For the Birds

Pokeweed. You’ve probably seen this plant on roadsides, vacant lots, along hiking trails, and maybe even pulled it out of your own yard. It’s definitely a weed, and either a curse or a curiosity depending on your point of view. Considered a dangerous and poisonous plant by some, and a nutritious and delicious plant by others, we think of it as a valuable food source for over 30 species of native birds.

Phytolacca americana is commonly known as Pokeweed, Polk weed, Pokeberry, Poke root, Virginia poke, Poke sallit, Poke salad, Redweed, Redberry, Pigeonberry, Pocan bush, Red ink plant, and at least a dozen other names. As is often the case, the number of common names for a plant indicates the variety and duration of human experience with it. Pokeweed has a long and complicated relationship with humans.

Pokeweed is native to most of the US and is found now in all but a few states. It can reach 6 to 10 feet tall, spreads both by seed and rhizomes, and has a very deep tap root. It is a perennial that can live in a wide variety of conditions, which makes it a rather successful weed.

Pokeweed stands tall among other roadside weeds

Indigenous peoples used Pokeweed for medicinal purposes and as a dye, especially for painting their horses. The name “poke” may come from the Algonquian word “pocan,” meaning red dye. American colonists fermented the deep magenta juice of the berries to make ink. There are preserved letters from Civil War soldiers written in Pokeberry ink, which was much more available to them than imported ink.

Pokeweed berries yield a staining red juice

There is common agreement that all parts of the plant, if eaten raw, are toxic to humans and livestock, but agreement ends there. Some writers claim that Pokeweed is so poisonous it should not even be touched without gloves. Yet in most of the Southern US, Pokeweed has been hand-harvested as a staple of the local diet for generations. Some authorities say the root is the most poisonous part of the plant, and the berries are the least so. Other authorities say the berries are the most toxic part of the plant and eating even a few may be lethal. Many articles claim that Pokeweed poisoning can cause death, but after surveying historical records, a recent report found only 2 deaths from Pokeweed over a couple hundred years, and noted that one of those deaths was more likely caused by the medical treatment of the time, blood-letting.

Tiny pokeweed flowers open throughout the growing season
Pokeweed flowers attract pollinators, including hummingbirds

The role of Pokeweed as part of Southern US culture is memorialized in the song “Polk Salad Annie” written in 1968 by Tony Joe White and made popular by Elvis Presley.

“Everyday before supper time, she’d go down by the truck patch

And pick her a mess of Polk salad, and carry it home in a tow sack 

Polk salad Annie….”

Tony Joe White

Recognizing that Pokeweed is indeed toxic if eaten raw, recipes for polk salad, or poke sallit, require boiling the tender young leaves at least twice, and with two or three changes of water. The boiled greens are then sauteed in bacon fat and eaten like spinach or collard greens. Poke sallit festivals are still part of local traditions in the South every spring. But other than those circumstances, we do not recommend eating any part of Pokeweed, and children should be warned away from the berries.

We do suggest letting the plant live if you find it in an out-of-the-way spot in the garden. Pokeweed provides a real service to our native songbirds. Migrating birds store energy from eating ripening Pokeberries as they begin their journeys, and winter birds will eat the dried berries for as long as they last. Cardinals, mockingbirds, blue jays, robins, catbirds, bluebirds, mourning doves, and over 20 other species of native birds love Pokeberries. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals do, too.

Pollinated flowers develop interesting berries
As the berries ripen, the stems change color!

Pokeweed is interesting to watch, and it will definitely attract songbirds. So, if there is a spot near you where Pokeweed appears, we hope you can allow it to live its weedy, but useful, life.

For the birds.


Worth a Mint

What makes a garden plant special? Beautiful flowers? Reliability? Long season of bloom? Easy care? Attractive to butterflies? Maybe even useful for humans? Mountain Mint checks all the boxes! This perennial garden plant is so valuable it’s a wonder we don’t see it everywhere.

The only problem with Mountain Mint is its name! The scientific name, Pycnanthemum, is a mouthful, and the common name “Mountain Mint” is just wrong. The plant does not come from the mountains, and it’s not a true mint. It’s actually a plant native to America’s meadows, from New England to the Midwest and from Florida to Texas. And unlike spearmint and peppermint, it is not in the mint genus, Mentha. (Though it does have a decidedly minty flavor, and can be a pretty good alternative.)

