Shady business

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

One of the perks of having trees nearby is that social-distancing rules don’t apply – you can hug as many as you like without risk of contracting Covid-19. Another benefit, of course, is shade. When the heat’s on and you need to lie low for a while, it’s great if some of your friends are shady characters. Especially if they’re tall, mature types with solid builds. Yeah, trees are cool.

When the thermometer spikes, any shade is welcome. If you’re lucky enough to have large trees where you live, not only can you get a break from the sun, but the air temperature will be cooler – as much as ten degrees – as compared to out in the open. It’s an awesome, natural, and free kind of air conditioning.

Speaking of which, if you use an air conditioner, having shade trees on the south and west sides of your home will reduce your cooling costs by a minimum of 30%, and possibly as much as 50%. It’s like getting a refund on part of your electric bill. Deciduous trees are ideal because they shield you in summer but allow sunlight through in winter when you want it.

On those blistering summer days when you think it’s too hot to work outside, you’re not alone – trees share your outlook. Photosynthesis, that amazing process which turns carbon dioxide and sunlight into sugar (thereby keeping the trees alive) and oxygen (thereby helping keep us alive), does not work well above 85 degrees. All that solar energy going to waste! Incidentally, leaves can get too hot in full sun even when the air temperature is moderate, much like the way an asphalt parking lot gets scorching in the sun.

This is why a tree’s inner canopy is essential. Far from being ill-fated residents of an undesirable neighborhood, leaves that are shaded, and thus cooled, by the upper canopy are key players in a tree’s survival, as they’re the only ones on the job when it’s too hot for their upstairs neighbors to work. So it’s best not to get overly enthusiastic with pruning. Trees don’t want their inner canopy “cleaned out” to any great extent.

Hopefully you’re drinking plenty of water in the summer heat. It might surprise you that trees can run short of water, especially in hot, dry seasons like 2016 and 2018. While we tend to think tree roots dive deep in search of a cool drink, 90% of tree roots are in the top 10 inches of soil, and 98% are in the top 18 inches.

A brown, dead-looking lawn will recover from drought in a matter of weeks, because grass has a mechanism to become dormant without suffering harm. Trees, however, take several years to fully recover from an extended summer dry spell. Drought stress weakens a tree, making it more vulnerable to diseases and insects.

While many shady characters don’t take well to a soaking, your tree will appreciate a thorough weekly drench. Forget the lawn – it can fend for itself. Please remember your trees, and water them thoroughly if it hasn’t rained in more than a week.

I wish you all a healthy, well-hydrated summer, and lots of hugs with your shady associates.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Fair is Fair

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

At least since the time of Shakespeare, men have used the phrase “the fair (or fairer) sex” to refer to women. This is greatly ironic, given that men have been all too willing to treat women unfairly from ancient times to the present. Women are also sometimes characterized – by men, of course – as being the more delicate or weaker sex. But the truth is that women are stronger than men when it comes to fighting off diseases like Covid-19. Additionally, females of all mammal species are better at coping with stress than their male counterparts.

We know that testosterone makes it easier for males to be physically stronger than females. This is believed to be an adaptation selected through evolution which enables males to protect females – who are more essential than men in terms of species survival – as well as any babies in their care. Among humans I find it heartbreaking that while nature (or God, if you like) designed men to safeguard women, too many men corrupt the intended order of things by committing violence against women.

When it comes to living through pandemics, however, women are two times as strong as men. According to an April 18, 2020 article in the British newspaper The Guardian, twice as many men as women have died from Covid-19 in Spain. The Guardian also recounts that in Italy, the case fatality rate is 10.6% for men and 6.0% for women, and that early data from China revealed a death rate of 2.8% among males compared to 1.7% for females. Even after correcting for lifestyle influences like the fact that more men than women smoke, the disparity is still significant.

It’s true that in some places, Québec for example, women have perished at a higher rate. This may be a demographics issue. The Montréal Gazette reports 80% of Québec health-care workers are female, and women comprise 85% of those in nursing homes, which have been especially hard-hit by Covid-19. Regardless of Québec’s exception and a few others, Global Health 50/50, an institute which tracks worldwide cases, states that the clear trend globally is that more men are succumbing.

In his book The Better Half (published in 2020 but written before the Covid-19 outbreak), physician Sharon Moalem explains that the majority of genes which regulate the immune system are located on the X chromosome. As we learned in basic Biology class, men have an XY chromosome pair while women have an XX complement. This means women have twice as many X chromosomes in every cell in their bodies, and according to Dr. Moalem, potentially two times the immune response.

I won’t get into the mechanics (mainly because I barely understand them) of how the Covid-19 virus “unlocks” a receptor protein called ACE-2, thereby obtaining carte blanche to run amok in our bodies. The important point is that the ACE-2 protein is dependent on a set of genes located on the human X-chromosome.

Dr. Moalem says that when the virus circumvents this protein in a male, the virus is then free to infect any cell of any organ in his body. With females, the virus needs to hack into two separate ACE-2 proteins related to two different X chromosomes, giving the female immune system a backup or “second chance” to defend her body from infection.

It has long been known that female lab rats and mice recover from a stress event more readily than males, which maintain elevated cortisol levels and other markers for stress much longer after whatever traumas are visited upon them in the course of various tests. But in the human realm, a study done at the University of California at Los Angeles in 2000 found that women handle chronic stress better than guys do.

In the final report, principal author Shelley E. Taylor writes that while the male “fight or fight” response is well-documented (until recently, 80% of all stress research was done on males), females have an additional reaction pathway. Calling it a “tend and befriend” response, Dr. Taylor says that women’s proclivity to create and maintain social bonds helps them weather difficulties better than men. She says “…oxytocin, in conjunction with female reproductive hormones and endogenous opioid peptide mechanisms, may be at its [the ‘tend and befriend’ response] core.” Since the time of Dr. Taylor’s study, this female tend-and-befriend phenomenon has been further researched and validated, notably by Lauren A. McCarthy of Rochester Institute of Technology.

It looks like the fair sex has some pretty fair benefits when it comes to surviving pandemics and other adversities.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Pet pills

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

You’ve probably seen these little fourteen-legged chimeras at some point, though you may not have paid them any mind since you were a kid. Part shrimp, part kangaroo, and part armadillo, the ubiquitous pill bug (Armadillidium vulgare) is a harmless, if sometimes annoying, critter which scuttles about at night feeding on dead vegetation. Also known as potato bugs or roly-polys, these are the guys that pull themselves into a tight little ball for protection when disturbed.

Pill bugs don’t bite, sting, carry disease, chew on your house, or do anything else overtly unpleasant, and kids usually love playing with them. In fact, they (pill bugs, not kids) make good pets as long as your expectations around training aren’t too high. Occasionally they find their way into cellars and become a bother, but they’re easily managed.

Tip over a log, lift a flat rock, or check under a flower planter, and in most areas you’ll find these crustaceans. Why they crawled out of the sea and adapted to live on land is anyone’s guess – maybe the ocean got too crowded at some point. Reluctant to give up all their aquatic traits, pill bugs actually breathe through gills. That’s why they’re found in damp locations – they need continually moist gills, or oxygen exchange will be disrupted and they’ll suffocate.

Ranging from 8.5 mm to 17 mm (about 3/8 to 9/16 of an inch) long, pill bugs are grey to brown, with a markedly convex body profile. This latter feature is how one can tell them apart from their cousins the sow bugs, which occupy a similar ecological niche as pill bugs. Sow bugs are woodlice in the genera Oniscus and Porcellio, and have a more flattened body. Also, sow bugs are unable to ball up for protection. This rolling-up process is known as conglobation, a term coined specifically to help Scrabble players.

The kangaroo aspect of pill bugs is that the female has a pouch on her abdomen called a marsupium in which she lays her eggs. The young hatch inside her fluid-filled marsupium and live there until they’re large enough to venture on their own.

Although pill bugs originally came from Europe, they don’t meet all the criteria for an invasive species. They do not cause significant human-health and /or economic and /or environmental harm, something which characterizes invasive species. I doubt pill bugs feel bad about not being allowed into the club. In truth, they help recycle nutrients, thus aiding in the formation of healthy topsoil.

While not technically invasive, they’re sometimes a minor nuisance if they wind up indoors. Controlling them may require a gun, a landscaper, or a dehumidifier. Since they are obliged to live in damp places, reducing humidity is key. Open basement windows and use fans or dehumidifiers to lower the humidity in the cellar.

Maintain a strip of crushed stone (or other material that readily dries) around the perimeter of your home to keep all vegetation and mulch away from the foundation. Finally, break out the caulk gun to seal cracks between foundation blocks and other potential entry points. I can’t overstate how effective diligent caulking can be in excluding any critter – you’ll get years of pest control with one thorough job of sealing cracks.

If you find pill bugs in your yard, don’t panic – these pills are chill.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Stamp out neatness, save the planet

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

The old saying “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been a great comfort to me over the years, since I figure that means the road to heaven is paved with bad thoughts, which are usually easy to come by. Since ancient times, we have built all manner of roads, highways, byways, boulevards, terraces, turnpikes, tow-paths, and bike paths. But given the astonishing pace at which our native pollinator populations are dwindling, it’s a critical time to blaze a new kind of road. A pathway, to be specific.

Twelve years ago, Seattle-based artist and environmentalist Sarah Bergmann developed the concept of the Pollinator Pathway. It has been described as a “participatory art, design and ecology social sculpture,” a linear habitat to help pollinator insects find food as they wend their way through cities and other challenging landscapes. Since that time, the idea has spread throughout North America and beyond.

Pollinator pathways can be as simple as a line of flowering plants between one backyard and another, or as grand as a “flower belt” that connects green spaces across a major urban center. The website http://www.pollinatorpathway.com/criteria/ has tools and resources, and lists major criteria such as the need to collaborate with various groups and agencies, use native plants primarily, and have a long-term maintenance plan. Like so many great ideas, the pollinator pathway notion has “gone wild,” and is being adopted by folks who are not always familiar with Ms. Bergmann’s work.

When establishing any size pathway to benefit pollinators, it’s important to include plant groupings of many colors, heights, and flower shapes. Having plants in flower throughout the entire growing season is key as well. These considerations help ensure the greatest variety of pollinating insect species can take advantage of the nectar and pollen.

Presumably, non-insect pollinators are excluded from these endeavors. Lemurs, lizards, bats, monkeys, opossums, and about fifty other vertebrate species also pollinate plants. I imagine attracting hordes of lemurs, monkeys or lizards to urban pollinator pathways would be a cool sight, but I can think of a few drawbacks as well.

Although the honeybee makes a honey of a pollinator poster-child, in the larger scheme of things it contributes precious little to the production of domestic and wild foods. In a healthy environment, and even in many compromised ones, it is our native moths, butterflies, wasps, bees, flies, beetles and other insects which do nearly all pollinating of wild and domestic crops. In a region like northern New York State, the impact of honeybees on pollination is negligible, with the possible exception of very large orchards in the Champlain Valley.

Not to say we shouldn’t still raise honeybees and be concerned about their health – honey and other bee products are important crops – but we should have a more accurate picture of who does our pollinating. Honeybees are essential only when intensive agriculture has removed plants upon which native insects would normally depend, such as in California’s almond groves, and even in some fruit-growing regions around the Great Lakes.

The reasons pollinators are in so much danger that they require special trails to get across town are complex, but they have much to do with pesticides. A class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, neonics for short, have long been implicated in pollinator decline. Used in everything from lawn-grub control to soybeans, these chemicals render an entire plant toxic, including its pollen. Bad news for insect pests, and also for bees and butterflies. In April 2018, the European Union permanently banned three of the most popular neonics in order to protect bees.

And fungicides, once believed safe for bees, have recently been named as a suspected cause of pollinator decline. In a November 2017 report, a Cornell-led team of researchers from across the Northeast concluded that routine use of fungicides in agriculture weakens bees to the point they often succumb to bad weather or common diseases, factors which normally would not prove fatal. Today, 49 species of native bees are considered at risk, with bumblebees especially hard-hit.

If there was a pollinator prize, it would likely go to our fuzzy native bumblebee species. Hairiness is one reason bumblebees are more efficient pollinators than, say, yellow jackets, which by the way contribute a fair bit to pollination. Another thing is that bumblers can operate at much colder temperatures than other insects – whether their wonderful fur coat helps with that, however, I do not know.

In addition, their “bumble” is part of their beauty. It turns out they vibrate the air at a Goldilocks frequency, one just right to shake loose pollen inside certain flowers such as tomatoes. In other words, they can do drive-by pollination without needing to land on the flower. And in the interest of irrelevancy I will point out that scientists at Queen Mary University of London taught bumblebees how to roll a tiny ball into a little hole to get a sugar-water reward. I assume the researchers are now busy with bumblebee golf tournaments.

If you are not ready to mark out a pollinator superhighway, you can help make your community more bee- and butterfly-friendly by raising awareness about these issues. Ask your local officials to change zoning laws to allow more diverse landscapes in our cities, towns and villages. Neat lawns are deadly to pollinators – leave those dandelions, for goodness’ sake. Please, help stamp out tidiness! This will encourage plant diversity and greatly benefit pollinators – and ultimately, us.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Call the dogs off the lions

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

April showers bring May flowers, but not all posies are a welcome sight. Although it’s possible dandelions arrived on the Mayflower, they do not get the esteem they deserve as plucky immigrants that put down firm roots in a new land, or as a vitamin-packed culinary delight, or as a multi-purpose herbal remedy.

On this latter point, dandelion is so well-respected that it garnered the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, which roughly means “the official remedy for all disorders.” There are many reported health benefits of dandelion, including as a liver support and for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, as well as externally as a poultice for skin boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I strongly recommend consulting a respected herbalist, as well as your health care provider, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical Center has devoted an entire web page to dandelion, and it cites some peer-reviewed studies. I had previously heard that dandelion was used as an adjunct diabetes treatment, but had not found any references. However, the U of M Medical Center states:

“Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

I’d say that’s not bad for a weed. You can buy dried and chopped dandelion root in bulk or in capsule form at most health-food stores, or you can get it for free in your back yard, providing you don’t use lawn chemicals.

Dandelion’s common name comes from the French “dent de lion,” or lion’s tooth, referring to the robust serrations along their leaves. Leaves vary widely in appearance, though, and aside from their yellow mane, not every dandelion is as leonid as the next. Apparently the French have a corner on the common-name market, because the other dandelion moniker is “pis en lit,” or “wet the bed,” as the dried root is strongly diuretic. More on that later.

