Friday, February 24, 2012

Podophyllum peltatum

I remember when I was little, my mother dug up a clump of Mayapples one spring and planted them in the back yard. It was the beginning of a little woodland garden in our small backyard garden on our city lot. She added some ferns, violets, a Jack-in-the-Pulpit and probably a couple of other things. I loved that little spot. It wasn't as showy as my grandfathers chrysanthemums or his roses, but there was something so quiet and refreshing about all of those shades of green.

Mayapples are native to woodland areas in Eastern North America. Each plant has 2 or 3 leaves and a single white flower, nodding beneath the leaves. Bumblebees pollinate the flowers. Mayapples prefer dappled shade and moist to slightly dry conditions. The best soil for Mayapples is a rich loamy one with plenty of organic matter. It is easy to start new plants from rhizomes. The foliage dies down by the end of summer. The fruit forms by mid summer and is edible in moderate amounts once they are fully ripe. The very ripe fruits are eaten by turtles and possums and possibly raccoons and skunks. Because Mayapple leaves are poisonous and have a very bitter taste, they are usually left alone.

In the fall, after the leaves die down, the rhizomes are dried and pulverized into fine particles to use the plant medicinally. It has been used to treat liver problems and to get rid of warts, but the most common use is as a laxative and it was the active ingredient in 'Carter's Little Liver Pills'. The plant extract has been used topically to get rid of warts and moles and has also been used to treat some forms of skin cancer. Two drugs derived from the Mayapple are used to treat cancer and research is continuing on other chemotherapy drugs,


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pinus strobus - Eastern White Pine

In our neighborhood, there are a ton of white pines. The state has, for years, given them out for planting and apparently, lots of people around here took advantage of the offer. With all of the deer, they can be hard to get started since the deer find them so tasty, but once they get tall enough for the deer not to eat them, they are pretty trouble free. Their one drawback, as far as I can tell, is that the branches are quite brittle and so will snap off sometimes in a bad ice storm.
In colonial times, White Pines were very common in the Northeast U.S. The British severely depleted their numbers because they were in great demand as ship's masts because they were so straight. They were also used for painted furniture.

Medicinally, White Pine tar was used in cough syrups. Other 'fun facts' - Pine needles have 5 times the vitamin C as lemons. The inner bark can be dried and powdered and added to the flour when making bread. The seeds from the cones can be eaten just like the western nut pine seeds, though some say they aren't as good. (with the squirrels around here, it's not likely that I'll ever have the chance to find out since they find cones of all sorts quite attractive). Pine sap has been used to waterproof baskets, buckets and boats and can be make into turpentine. The sap is also antimicrobial and can be mixed with beeswax to make a salve to help prevent infections in wounds. Pine tar mixed with sulfur has been used to treat dandruff. Such a useful tree, though I think I'll just enjoy looking at ours.

As with most plants, people weren't content to enjoy the lovely green pine, but worked on finding the odd branch here and there to use for grafting to create new plants. Pinus strobus has a number of these.

This one is Pinus strobus 'Aurea'. No fancy names, just an acknowledgment of the yellow colored needles. The color is most intense in the winter, fading quite a bit towards green by summer.

And then there is Pinus strobus 'Tortuosa', the curly needled version. Everyone seems to like this one. We were told when we got it that it wouldn't get very tall. Wrong! Once it got to about 25 feet we took the top out. It is now a lovely, round (and rather large) pine bush. I wouldn't have minded it taller, but it was throwing way too much shade on a number of things.

So, not an unusual or, at least in its plain green form, an odd or fancy tree, but one of the basics that is easy to grow and thrives on a variety of soils and in a variety of zones from quite cold to pretty warm.


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Phytolacca americana - Pokeweed

Phytolacca americana, known around here as Pokeweed is a large weed/wildflower. It easily grows 6 feet tall in our fields. Other than its size, it is not especially noticeable in spring or early summer, but once the tiny white flowers are fertilized and change into purple berries, it's hard to miss.

