma)

A small peak into what was a very large Fairy Garden

blue leaf form of dusty zenobia (Zenobia pulverulenta)

bear’s breeches (Acanthus sp.)

Armenian cranesbill (Geranium psilostemon)

More Awkward Botany Field Trips:

Moving Your Ecosystem Forward – An Arborist’s Application of Ecological Principles in the Urban Landscape

This is a guest post by Jeremiah Sandler.

———————

Ecosystems are everywhere – interconnected and interdependent systems of biology, climate, ecology, and geography. The inside of your house is an ecosystem with its own micro-climate, life (including but not limited to you), and topography. Everywhere you go, you’re in some kind of ecosystem.

The same is more obviously true about your landscape. In my area of the U.S. (southeast Michigan), forests and wetlands are often removed to build suburbs. Both the appropriate soil and ecologically relevant plants are removed from the site. After construction, these areas are re-planted with genetically inadequate plants in poor soil. The ecosystem is modified at a rate faster than most organisms can adapt. Landscape designs common in the suburbs are inadequate in maintaining biodiversity and healthy, natural ecosystems.

In some lucky areas, there are communities doing their best to maintain a strong and natural forest canopy. Leaving secondary forests relatively untouched during construction should be the standard when developing areas for humans.

Ecosystems evolve and change, and one can argue that human-caused mass deforestation is simply another driver of ecosystem evolution. While this may be true, it is a driver that influences the ecosystem at a much greater magnitude than other factors. It just so happens to be mitigable or avoidable altogether.

What can cause an ecosystem to change?

Let’s use the trees in a natural forest ecosystem as an example. Disturbances in any ecosystem drive biological adaptation and behavioral changes in the organisms within it. Disturbances such as fire, wind events, floods, drought, and pathogens alter the forest canopy. Fire may kill smaller trees and wind events can blow trees over. Such disturbances open the canopy and allow dormant seeds to germinate in the new sunlight, which gives additional genetic material a shot in the world.

Ecological disturbance is vital to plants, animals, and microbes because it keeps their genetic material up-to-date with evolving pathogens and changing environments. Up-to-date trees need less work. They are more prepared for their environment and its diseases, as evidenced by their parents successfully reproducing.

We can’t control all ecological disturbances, but in the urban environment we do our best to avoid major ones. Understandably, right? We aren’t fond of wildfire, nor do we want flooding anywhere near our homes.

Applied ecosystem principles on the job

Oftentimes in large, human constructed landscapes, only upper and middle canopies exist; sub-canopy layers are missing. This is surprisingly common in forest ecosystems, especially in suburban areas. Forests like this are considered to have a closed canopy.

Closed-canopy forests are naturally occurring and are not necessarily bad. The thick shade cast by the upper canopy is very dense and prevents most understory growth. Over time closed-canopy forests will evolve and change – large trees or limbs come down in the wind, flooding occurs, lightning strikes, or diseases are introduced. Whatever the disturbance, the newly opened canopy once again helps move the ecosystem forward.

Disturbance by pruning

A client of ours lives on a beautiful property in a dry-mesic southern forest (a closed-canopy forest). Due to all the trees on the property, this client sought advice from arborists. The client’s smart choice lead us to an important solution.

Various large species of both white and red oaks dominate the overstory and upper emergent layers of the canopy. The trunks of these towering trees are far apart. Below these titan trees are some slightly shorter oaks, an american beech, and a few hickory species residing in the midstory. About 40 feet below are various types of moss, some stunted sedges, violets, forest grasses – a sparse herbaceous understory. Beyond that there were several patient serviceberries here and there, and a single red maple, about 1.5 inches in diameter and 15 feet tall at most.

Allegheny serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis) – via wikimedia commons

The area has been undisturbed for a long time (it doesn’t even get mowed), and with the presence of oak wilt in southeast Michigan, we steered away from planting anywhere in the root zone, as it poses a risk for oak wilt infection. Sure, we could plant an over-designed landscape to be manicured, but we had other ideas in mind.

Direct application with two solutions

We asked the client how long ago the red maple and serviceberries volunteered themselves into their landscape. Together we traced the germination back to a wind event that knocked a large limb down years ago. The red maple and serviceberries popped up as a result of new sunlight, yet according to the client, these plants hadn’t grown much in height during the last decade or so. Why might this be? A mature plant can close holes in the canopy faster than lower story plants can, so they no longer receive as much light as they once had.

The next time a limb falls, the maple and serviceberries will have another explosive growth spurt. There are also other dormant seeds to germinate every time a disturbance like that occurs. This is an example of another natural phenomenon called forest succession. It is another way forest ecosystems change.

Planting foreign species in place of the native ones takes away important food sources and habitat for surrounding wildlife. So rather than planting cultivar clones and ecologically useless plants – plants that don’t support other lifeforms – into the existing ecosystem, we proposed we could either do strategic crown thinning or just wait for mother nature to do it for them.

Course of action

My associates and I operate on a “less is more” approach. Not touching this ecosystem is our alternative to modifying the canopy. Like a human patient undergoing surgery, cutting open any organism exposes it to infection. In time, either a natural disturbance will come through to modify the canopy, or the trees will naturally shed lower limbs on their own – a process called cladoptosis.

Strategic branch removal will open up the canopy, allowing more sunlight to the ground below, while keeping the trees looking true to their natural form. The climbing team would be using a type of pruning called refracturing. The openings will simulate a wind event disturbance. As a result, the plants that germinate will be the most competitive, hardy, resistant, and genetically up-to-date plants. This truly is “right plant, right place,” provided no invasive buckthorns pop up.

If the customer does want to go forward with disturbance-by-pruning, the proposal is to open the canopy during winter, as most of the canopy are oak trees. The risk of infecting these trees is reduced significantly by pruning in the winter when the vectors for oak wilt are dormant.