Dandelion greens are best in early spring before they are done flowering. Harvesting late in the season is kind of like picking lettuce and spinach after they have bolted—edible, but not at their best. If you had a few dandelions take root in your garden last year, they are probably ready to uproot and eat right now. Sort of a new twist on the phrase “weed-and-feed.”

Young greens can be blanched and served in salad, or else boiled, but I like them best when chopped and sautéed. They go well in omelets, stir-fry, soup, casserole, or any savory dish for that matter. Fresh roots can be peeled, thinly sliced and sautéed. A real treat is dandelion crowns. The reason they flower so early is that they have fully-formed flower bud clusters tucked into the center of the root crown, whereas many other flowers bloom on new growth. After cutting off the leaves, take a paring knife and excise the crowns, which can be steamed and served with butter.

Roasted dandelion roots make the best coffee substitute I have ever tasted, and that’s saying something because I really love coffee. Scrub fresh roots and spread them out on an oven rack so they are not touching each other. You can experiment with higher settings, but I roast them at about 250 until they are crispy and dark brown throughout. Honestly I can’t say just how long it takes, somewhere between 2 and 3 hours. At any rate I always roast them when I have to be in the house anyway, and check them frequently after the two-hour mark. Grind them using a food processor or mortar and pestle. Compared to coffee, you use a bit less of the ground root per cup.

The beverage tastes dandy, but as mentioned above, it is more diuretic than coffee or black tea. I have never found this a problem, but if your morning commute frequently involves a traffic snarl, choose your breakfast drink accordingly.

I have not tried dandelion wine, a tradition that dates back centuries in Europe, and so have no first-hand experience to report, but scads of recipes can be found on the Internet. Several friends and family members have tried it, with negative and positive reviews pretty well split. I have no idea if it is personal preference or winemaking skill that is so evenly divided.

Given all the virtues of dandelions, it is amazing how much time and treasure our culture puts into eradicating them. It seems to verge on an obsession with some people, who drench their lawn with selective broadleaf herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba and mecoprop. These all come with health risks, not to mention hefty price tags.

For those who perhaps take the whole lion connection too far and can’t sleep at night if there are dandelions lurking on the premises, I’ll share a secret to getting them out of the landscape. Set the mower to cut at four inches high. Doing so will vastly reduce the number of weeds, and will lessen disease pressure and grub damage as well.

I say we all stop trying to kill the only North American lion that is not in danger of extinction, and learn to appreciate and use it more.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

White pine perils

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, our eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) is one of the most – if not the most – economically and culturally important species in the Northeast. Though the current US champion is a North Carolina giant measuring 189 feet tall, early loggers recorded white pines of up to 230 feet. White pine is renowned for its exceptionally wide and clear (knot-free), light-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling and sheathing as well as for structural members. New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards twenty or more inches wide can still be found.

The cathedral-like quality of a stand of mature white pines tends to inspire an appreciation of nature, if not a deep sense of awe and reverence. In terms of identification, white pine makes it easy. It’s the only native pine out east that bears needles in bundles of five, one for each letter in “white.” To be clear, the letters are not actually written on the needles. Its attractive, six-inch long cones with resin-tipped scales are perfect for fire-starting, and for wreaths and other holiday decorations.

Impressive as its material attributes are, white pine has given us less tangible, but more precious, gifts. With its five needles joined at the base, the white pine helped inspire five Native nation-states to lay down their arms a thousand years ago, and join together in a novel democratic confederation called the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois. With its fifty elected chiefs, two houses of legislature, and system of checks and balances, this complex and enduring structure became the blueprint for the US Constitution.

Jefferson, Franklin, Monroe, Madison and Adams wrote of their admiration of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. Franklin and Madison were particularly enthusiastic about it, and exhorted the thirteen colonies to adopt a similarly structured union. Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on US currency.

The Haudenosaunee still depict the white pine, referred to as the tree of peace, with a bald eagle at its top. The eagle is there to watch for enemies such as greed and short-sightedness. In its talons, a bundle of five arrows are clenched to symbolize strength in unity. It is no coincidence that modern women’s rights began in Seneca Falls, NY in the figurative shade of the white pine. Early suffragists like Matilda Jocelyn Gage wrote of their utter amazement that in Haudenosaunee villages, women were treated with equal respect as were men, and that violence in any form against women was not tolerated.

With so many reasons to love white pines, I was distraught when white pines began to show signs of distress in many parts of their range. Starting around 2009, needles began to turn yellow and drop early, and new growth was stunted. At first these symptoms were restricted to sites with shallow or poor soil, and along highway corridors where trees were already stressed by deicing salt, which burns foliage as well as roots. The droughts of 2012 and 2016, unprecedented in terms of low soil moisture, set pines back even further. By 2018, even some pines on rich sites were looking sickly.

As with many newly found disorders, this decline, dubbed white pine needle disease (WPND), is not fully understood. What is known is that a host of fungal pathogens are involved. Four diseases which affect needles have been isolated, though typically only two or three are present in any given case. Even more confusing is that a handful of other needle pathogens have been documented, but each is limited to specific areas. A root pathogen has been identified, and another that infects trunk tissue appears to be spread by a scale insect.

In the past, a sudden decline of a tree species was usually the result of a non-native pest or pathogen like Dutch elm disease, chestnut blight, or the emerald ash borer. The odd thing about WPND, aside from the fact that between six and ten organisms may be at work, is that all of them are native to the affected area. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) has identified one which may have originated outside North America, but this has not been confirmed.

The UMass Extension Landscape, Nursery and Urban Forestry website explains that “The lack of a non-native pathogen or insect leads researchers to investigate the role of environmental conditions, which have been altered by a changing climate. An increase in temperature and precipitation from May through July has helped to fuel the WPND epidemic. The issues facing eastern white pine will continue, but management options do exist to help improve health and vigor of white pines.”

In home landscapes, the Bartlett Tree Research Laboratory suggests “Mulching around white pines and watering deeply once a week during hot spells is recommended. A fertilization program should also be established, and soil pH maintained between 5.2 and 5.6. Correct any micronutrient deficiencies (such as iron), and mitigate soil compaction with a variety of aeration procedures.” White pines will not be happy for long on clay soils, or those with a pH above 7.0. Also, be sure to plant all pines out of range of road-salt spray, and give them ample room.

Forest managers can help by thinning white pine stands. Early evidence suggests that a light application of nitrogen may also help. For more information, contact an ISA-Certified Arborist, a NYSDEC Forester, private Consulting Forester, or your local Extension office. More in-depth reading can be found at https://www.sciencedirect.com/journal/forest-ecology-and-management/vol/...

White pine has done so much for us. Let’s do what we can for this venerable tree.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Pollen springs early

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

At this time of year when not much seems to be in bloom outside of dandelions and daffodils, pollen does not come to mind the way it might later in the season when goldenrod is all over the place. What’s kind of bizarre is that the flowers we readily notice – dandelions and goldenrod are great examples – have large, sticky pollen grains which don’t easily waft on the breeze and make us sneeze.

For sure if you are prone to “hay fever” and hike through a field of goldenrod in full bloom, you’re likely to react. Keep a distance from showy flowers if pollen allergies are an issue. The invisible flowers are the ones to watch out for. Wait – that didn’t come out quite right.

Pollen of course is the male contribution to a seed. Most species have male and female reproductive parts conveniently located on the same plant. Some, like apples, have the whole shebang is in the same flower, while others such as melons have distinct male and female flowers. A few species – holly is an example – have separate male and female plants.

The reason some flowers make a splash with colors, fragrance, and nectar is to bribe insects, birds and other critters to carry pollen from the male flower part to the female so they can make baby plants. It is a super-effective strategy. The down-side, though, is that it takes a lot of energy.

Another group of plants decided it was hard work to attract pollinators, but easy to attract the wind, which could also deliver pollen. But this strategy is inefficient, so plants such as pines have to crank out loads of the stuff (pollen, not wind). This type of pollen grain is so tiny it can drift 400 miles out to sea. Wind-pollinated plants, which include many trees now in “bloom,” have small, drab flowers, often the same color as the plant – essentially invisible.

Willow, poplar, elm and maple all are wind-pollinated, and they bloom in very early spring. It’s a good thing, too, because early-rising pollinators such as bumblebees need pollen sources when no visible flowers have opened yet. While not as light as the pollen from ragweed, pollen from willows and poplars can induce allergy symptoms.

Rain, obviously, washes dust, mold spores and pollen from the air, while dry conditions lead to a buildup of airborne allergens. Those who suffer from allergies can get a measure of relief by wearing a broad-brimmed hat to keep hair from becoming a pollen collector. Sporting close-fitting sunglasses can help keep some of the pollen out of one’s eyeballs. And even though line-dried clothes smell the best, don’t hang your laundry on high-pollen days because you’ll be wearing your misery.

Pollen conditions can be found on many websites – airnow.gov and aaaai.org are two good examples. Relatively speaking, the pollen count is quite low right now, so as it warms up, don’t hesitate to get outdoors. Maybe plant some bright, showy flowers.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Got nature?

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Earth Day is a time when we try and pay homage to the planet which sustains us. Many of us will engage in hikes, bike rides, or help clean up a stretch of beach or roadside. We all know it feels good to be immersed in nature. Finally, science has caught up to common sense, and there is now ample evidence that trees, grass and waterways not only soothe us, but are as essential to health as good food and clean water.

Animals deprived of nature habitat become violent. They begin to exhibit behaviors that are uncharacteristic to their species; social bonds break down and illness increases. This is true for all animals, even unusual ones.

OK, guess this animal: It’s in the phylum Chordata, meaning it has a backbone, which rules out bugs and crawlies, not a big clue. Its class is Mammalia; females of this species produce milk to nurse their young. It’s in the order Primate, which narrows it down a lot. Its family is Hominidae, its genus is Homo, and Sapien is the species.

Trick question (sorry); it’s us. It’s true that humans are set apart from other species in very significant ways, but we’re still animals. As such, we’re hard-wired to be immersed in the natural world. Dr. Frances Kuo from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana says humans living in landscapes that lack trees or other natural features undergo patterns of social, psychological and physical breakdown that are strikingly similar to those observed in other animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat.

Among other findings, Dr. Kuo’s research demonstrates that elderly adults live longer if their homes are near a park or other green space, regardless of their social or economic status, and that college students do better on cognitive tests when their dorm windows view natural settings.

Her research also shows that children with ADHD have fewer symptoms after outdoor activities in lush environments.

Worldwide, people are drawn to nature, even if it’s only a picture. In particular, we find the savannah, where we first became human 200,000 years ago, very appealing. We gravitate toward similar landscapes such as parks, and we model our yards in the same way. Through our DNA, as well as other genetic material called epigenes, we’re inextricably linked to the natural world.

This hard-wiring has been demonstrated by real-time brain imaging. The types of patterns one encounters in nature, whether in pine cones, nautilus shells, diatoms, snowflakes, tree branches, or sand dunes, are called fractal patterns. Bird song and the sound of waves breaking are similar patterns. Fractal patterns, it turns out, profoundly affect our brain waves in positive ways.

A February 2014 article in the guardian.com outlines how hospital patients in rooms with tree views have shorter hospital stays and less need for pain medication compared to patients without such natural vistas. It goes on to say that after just an hour in a natural setting, memory performance and attention span improves 20%.

Researchers at the University of Rochester report that exposure to the natural world leads people to nurture close relationships, value community more, and to be more generous.

As an arborist, I’ve long cited research showing that planting trees reduces crime substantially. Trees also increase property values, and incidentally, get people to spend more money. Whether it’s plants at the mall or trees in the downtown shopping districts, people spend more greenbacks in green spaces.

Not only do we respond in to nature, we haven’t lost our ability to engage with it. A recent study proved that humans can track pretty well by scent. Those with sight impairments have been using echolocation for some years now, but another recent finding is that we can echolocate nearly as well as bats.

When asked if humans need nature, Dr. Kuo replied “As a scientist I can’t tell you. I’m not ready to say that, but as a mother who knows the scientific literature, I would say, yes.” Whether we need it or just want it, we’re at our best in nature, so take advantage of its many benefits.

Please do something kind for the planet this Earth Day.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on Amazon.

Deep thoughts

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

Driving around on spring weekends makes me sad. It’s because I always pass at least one family out on the lawn in an American Gothic configuration: shovel in hand, maybe with their spouse and kids. There’s a cute little tree from the garden center on one side of them, and a wicked deep hole in the ground on the other. If I wasn’t so bashful, I’d stop and offer my condolences. Clearly they are having a funeral for the tree.

Here’s an arborist joke: What do you call a three-foot deep planting hole for a tree? Its grave.

Arbor Day is coming up on Friday, April 24, so consider planting a tree with your family or friends. But do it so the thing will last longer than you. No sense renting a tree in a deep planting hole when you can plant it in a proper one.

Tree root systems are broad – three times the branch length, barring an impediment – and shallow. Ninety percent of tree roots are in the top ten inches of soil, and 98% are in the top eighteen inches. Tree roots are shallow because they like to breathe on a regular basis. I think we can all relate to that.

Soil pores allow roots to get oxygen, which ultimately comes from the soil surface. Oxygen levels drop with soil depth, eventually reaching near-zero. In silt, clay or loam soils, that point can be less than a foot down. To make matters worse, adding compost or manure to a deep planting hole ensures the roots will suffocate, because microbes that break down organic matter will use up all remaining oxygen.

Every tree comes with planting instructions, even if there is no tag. To read these directions, find the spot near the base where the trunk widens out and the roots begin. This is called the trunk flare, and is the depth gauge. The trunk flare should be just visible at the soil surface. With a very small specimen, especially a small grafted tree, this can be tricky. Basically find the uppermost root and park it about an inch below the surface.

Not all trees planted too deeply die, but they all suffer a lot, and even in the best cases, it will take them years to catch up with a similar tree planted correctly. In general, smaller trees fare better than larger ones. Sometimes a little tree can survive by sending out fibrous (adventitious) roots from its stem just below the soil surface. Larger trees do this too, but the scrawny new roots will not support a large top.

There is an old saying, “dig a fifty-dollar hole for a five-dollar tree.” It may need to be adjusted for inflation but the idea still has currency. The planting hole should be saucer-shaped and 2-3 times the diameter of the root system, but no deeper, or the Planting Police may ticket you. Not really, but if an arborist happens to come along, they might scowl ominously at you.

Before backfilling, remove all burlap and twine. Wire cages on ball-and-burlap trees should be cut away once the tree is positioned in the hole. Container-grown tree root systems may have circling roots that must be teased out straight, or they will become girdling roots years later and choke the trunk.