We have three species of Mountain Mint at the Nature Center: Pycnanthemum virginiana (“Virginia Mountain Mint”), Pycnanthemum tenufolium (“Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint”) and Pycnanthemum muticum (“Broad-leaved Mountain Mint”). All three grow in our Meadow in full sun, average soil, and without special care or irrigation.

Virginia Mountain Mint
Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint
Broad-leaved Mountain Mint

Our favorite is Broad-leaved Mountain Mint. The plant grows about 3 feet tall with shiny, dark green, and very minty leaves. In early summer, it produces a pair of fuzzy gray-green “bracts,” leaf-like structures that frame a cluster of flower buds at the very top of the plant. The flowers themselves are tiny little polka-dotted tubes that open sequentially over two to three months. The very long sequence of blooms keeps pollinators coming back all summer for fresh nectar.

Tiny flowers keep opening for months

Mountain Mint is incredibly valuable for pollinator gardens. It is loaded with nectar attractive to bees, butterflies, and a wide variety of other pollinating insects. It is very entertaining to count how many different species visit the flowers.

Honey bees love Mountain Mint
Red-banded Hairstreak butterfly
Clubbed Midas Fly is a native pollinator
Native bumblebees do, too!
Golden Digger Wasp sharing flowers with bees
Grey Hairstreak butterfly on Mountain Mint

Apart from its value to pollinators, Mountain Mint is a wonderful garden perennial. It is tough! Deer, rabbits, and woodchucks avoid it. Like most meadow plants, it is drought-tolerant and does best in full sun, though the Broad-leaved species may want more moisture than Narrow-leaved Mountain Mint. Both are hardy in Zones 3 through 9 and both do well in our Meadow without irrigation. The long season of bloom means Mountain Mint looks good well into the fall, and the seed heads add interest if left standing all winter.

September in the Meadow

Mountain Mint has been used by humans for a wide variety of purposes. Indigenous people in the Eastern US made a tea from the leaves to treat headache, stomach problems, and respiratory congestion. Dried leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint are said to make an effective insect repellant when rubbed on skin or clothing. Carrying fresh sprigs in a pocket or under a hat-band helps keep gnats and mosquitos away from gardeners’ faces. The leaves of Broad-leaved Mountain Mint contain pulegone, a substance said to cause liver damage if ingested in significant quantity. But reliable sources assure us that the leaves may be used safely in teas and infusions, and we have some satisfactory experience with that…

A handful of chopped leaves from Broad-leaved Mountain Mint boiled for a few minutes with equal parts sugar and water, then allowed to steep until cool, makes a lovely scented infusion for use flavoring lemonade, iced tea, or even a specialty cocktail! Strain the liquid to remove the leaves and add the syrup to your preferred beverage. Mix a bit of the syrup with gin, lime juice, and elderflower liqueur, and you have a Mountain Mint Martini!


Summer Buzzin’

Have you ever heard a plant hum?

On a sunny summer day, you can actually hear Shrubby St. John’s Wort humming. It’s not the plant itself, of course, but the sound of extremely happy bumblebees buzzing as they collect pollen from countless bright yellow pom-pom flowers.

“St. John’s wort” is the common name for a family of almost 500 plant species worldwide. The name refers to its time of bloom – around St. John’s Day on the Christian calendar, or June 24. “Wort” is the old English word for “plant,” especially plants known for their medicinal value. Perhaps you’ve heard St. John’s wort recommended as an herbal remedy for mild depression? That particular St. John’s wort is Hypericum perforatum, a weedy perennial native to Europe and now considered invasive in parts of North America.