The first green shoots of the plant in the spring have been eaten as a spring greens (cooked only and boiled in several changes of water) and are said to be as good, or better, than asparagus. I've not tried it, but know people who love it. It is a source of vitamins A and C and some of the B vitamins, and calcium, phosphorus and iron. After spring, it is not safe to eat the leaves and the roots are poisonous at all times. The roots have been used to make a remedy for treating rheumatism, though I've not been able to find information on just how they are processed for that purpose. I do know that some people in this area will eat a couple of the berries every day and swear that it helps their arthritis. I've also heard of the berries being made into a tea. I have read that cooked berries are safer than raw, and that the seeds are the poisonous part, so berries without seeds are safe. I think I'm going to just avoid all of it to be safe. I find the herbal uses of plants to be more of a historical interest than something that I'm comfortable trying for myself of my family. In an herbal published almost 200 years ago, it was recommended that the berries be infused in brandy and that "the leaves are used in ointment for sore eyes and in the form of a poultice for reducing swellings from the bites of poisonous insects." It is also true that in the 19th century there were numerous cases of Pokeweed poisoning, though the reports I read didn't specify from which parts of the plant the poisonings occurred.

Pokeweed is an American native and is found in most of the country except for the Mountain States, Alaska and Hawaii. It is often found in old fields and waste places. Here it grows with Ironweed, Goldenrod and Thistles making fields of gold and purple in the fall.

A number of wildflowers have a place in my gardens and coexist happily here. Pokeweed isn't one of those. It is too big, too weedy, and seeds much too freely to be a welcome part of an even remotely civilized garden. Once it gets started pulling it out isn't an option because it has a large taproot. Digging is the only way to remove it from the garden. There is, however, a variegated form that is welcome, or at least tolerated, in the garden. It is also too big, and also tends to seed around a bit thanks to the birds (Cardinals and Catbirds seem to like them especially) who eat the berries and spread the seeds, but the variegation is lovely and I tend to overlook a plant's bad habits if it is useful in the design of the garden and the bad habits aren't tooooo bad.

The Pokeweed that is allowed to grow in my garden is Phytolacca american 'Steve Silberstein'. Not really a catchy name, except probably to the person for whom it was named. Most people seem to just call it 'that variegated poke weed'. It will grow in sun or shade, but seems to prefer sun. It need adequate moisture but isn't really too fussy other than that. Most of the seedlings will be variegated, though some will show a better variegation than others. Since the seed doesn't need any stratification for germinate, I usually just bury some berries near the base of the plant and then pot up the seedlings in the spring once they germinate. No point making lots of extra work or taking up extra space in my too small greenhouse starting plants that will start all by themselves.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Petroselinum crispum - Parsley

Add one more thing to like about this mostly mild winter - my parsley is still green, and though probably wouldn't be as good fresh since it doesn't really look as crisp as I'd like it, it's still fine for cooking. And forget all of those television chefs who tell you that you have to buy flat-leaved parsley to get any flavor. They obviously don't grow their own. I can't imagine anything with more flavor than the curly parsley that I grow.

Parsley is native to the central Mediterranean region, though it has naturalized in other places and is grown widely as an herb and a vegetable. It is a biennial, growing only leaves the first year. You'll get some new leaves the next spring, but as soon as the flower stalk starts, the leaves will have a more bitter taste. If you want to save seed, let the blooms form, but if not, you just need to compost last year's plants and get some new ones started. The plants will die after making seed, so no point taking up garden space with them if you aren't trying to make your own seed. I start mine ahead of time in the greenhouse and set them out in spring. The seed can be slow to germinate, so give yourself plenty of time. Parsley is one of those things with a taproot that sometimes don't transplant well, so you might try growing it in peat pots, or some of the other types of pots now on the market that can be planted directly in the ground without disturbing the roots of the plants.

