Friday, July 30, 2021

Dangerous Weeds

A blond girl with a blue backpack facing into the woods.
While you’re out puttering in your yard or exploring the outdoors by hiking or camping at this time of year, there are some weeds you should be aware of. These are not the weeds that cause minor issues like skin irritation, these guys are downright dangerous. These are not plants that are particularly noteworthy at a glance; but their very ordinariness makes them problematic as they are easy to overlook, and you could wander into or handle them without thinking about it. Which, as you will see, is not what you want to do.

 Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata) 

Water Hemlock (Cicuta maculata)

I’m going to start big with this weed, which, according to the USDA, is “the most violently toxic plant that grows in North America”. Found in marshes and wetlands in wide swathes across the country, there is really no way to oversell the toxicity of this plant. It contains an easily deadly neurotoxin called cicutoxin. If this toxin gets ahold of you, it causes dizziness, confusion, vomiting, abdominal pain, convulsions, unconsciousness, brain swelling, kidney failure and death. More or less in that order. And it happens fast, symptoms can start within minutes of contact and death within hours. According to this article, even those that survive can suffer from hallucinations, delirium, muscle twitching, restlessness, and anxiety for months after their poisoning. That’s horrifying. Water hemlock carries cicutoxin in all its parts, but it is most concentrated in the tubers. And sometimes people eat the tubers. Why would anyone ingest this plant? Unfortunately it looks a lot like other plants that have edible tubers like wild parsnip, watercress, wild celery and more. Uniformed foragers put themselves at great risk if they recklessly ingest any of these types of plants. And it doesn’t take much - a piece of water hemlock tuber the size of a walnut contains enough toxin to kill a 1,200-pound animal. Another fairly common mistake that the uniformed make is that they use the stems of this plant as straws because they are hollow and look like the perfect natural straw. Not a good idea. Also, just because they look like Queen’s Anne Lace, do not cut some for your dinner table centerpiece. Educate yourself in dangerous weeds that are out there before you go out. It’s best to learn to identify all the plants on this list by sight, rather than characteristics that require you to handle or examine the roots or inside the stem.

Death Camas (Zigadenus spp) –

Death Camas (Zigadenus spp)

Also known as Meadow Death Camas, this pretty weed can be found across a good portion of the US. It has long, grass-like leaves, clusters of white, star-shaped flowers, and round, onion-shaped bulbs. All parts of it are toxic, with a poison from neurotoxic alkaloids more toxic than strychnine.  Death camas is mostly a problem for grazing livestock, especially in the early spring as this plant is one of the first to appear after winter. Apparently grazers like this weed enough to eat as much as they can, but it can lead to convulsions, coma and death after ingesting only a small amount. Like water hemlock, the danger to humans lies in its being misidentified and ingested. Sometimes it is mistaken for its close family member, the Blue Camas, which has edible bulbs that were a staple food source for settlers and Native Americans. The fact that these two grow next to each other increases the odds of gathering the wrong one for your dinner. Other times, it is mistaken for a wild onion (this article illustrates the differences). Unsuspecting settlers sickened and died from this plant, but the dangers to humans nowadays are not great – unless they are foraging. And if you think you are beginning to see a “learn before you forage” tilt to this blog, you are correct. 

Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium) - 

Jimson Weed (Datura stramonium)

If this weed is more familiar to you than the others, it’s probably for all the wrong reasons. Pop culture has made this out to be a natural hallucinogen that most people have easy access to. But it is first and foremost highly toxic and the hallucinatory aspects of it are less mind-expanding than mind-erasing. I know a couple of young men, spurred on by the hubris of youth, who decided to ingest some of this. They both ended up in the hospital in disassociated states, where they completely lost their minds for days and took weeks to find themselves again. They were deeply traumatized by the whole thing. If you still doubt this plant can destroy your mind, you should know that this plant is associated with zombie-making in Haiti. Here in the US, it is believed that jimson weed was documented by the settlers to Jamestown (1607) and that it was originally known as “Jamestown Weed”. What ensued was a lengthy list of deaths and hallucinatory episodes amongst those pioneers. According to this article, some soldiers ate some jimson weed in a stew and spent 11 days in a hallucinatory stupor. Jimson weed is a member of the notorious nightshade family and has beautiful and fragrant white blooms that night pollinators like. But the rest of the plant emits an unpleasant stinky-foot smell that keeps animals away. Jimson weed has some medicinal qualities that we know of (and more to be discovered) and is aesthetically pleasing but cultivating (especially for medicinal uses) is just best left to the experts.

Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum) – 

3 images: One shows a girl looking up at a toweing stalk of Giant Hogweed, the next shows the flower and the third shows a hand with blisters from the plant.

This native of Central Asia was introduced to the US around the end of World War I as an ornamental (a very bad idea). Since then, it has become invasive in many parts of the country, with New York State being especially hard hit. One the plus side: This weed is big and hard to mistake for anything else. It can easily grow to 14 feet tall and has thick stalks with raised nodules and purple and red splotches; some people think it looks like a giant Queen Anne’s Lace. One the negative side: These weeds are hard to control for two reasons – they are resistant to many herbicides and contact with any part of it can cause burns and scarring. This is a plant that does not need to be ingested to mess you up – you just have to brush against it. Giant Hogweed contains a phytotoxic chemical compound known as furocoumarin. The insidious thing about this chemical is that the effects are activated by sunlight and may take up to 48 hours to fully appear. You can get ridiculously painful blisters and rashes, and if you accidently touched your eyes during any part of the exposure, you could go blind temporarily (at least hopefully temporarily). Oh, and the blisters and rashes will leave purple scars. Some people say that only people with sensitivity get the worst of these effects, while others say everyone is at risk. I say it’s not worth it to figure out where you land – just stay away from it and contact your local authorities to remove it. 

A GIF of a guy falling over after eating some kind of red berry.
There are many more plants out there that are waiting to pass along their toxicity; I highly encourage you to find out what’s growing where you live. Even if the toxic weeds in your neck of the woods can’t kill you, there are bound to be some that can ruin an otherwise wonderful day out in nature. There are also some pretty toxic plants in your local nursery that are being sold as landscape materials or houseplants; I will be addressing the most concerning of those in future blogs.

 Submitted by Pam

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Did You Know? The July Flower Edition

A field full of daisies and purple flowers under a summer sky.

At this point in a summer full of excessive heat and astonishing amounts of rain (depending on where you live, or if you live in southern Arizona, where we’ve had both), I thought we could all enjoy a relaxing blog about gorgeous flowers that bloom in July with interesting factoids about each. I hope it works for you.

DID YOU KNOW that Aztecs ate Dahlias?

The many colors and varieties of Dahlias.
The dahlia is a native of Mesoamerica and is the national flower of Mexico. The Aztecs held dahlias (they called them “Acocotli”) in high regard and cultivated them to eat, specifically the tubers and blooms (this article has more on how they grew and cooked them) They also used dahlias medicinally and as vessels to carry water. In the 1500s, the invading Europeans latched onto these beautiful and useful flowers took them back to their world. They did not, however, catch on right away – either as a food crop or as an ornamental. The food part never made it onto European plates, and it took another 200 years (and come creative plant breeders) before they were appreciated simply for their beauty.

A close-up of a Larkspur (aka Delphinium) blossom.

DID YOU KNOW this flower has two names?

Apparently the ancient Greeks thought this flower looked like a dolphin, so they named it “Delphinium”. Fast way forward to when they were introduced to Tudor England during the mid-1500s, and the name became “Larkspur”. Apparently those crazy Tudors thought it looked like the spurs/foot of a lark. I guess that comparison can be made (more than to a dolphin, in my opinion), but they clearly spent a lot of time looking closely at this plant to come to that conclusion. Here is a piece on lark foot anatomy that you can check out to see if you agree with the Tudors. By the way,  this plant is toxic and can be a threat to livestock. 


DID YOU KNOW that the Gardenia was named for a gardener named Garden?