 Shrubby St. John’s Wort in front of the Manor House

The “humming” plant we love is Hypericum prolificum, or Shrubby St. John’s Wort. It is a beautiful shrub, native to the US from New York west to Minnesota and south to Louisiana and Georgia. It does indeed start blooming at the end of June, and continues to dazzle for weeks into the summer. The scientific name “prolificum” refers to the enormous number of flowers the shrub produces. The shrub itself forms a rounded mound 3 to 4 feet tall and wide with small blue-green leaves.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort loaded with flowers

If you go shopping for Shrubby St. John’s Wort, you will likely see Hypericum frondosum, a very similar shrub with a cultivar called “Sunburst” that has slightly larger flowers. Its original native range is further south, in Tennessee and Kentucky, but it does perfectly well in southern New York gardens and throughout Zones 5 to 8. Another species, Hypericum kalmianum, is native to the Great Lakes region and hardy to Zone 4. While botanists can tell these three shrubs apart, most gardeners consider them virtually interchangeable. And all of them have year-round value as landscape plants.

Shrubby St. John’s Wort is essentially carefree, and makes an attractive foundation plant or hedge in full sun. It doesn’t need pruning, but you can shape it to suit your site. The leaves produce a substance that is mildly toxic to deer, so deer avoid it. In autumn, the shrub holds onto its leaves until late in the season, and it has great fall color. And in winter, interesting seed capsules remain on branches that have attractive grey-brown bark.

 Fall color is a mix of red, yellow, and orange

There is no nectar in the flowers of St. John’s Wort, so it’s not a stopping place for butterflies. However, caterpillars of several moth and butterfly species, including the lovely gray hairstreak butterfly, do use the leaves as a host plant. Pollen is the big attraction. The flowers have a huge number of stamens, all loaded with pollen, so bees of every size and description come to the party.

How many bumbles can you find on just 3 flowers? (Hint: there are 5!)

We never get tired of watching the action, and we can observe up close because the bees won’t spare a second even to notice nearby humans. They are fixated on pollen collection, as you can see in this slow-motion video:

Pollen collection

And what about that summer buzzin’? Turn your sound up and, technology permitting, you may hear the sound of a plant humming!

Summer buzzin’

Much Ado About Mulch

We are re-thinking mulch.

Gardeners are routinely advised to apply a 2 to 3-inch layer of wood chips or bark mulch around new plantings, and to mulch regularly thereafter. We are told that mulching maintains soil moisture, suppresses weeds, improves soil, and looks tidy. This advice has been given and followed for years without regard to plant type, soil conditions, or location.

Typical planting with bark mulch around widely-spaced plants

There is plenty of expert advice available about types of mulch and how to use them. For example, there is general agreement that color-enhanced mulch is not beneficial. And tree experts routinely warn against “mulch volcanos,” which can “girdle” a tree and kill it by holding excessive moisture around the trunk.

Color-treated mulch does not benefit plants, soil, or wildlife
Incorrect mulching actually damages trees and shrubs

Until recently, however, there has been little discussion about whether it is necessary, or wise, to mulch at all. Our reconsideration of mulching began with a startling statement by noted horticulturist (and garden philosopher), Roy Diblik:

“There is not a plant on earth that has evolved living in a pile of wood chips.”

Roy Diblik

In his excellent book, The Know Maintenance Perennial Garden, Roy Diblik observes that plants have widely differing needs. When we buy a new plant, at a minimum we want to know whether it prefers sun or shade, dry or wet soil. The answer depends upon the habitat where that plant evolved. Did it originate in shady moist forests with soil enriched by fallen leaves, or did it evolve surviving in hard-packed clay in open prairies? The one thing we know for sure, is that it did not evolve in a habitat with a 2 to 3-inch layer of man-made wood mulch.

So, a wiser practice may be to consider whether mulching is appropriate in a given situation. Mulching vegetable gardens with compost or light organic matter that can be tilled into beds makes sense. Mulching formal beds of annuals for aesthetic and maintenance reasons is understandable. Trees and shrubs planted in full sun in lawn may very well benefit from a proper application mulch, if only to protect them from lawnmowers.

On the other hand, trees and shrubs in a moist wooded area may suffer from mildew and pest damage with a similar application of man-made mulch. They are better off as they evolved – with groundcovers and woodland perennials. As seasons change and leaves fall and decay, these plants become natural mulch and enrich the soil.

Correct mulching can benefit trees and shrubs surrounded by lawn
Under-planting trees acts as natural mulch, contributing to soil health and wildlife

Contrary to traditional advice, applying a layer of wood mulch when planting perennials (the flowering plants we hope will return every year) may be counter-productive. First, mulch can hold excess moisture, and actually reflect heat, causing plants to die.