Adding loads of organic matter to the backfill likely dates back to ancient times, when folks might grab an arborist, if one was handy, and throw them in the planting hole. Possibly in response to this, arborists now recommend little or no additional organic matter in many cases.

In very sandy or heavy clay soils, moderate (up to 30%) amounts of peat moss, compost or other amendments can be used in the backfill. Do not add sand to clay, though—that is how bricks are made, and most plants do not grow real well in bricks. Adding more organic matter than one-third by volume can cause a “teacup effect,” and roots could suffocate. Fertilizer is stressful on new transplants, so wait at least a year on that. In healthy native soils, a tree may never need commercial fertilizer.

Water thoroughly as you backfill, and prod the soil with a stick or shovel handle to eliminate air pockets. Unless the site is very windy it’s best not to stake the tree. Movement is needed for a strong trunk to develop. Two to four inches of mulch over the planting area (but not touching the trunk) will help conserve moisture and suppress weeds. It’s almost impossible to over-water a new transplant, but it does happen. Throughout the first season, check the soil every few days to be sure it’s moist but not waterlogged.

Have fun landscaping, but please wait until after your tree dies to inter it.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

April juneberries

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

A regional attraction opens each April, and for roughly four weeks – depending on shade, aspect and elevation – you can view the “show” at many open-air venues near you. The performance is free, although only matinees are available.

The springtime event is the blossoming of a widespread, though strangely little-known, early-flowering plant. Depending on who you ask, it might be described as either a tree or a shrub, which makes me wonder if it’s hiding something. In fact, this thing has more aliases than one of America’s Most Wanted. Variously known as serviceberry, shadbush, shadwood, shadblow, Saskatoon, juneberry and wild-plum, it is a small to medium-size tree that also answers to Amelanchier canadensis, its botanical name. Of those options, I prefer juneberry, even though its fruit may ripen in early July in northern New York State.

It’s the first native woody plant to produce conspicuous flowers, and its white blossoms can be seen on roadsides, in fencerows and on forest edges throughout our area right now. The smooth, gray-silver bark is attractive in its own right. Depending on conditions, juneberries may grow as a multi-stem clump, but more often develop as single-trunk trees reaching 20 to 40 feet tall. Not only are its early blossoms an aesthetic treat, they’re advertising the location of a source of berries that boast more nutrient value than almost any other native fruit.

Juneberries are often overlooked as a food source, partly because birds may beat us to the punch, and partly because juneberries grow tall enough that the fruit is sometimes out of reach. Because juneberries have less moisture than blueberries, they’re slightly higher in protein and carbohydrates, making them a great food for athletes and other active people.

The soft, dark purple berries have twice as much potassium as blueberries in addition to large amounts of magnesium and phosphorous. They’re a good source of iron, too, having almost twice as much as blueberries. Juneberries also have plenty of vitamin C, thiamin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, vitamin A and vitamin E.

Juneberries make an attractive landscape plant, and can be used to entice songbirds like cedar waxwings to your yard. Amelanchier alnifolia, a species from the Northern Plains closely related to our northeastern A. canadensis, is better for home use, as it does not grow as tall, so the fruit will always be within reach. It can tolerate a wide range of site conditions and will thrive even in poor soils. Full sun is a must, however. Another plus is that juneberry foliage turns a remarkable salmon-pink in the fall, adding to its value as a landscape shrub. Ask your local nursery about juneberry cultivars.

The berries are delectable fresh, and make excellent pies. They’re especially good for freezing, as they make excellent, nutrient-packed smoothies year-round. It’s helpful to freeze them first on cookie sheets, and then transfer them to bulk containers. That way they don’t form the kind of monolithic juneberry glacier that requires a chisel, adult supervision and a first-aid kit to break off a chunk.

Native peoples across northern North America valued juneberries, and European settlers followed their example. You too can take advantage of this under-appreciated wild fruit. This is a great time to make note of the location of juneberry plants for harvesting this summer.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Nettles: Good to Eat, and for Keeping a Safe Distance

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

One of my favorite plants is either highly versatile, or very confused. On the one hand, professional herbivores like rabbits and deer refuse to even touch it, but many people, myself included, will gladly eat it every day it is available. While contacting it is painful, it has been proven to relieve certain chronic pain. It is steeped in over a thousand years of folklore, at one point imbued with the power to cleanse away sin, yet medical science recognizes it as a legitimate remedy for many disorders. Some gardeners consider it a bothersome weed, but others actually cultivate it.

The stinging nettle, Urtica dioica, is native to Europe, Asia, and northern Africa but has been widespread throughout North America from northern Mexico to northern Canada for centuries. Experts disagree as to the number of nettle species and subspecies worldwide. To confuse matters, many of these cross with one another to form hybrids. Although a few species do not sting, if it’s nettle and it gives you a rash, it’s fair to call it stinging nettle.

Nettles sprout little hypodermic needles on stems, leaves, and even their flowers. Called trichomes, these glass-like silica-based needles inject a mixture of irritating chemicals upon contact. The cocktail varies by species, but usually includes histamine, 5-HTP, serotonin, formic acid and acetylcholine.

So why would one place this well-armed adversary in their mouth? Well, when nettles are cooked, the stinging hairs are destroyed. Furthermore, nettles are the tastiest cooked green, wild or domestic, that I have ever had. It tastes like chicken. Kidding. It tastes a lot like spinach, except sweeter. Nettles can be boiled, steamed, or stir-fried. They are great by themselves or in soups, omelets, pesto, casseroles, or pretty much any savory dish you can come up with.

One of the things I really like about nettles is that they are some of the first green things to get going after the snow melts. I should mention that only the tops of young plants are harvested to eat. The good thing is that the more you pick, the more young tops grow back. Eventually they will get too tall and tough, but frequent picking can stretch nettle season well into June.

On a dry-weight basis, nettles are higher in protein (about 15%) than almost any other leafy green vegetable. They are a good source of iron, potassium, calcium, and Vitamins A and C, and have a healthy ratio of Omega-3/ Omega-6 fatty acids. Because drying also neutralizes nettles’ sting, they have been used as fodder for domestic animals. Today nettles are commonly fed to laying hens to improve their productivity.

The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that nettles help relieve symptoms, such as difficulty urinating, of Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia (BPH) in men. In terms of using pain to relieve pain, the U of M Medical Center also states that research “...suggests that some people find relief from joint pain by applying nettle leaf topically to the painful area. Other studies show that taking an oral extract of stinging nettle, along with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), allowed people to reduce their NSAID dose.”

As The Cat in the Hat said, that is not all. You’d think the U of M was selling nettles the way they seem to promote them. Consider this endorsement: “One preliminary human study suggested that nettle capsules helped reduce sneezing and itching in people with hay fever. In another study, 57% of patients rated nettles as effective in relieving allergies, and 48% said that nettles were more effective than allergy medications they had used previously.”

Gardeners use nettles as a “green manure” because they (nettles, that is—gardeners may be nitrogen-rich, but they’re not routinely added to soil.) are high in nitrogen, as well as iron and manganese. Nettles can also help attract beneficial insects.

What can’t you do with nettles? I guess they’re kind of like Dr. Seuss’ “thneed.” Turns out you can wear them, too. Nettles have been used for 2,000 years as a source of fiber for cloth-making. During World War I, Germany used nettle fiber to make military uniforms. I have made cordage from nettle stems using a simple technique called reverse-wrapping.

If you have a nettle patch, spend some time picking healthful greens as spring arrives. One thing’s for sure: When you’re surrounded by nettles, you don’t need to worry about social distancing!

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

 

Watch your language

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

At one time or other we all have puzzled over a document which was allegedly written in English, yet turned out to be in a foreign language such as legal-ese, medical-ese, or scientific-ese. Such language sneak-attacks can leave us feeling by turns bored, confused, frustrated and intimidated. Well, science has now proven that using a big word when a diminutive one would do just fine is bad for all of us.

The February 12, 2020 edition of The Ohio State News highlighted a recent study on the hazards of scientific jargon, led by Hillary Schulman, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. Shulman and her team concluded that “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong. You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

I complain now and then about jargon. Consider the fact that only warm-blooded animals get to hibernate in winter. Reptiles and amphibians have to admit to their friends that they merely brumate in the cold season, while animals that go dormant in hot weather need to say they estivate, rather than hibernate. I shudder to imagine the humiliation of being labeled a non-hibernating hibernator.

But in reality I am something of a hypocrite, because I secretly love jargon, and it does creep into my writing a bit more than is healthy. It started at Paul Smith’s College in northern NY State when I learned “benthic invertebrates” were the crawly things in the mud and under rocks at the bottom of streams. Suddenly they became more worthy of study. I was so proud of my term paper, a mock-Environmental Impact Statement wherein I cited things like the Lloyd, Zar and Carr Modification of the Sorenson Coefficient of Species Diversity and Evenness, wherein the term “C” is equal to 3.321928 (please refer to Table B in the Appendix).

My professors knew exactly what I was saying. But the plight of an average citizen who wants to know the potential impact of a mega-development in their home town did not occur to me at the time. Making sense of hundreds or thousands of pages of crap like that in an Environmental Impact Statement is not for the faint of heart.

Then I worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to investigate and clean up soil and groundwater polluted by oil and solvents. Or, in the jargon of the business, L-NAPL and D-NAPL. Those are two kinds of poison apples, I think. Actually they stand for “Light, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids” and “Dense, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids.” After a few reports full of those terms, along with stuff like “air-sparging through heterogeneic micro-lenses in glacial outwash formations,” and “seasonal hydrogeological gradient reversals,” my eyes would cross. And those were the papers that I wrote.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens host Carol Off the same day Schulman’s report came out, Schulman clarified that “I don't mean to advocate against jargon. I think there's a precision and an efficiency with these terms that people in the know understand.” This is a key point. In example, all the fancy jargon I learned to use at the NYSDEC was essential in talking with consultants and contractors. I found that after I had been immersed in the world of spill remediation a few years, it became second-nature to talk with everyone that way. I had to re-learn how to speak normally to, say, a homeowner with a contaminated well as compared to a consultant who was tasked with designing a filtration system. In all seriousness, we may need translations of technical reports, made by excellent writers with a strong background in respective fields.

As Hillary Schulman told the CBC, “When scientists automatically use these terms they may be alienating their audience more than they realize.” I don’t qualify as a scientist, but I do write about science, so I will endeavor to be less obfuscatory forthwith.

For the full article from Ohio State University, go to https://news.osu.edu/the-use-of-jargon-kills-peoples-interest-in-science...

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Opossums

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

Although my Irish-American mother taught me that the prefix O’ (descendent of) was originally part of common Irish surnames such as Kelly, Murphy, Hogan and Kennedy, it would sound odd to my ears were these families to suddenly revert to the Old-World form. I have the same issue with the distinctly New-World marsupial, the opossum. In the Genesee Valley of New York State where I grew up, these omnipresent critters were known to all as possums, and it still sounds foreign to hear their name pronounced with three syllables.

Of the 103 known species of opossums in the world, nearly all reside in South and Central America (for the record, there are neither possums nor opossums in Ireland). Here in North America, we have just one, the Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana).

It seems this animal evolved in South America, first appearing in the fossil record some 20 million years ago. It wandered north about 2.7 million years ago during what is called “The Great American Interchange,” apparently some kind of early foreign-exchange program. This was when northern species like deer, foxes, rabbits, bears, wolves and otters invaded South America. In addition to possums, southern critters which migrated north include anteaters and vampire bats, plus a pile of species that didn’t like our weather, and promptly went extinct here.

Like the skunk, moose, muskrat, woodchuck and so many other animals native to the Americas, these pouched mammals are known to us European immigrants by one of their native names. In this case, opossum is a Powhatan word, first written in English by Captain John Smith in about 1609 at Jamestown in the colony of Virginia. I’ve read that the Powhatan word “apassum” referred to something white and dog-like, but Smith described the beast as being cat-sized, with a tail of a rat, and a head like a pig’s.

Even today, people joke that the opossum was assembled with leftover parts, though I think the platypus takes the prize for that, (webbed) hands-down. I have to admit possums seem quite a menagerie: They have opposable thumbs like apes, koalas and pandas, though their back feet, rather than the front, are the most agile. The only American marsupial, they possess a built-in baby-sling feature just as kangaroos and wallabies do. Their tails are prehensile, able to wrap around and grasp objects the way a monkey can. And with a mouth packed with 50 needle-like teeth, possums are the toothiest North American mammal. Perhaps they’re less of a spare-parts critter, and more like a multi-tool animal.

That analogy may be adept, as possums are highly adaptable, not at all fussy about what they eat or where they live. Their diet can include anything from garbage and rotting flesh, to fresh fruits and veggies, to live amphibians and birds’ eggs. An opossum family of up to thirteen baby joeys is equally at home in a hollow tree in the woods, an abandoned woodchuck burrow on a farm, or under a back porch in suburbia.

Their affinity for carrion and further stinky foods gives opossums a bad reputation, but compared to rats, raccoons and skunks which patronize compost bins and road-kills, they come out smelling like roses. For one thing, possums rarely get rabies. It’s believed their unusually low body temperature makes it hard for the virus to survive, which is why they’re not considered a rabies vector. They are typically docile, and not known to bother people or pets.

In fact, even if a possum was feeling ill-tempered, it would likely be unable to fight back. “Playing possum” is not a strategy, but rather a neurological response akin to a seizure. As its body curls up and stiffens, its lips pull back to expose the teeth, which become covered in foaming saliva. The really fun part is that a foul-smelling fluid oozes from its anal glands. It takes anywhere from a few minutes to several hours for the animal to regain consciousness. It’s no wonder such a compelling performance is encoded in possum DNA. This involuntary reaction is stronger with age, so a youngster might not get the memo to faint for a couple of minutes into a hissing match.

Now that the black-legged or deer tick has become established in our region, Lyme disease and its several variants, as well as other tick-borne illnesses, are real threats. If opossums don’t strike you as cute, you may like them better when you learn they eat about 95% of the ticks which they find on their bodies. They have even been caught on camera chowing bloated ticks off the faces of deer. Given that a fully engorged female tick swells 600 times her original body weight, I guess eating one would be the possum equivalent of having a blood sausage for dinner.

Estimates on the number of ticks they kill vary a lot, but in the course of its two- to four-year lifespan, an opossum could kill as many as 20,000 to 40,000 ticks. While it might sound as if we should all start raising pet possums, let’s put this in context: those numbers represent the offspring of a mere 7 to 14 female deer ticks. Still, it’s better than nothing.