A single perfect Gardenia bloom.
These absurdly fragrant flowers are part of the coffee family and come from tropical places in Asia and Africa. In China, this plant is known as Zhi Zi and has been cultivated for over 1,000 years. It’s been prized as an ingredient in dyes and cosmetics and used extensively in traditional medicine. In the mid-18th century an English botanist and avid plant-hunter, John Ellis, sent a specimen of this flower to his friend Alexander Garden, a doctor and botanist. The conveniently named Garden was a Scotsman by birth and had settled on a plantation not far from Charleston, SC. But Ellis did not just send Garden a flower, he named it after him. So, it became the Gardenia. This bloom is highly coveted in Southern gardens to this day, even though Dr. Garden was deported following the Revolutionary War (more on his story here).

DID YOU KNOW that head of a Gerber Daisy is made up of a bunch of little flowers?

A super-close-up of the head of a Gerber Daisy. Photo by Brian Johnston.

This cheerful and popular plant has a secret that most people never notice – their blooms are made up of hundreds of individual flowers. This complexity is all the more notable since they seem so simply pretty at a glance. Here are some phenomenal photos that illustrate the astonishing complexity of these blossoms. Gerbers are native to South Africa and were first “discovered” by a Dutch botanist who named them for a German colleague (I guess this naming-after-a-friend thing was common), Traugott Gerber. But it wasn’t until 1882 that a scientific description was published by J.D. Hooke and they began to gain a following. For more interesting tidbits on these daisies, check this out. 

DID YOU KNOW that Hydrangea colors are a reflection of the pH of their soil?

Blue hydrangeas flowers hanging from the plant.
Hydrangeas come in many types, but when it comes to color you’ll find even more variety. And while you can’t change the shape of the hydrangea you’re growing; you can change the color. These flowers take their cue from the soil they’re in and the pH level therein determines the color. If the soil is alkaline (pH of 7-14), the color will be in the pink range; with an acidic soil (pH of 0-7) there will be bluer blooms. So, if you want to change colors, adjust pH accordingly by adding aluminum sulfate for blue and lime for pink. But you may want to consider carefully what color to grow if you plan to gift them as the colors carry all types of meanings (see some here). Not to mention that there is a tradition that hydrangeas symbolize boastfulness as they produce a lot of showy blooms but very few seeds to build on (ouch!). 

DID YOU KNOW that Sunflowers move according to their age?

A field of sunflowers under a stormy sky.
Sunflowers track the progression of the sun across the sky by moving their heads to face the sun. But this movement is far from automatic. On cloudy days, no matter how dense the cloud cover, immature sunflowers will find the sun’s location through the clouds and track all day long. Mature sunflowers, on the other hand, will not bother with this exercise. They stay where they are until the sun returns. In time, as mature sunflowers mature even further, they will stop tracking even on sunny days and simply face east all day. This sun-tracking movement is known as heliotropism and many plants use a form of this as a way to maximize available sunlight, especially when in their growth stage. Watching sunflowers move can be fun, unless you have helianthophobia, and then you won’t want to see it. 

A psychedelic GIF that says Flower Power.    

Take care.  

Submitted by Pam




Friday, July 23, 2021

It's Time To Start Watering Smarter

Water cascading down onto green plants in the ground.
It’s summer and every year this season gets more intense – hotter, drier, wetter, or all of these things (which is what we’ve had in southern Arizona). Unfortunately, with the lack of public will and clear-cut actionable solutions, these climate-change effects are with us to stay. Which means it’s time to re-evaluate how we water.

I recently spent some time house-sitting for a family member who has some substantial plantings around the property. When I began my sojourn there, we were experiencing extreme heat and the watering chores were focused on dealing with that. But within a few days, we had some intensely powerful monsoon storms, the ground was waterlogged, and flash floods were happening. This sudden change made my caretaking duties less obvious and more stressful. To water or not to water was and continues to be the big question. Luckily, there are answers, especially in a well-though-out watering plan. 

A close-up of a white flower with water droplets on it.