Second, heavy mulch prevents perennials from growing naturally. Perennials grow by expanding from the base of the plant, or by sending out shoots that run below or on top of the soil and then reach up for light. Many perennials form seeds after flowering and drop their seeds on open soil to begin new plants. A thick layer of wood mulch defeats both processes. If plants can’t grow and reproduce, they eventually fade away.

Mulching perennials prevents natural growth

But if we don’t mulch, what about weeds? A good strategy is to plant perennials densely enough that within a season or two the desired plants occupy all the available space, making it difficult for weeds to establish. That is the approach we used in the Pollinator Garden at the Nature Center. (For a description of that process, click here)

New Pollinator Garden densely planted, without mulch
Pollinator Garden in its second season, not much room for weeds

Weeding and watering are important in the first season or two until the perennials begin to fill in. As plants expand naturally, and even seed themselves into open areas, weeds become less problematic. If it is available, leaf mulch is a good alternative to wood chips or shredded bark. Leaves break down much more quickly, and do not inhibit the natural growth habits of perennials.

Open soil in new plantings may be covered with leaf mulch, chopped leaves, or even whole leaves until new plants fill in

In the absence of man-made mulch, nature may offer some wonderful surprises. Not all of the plants that appear on open soil are “weeds.” We have seen “volunteer” native perennials return to areas that were previously mulched. Self-seeding perennials, like the wandering pink coneflower in the opening photo, surprise us by popping up in new spots. And native bees find open soil for their seasonal nests where we stopped mulching.

Native trout lily appeared under trees when we stopped mulching!
Native columbine surprises us in new spots every year
Ground nesting bees found this open spot!

The important thing is to recognize that plants are not all the same, and the best approach to gardening is to be thoughtful about their differences. By understanding what they need, and allowing them to live as they were meant to, we open our minds – and our gardens – to nature and its surprises.


How Sweet It Is!

Itea virginica is one of our most beautiful and versatile native shrubs. Its romantic common name, “Virginia Sweetspire,” is a good one, because this shrub is a sweet addition to the landscape year-round.

Itea virginica or “Virginia Sweetspire” shrub 

Itea (pronounced eye-tee-uh) grows in a loose mounding form, reaching 4-5 feet tall and wide in a few years, with gently arching branches. In mid-June, after most trees and shrubs have finished blooming, Itea is just starting its summer show. Spikes of white flowers 4 to 6 inches long cover the shrub, arching away from the deep-green leaves on long stems. 

Itea starts blooming in mid-June
The flowers open gradually

The star-shaped flowers begin opening from the stem to the tip, and last several weeks. And they are sweet! The elegant fragrance is not over-powering, but definitely carries in sultry June air. The flowers are loaded with nectar and butterflies flock to them. When the flowers fade, birds will feast on the seeds that remain all winter.

Itea’s fragrant flowers justify the name “Sweetspire”

Itea is native to swampy meadows and wet woodlands from New Jersey to Florida, and west as far as southern Illinois, but it does very well in more northern gardens. It can thrive in full sun or part shade, and is surprisingly drought tolerant given its swampy origins. It is winter hardy in Zones 5-9, and is not attractive to deer or rabbits. 

Throughout the summer, the foliage remains fresh and glossy, so Itea looks great in full sun as a hedge or foundation plant. But because of its shade tolerance, it can even replace pachysandra, vinca, or ivy under trees.

Itea is part of our full-sun foundation planting at the Nature Center’s Manor House
Itea in part shade under a Redbud tree at the Nature Center

And have we mentioned fall color? Itea is known for its gorgeous fall foliage, turning various shades of red, orange, and purple while holding onto its leaves until snowfall. Cultivars called “Henry’s Garnet” and “Merlot” are specifically marketed for their brilliance in the fall landscape. Fall color is best in full sun, but it’s still impressive in part shade. We frequently recommend Itea as a native alternative to invasive burning bush.

The same Itea planting in mid-November
All the fall colors

So, Itea is carefree, a hedge or foundation plant, an under-tree plant, has showy and fragrant flowers, offers nectar for butterflies and seeds for birds, grows in sun or shade, and has fabulous fall color – we think that’s pretty sweet!