According to researchgate.net, opossums were restricted to the southeastern United States a hundred years ago. At that time their range stretched from eastern Texas up to northern Illinois, then east, skirting just south of the Great Lakes in a rough line across northern Pennsylvania to the coast.

Now they’re found throughout Wisconsin, Michigan, and New England, and in southern Ontario and Quebec as well. When I moved to the St. Lawrence Valley in 2000, locals who had grown up there confirmed that there were not yet any possums in that area. It was not until 2016 that I saw my first road-killed opossum there. Since then, the sight has become more common every year.

It’s unclear whether this is a natural rate of spread, or if it has been accelerated by human-induced weather changes such as longer growing seasons and milder winters. Opossums do not hibernate, so it’s possible that severe cold might be a factor that once limited their range. Regardless, I suggest we welcome the unusual but well-groomed arrivals. We were all immigrants once.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Watch your language

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

At one time or other we all have puzzled over a document which was allegedly written in English, yet turned out to be in a foreign language such as legal-ese, medical-ese, or scientific-ese. Such language sneak-attacks can leave us feeling by turns bored, confused, frustrated and intimidated. Well, science has now proven that using a big word when a diminutive one would do just fine is bad for all of us.

The February 12, 2020 edition of The Ohio State News highlighted a recent study on the hazards of scientific jargon, led by Hillary Schulman, assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University. Shulman and her team concluded that “The use of difficult, specialized words are a signal that tells people that they don’t belong. You can tell them what the terms mean, but it doesn’t matter. They already feel like that this message isn’t for them.”

I complain now and then about jargon. Consider the fact that only warm-blooded animals get to hibernate in winter. Reptiles and amphibians have to admit to their friends that they merely brumate in the cold season, while animals that go dormant in hot weather need to say they estivate, rather than hibernate. I shudder to imagine the humiliation of being labeled a non-hibernating hibernator.

But in reality I am something of a hypocrite, because I secretly love jargon, and it does creep into my writing a bit more than is healthy. It started at Paul Smith’s College in northern NY State when I learned “benthic invertebrates” were the crawly things in the mud and under rocks at the bottom of streams. Suddenly they became more worthy of study. I was so proud of my term paper, a mock-Environmental Impact Statement wherein I cited things like the Lloyd, Zar and Carr Modification of the Sorenson Coefficient of Species Diversity and Evenness, wherein the term “C” is equal to 3.321928 (please refer to Table B in the Appendix).

My professors knew exactly what I was saying. But the plight of an average citizen who wants to know the potential impact of a mega-development in their home town did not occur to me at the time. Making sense of hundreds or thousands of pages of crap like that in an Environmental Impact Statement is not for the faint of heart.

Then I worked for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to investigate and clean up soil and groundwater polluted by oil and solvents. Or, in the jargon of the business, L-NAPL and D-NAPL. Those are two kinds of poison apples, I think. Actually they stand for “Light, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids” and “Dense, Non-Aqueous-Phase Liquids.” After a few reports full of those terms, along with stuff like “air-sparging through heterogeneic micro-lenses in glacial outwash formations,” and “seasonal hydrogeological gradient reversals,” my eyes would cross. And those were the papers that I wrote.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s As It Happens host Carol Off the same day Schulman’s report came out, Schulman clarified that “I don't mean to advocate against jargon. I think there's a precision and an efficiency with these terms that people in the know understand.” This is a key point. In example, all the fancy jargon I learned to use at the NYSDEC was essential in talking with consultants and contractors. I found that after I had been immersed in the world of spill remediation a few years, it became second-nature to talk with everyone that way. I had to re-learn how to speak normally to, say, a homeowner with a contaminated well as compared to a consultant who was tasked with designing a filtration system. In all seriousness, we may need translations of technical reports, made by excellent writers with a strong background in respective fields.

As Hillary Schulman told the CBC, “When scientists automatically use these terms they may be alienating their audience more than they realize.” I don’t qualify as a scientist, but I do write about science, so I will endeavor to be less obfuscatory forthwith.

For the full article from Ohio State University, go to https://news.osu.edu/the-use-of-jargon-kills-peoples-interest-in-science...

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Fowl behavior

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

My francophone wife is often amused as I commence à apprendre la langue, like the time I said connard when I meant canard. For the monolingual English-speakers out there, canard means duck, while the rough equivalent of connard is a word that rhymes with “spithead,” and which you do not want your kids to say. But where mallards and other puddle-ducks are concerned, the two are related. The drake or male is an absolute connard sometimes.

The Darwinian principle “survival of the fittest” is not always about who wins the antler fight or arm- wrestling contest. Fitness means being well-suited to one’s environment so as to live long enough to reproduce and thus pass on one’s DNA. Above all else, it means being adaptable.

The mallard, perhaps the most recognizable duck in North America with the drake having a glossy green head, bright orange bill and prim white collar, may be the fittest species ever. In fact, University of Alberta biologist Lee Foote has called them “the Chevy Impala of ducks.” For those born after 1990, the once-ubiquitous Impala was an all-purpose, nearly bullet-proof sedan.

Native to North and Central America, Eurasia and North Africa, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has been introduced to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It might be more serviceable even than the Impala. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group dedicated to the sustainability of natural resources, lists it (the duck, not the car) as a “species of least

concern.” This designation sounds apathetic, but there is concern in places such as South Africa and New

Zealand, where mallards have become invasive.

Unlike with automobiles, where hybrids are good but rarely free, mallard hybrids are so common that other ducks may soon disappear as distinct species. Typically, a defining feature of a species is the fact it is unable to cross with other species to produce offspring, or at least any fertile ones. Mallards, evidently, have not read the literature. I hate it when nature does that.

Mallard hyper-hybridization is due to the fact that they evolved in the late Pleistocene, recent in evolutionary terms. Mallards and their kin “only” date back a few hundred thousand years. Animals originating millions of years ago have had time to spread out and develop unique adaptations, often including physical and behavioral changes that render them incompatible with once-related species.

Mallards frequently mate with American black ducks, but also breed with at least a dozen other kinds, in some cases resulting in the loss or near extinction of species. According to the Global Invasive Species Database (GISD), “As a consequence [of mallard interbreeding], Mexican duck is no longer considered a species, and less than five percent of pure non-hybridized New Zealand grey ducks remain.”

Mallards are a type of puddle or dabbling duck, tipping their heads under the water to feed on mollusks, insect larvae and worms, as opposed to diving after prey. They also eat seeds, grasses and aquatic plants. Well-adapted to humans, they seem just as pleased to snap up day-old bread in city parks.

Their mating strategy, while not responsible for their success, may be emblematic of it. In about 97% of the planet’s bird species, mating is a brief, external event in which the male’s stuff gets passed to the female by the two touching their back ends together in what is called (by humans at least) a “cloacal kiss.” The cloaca is a bird’s all-purpose opening used to pass eggs, feces and whatever, as needed. This PG-13 performance sounds anything but romantic.

Certain ducks went to the other extreme, dabbling in X-rated, violent sex. Puddle-duck males can have members longer than their bodies, which certainly puts things in perspective for us guys. Also, it is common that a number of mallard drakes copulate with each hen, sometimes at once, occasionally resulting in injury or, rarely, death of a female.

This seems like a bad way to run a species, with drakes committing femicide. But from a group-survival perspective, there is some sense to it. Females have been observed rounding up guy-ducks who seem to have nothing better to do. The reason a mallard hen might barnstorm the pool hall or other drake- hangouts to get them to follow her has to do with her lifespan. In contrast to the Canada goose, known to live from ten to twenty-five years in nature, wild mallards have an average lifespan of three to five years. This means a high percentage of females, which begin breeding at age two, will mate only once in their life. Multiple copulations, which may put a hen in jeopardy, will at least ensure her eggs will be fertile.

And girl-ducks have a secret, if bizarre, strategy – once a hen gets the attention of the guys, she may not be able to shoo them off but she can pick the duckling-daddy. If a male does not suit her, she will guide the loser-drake’s penis into a vaginal dead-end until he is done, a copulation fake-out. But if she fancies

a drake, the lucky guy will be allowed to go the whole nine yards. So to speak – I doubt it’s that long.

Obviously, mallards don’t need our help finding food. In most cases it is not a good idea – and local by- laws may prohibit it – to feed waterfowl. This can lead to increased water pollution and diseases, even some illnesses which affect humans. So-called “swimmers’ itch,” a duck parasite that can afflict beachgoers, is the least of them. The GISD states “…mallards are the prime long-distance vector of H5N1 [bird flu] since they excrete significantly higher proportions of the virus than other ducks while seeming immune to its effects…their extreme wide range, large populations, and tolerance to humans provides a link to wild waterfowl, domestic animals, and humans rendering it a perfect vector of the deadly virus.”

The short lifespan of mallards drove the species to develop strategies that include harsh male behavior. Humans have no such excuse. It would be ducky if we guys could agree never to act like a connard, but that may not be realistic in a complex world. Perhaps we could at least try to become bilingual.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Not plagued by locusts

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

Sometimes I wonder if the Biblical plagues of ancient Egypt have lingered in one form or another. Blooms of toxic algae, which occasionally turn water a blood-red color, are on the increase. Gnats and lice have been supplanted by deer ticks, which I’d argue are even worse, and there is no shortage of hail in season. Frog outbreaks may not have occurred since Pharaoh’s time, but poisonous cane toads imported to Australia are now running amok there, decimating all manner of native animals. And currently, swarms of locusts are causing great hardship in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya.

Here in the Northeast, we are blessedly free of the kind of swarm-feeding grasshoppers that continue to cause suffering in Africa. Nonetheless, locusts have become such a problem that in 2014 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) declared the locust a Regulated Invasive Species, meaning it “cannot be knowingly introduced into a free-living state.” In other words, locusts are only legal in an environment from which they can’t escape.

As usual this is a deceptive opening, for which I sincerely do not apologize. In our neck of the woods, the locusts which concern the NYSDEC and other conservation groups are black locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia), trees having origins in the Central-Eastern US.

A member of the pea family, the black locust matures at 60-80 feet tall, and makes its own nitrogen supply by “fixing” atmospheric nitrogen via symbiotic soil bacteria on root nodules. This free fertilizer gives locusts an advantage on nutrient-poor sites. Additionally, they are experts at self-cloning through root suckers or sprouts, much like poplars do. Especially in poor soil, this can lead to near-monoculture locust groves. Locust gives itself yet another black eye by having sharp thorns able to slash clothing and skin.

By definition, an invasive species is from another ecosystem (typically overseas), is able to thrive and replace native competitors, and causes significant economic, ecological, or human-health effects. Examples like the emerald ash borer, Asian longhorned beetle, Japanese knotweed, and swallow-wort clearly fit that bill, causing billions in damage, but devoid of redeeming qualities.

I think it’s wrong to paint all invasives with the same brush. For one thing, given that there are more than 400 invasive species in NY State alone, the bristles would wear out long before you could finish the job. It is curious that black locust, which by some accounts was spread from its native range 500 or more years ago, has only been dubbed invasive in the past decade or so. On prairies, and grassland-bird habitats generally, it can indeed be a problem. However, there are many other locales where it is clearly beneficial, economically as well as ecologically.

Dr. Robert P. Barrett of Michigan State University, who has been researching black locust trees since 1978, writes that “…due to flavonoids in the heartwood, [black locust wood] can endure for over 100 years in the soil.” Move over, redwood, which only lasts 30 years. Rot-resistance is what makes the demand for locust fence posts far exceed the supply at this time.

This quality is the reason black locust was imported to Europe in the early 1600s. Over time, European foresters have done a superior job of selecting traits such as straight, uniform trunks, and today the best sources for good locust stock are said to be found in Hungary. European farmers quickly realized locust leaves were a valuable source of protein for ruminant livestock, and to this day it is used as such in Europe as well as in many Asian countries to which black locust was exported.

Writing for the Cornell Small Farms Program, Extension Specialist Steve Gabriel notes that beekeepers value the black locust. Its flowers are an important source of nectar for bees, and the resultant honey, sometimes called acacia honey, is much sought-after. Gabriel also writes that black locust is used as a “nurse crop” for walnut orchards because it puts nitrogen into the soil, and is not affected by the toxin released from walnut roots.

Another point is that black locust is ideal for reclaiming gravel pits, strip mines and other tough environments. In the conclusion of his 1990 paper “Black Locust: A Multi-purpose Tree Species for Temperate Climates,” Dr. Barrett says “As one of the most adaptable and rapid-growing trees available for temperate climates, it will always be valued for erosion control and reforestation on difficult sites. Vast new forests of rapid-growing species may be needed to slow the accumulation of CO2 in our atmosphere.”

Not only does black locust grow quickly on impoverished sites, its wood has the highest heat value per volume of any tree in the Northeast. Wood-BTU charts seldom agree, probably due to variations in growing conditions from place to place which affect wood quality, but black locust is often rated at between 28 million and 29.7 million BTUs per cord. This puts it on par with, or slightly better than, hickory. Trials conducted by the Southern Forest Biomass Working Group found that of any tree species tested, black locust was the cheapest to grow and yielded the greatest heat value, with about 200 million BTUs per acre after five years.

Commercially, black locust is in high demand for mine timbers, railroad ties, boat-building, and for many applications where rot-resistance is important. According to wood-database.com, “Black Locust is a very hard and strong wood, competing with Hickory (Carya genus) as the strongest and stiffest domestic timber, but with more stability and rot resistance.” The International Union for the Conservation of Nature considers it one of the most sustainable and ecologically-friendly sources of timber, and The National Wildlife Foundation says it is host to 57 species of butterflies and moths. All good reasons to strike locust from the list of plagues.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

Careful what you put in your mouth

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

In an effort to promote a healthy lifestyle, I’d like to warn the public about dangerous chemicals in our foods and beverages. One in particular seems hard to avoid. Be on guard for Dihydrogen Oxide, a scary compound able to corrode metal, dissolve concrete, and damage an array of household materials. Wait, no – that’s just water. Got all excited about nothing.

OK, here’s a disturbing news flash: organic carrots are known to contain (2E,4E,6E,8E)-3,7-dimethyl-9- (2,6,6-trimethylcyclohexen), also known as retinoic acid. Hang on; sorry – that’s natural Vitamin A. But pesticide-free soybeans are definitely loaded with 4,5-Bis(hydroxymethyl)-2-methylpyridin. That’ll make you think twice about putting tofu on your fork. Oops, I did it again. That stuff is Vitamin B6, inherent in most grains – apologies for putting my foot in my mouth.