The canopy holes would be placed where the homeowner wants more trees. One benefit of pruning the trees is that disturbance is controlled, rather than a wind disturbance causing a chaotic breakage into the house, for example.

Observation would begin early the following spring. We will watch for germination; it’s expected that the plants that do germinate won’t survive the competition.

What’s important about any of this?

The arborist-homeowner relationship highlighted above is an exemplar of proper arboriculture. We offered expertise along with our services. The exchange saved the homeowner hundreds of upfront costs from the installation of a landscape, as well as future maintenance costs.

Assuming it isn’t under human-induced stress, no forest needs human intervention. In this project, we would want to see natural phenomena form the landscape in this client’s yard. It is our preference to leave the current closed-canopy forest alone.

The benefits of using naturally occurring trees are plentiful. In general, up-to-date trees are more prepared for your ecosystem and support the wildlife that co-evolved with them. An ever-increasingly displaced wildlife population will happily occupy new habitat; they’re here too, after all.

———————

Jeremiah Sandler lives in southeast Michigan, has a degree in horticultural sciences, and is an ISA certified arborist. Follow him on Instagram: @jeremiahsandler

Lettuce Gone Wild, part one

Lettuce, domesticated about six thousand years ago in a region referred to as the Fertile Crescent, bears little resemblance to its wild ancestors. Hundreds of years of cultivation and artificial selection eliminated spines from the leaves, reduced the latex content and bitter flavor, shortened stem internodes for a more compact, leafy plant, and increased seed size, among several other things. The resulting plant even has a different name, Lactuca sativa (in Latin, sativa means cultivated). However, cultivated lettuce remains closely related to its progenitors, with whom it can cross to produce wild-domestic hybrids. For this reason, there is great interest in the wild relatives of lettuce and the beneficial traits they offer.

image credit: wikimedia commons

Crop wild relatives are a hot topic these days. That’s because feeding a growing population in an increasingly globalized world with the threat of climate change looming requires creative strategies. Utilizing wild relatives of crops in breeding programs is a potential way to improve yields and address issues like pests and diseases, drought, and climate change. While this isn’t necessarily a new strategy, it is increasingly important as the loss of biodiversity around the globe threatens many crop wild relatives. Securing them now is imperative.

There are about 100 species in the genus Lactuca. Most of them are found in Asia and Africa, with the greatest diversity distributed across Southwest Asia and the Mediterranean Basin. The genus consists of annual, biennial, and perennial species, a few of which are shrubs or vines. Prickly lettuce (L. serriola), willowleaf lettuce (L. saligna), and bitter lettuce (L. virosa) are weedy species with a wide distribution outside of their native range. Prickly lettuce is particularly common in North America, occurring in the diverse habitats of urban areas, natural areas, and agricultural fields. It is also the species considered to be the main ancestor of today’s cultivated lettuce.

In a paper published in European Journal of Plant Pathology in 2014. Lebeda et al. discuss using wild relatives in lettuce breeding and list some of the known cultivars derived from crosses with wild species. They write that in the last thirty years, “significant progress has been made in germplasm enhancement and the introduction of novel traits in cultivated lettuce.” Traditionally, Lactuca serriola has been the primary source for novel traits, but breeders are increasingly looking to other species of wild lettuce.

bitter lettuce (Lactuca virosa) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Resistance to disease is one of the main aims of lettuce breeders. Resistance genes can be found among populations of cultivated lettuce, but as “extensive screening” for such genes leads to “diminishing returns in terms of new resistance,” breeders look to wild lettuce species as “sources of new beneficial alleles.” The problem is that there are large gaps in our knowledge when it comes to wild lettuce species and their interactions with pests and pathogens. Finding the genes we are looking for will require “screening large collections of well defined wild Lactuca germplasm.” But first we must develop such collections.

In a separate paper (published in Euphytica in 2009), Lebeda et al. discuss just how large the gaps in our understanding of the genus Lactuca are. Beginning with our present collections they found “serious taxonomic discrepancies” as well as significant redundancy and unnecessary duplicates in and among gene banks. They also pointed out that “over 90% of wild collections are represented by only three species” [the three weedy species named above], and they urged gene banks to “rapidly [acquire] lettuce progenitors and wild relatives from the probable center of origin of lettuce and from those areas with the highest genetic diversity of Lactuca species” as their potential for improving cultivated lettuce is too important to neglect.

Lactuca is a highly variable genus; species can differ substantially in their growth and phenology from individual to individual. Lebeda et al. write, “developmental stages of plants, as influenced through selective processes under the eco-geographic conditions where they evolved, can persist when plants are cultivated under common environmental conditions and may be fixed genetically.” For this reason it is important to collect numerous individuals of each species from across their entire range in order to obtain the broadest possible suite of traits to select from.

One such trait is root development and the related ability to access water and nutrients and tolerate drought. Through selection, cultivated lettuce has become a very shallow-rooted plant, reliant on regular irrigation and fertilizer applications. In an issue of Theoretical and Applied Genetics published in 2000, Johnson et al. demonstrate the potential that Lactuca serriola, with its deep taproot and ability to tolerate drought, has for developing lettuce cultivars that are more drought tolerant and more efficient at using soil nutrients.

willowleaf lettuce (Lactuca saligna) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Clearly we have long way to go in developing improved lettuce cultivars using wild relatives, but the potential is there. As Lebeda et al. write in the European Journal of Plant Pathology, “Lettuce is one of the main horticultural crops where a strategy of wild related germplasm exploitation and utilization in breeding programs is most commonly used with very high practical impact.”

Coming Up in Part Two: Can cultivated lettuce cross with wild lettuce to create super weeds?