GREEN THOUGHTS: Pungent, yet modest

Spicebush. Photo contributed

SPICEBUSH! I BRAKED MY MOUNTAIN BIKE hard to take a closer look. I was pleased to see dozens of Lindera benzoin scattered beneath the cottonwood trees, in a section of Schodack Island State Park not yet swamped by invasives. The cottonwoods were bare, and the surrounding weeds still green, so the luminous yellow of the spicebushes gave them center stage on a cloudy fall day. Bike botany, neat native plants, glorious autumn—by George, who could ask for anything more?

I first appreciated spicebush along another trail, the Bronx River Parkway, where it grows in profusion in the damp soil. Indigenous to much of the eastern half of the country, it is a medium-sized understory shrub about 12 feet tall. All parts of the plant have a strong aromatic odor, pleasing in an odd medicinal way. Flowering in very early spring, its clusters of small yellow blossoms are much more demure than brassy forsythia, but attractive nonetheless. Spring flowers sell plants, but whereas you’ll find forsythia for sale in droves at the big boxes, spicebush is more difficult to discover in the nursery trade and sought out only by those in the know (such as you and I). Someday, when the public gains a greater appreciation of our native flora, perhaps the sales figures on these two species will be reversed, with spicebush finding a place in just about every local landscape now occupied by a forsythia. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Before recycling

EVERY WEEK WE SORT BOTTLES and plastic jugs, cardboard and newspapers, and pack food scraps and other wet garbage into expensive plastic bags and head off to our local solid waste transfer station. If we didn’t, we would be buried in hundreds of pounds of waste material each month. This time of year, and the holidays make things even worse. Wonder what people did fifty, or a hundred years or more ago?

When we were a more agrarian society there wasn’t much thought about waste piling up because almost anything leftover had a purpose and a place. Recycling as a term did not yet exist; it was just practiced. My parents and grandparents and older generations often lived on the edge of survival and had to be frugal and saving. There weren’t plastic containers or many disposable items. Some medicines came in glass bottles, which were put in a small dump area on the farm. It has been interesting to dig through these areas to discover bottles once containing horse liniment, Lydia Pinkham’s female herbal remedy (alcohol content 40 proof), and very rarely a wine or other spirits bottle. Some of them were salvaged and today the blue Bromo-Seltzer, blue-green Palmer’s hair oil, and brown or white medicine bottles decorate our windowsills.

Most bottles could be washed and refilled with vinegar, wine or other liquids. Father kept a long-necked bottle for “dosing” horses or cows with liquid medicines. The animal’s head could be held in an elevated, restrained position, and the long bottle neck was inserted in the mouth away from teeth, and the contents poured down the throat. It worked surprisingly well. It was washed and ready for the next dosing. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: Loving, and leaving, your leaves

“The falling leaves drift by the window

The autumn leaves of red and gold

I see your lips, the summer kisses

The sun-burned hands I used to hold”

JOHNNY MERCER’S LYRICS are a little too personal in Covid time, and the hands may be sun-burned for a most unromantic reason—too much yard work. And if you follow the standard practices of raking and bagging, the autumn leaves only add to the toil.

Those same leaves which inspired the poets have gained the attention of a much more practical lot, scientists at state universities. Researchers at Purdue point out that chopping up leaves with a mulching mower and leaving them on the lawn is less time consuming than blowing, raking or vacuuming them away. Mulching leaves has no effect on soil pH or nutrient availability. It does not increase the amount of thatch or the chances the lawn might come down with a fungal disease.

In fact, mulching leaves into a lawn often improves the soil structure, which, in practical terms, means the soil particles stick together better. This, ergo, means the soil will be less compacted, contain bigger pore spaces better able to hold both air and water, and increase the activity of beneficial soil-dwelling organisms. So, on a microscopic level, mulching is a win-win proposition for both you and the ground you stand upon. Read more…

THROUGH THE WOODS: Fall is my favorite

Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

LOOKING OUT AT THE BEAUTIFUL LEAVES and sunny blue skies that characterize this time of year makes me very happy. I love this time of year and even the rain is enjoyed as it papers the falling leaves to my yard and drive. Each season offers its own beauty and special times, but October and fall is the best. As a young child my family ran and played with abandon on the ground and under beautiful maple trees of orange and golden leaves. We piled the crunchy brown fallen leaves up and took turns burying each other and rolling around in them. I also remember how I helped my grandfather pack the leaves against the old farmhouse foundation and placed boards on top to hold them in place. Those leaves made good insulation against the winter cold.

It also brought back the smell of fall. I would grab my horse after school, put on his bridle and take off riding bareback. I loved the smell of the horse and all the smells of damp leaves, trees, and forest floor. I am not sure why, but the woods smell different in fall and I like it. My horse loved these rides too and the cool air made him frisky and his winter coat of thick hair helped keep me warm. Read more…

GREEN THOUGHTS: More bitter than sweet

Oriental bittersweet climbs trees, shown here. Photo contributed

IMAGINE AN ORNAMENTAL PLANT which grows quickly, with no insect pests or fungal diseases. It produces highly attractive orange fruits in fall, perfect to pair with pumpkins and mums. It requires no watering or fertilizer, grows in any soil, and thrives in sun or shade. And best of all, deer don’t eat it! Did these positive qualities run through someone’s mind as they brought the first plants of oriental bittersweet to the United States in the 1860s? Certainly they couldn’t have foreseen that this plant would grow into the environment-changer we live with today.

Once you know oriental bittersweet, you’ll find it’s just about everywhere in our part of the Hudson Valley. It’s a vine that can climb 60 feet or more into the trees, sometimes pulling them down as it spreads. It grows on top of less aggressive vines, such as native Virginia creeper, smothering them, too. It also forms dense thickets, leaving no room for woody plants or wildflowers to survive or regenerate. It turns the landscape into a mass of indistinct, foliage-covered forms, making things look strange and degraded. Oriental bittersweet covers natural places, like Schodack Island State Park and Papscanee Island Preserve. Its abundant in cultivated landscapes too, often seen growing up chain link fences in the city and scaling spruces in the suburbs. I’m pulling up seedlings like crazy at my place, trying to hold a line in the shifting sand. Read more…