All watering strategies should come from an understanding that water resources are finite and the only way to maintain a healthy garden long-term is by using less water. Or by watering smarter. Many municipalities (especially in the drought-stricken West) have or are considering putting restrictions on water use, so you will be ahead of the game when planning to water properly but less. The mantra to follow should be: “Water as much as needed while using as little as possible”. To that end, here are some guidelines:


WATER EARLY IN THE MORNING, OR MAYBE IN THE EVENING – Watering in the daytime is simply wasteful as you lose a good bit of it to evaporation, especially in summer. Here in Arizona, we discourage evening watering because that is when water use is at its highest. But it can be done safely then or even later at night due to our dry conditions. In more humid climates, you run the risk of welcoming disease if your plants are put to bed with wet leaves. These are also favorable conditions for snails to make themselves at home. It’s probably best to just water in the morning – and in the hottest places this can be as early as before dawn. 

A snail on a red watering can.
MULCH AND MULCH SOME MORE – Where possible, add mulch around your plants to help hold water in, reduce runoff, and lower the surface soil temperature. Avoid coco peat, however, as it will hold the water and makes a soggy mess that can encourage disease. 

WATER SLOWLY, DEEPLY AND THOROUGHLY – You don’t want to squander water on leaves where it will evaporate rapidly, especially since plants need water most in their root zones. In general, water needs to move 6”-12” into the soil to get to the roots and this can take more than a couple of minutes, so soak slowly (soaker hoses work well when monitored carefully). Or water some, walk away and water elsewhere, and then come back to water more. Watering deep in the soil encourages plant roots to grow down, creating stronger and healthier root systems.  In our recent storms, a lot of large trees have fallen and many of these were the victims of quick and shallow watering. They had responded to this type of watering by developing wide-spread, surface level roots that aren’t able to hold up to heavy rain or strong winds. 

An assortment of watering cans - with a milk can in the back. Photo by Clerment Falize on Unsplash.
I realize that this may not be practical in all situations, but it’s a good strategy to use when you are able. A watering can delivers targeted water where you want it with less spray lost to mist. The use of a well-placed soaker hose is an exception to this rule. 


YOU SHOULD PROBABLY BE USING LESS WATER THAN YOU ARE – According to this EPA article, landscaping typically requires one inch of water a week. But that seems rather arbitrary to me and definitely too much in many circumstances. Rather than seeking a way to make sense of the amount of water you use, it’s far better to consider ways to cut down. Xeriscape practices have been popular in southern Arizona for decades but is no longer just for desert communities. With xeriscaping you can have the beautiful landscaping you want – with less yard maintenance - while reducing water and fertilizer usage, embracing native species, and improving the soil.

Monsoon storm with lightning, rainbow & saguaro in Tucson, Arizona.
STRETCH YOUR RAIN RESOURCES – People have been using grey water on gardens since gardens were invented and it’s still a good idea. Collecting and harvesting rainwater is also nothing new, but surprisingly few people take advantage of this literal gift from the heavens. Although they are nice, you do not need a fancy collection system; you can start small with buckets or something similar (just be sure to use the water and not let it sit and become a mosquito breeding ground). If your rainstorm is a gentle one, push your container plants out so they can get the good stuff straight from the sky. Lightning-packed rain events can be a little terrifying, but they offer more than water as the lightning can help deliver nitrogen into the soil (and your plants love that). That doesn’t mean that you should go out amongst lightning strikes to put out your favorite potted plant, but it does mean that what you have growing out there is appreciating the charge they’re getting. If you have recently received a lot of rainfall, do not continue to water as usual, wait until the soil has dried out. Turn off the irrigation and re-evaluate. This especially true in arid places where plants are adapted to dry soil. Keep in mind that over-watering can kill as surely as too little watering can.

A nonsensical GIF of a giant man in a white jacket using  a watering can to water people on a beach.
The bottom line is we all have to use less water. It’s that simple. However, we still need plants in our world, so it’s on us to figure out as individuals the best way to manage our small part of the world. If everyone was a careful steward of their tiny part, the whole world would grow healthier and stronger. So, when you save a little rainwater, think of yourself as an environmental crusader – you have to start somewhere.

Take Care

Submitted by Pam


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