Parsley grows best in moist but well-drained soil in full sun. One or two plants will be plenty for most people since you won't be harvesting the whole plant, but rather just picking a stem as needed. I grow mine in what you might call a raised herb bed. In reality it is a large black nursery pot, not sure of the size, but a really big one. I did this to keep the rabbits away from it and it has worked well. I usually put a plant of sage in there too, along with the resident clump of chives that has been there since I started the pot over 10 years ago. The only other pest you might have trouble with are caterpillars from Swallowtail Butterflies. The caterpillars are green and yellow striped with black dots. They will feed on your parsley for about 2 weeks before heading off to turn into butterflies.

Parsley is one of the easiest things to put up to use over the winter. I just pick it, rinse it, dry it and put in in zip loc freezer bags. I squish the air out of the bags to keep freezer burn away, and usually have plenty of parsley to last the winter for cooking. It doesn't take up much room in the freezer and is much tastier and greener than when I've tried drying it in the food dehydrator. Frozen parsley is not as crisp as the fresh (actually not crisp at all) but the flavor is every bit as good.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Oenothera biennis - Evening Primrose

I have always loved this plant. An elderly woman from my church gave me a start of a more cultivated form many years ago. Always so sunny and bright, just as she was. The version that grows in my fields and meadows is taller and more likely to seed about, but the yellow flowers are still cheery. As the name implies, this is a biennial. In its first year, it makes a rosette close to the ground, rather nondescript and pretty easily ignored. The second year it shoot up a tall bloomscape with lance shaped leaves and those pretty primrose yellow flowers which bloom from late spring through fall. This is an American native and prefers open fields or roadsides. It can tolerate some drought. Since the flowers open in the evening (and last until the next day) it is pollinated by moths, especially the Sphinx Moth. The blossoms are also attractive to bees, bumblebees and hummingbirds. In the fall you'll find Goldfinches eating the seeds.

As far as medicinal uses, the whole plant is gathered and dried and then a tea is made from a teaspoonful of the dried plant to a cup of hot water. It can be drunk hot or cold. It was said to be astringent and sedative, a good remedy for coughs or skin problems.

A pretty flower, maybe not one you'd want in your perennial border, except maybe at the back, though it's cultivated cousins are more than welcome in my garden.


Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Malva rotundifolia

Pretty flowers, nice leaves . . . horrible weed or useful medicinal plant? Actually, all of these apply. If it weren't such an invasive weed, I might even grow it in a perennial bed. Way back when, I learned this one by its common name, Cheeses. I always thought that was a funny name for a plant. And though I'm told that the name Cheeses refers to the seed pods, that doesn't make any more sense than the whole plant being called Cheeses. They are related to the Marsh Mallows and Hollyhocks. All seven types that grow in the U.S. have been brought in from Europe as none are native here.

The demulcent property is what makes this plant useful medicinally and which has since ancient times. Theophrastus mentioned it and Hippocrates gave specific instruction for its use. Pliny said "Whosoever shall take a spoonful of the mallows shall that day be free from all diseases that shall come to him." Depending on the species, either the large roots or the leaves are used to make an infusion. The resulting liquid, mixed with honey, is useful for loosening coughs and relieving sore throats. Grieve's Herbal suggests that a poultice made of any of the mallows will "remove obstinate inflammation ... The fresh leaves, steeped in hot water and applied to the affected parts as poultices, reduce inflammation, and bruised and rubbed upon any place stung by wasps or bees take away the pain, inflammation and swelling." That last use I'll have to try this summer since even though I'd like to have all of the Malva weeded out of the garden, there is always a bit left and the summer when I don't get stung by something is an unusual summer.

As I've been working my way through my book on medicinal plants, one thing has been pretty obvious. Although a number of them have been 'pretty flowers', a lot have been things that might better be classified as weeds. Pretty flowers, yes, but not the kind you want in your perennial border. It does make you think, though, about whether you should leave a few grow as medicinal plants instead of trying to obliterate every last one of the 'weeds'.