We all want healthy, good-tasting, toxin-free food. Unfortunately, it is more and more challenging to know if our meals fit that description. Terms like “organic” and “natural” have become watered-down and muddled in a stew of bureaucracy – which I suggest everyone avoid, by the way – and have lost much of their significance. In a nutshell (unless you’re allergic), foods which are in season and regional are always best for us. If a grower is Certified Organic, or can attest their produce or meat has not been treated with chemicals, so much the better. But there is no way to guarantee a particular food is without added compounds.

One thing to keep in mind is that all the foods we eat – and indeed our very cells – are made of chemicals. Depending on what language one uses, these substances can appear altogether menacing.

There is an organization called the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemists or IUPAC, whose job it is to confuse us. Well, that’s what they do, but it’s not their intent. Rather, these folks have agreed on a universal naming system for chemicals so that language is never a barrier in research. But then

each compound has its FDA Unique Ingredient Identifier or UNI number, as well as a Chemical Abstract

Service or CAS number. All to help us communicate more clearly, I presume.

What really happens is that a healthy thing will often seem ominous to non-chemists. If you like the smell of pine trees, as I do, you’re inhaling isomeric tertiary and secondary cyclic terpene alcohols. Sounds intimidating, but it is perfectly safe. Composition varies by species, but if it’s white pine, you’re smelling CAS Number 8002-09-3. In concentrated form, pine oil is listed as a pesticide and a severe eye irritant. It’s just a name game, though. Please, continue your walks in the woods.

What troubles me is the way names can be manipulated. Although I eat meat, it irked me to see a recent online graphic which denounced vegetable-based, meat-like foods (or whatever I’m permitted by lobbyists and lawyers to say) for having “dangerous chemicals” in them. The ad cited iron phosphate, “a slug bait;” titanium dioxide, “a whitener used in paint;” and other frightful things.

Well, iron phosphate is a naturally occurring compound. It’s also good for you, as long as you don’t eat your body weight of it. That’s where the slugs go wrong. Titanium dioxide is not natural, but I guarantee you’ve probably ingested a pound of it by now, since it’s in all our spices, coffee creamer, candies,

frosting, toothpaste, and loads of other stuff we put in our mouths.

Ideally we should eat locally, and avoid swallowing faux-foods, as well as fake news about food.

Paul Hetzler is a naturalist, arborist, and former educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, NY. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.

A place to hang your hat and lawsuit

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Tree topping is a subject I can really get worked up about. It’s unprofessional, unsightly, unethical, dangerous, and might even cause an upsurge in male-pattern baldness and rainy weekends. Topping is unthinkable, horrible, bad and yucko! That should be pretty clear. Any questions? Oh, exactly what is tree topping? Hang on. Mmmph That’s better. Had to wipe the foam off my mouth.

Tree topping, which will not actually affect your hair or the weather, is the removal of limbs and or/ trunks to an arbitrary length, leaving stubs. Variously known as heading, hat-racking or tipping, it is denounced by The International Society of Arboriculture and other professional tree-care organizations.

Topping is not to be confused with pollarding, a practice dating to feudal times when peasants could be put to death for cutting down the king’s trees, but were allowed to clip each year’s twig extension back to a callus “ball” for use as fuel and fodder. Pollarding does not work on all species, and to be successful must be started when a tree is relatively young, and continued annually.

Back to topping. It shortens a tree, but doesn’t alter the tree’s DNA which instructs it to grow to its species potential. After the natural branch structure is destroyed by topping, new growth erupts from the bark. These shoots, called epicormic sprouts, will become major branches. Unfortunately, they are always poorly attached to the parent wood.

Because the tree is in a hurry to re-gain its genetically mandated height, the new branches grow faster than usual. You know haste makes waste, and as a tree cranks out these replacement limbs, it “forgets” to add as much lignin, which is to wood what steel reinforcement bars are to concrete. Lignin is the stuff that gives branches strength. So now we have branches that are weaker than the originals, and badly hitched up to the trunk or major branch wood.

But there are two more things. Thing One is decay, which sets in at each topping wound. Our flimsy new branches soon find themselves attached to a rotting stub. It may take thirty years or it may happen in fewer than five, but every topping cut grows a killer limb. Of the precious few certainties in life, three of them are “death,” “taxes,” and “tree topping creates hazards.”

Thing Two is the tree’s budget. A hat-racked tree has to take money out of the bank (starch out of storage) to replace leaf-bearing wood at a time when much of its bank account, the starch stored in woody tissues, has been stolen and run through a chipper.

Trees need reserves to make defensive chemicals that protect against pests and decay, to expand root systems, and produce each year’s leaves. A topped tree is weaker and is far more vulnerable to decay, disease, and insects than it had been before its “treatment.” If a short tree is desired, a short-maturing species should be planted.

It may sound like I’m backpedaling, but there is a practice called “crown-reduction pruning” which can slightly reduce the height of hardwood trees while maintaining their natural architecture. Crown reduction takes a good deal of training to do properly. It can only reduce a tree’s height 20-25 percent, and has to be repeated every 3-5 years as deemed prudent by an experienced arborist.

Another practice, called “crown thinning,” addresses fears about a tree blowing over. This is the judicious pruning of branches evenly throughout the canopy to reduce wind resistance. A maximum of 20% of live branches may be taken. Again, this takes a great deal more skill than topping.

The International Society of Arboriculture, a research and education association of tree-care professionals, advises the public that a tree company which advertises topping should not be hired for any work. Period. Simply put, it’s advisable not to let them set foot on your property. A company willing to top trees is by definition less than professional, and less likely to understand other elements of tree care, including basic safety procedures.

Tree topping is acceptable, however, for all who enjoy forty-foot hat racks, and liability lawsuits. Now are there any questions?

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Winter buds are your friends

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Every year I teach several winter-tree identification classes. Even though they are always held outdoors no matter how cold it is, student evaluations indicate such classes are generally fun. Showing participants how to tell one leaf-bereft hardwood tree from another is one thing, but explaining why one should bother is trickier. One answer might be, “It’s on the test.” But there are many practical reasons – and a few offbeat and interesting incentives – to know one tree species from another in winter.

From a survival point of view, anyone who finds themselves lost or stranded (or who is hardy enough to go camping) in late winter can get safely hydrated by drinking sap. When temperatures rise above freezing during the day and below at night, sap is available from sugar, soft (red), and silver maples. Maple sap will also flow in autumn during freeze-thaw daily oscillations.

In early spring before the leaves come out, maple sap-flow ends, but birches – white (paper), yellow, black, grey, and river – yield copious sap from mid-April through May. Wild grape vines will give you loads of pathogen-free beverage as well. In fall and early winter, knowing shrub dogwoods and viburnums from honeysuckle may score you some tasty, energy-filled berries rather than noxious ones.

If you’re new at rural living, you could easily waste a lot of time, not to mention run out of fuel wood in winter, if you cut a bunch of basswood thinking it was ash. It’s very helpful to know that in a pinch, one can burn fresh-cut ash and cherry, while other newly cut hardwoods will fizzle out in the woodstove. Plus, you can impress your friends by splitting a round of soft maple with one hand, and then giving them a chunk of elm or bitternut hickory to try their luck. Not that I’ve ever done something like that myself.

Bark is not a reliable feature for ID. It may provide a clue, but is not to be trusted as a primary source. Birches can have black, yellow or reddish bark, for example. Not all hickories have shaggy bark. Cherry and ironwood bark have light-colored horizontal dashes called lenticels, but only on young wood. Some bark patterns, such as the diamond-shaped furrows characteristic of ash, may be absent depending on site conditions and tree health.

A better diagnostic tool is arrangement, meaning whether twigs grow opposite one another on the branch, or are alternate. Most trees are alternates, so we focus on opposites: maple, ash and dogwood, or “MAD.” Shrubs and small trees in the family Caprifolaceae, such as viburnums, are opposite, too. The prompt “MAD Cap” may help you keep track of who’s opposite and who’s not.

Smell is an honest indicator, but only for a few species. Twigs of yellow and black birch smell and taste like wintergreen. Peel a cherry twig and you’ll get a whiff of bitter almond. Soft (red) and silver maple have similar bark, but the twigs of silver maple smell rank when broken.

All our native dogwoods are shrubs, which leaves maple and ash as ther sole members of the opposite-tree club. You’d think that would make things easy, but the stuff which happens to trees can sow confusion. Every twig on a given ash or maple branch might be missing its “partner twig” on the opposite side of that branch. Breakage, pathogens, freeze damage and other things will do that, so don’t trust branch arrangement entirely.

Fortunately for us, buds, like Vulcans, cannot lie. Look closely at a twig to see if the buds are opposite or alternate. Bud size, shape and placement will give further clues.

Beech have long, lance-like buds. Balsam-poplars have sticky, aromatic buds. Red and silver maples have puffy, reddish buds. Sugar maple buds are brown and conical, like a sugar cone. Oaks have clusters of buds at the end of each twig. “Invisible” black locust buds hide under the bark.

Inside each bud is an embryonic leaf (and/or flower). To protect their tender charges, most tree buds have overlapping scales that open in spring. Basswood buds have two or three scales, which vary greatly in size. Sugar maple buds have many, uniform scales. Butternut and hickory buds have no scales. The best winter tree ID tools are buds. Remember that; it might be on the test.

For more details on tree identification, see Cornell’s book “Know Your Trees,” available as a free download (http://www.uvstorm.org/Downloads/Know_Your_Trees_Booklet.pdf)

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Winter swings

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Sometimes it feels as though Old Man Winter has a temperature-oscillation App which he turns on before disappearing for a week or two, probably to someplace warm. I’m not claiming December weather has been hard, just temperamental. The thermometer has bounced up and down, from mild to well below zero, and back to forty-five above in the same week. I’m all for unexpected plot twists, but once you see the pattern, the story gets tedious.

Following each weather swing, I hear people say how confusing it is to rake leaves one day, shovel snow the next, then have to use crampons the following day because of freezing rain. If you think it’s annoying for us humans, who have the luxury of retreating into our warm homes, imagine how the animals feel.

Freezing rain can really mess things up for resident songbirds. Chickadees are not able to break apart birch and alder catkins upon which they depend for food. Nuthatches can’t extract seeds from pine and spruce cones which are encased in ice. Such glaze events are normal, of course, but they occur more often when winter changes its mind every few days. An ice crust on top of snow can make it hard for grouse and turkeys, and deer as well, to find browse.

It’s kind of obvious that deep snow prevents deer from reaching vegetation on the ground, in addition to hampering their movement. As the snowpack gets sixteen or more inches deep, their bellies drag, and it’s hard for them to raise their legs high enough to take a step. In these conditions, deer will “yard up,” finding shelter in a conifer stand. Under an evergreen canopy there is much less snow on the ground because the foliage intercepts a lot of snow. The problem is that there is very little to eat, and starvation sometimes occurs in deer yards.

During harsh winters, a lot of turkeys also starve to death. Typically they forage by walking along and scratching at the duff to unearth food, something they can’t do in deep snow. Turkeys will seek berries that remain on shrubs and trees like highbush cranberry, hawthorn, sumac and hackberry, but those foods are limited.

Yet some creatures depend on snow for survival. Small rodents, meadow voles in particular, fare well in in the world under the snow, also known as the subnivean environment. They’re safe from birds of prey, their most significant predators, and can find plenty of weed seeds and other vegetation on which to feed. Unfortunately this sometimes includes the bark of small tree trunks, much to the disappointment of orchardists and homeowners. However, in parts of the Adirondacks, the American or pine marten hunts rodents under the snow.

When the white stuff piles up, showshoe hares, with their furry oversize feet, have an advantage over predators such as dainty-footed foxes. But with recurrent freeze-thaw cycles, that advantage melts away. And certain species wear white during the cold months. White camouflage doesn’t work for ermines and hares when fickle weather keeps swapping out the background color.

Winter conditions affect aquatic life, too. Oxygen enters water through surface contact with air, and from aquatic plant photosynthesis. Ice and snow on waterways cut off sunlight to plants, as well as air-to-water contact.

According to Bud Ziolkowski of Saranac Lake, a former Paul Smith’s College instructor with a background in fisheries biology, a small number of fish typically die as a result of winter conditions every year. In winters with prolonged ice cover, though, oxygen in the water can become so depleted that large numbers of fish may suffocate. Fish aren’t the only ones using oxygen under the ice—decaying vegetation in the bottom sediments or benthos use up far more than the fish do.

I hope that Old Man Winter will soon come back, all suntanned and happy, and turn off the “App of ice and fire” so we can get on with a proper season.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

New Year’s resolution 2020: Make yourself great again

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

By now, most North Americans have heard the phrase “Make America great again,” a slogan used by the Trump campaign leading up to the US general election of 2016. Regardless of how this saying might be construed or misconstrued, it’s natural that the thought of returning to a better point in time struck a chord with a lot of Americans.

I think many New Year’s resolutions have to do with the same idea: If we eat better, exercise more, give up tobacco, cut back on alcohol or greasy food, we hope to recover the ideal weight or physical strength we once had. Even if we never embodied the perfect figure or flawless health, we imagine a better self and would like to progress toward it. In general, this is a positive yearning.

Ushering a nation to a bygone era would be tricky. Take the US, for instance. In 1969, workers made 26% more income than they do today. But there were race riots, and rivers which caught fire, too. During the 1950s, the economy grew by 37%, but hundreds of thousands of children contracted polio. Of course it’s the same everywhere – no country had a truly golden age if you peek behind the curtain.

However, it’s a different story with us as individuals. To a person, we all had a golden age, and it is possible to recover some of its most precious qualities. Exercise and a proper diet are good, but in my opinion are empty without basic aspects of our best selves.

At age 28, I ate organic food, pumped iron, neither drank nor smoked, had the endurance of a decathlete, and a work ethic that would put a Puritan to shame. But hardly a gilded period. Being proud of those things, I often judged people who fell short. Unable to admit how insecure I was meant that I projected my fears onto others. I intended well, but at times was a bigoted jerk.

Now twice that age, I have begun inching my way back to greatness. Well, in that general direction. Yes, I could use more physical activity and fewer sweets, but that is not the real focus. When was I authentically great? It is the same answer for you. For everyone.

Whether you believe that God created us as perfect but unique reflections of a Divine image, or that we are the product of four billion years of an exquisite biological process called evolution, or both, you have to admit we come into the world pretty darn great. OK, sure – we arrive helpless and need some looking-after. That’s a given.

We disembark from our mothers onto Planet Earth perfectly able to both receive and give love, capable of and eager to learn wonderful things. We come with a tremendous capacity for empathy and compassion. Every newborn shows up with an ability and desire to connect and bond with human beings. Any human being. To an infant, everyone is acceptable, as they are to the world.

This is the greatness to which we can and must return.

On the day of our arrival, we were capable of loving anyone, regardless of skin colour, sex, or where they were from. On that day we were fully open to feeling worthy to be here and to take our place in the world. On that day, what was between our legs did not affect how we felt about ourselves or others. And neither did the tone of our skin or other attributes. This is how we were made. This is greatness.

God or nature sends us here in our perfect skin-colour wrapping, with our perfect sex. The region of the world and ethnic group to which one is born is either random chance, or is just right for one’s life, depending on your point of view.

If you believe in God, you have confidence that Divine creation is flawless. Whether God fashions black or brown or light-skin humans is irrelevant. You understand that all are a perfect reflection of the Divine. However, unacknowledged fear can entice people of any background to project their insecurities onto a group they view as different. It is comforting to form barriers between us and the “other.” It also produces ugly results. But for a person of faith, it is uniquely perilous.

Concluding that something as trivial as skin colour, disability or language sets us above – or even apart from – another is to declare that we know better than God. It is to say that we are correct, and God is in the wrong. There is no blasphemy more heinous or grave. Think about it.

As a result of massive and unparalleled income inequality around the world, more and more people are suffering. Employment is no longer a relevant metric, as working families increasingly fall into poverty. It is no wonder people are afraid. The thing about fear is that it will own you if you don’t admit it. Here is an interesting fact: You can only act courageously if you feel scared first. This is not my opinion; it is the definition of courage: “the ability to do something that frightens one.” (Oxford)

The allure of nationalism, racism, fundamentalism and other -isms at this time is understandable. Tragic, but fathomable. Blaming others – other countries, cultures, religions; you name it – for one’s problems anaesthetizes fear. The fear doesn’t go away. It gets transformed into hate, which numbs fear. And should the object of one’s hatred leave the scene, the “fear Novocain” will be gone, and a new Other will be required in order to numb the fear.

It takes a lot of guts to feel one’s fears. If you belong to a group whose belief system includes a distrust of, or animosity toward, another group, it takes a phenomenal amount of courage to recognize that belief as a fear-based dynamic. Very few have the balls to do it. Usually it is the women who lead a way out of the insanity of blame and hate “–isms” and back to the real world.

As more people unseal Pandora’s Box of fear and realize it won’t kill them – and that in fact they now feel happier than before – others will follow suit. It’s a slow process at first, not at all adrenaline-filled like venting hatred, but once your fears come out, you no longer require the short-lived Novocain of judgement and blame which will fail you time after time.

Hey, I’m scared, too. Think you can be brave? Admit your fears to yourself. Feel them, even though they’re uncomfortable. Remember, you were born great. Reach for that original, real self who perceived no differences among humans and was open to love from and toward all. Go ahead. Make yourself great again.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Home sweet homing

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Many of us have emerged from a mall or concert (concerts especially, for some reason) to discover our vehicle had apparently become unmoored and drifted away in the parking-lot sea of cars. “Losing” one’s parked car is such a common problem that there are now apps to help reunite vehicles with their respective owners. So it may come as a surprise to hear that science has proven we have some natural homing abilities.

The mechanisms are not entirely understood as yet, but one thing which may help humans to navigate is metal in our heads. That’s right – move over, Magneto. Some folks have more brain- iron than others, and most of us know at least one person we suspect of having excess rust between their ears. The truth is, we all have ferrous-rich cells located in our cerebellums and brain stems which can help us orient to North.

Animals, of course, are much better at non-GPS navigation than humans. When we talk about critters which can expertly find their way around, the homing pigeon probably comes to mind. Homers have an uncanny ability to accurately find their way back to their owners even when taken more than a thousand miles away. True story: in New Zealand, a Pigeongram service ran from 1898 to 1908, complete with special stamps. Homing pigeons were also vital leading up to the Normandy invasion when radio silence was essential.

Bird navigation has been well-studied, but much is still unknown. Although birds use a variety of mechanisms to find their way around the planet, such as landmark recognition and solar orientation, sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field is critical. Many bird species migrate only at night, so landmarks and solar position can’t help.

Luckily for us, Earth is a kind of induced magnet thanks to its rotating outer core of molten iron. If it weren’t a giant magnet, we’d all be fried to a crisp by solar radiation. Recently it has come to light that animals employ a protein molecule called a cryptochrome to sense the planetary magnetic field. This involves being attuned to blue light wavelengths, those between 400 and

480 nanometers. A corollary to this fact is that cryptochromes only function during the day. So what about those night owls?

Birds, it turns out, are serious metal-heads, having (as one researcher elegantly put it) “iron- containing sensory dendrites in the inner dermal lining of the upper beak.” There you have it, clear as a bell.

Ferrous-rich nerve cells were detected first in homing pigeons, but all bird species are thought to have them. Long-distance migrants need these most, but even poultry and resident birds are known to be endowed with an inner compass. In a research paper published in the journal PLOS One in February 2012, principal author G. Falkenberg writes “Our data suggest that this complex dendritic system in the beak is a common feature of birds, and that it may form an essential sensory basis for the evolution of at least certain types of magnetic field guided behavior.”

Heavy metal is not just for the birds. Bacteria, slugs, amphibians and loads more species are unconscious collectors of iron as well. A recently published study on human responses to magnetic fields found most subjects reacted to lab-generated magnetic fields. As observed on real-time functional brain scans, subjects could even detect when the polarity was reversed as part of the study. In the March 18, 2019 issue of the journal eNeuro, lead author Connie Wang writes “We report here a strong, specific human brain response to ecologically-relevant rotations of Earth-strength magnetic fields. Ferromagnetism…provides a basis to start the behavioral exploration of human magnetoreception.”

What really caught my attention is a new study out of South Korea. In a paper published in PLOS One in April 2019, Kwon-Seok Chae et al. found that, even blindfolded and wearing ear plugs, male subjects who had fasted for an entire day seemed to orient themselves in a direction they keenly correlated with food. That I can believe.

Paul Hetzler wanted to be a bear when he grew up, but failed the audition. Having gotten over most of his self-pity concerning that unfortunate event, he now writes about nature. Including bears, once in a while. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Treeconomics 101

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist

Deciduous trees, lakeside ice-cream stands, and marinas all close down each autumn for the same reason: as daylight dwindles and cold creeps in, their outfits become less and less profitable. At a certain point it makes sense to batten the hatches until the following spring.

Some enterprising holdouts stay open longer; perhaps they have a cost advantage others do not, or have less competition. A few are the opposite, closing shop at the first hint of fall. Those are likely the ventures which barely scrape by at the height of summer. I’m talking about trees here, of course. Trees whose leaves show color ahead of their same-species peers are doing so because they are barely breaking even.

The solar-powered sugar factories we call trees are good savers, and meticulous in their accounting. As a rule they do not live beyond their means. In addition to sunlight, they require carbon dioxide, a good supply of water and nutrients, and their roots need to breathe easily. The latter point is critical.

Each spring, a deciduous tree takes money out of the bank – starches out of trunk and root tissue

– and invests in a solar array, known as leaves. After paying for its annual complement of leaves, its costs include nighttime respiration, and as-needed maintenance like the synthesis of antimicrobial compounds in response to injury. Its income is sugars; its savings account, starches.

As summer wanes, longer nights drive up costs (respiration), while shorter days bring down income, eventually forcing hardwood trees close for the season. However, if a tree’s root zone is compacted, root respiration is hampered, and roots can’t do their job. Its sugar factory will be less efficient compared to others of its species, and less profitable overall. Soils laden with deicing salt, and mechanical damage will also compromise root function.

Yard and street trees experience very high soil temperatures, restricted root zones, and intense competition from lawns. Trees with waterfront homes have other challenges: fluctuating water levels tax their root systems, and those soils tend to be nutrient-poor. Such trees will reach the break-even point earlier than robust trees, and they will color first.

Early color is a reliable sign of tree stress, but palette gives information as well. We know that orange (carotenes) and yellow (xanthophylls) are already present within the leaves, masked by green chlorophyll. Trees begin to make a waxy compound to block off water and nutrients to their leaves, equivalent to winterizing a camp – it protects the plumbing. As leaves are thus choked off, chlorophyll dies, revealing yellow and orange.

The red-purple range (anthocyanins), though, is a different story. Red pigments are manufactured in the fall by some species, maples in particular, at significant cost. Science has yet to come up with a truly plausible explanation for this. The point about red is that a maple showing lots of it

is in good enough health to “waste” energy making anthocyanins. Last year in the Ottawa Valley and beyond, sugar maples were yellow only, the first time in living memory that has happened. Soft (red) maples had plenty of red, but hard maples were devoid of it. This is an indication that as a species they are facing tremendous chronic stress.

If one of your yard trees has leaves that are turning color and dropping early, you can be sure it’s in decline, and it would be good to hire a Certified Arborist to evaluate it. If your favorite cottage-country ice cream stand closes early, that might spell trouble for the owners, but they could be just tired.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Hibernation

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Offhand I can’t think of a lot to say in defense of envy, greed, and gluttony, but sloth is different. Some creatures’ lives depend on sleeping for half the year, a fact which I vainly tried to conceal from my teenage children. Survival strategies of bats, woodchucks and other animals include long periods of sloth. Ironically, sloths don’t hibernate.

If hibernation is loosely defined as a period of inactivity and lowered metabolism in warm-blooded animals (endotherms) in winter, then many of us in northern latitudes do it. Of course, there’s more to it than that. Turns out that among biologists, the exact definition was a matter of debate until a couple decades ago.

It used to be a term reserved for “deep” hibernators whose core temperatures and heart rates drop to a tiny fraction of their summer values. A good example would be certain Arctic rodents that get slightly below 0 degrees Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit. Now it’s applied to any animal that can actively lower body temperature and metabolism. Actively lowering one’s metabolism sounds like an oxymoron, but let’s not resort to name-calling.

Cold-blooded animals or ectotherms like frogs and snakes also become dormant in winter. It’s basically the same as hibernation, except that biologists call it brumation. This is because jargon makes nerdy science-lovers feel better, so please humour them (us) so they keep up their good work.

With ectotherms, you could say hibernation happens; they don’t “do” it. Even if they don’t need to work at it like mammals do, their torpor is still impressive. Some frogs, turtles and fish can overwinter in mud essentially devoid of oxygen, and are no worse for the wear come springtime.

Most hibernators modify their schedules according to the weather: if it stays mild into November, black bears and chipmunks den up later than usual. But some animals, known as obligate hibernators, doze

off according to the calendar. Even if you took a European hedgehog to Aruba for the winter, it would go narcoleptic at the same time as its mates did back in the Scottish Highlands.

Until recently, bears didn’t make the hibernator list, but now they’re lumped in with those ground- dwelling popsi-squirrels in the frozen-mammals section of the Arctic winter. Bears in the far north may not eat or drink for up to eight months, using stored fat for hydration and energy. If we were inert for that long our muscles would waste away, but they have ways to manage proteins so their muscles don’t atrophy.

In hot climates, summer is the unbearable season, and some animals sit it out by hibernating, except

that’s not what it’s called. Naturally biologists coined a word for summer torpor: estivation is the

proper term for hot-weather snoozing. Who does this? Some desert-dwelling frogs surround themselves with a mucus “water balloon” to wait out dry spells. African lungfish have a similar trick for when their ponds temporarily dry up.

More surprising is that at least one estivator is a primate, as we are. The fat-tailed dwarf lemur of Madagascar stays in a hollow tree for half the year until the heat’s off. If a close relative of ours can go dormant, then what about us? Science-fiction movies have depicted astronauts waking after years of travel, and this may be another instance where what’s imagined today becomes real tomorrow.

NASA announced in 2014 that they’re looking for a way to place the crews of multi-year space missions into suspended animation for three to six months at a time. Presumably this is so Mission Control won’t have to listen to incessant “Are we there yet?” whining from the back of the spaceship.

Though stories of human hibernation abound, documented cases are rare. Occasionally someone falls through ice and is revived hours later with no evident brain damage or other long-term effects. This can happen when body temperature drops very fast, as it would if submerged in ice water.

If body temperature falls slowly, hypothermia usually results, ending in death if continued. Apparently there are exceptions. One instance happened in 2006 when an injured hiker spent three frigid weeks on Mount Rokko in western Japan with no food or water. His temperature had fallen to about 22 Celsius or

72 F, yet he made a full recovery.

Scientists will continue to study hibernation for its medical applications. But if you’re not a winter person, don’t pretend to hibernate by being slothful, just grin and, you know. Bear it.

A longtime naturalist, Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Deer grandma and grandpa

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Just about everyone who saw the Walt Disney classic “Bambi” shed a tear, or at least stifled the urge to lacrimate (that’s cry in Scrabble-ese). Even if I had known of the devastating effects deer have on forest regeneration, not to mention crops, landscapes and gardens, it still would have been a trauma for my

five-year old self when Bambi’s mother got killed. (Oops—spoiler alert there, sorry.) But how might the movie have ended if they had all lived happily ever after?

What is life like for those few lucky, possibly smarter, white-tailed deer which manage to avoid cars, coyotes, projectiles and parasites beyond the first few years of existence? Could an aged deer manage to gum your hostas to a nub when its teeth have worn away? I picture a wizened Grand-Buck griping that salt licks were better when he was a fawn, and that yearlings have it easy crossing the road these days now that cars have antilock brakes.

Seriously though, life gets harder in many ways as organisms age. Ask anyone who retired to Florida why they left northern New York and they’ll probably tell you winters were enjoyable until arthritis and various other ailments set in. What happens to wild deer as they become senior citizens—do they succumb to age-related health issues like bad joints, decayed teeth, or tumors?

I put the question to retired New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) Wildlife Biologist Ken Kogut, who lives outside of Potsdam. He laughed. “To have a deer die of old age in the wild is an oxymoron,” he said. Ken went on to explain that in terms of hunting, NYSDEC

data show the vast majority of harvested deer are in the 1.5 to 3.5 year-old range (because they are born in May and June, deer are always in a half-year by hunting season). “To see a seven or eight year-old buck [at a NYSDEC check station] is very, very unusual.”

To illustrate this point, consider that the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research states the average lifespan of captive white-tails is 16 years, with the confirmed oldest captive deer living to be an ancient 23 years old. Compare that to wild white-tails, which do not have a good track record, so to speak. The average lifespan of a wild deer? According to a University of Michigan report, two years. Yeah. Ten is considered the upper age limit, and a very rare occurrence at that.

Determining the vintage of white-tails is called aging deer, not to be confused with the aging of parents, which is a function of both the number and activity level of their children. How do we find how many birthdays a deer has had? Dentistry.

White-tails have canine teeth (the irony of which, sadly, is lost on them) and incisors on the lower jaw, but none on the upper. In other words they can’t snip off a twig the way a rabbit can, but have to tear it away with an upward motion. But they do have upper and lower molars, and the wear on these is used to tell how old a deer is. Or was, as this is generally done post-mortem.

Aging deer started as kind of a home-grown citizen-science project. In years past, keenly observant hunters who could identify an individual deer from yearling stage onward took note of molar wear when it was harvested. Years of correlation of known deer age with measured teeth wear (turns out it’s one millimeter per year) made hunters like dairy farmer and NYS Big Buck Club founder Bob Estes of Caledonia, NY, experts in aging white-tails.

Aside from hunting, another thing driving down the average lifespan of wild deer is predation of fawns by coyotes and black bears. Surprisingly, in the Adirondacks, the latter may kill more fawns than coyotes do. Predation is hard to quantify, though, as coyotes and bears eat every last vestige – bone, hair and innards – of any animal they kill or find dead of other causes. Because predators do not feel safe out in the open, they don’t eat dead deer on roadsides, which are left to rot.

Deer-vehicle collisions are another huge factor, with the New York State Department of Transportation

 

reporting an average of 65,000 per year. But starvation during hard winters, says Kogut, is probably the single factor likely to kill older deer. For various reasons including worn molars, they are likely to have less stored body fat going into winter than a younger deer.

With all this carnage, are white-tails disappearing? Hardly. Dr. Peter Smallidge, the State Forester for

Cornell Extension, says New York State had an estimated 20,000 deer around 1800, fewer than one

deer per two square miles. Today there are close to a million, more than enough to destroy the ability of many forests to regrow, as young trees are devoured by deer while they are seedlings.

Lyme disease is also a result of deer overpopulation. Cornell Extension Wildlife Specialist Dr. Paul Curtis believes that if the deer population went down below six per square mile, which is still higher than the historic density, then deer ticks, which spread Lyme disease, would become too scarce to be a public health threat.

What might cause the deer population to decline like that? I don’t know, but it certainly won’t be old age.

A longtime naturalist, Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Cranberries

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Like the political process, cranberries can leave a sour taste in your mouth. But unlike politics, whose bitter aftertaste cuts through any amount of sweetener, the flavor of cranberries is readily improved with a little sugar.

To say a fresh cranberry is sour is like saying Picasso and Monet are reasonably good painters. In fact it can have a lower pH value than stomach acid. It’s almost a wonder people ever started eating them, right?

The cranberry, which is closely related to the blueberry, is native to higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere the world over. It is an evergreen trailing vine, or sometimes a very small shrub. The name is derived from its flower petals, which are reflexed or pulled back sharply, making the its pink blossom resemble (to some) the head and bill of a crane. The North American species is Vaccinium macrocarpon, and luckily for us it has larger berries than species in northern Europe and elsewhere.

It’s important to note that the shrub known as highbush cranberry is an imposter and is not related to the stuff we eat with our holiday meals. This kind of confusion around common names happens a lot. In the plant world there are no copyright laws, which is why pointy-headed plant nerds like yours truly like those fancy Latin names.

Of course we know that Native Americans made use of cranberries, and introduced them to early European immigrants. A firsthand account from the late 1500s describes how some Algonquins brought cups full of cranberries to newly arrived Pilgrims as they came ashore. I’m thinking that unless there was a bit of maple sugar in with the berries, maybe their gesture was actually meant to discourage the migrants from staying.

The colonists took a shine to the little red sourballs occasionally known as moss berries or bear berries, and by the 1820s some farmers began exporting this new crop back to Europe. Growing them might not look like you’d expect, though – images of cranberries floating on what appears to be a lake give the wrong impression.

Wild cranberries are often found in wet areas such as bogs, but cultivated berries are grown on carefully managed upland fields. These sandy plots, laser-leveled and heavily irrigated, are surrounded by berms so the fields can be flooded with six to eight inches of water to make harvesting easier. Because berries gathered this way have a short shelf life, they are generally frozen, canned or otherwise processed right away. Cranberries for fresh eating are usually hand-picked in dry fields.

Over the past few decades, cranberries have been touted for an increasingly wide range of health benefits as well as for their taste. It has long been known they are high in Vitamins C and E, pantothenic acid, as well as manganese, copper and other minerals. But it’s their antioxidant properties that have gotten people excited.

If you saw “oligomeric proanthocyanidins” listed on a candy bar you might not buy it. But these and many other natural compounds are abundant in cranberries, and despite the scary names they’re good for you. Cranberries are being intensively studied for potential benefits in treating diabetes, arthritis, cancer and other illnesses.

Research suggests cranberry juice – the good stuff, not the corn syrup-laden wannabe juice – may help prevent calcium-based kidney stones. Moderation in all things, as too much of it (cranberry juice, not moderation) may cause oxalic acid-based bladder stones.

Studies also indicate cranberry juice does prevent certain harmful bacteria from sticking to us. Turns out it’s like Teflon for them. While cranberry juice has not been found effective for treating urinary tract infections, it is good at preventing them by stopping coliform bacteria from adhering to places they don’t belong. Good news for your teeth, too: cranberries help keep decay microbes from glomming on to enamel, thus reducing dental plaque and cavities.

And as the 2020 election campaign machine warms up you’ll be happy to hear that cranberries also help prevent ulcer-causing bacteria from colonizing human stomach lining and forming ulcers. Furthermore, their cardiovascular benefits include lowering “bad” LDL cholesterol blood levels and increasing those of the good HDL cholesterol. So if you’re a news junkie, keep the cranberries close at hand during the news.

A longtime naturalist, Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com

Thankful for strong forks

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Growing up, our family’s Thanksgiving traditions were well balanced. First we ate a lot, but after dinner my two brothers and I engaged in vigorous exercise for thirty minutes or so. That’s usually how long it took to tussle over which two boys would get to break the turkey’s wishbone. Of course sometimes it backfired if the loser cried loudly enough that they got promoted to the wishbone-pulling team. Following the event, further “exercise” might ensue if there were strong feelings about the fairness of said match. Luckily, bone breakage was restricted to cooked poultry, and we brothers remain on good terms.

The Y-shaped furcula, or wishbone as normal folks call it, is unique to birds, and breaking it to determine who gets the larger of the two halves – and thus the wish or good luck – goes back a few thousand years. Reportedly there are subtle ways to influence who gets the better half, but these were unknown to us as kids.

Even if your Thanksgiving customs do not include breaking a wishbone, we have all seen trees which fork in a similar way. Unlike an actual wishbone, however, there is no lucky outcome for anyone in such situations, because trees which divide into two stems or trunks like an upper-case Y are doomed to split. The narrower the angle at which the two trunks divide, the weaker the union is, but the chances splitting always increase with age.

To some extent, a propensity for multiple trunks is genetic. In a forest environment, trees with poor structure split during wind or ice-load events. It is nature’s way of picking trees with better genetics (or luck, sometimes) to live longer and seed future forests. This selection process is great for woodlands, but not for trees growing in our yards, streets and parks.

We are the “unnatural selection” force responsible for choosing which trees get planted, and where. It takes a lot of effort, expense and time to have a shade tree reach maturity, and we want to keep them around as long as possible.

All trees have imperfections, the vast majority of which are benign. But some can be dangerous. To avoid breakage of large limbs, and associated flying lawsuits and debris, trees with obvious defects are often removed as a matter of course. Since many tree problems are a result of our activities, it hardly seems fair to send a mature shade tree to that great arboretum in the sky if we can find an alternative.

Somewhere there must be a cute little town called Narrow Forks. Where trees are concerned, this is the name of a problem that occurs when the angle of attachment between two competing (codominant) trunks is acute, rather than cute. The strongest attachments are open and closer to U-shaped. Narrow forks or unions get weaker with age and eventually fail. Major, often catastrophic, splits occur during ice storms, microbursts and other violent weather.

When you have a priceless target such as a Fabergé egg or a children’s play area that is within striking distance of a “wishbone” tree, corrective action is needed. Thanksgiving to Easter is the best period in which to have your landscape trees professionally evaluated, because tree architecture is easier to see when the leaves are off. A tree in very bad shape may need to be removed, but oftentimes, judicious pruning along with an appropriate cable system can save it.

Cabling must be done right, because a poorly designed system is more dangerous than none. The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) A300 Support System Standards for tree cabling are not an example of big-government overreach. Quite the opposite; they are industry-written, and based on decades of research. The ANSI A300 lays out specs for things like cable, bolt and eye size, construction, and load-rating. It’s critical that a cable system be installed by a Certified Arborist who is familiar with these standards.

Lest you fear your maple or oak will look like a Frankentree, don’t worry: a proper cable system is inconspicuous. For a fraction of the cost of a removal, and a tiny fraction of the cost of emergency removal plus damage repair, most trees can get an extended lease on life through cabling. While under extreme conditions even a perfect system may fail, I’ve never seen a properly installed cable system fail. I have, on the other hand, seen many homemade or substandard ones crash.

For information on cabling, contact your local International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist (treesaregood.org has a search-by-ZIP function). When you get a quote from a professional, ask them to show you their copy of the ANSI A300 cabling standards, and insist on proof of insurance directly from their carrier.

It’s an appropriate time to give thanks for strong forks, both at the table and out in the landscape.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters. His book “Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World,” is available on amazon.com.

Home sweet homing

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Many of us have emerged from a mall or concert (concerts especially, for some reason) to discover our vehicle had apparently become unmoored and drifted away in the parking-lot sea of cars. “Losing” one’s parked car is such a common problem that there are now apps to help reunite vehicles with their respective owners. So it may come as a surprise to hear that science has proven we have some natural homing abilities.

The mechanisms are not entirely understood as yet, but one thing which may help humans to navigate is metal in our heads. That’s right – move over, Magneto. Some folks have more brain-iron than others, and most of us know at least one person we suspect of having excess rust between their ears. The truth is, we all have ferrous-rich cells located in our cerebellums and brain stems which can help us orient to North.

Animals, of course, are much better at non-GPS navigation than humans. When we talk about critters which can expertly find their way around, the homing pigeon probably comes to mind. Homers have an uncanny ability to accurately find their way back to their owners even when taken more than a thousand miles away. True story: in New Zealand, a Pigeongram service ran from 1898 to 1908, complete with special stamps. Homing pigeons were also vital leading up to the Normandy invasion when radio silence was essential.

Bird navigation has been well-studied, but much is still unknown. Although birds use a variety of mechanisms to find their way around the planet, such as landmark recognition and solar orientation, sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field is critical. Many bird species migrate only at night, so landmarks and solar position can’t help.

Luckily for us, Earth is a kind of induced magnet thanks to its rotating outer core of molten iron. If it weren’t a giant magnet, we’d all be fried to a crisp by solar radiation. Recently it has come to light that animals employ a protein molecule called a cryptochrome to sense the planetary magnetic field. This involves being attuned to blue light wavelengths, those between 400 and 480 nanometers. A corollary to this fact is that cryptochromes only function during the day. So what about those night owls?

Birds, it turns out, are serious metal-heads, having (as one researcher elegantly put it) “iron-containing sensory dendrites in the inner dermal lining of the upper beak.” There you have it, clear as a bell.

Ferrous-rich nerve cells were detected first in homing pigeons, but all bird species are thought to have them. Long-distance migrants need these most, but even poultry and resident birds are known to be endowed with an inner compass. In a research paper published in the journal PLOS One in February 2012, principal author G. Falkenberg writes “Our data suggest that this complex dendritic system in the beak is a common feature of birds, and that it may form an essential sensory basis for the evolution of at least certain types of magnetic field guided behavior.”

Heavy metal is not just for the birds. Bacteria, slugs, amphibians and loads more species are unconscious collectors of iron as well. A recently published study on human responses to magnetic fields found most subjects reacted to lab-generated magnetic fields. As observed on real-time functional brain scans, subjects could even detect when the polarity was reversed as part of the study. In the March 18, 2019 issue of the journal eNeuro, lead author Connie Wang writes “We report here a strong, specific human brain response to ecologically-relevant rotations of Earth-strength magnetic fields. Ferromagnetism…provides a basis to start the behavioral exploration of human magnetoreception.”

What really caught my attention is a new study out of South Korea. In a paper published in PLOS One in April 2019, Kwon-Seok Chae et al. found that, even blindfolded and wearing ear plugs, male subjects who had fasted for an entire day seemed to orient themselves in a direction they keenly correlated with food. That I can believe.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of the Society of American Foresters, and the Canadian Institute of Forestry. His book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World, is available on amazon.com

Spare the rod 

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

While most plants respond to the shorter days of late summer by starting to wind down their business for the season, goldenrod is a “short-day” plant, the kind that is stimulated to bloom by dwindling daylight. It’s a perennial in the aster family, and is widespread across North America. Continent-wide, we have something on the order of 130 species of goldenrod in the genus Solidago.

As one of the most abundant blooms of late summer and autumn, this native wildflower is for many pollinators, including numerous bee species, a vital source of nectar as well as of nutritious pollen. Unfortunately, this latter item has given goldenrod a black eye among many allergy sufferers.

Goldenrod’s showy yellow flowers are in full view along roadsides and in meadows and pastures just about the same time that one of the more intense waves of seasonal hay fever kicks in. So it’s understandable that goldenrod has been blamed for the red itchy eyes, sinus congestion, sneezing, and general histamine-soaked misery that some folks experience this time of year. But it turns out that goldenrod pollen is innocent of all charges.

Goldenrod can’t be guilty because its pollen is heavy. That’s a relative term, I suppose, since it’s light enough that bees manage to cart away loads of it. But in the pollen realm it weighs a ton – and also is very sticky – and doesn’t blow far from the plant. It’s not that goldenrod pollen is incapable of eliciting an allergic response, it’s just that to do so, one would have to literally stick it in one’s nose and snuff it up.

Not only is goldenrod guiltless of allergic assault, it has been used as an alternate source of rubber. Henry Ford was intrigued by goldenrod, and reportedly produced some tires made from the plant. Interest in goldenrod was revived during World War II. Goldenrod is also used in herbal medicine to help treat kidney stones, sore throats and toothaches.

So who is to blame for the spike in late summer allergies? The culprit is goldenrod’s cousin, ragweed, although it doesn’t behave at all like its golden relative. I suspect we all have a relative or two like ragweed in our extended family. Ragweed, another native plant, is also in the aster family. But unlike goldenrod it churns out loads of very light pollen.

It is so light that ragweed pollen can remain airborne for several days. In fact, significant quantities have been found in the air as far as 400 miles out to sea. And a single ragweed plant can produce a billion pollen grains to fly on the breeze and make you sneeze. Yep, that’s the stuff that stuffs you up.

One reason we don’t suspect ragweed is that its blossoms are dull green and look nothing like a typical flower. It’s as if they’re trying not to attract attention, staying under the radar and letting goldenrod take the rap. The reason ragweed is easy to overlook is that it is wind-pollinated, and therefore has no need to advertise with bright colors and sweet nectar to attract pollinators. Wind-pollinated plants have discovered it’s a lot easier to attract wind than bees, but the downside is they need to make lots more pollen.

Most ragweed species – there are about 50 of them – are annual, but come back each spring from the copious seeds they produce in the fall. Ragweed will continue to churn out allergens until the first hard frost, so let’s hope it is not too much of an extended season this year. And please help to spread the word about goldenrod to spare it any more false accusations.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of the Society of American Foresters, and the Canadian Institute of Forestry. His book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World, is available on amazon.com

Spiders: Possibly incendiary, but not poisonous

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Spiders can be dangerous, but mostly in ways you would never imagine.

At a Michigan gas station in 2015, a man tried to kill one with a lighter and burned up a pump island, narrowly escaping injury. A couple of years prior to that, a guy in Seattle lost his house to fire while trying to kill spiders with a blowtorch. And Mazda was forced to recall 42,000 of its vehicles in 2014 because spiders could clog a small fuel vent line with silk, potentially cracking the gas tank and causing a fire.

Humans seem hard-wired to fear spiders, and it may well be buried in our DNA, or at least in our epigenetic code. Obviously it would have helped early humans to be wary of spiders, as a few warm-climate species are poisonous. Mind you, it’s a small minority. But spiders can be hard to tell apart. If something with way too many legs and eyes scurries up our leg, most of us will swat first and ask questions later.

Worldwide, about 35,000 species of spiders have been identified and named, though there are undoubtedly many yet to be discovered. Roughly 3,000 species call North America home, and of them, only around a dozen are poisonous. New York State is host to only one species of toxic spider, while Texas has collected eleven, almost the whole set. But then, they do everything in a big way down there.

Sources don’t agree exactly, but apparently we have close to thirty different species of spiders in the Empire State, with ten of those considered common. You’d think that in higher latitudes we might be exempt from poisonous spiders; after all, most of them live in hot places. But as it happens the lone species of concern in New York, the northern black widow (Latrodectus variolus), is just as happy in the Adirondack and North Country regions as it is in Long Island.

An interesting sidebar about black widows—so called because they are known to eat the male after mating—is that such behavior is not as common as was once thought. This “sexual cannibalism” (an actual scientific term) was first seen in the lab where males couldn’t get away. Seems that in the wild they adhere to a “best defense is a running head start” school of thought, and most of them survive.

A red-and-black color scheme on a car is sporty. On a spider it’s scary. Lucky for us, to identify the northern black widow we don’t have to flip her upside down to look for the characteristic red hourglass shape on her abdomen. The way I figure it, many bites probably result from people trying to find out if that shiny black spider is poisonous or not. Anyway, the northern species has plenty of bright red geometric patches on her backside in addition to the mark on her belly.

Although black widows have the most toxic venom, the brown recluse spider (Loxosceles reclusa) is more dangerous. Bites from the brown recluse, while rare, may require medical intervention because they can cause significant tissue death (necrosis) with potential infection and scarring. In about one percent of cases, their bites lead to death if the venom becomes systemic. Most of these situations involve the elderly or small children.

Here in New York we have no resident brown recluse spiders, which are found from coast to coast but are concentrated in the Midwest. Their range extends from the Gulf States as far north as Virginia. Every year, though, a few end up here when they stow away in luggage or gear of returning vacationers. Brown recluses are tan and shiny, and not at all hairy. They have a dark brown, violin-shaped mark on their backs, with the neck of the violin pointing backwards toward the abdomen.

There are aggressive spiders, such as the invasive hobo spider in the Pacific Northwest, but the truly poisonous ones are docile. Black widows prefer to run away, and the brown recluse is thusly named for a reason. It’s the unfortunate situation when one of these is hiding in a bath towel or article of clothing and becomes pinned against human skin which results in bites from these shy creatures.

Even though most species of spiders are not even capable of puncturing human skin, spiders are often blamed when someone wakes up with a red mark on their skin. Most of the time, such marks are from biting insects like mosquitoes or bed bugs.

To be fair, though, we do have a native spider that can and will bite, the yellow-sac spider (Cheiracanthium spp.). Common across North America, they are ghostly pale, yellow to greenish (sometimes pink or tan), medium-size critters that make little silken homes in curled-up leaves, rock crevices, and occasionally in the corner of a room.

Though not dangerous, this species does have a mildly toxic venom which may cause a rash, or in some cases, limited tissue necrosis. About twenty-five years ago one of them bit the side of my neck (it was in my shirt collar), and an open wound slightly larger than a nickel developed. The lesion turned an alarming gray color and took a couple moths to heal. I have to count my blessings, though. There was no fire.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of the Society of American Foresters, and the Canadian Institute of Forestry. His book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World, is available on amazon.com

Scarred for Life

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

It makes sense that dying trees have terminal bud scars. Sounds like an awful condition – my condolences. But the healthiest trees have them, too (terminal scars, not condolences). It’s a good thing, since terminal bud scars provide an excellent way to leaf through a tree’s health records going back 5 to 10 years.

After a woody plant has its full complement of leaves, it makes both vegetative and flower buds for the following year. Inside each vegetative bud is an inchoate shoot tip, while the reproductive parts are in the flower buds (incidentally, trees have a secret stash of vegetative buds, but no spare flower buds in case of springtime freeze damage). At the tip of each twig, a woody plant makes a larger-than-average bud, the future leader of its respective leaf-dom. When a terminal bud starts to grow in springtime, it leaves behind a ridge of bark that extends all the way around the twig.

You can look down the twig toward it parent stem, and usually find at least five terminal bud scars, sometimes fewer, sometimes more. Reading glasses or a hand lens will help, because older scars are less distinct. The space between each scar is called a node, and it represents the growth from a particular year. It acts as a ruler for arborists and foresters, and it can be for you as well.

Certainly this varies by species, but one would expect to see four to six inches of new growth each year for a twig getting ample sunlight. Yet if you visit a college campus or walk down a busy village street, you’ll discover trees with only a fraction of an inch between terminal bud scars. It might be fair to consider those trees terminal cases.

This information will help you make good decisions about managing your landscape trees, sugar bush, or woodlot. If you notice a consistent lack of good growth, you’ll treat that tree or stand differently. Perhaps a soil test is in order. If you want to prune such a tree, take off very little, no more than five percent of leaf-bearing material. If you’re wondering how foresters collect twig samples from the

Another handy metric when evaluating young trees is something called a trunk flare. Examine the base of any tree. If there is an obvious flare, that’s as it should be. But if the trunk resembles a fence post at the soil surface, that tree’s rots are barely able, if at all, to function. Occasionally a young tree will survive long enough to grow new (adventitious) roots up where they can get oxygen, but it generally won’t thrive the way it could have.

It also will be more likely to develop girdling roots, a condition which is exactly what it sounds like. These are roots which began growing in a circular pattern because the burlap was too difficult to penetrate in the first year or two. As the expanding trunk reaches this ring of death, the python-like girdling root (s) chokes the trunk. This happens when the trees are 25-35 years old. Sidebar: always strip off the burlap once the tree is situated in the hole.

One can see the handiwork of girdling roots along major NYS roads between mid-August and mid-September. DOT-planted trees of that 25-35 age class begin to turn color before surrounding trees of the same type. Once you’re tuned in to this phenomenon, you will see this effect everywhere you go in late summer and early autumn.

The reason strangled or sick trees are early leaf-shedders has to do with their balance sheet. If a tree is being garroted by girdling roots, its sugar factory is less efficient than others of its ilk. Such trees reach the break-even point earlier than robust trees, and hence they color first.

Now you have a few more tools for evaluating tree health. I hope they can help you keep a few trees from becoming terminal before their time.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of the Society of American Foresters, and the Canadian Institute of Forestry. His book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World, is available on amazon.com

Fall transplanting

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA-Certified Arborist

Each November, star-gazers enjoy watching the Leonid meteor shower (this year on the 17th and 18th), which seems kind of voyeuristic, but to each his own. Hunters are very fond of November, and lots of people observe Thanksgiving in that month. And it’s also a fine time to transplant most trees.

It’s OK to plant a tree from the nursery which has its own root system (either ball-and-burlap or container-grown) just about any time the soil is not frozen. But digging up and moving a tree in the growing season is kind of like having surgery without anesthesia. It can be done, but the outcome isn’t always so good.

Once the leaves are off, though, trees can be more successfully moved because they’re dormant, dormant being the French term for “sleeping so deeply that you don’t awaken even if someone digs you up by the roots.” Studies have shown that small trees recover from transplanting better than large trees, and will usually end up out-performing them. And moving a small tree is easier on your back.

When you go to dig a tree from the woods or the edge of a field, remember that you should have permission from the owner. Also that it’s more important to dig wide than deep. Even with oaks and walnuts that have big taproots, getting good lateral roots is more important than getting the whole taproot. To reflect this fact, the ideal planting hole should be saucer-shaped and at least twice as wide as the root ball, but no deeper.

Adding gobs of organic matter to the backfill likely dates back to ancient times, when people would sometimes grab an arborist, if one was handy, and throw them in the planting hole. Possibly in response to this, most arborists today recommend little or no additional organic matter in native soils with reasonably good fertility. (Tip: the vegetation growing at a site will give an indication of how good the soil is.)

In cases where the soil is exceptionally poor, however, like in compacted clay, pure sand or along roads, a doubly wide planting hole should be made. You can replace up to one-third of the excavated soil with organic matter and/or other amendments. No matter how good or poor the soil is, no commercial fertilizer should be used at planting time.

Roots will continue to grow as long as the soil remains unfrozen, so it’s important to keep fall transplants from drying out. To stake or not to stake is often the last question. If the top is so big compared to the root ball that it might blow over, stake lightly, using cloth or pieces of bicycle inner tube around the trunk. Remove stakes as soon as possible though, because movement encourages a stronger trunk. A two-inch mulch layer over the planting hole (pull mulch away from the trunk) completes the job.

On Saturday November 2, 2019, the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District has organized a tree-planting workshop in conjunction with the City of Ogdensburg. The event will be held from 9 AM to noon at the Dubisky Center, 100 Riverside Ave. in Ogdensburg. It is free, but pre-registration is requested. Simply call (315) 386-3582 to register or for more information.

Happy November, and please—no arborists in the backfill.

Paul Hetzler has been an ISA-Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of the Society of American Foresters and the Canadian Institute of Forestry.

Locals beat lily leaf beetle

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Lilies, native around the world in the temperate parts of the northern hemisphere, have been important cultural icons for millennia. Depending where you stand on the globe, they can represent humility, purity, unbridled sexuality, Québec separatism, wealth, or a thriving garden, to name but a few possibilities.

The flower is mentioned in The New Testament, such as in Matthew 6:26: “Behold the lilies of the field: They toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” The message, as I understand it, is that one should not waste energy worrying how to clothe oneself, because even wild lilies are garbed well.

Unfortunately, northern New York State has a relatively new pest which specializes in denuding lilies. The lily leaf beetle (LLB) is a fiery-red native of Asia and Europe which has a voracious appetite for true lilies, those in the genus Lilium, as well as for their relatives the fritillaries (LLB does not eat day lilies). First found in NY State in 1999 by two Cornell Master Gardeners in Clinton County, the lily leaf beetle has slowly spread across NY State over the past 20 years, much to the dismay of flower enthusiasts.

Adult LLB range from 6 to 9 mm (1/4 to 3/8 of an inch) long, and have prominent antennae. The adults, which overwinter in the soil, start feeding as soon as the lilies begin to appear. They mate, lay eggs and die early in the season, but their larvae soon emerge to wreak more havoc. At roughly 12 mm or a half-inch when full-size, LLB larvae can be yellow or orange, but you’d never know it because they smear their poop all over themselves to deter predators. It is a strategy that works well on gardeners, and somewhat on birds. Later in the season, the larvae pupate and emerge as beetles, which again go after the poor lilies. It has gotten so bad that some gardeners have given up on lilies.

But in St. Lawrence County, a few lily growers have successfully fought back and won. In 2015, Dr. Paul Siskind, a Musicologist by training as well as a Cornell Master Naturalist, wanted to find the best organic spray to control this novel pest. To his surprise, Siskind found there had been little research done on LLB, and none at all on his topic of interest. He devised a study comparing the effectiveness of common organic products, and also recorded relative numbers of LLB found on four different strains of lilies to see which were preferred by LLB.

The short story is that a product called Spinosad, made of compounds produced by certain bacteria, provided good control of lily leaf beetles. Though it is less toxic than many other insecticides, always follow label directions. Neem oil, derived from a tropical tree, is listed as effective against LLB larvae, but Dr. Siskind found that only neem products which were labeled “cold-pressed” had any effect. He also noted that LLB strongly prefer Asiatic-type lilies such as ‘Orange County,’ with Trumpet lilies like ‘African Queen’ in second place. Oriental varieties were even less palatable, and lily leaf beetles showed the least interest in the Oriental x Trumpet crosses such as ‘Conca d’Or.’

Hand-picking, unpleasant though it is, can also provide good LLB control, and is the cheapest and safest option by far. Guy Drake of Heuvelton, a longtime producer of perennial flowers and shrubs, believes that you want to beat LLB, you simply have to “garden up,” in his words. Guy, who can be found at the Canton Farmers’ Market twice a week, told me that the scarlet-red beetle devastated his lily selection when they first showed up at his place several years ago. The following year he began to diligently scout for LLB eggs, larvae and adults every morning. Since then, he has been virtually beetle-free.

The secret, he explained, is to hand-pick very early in the morning. The reason it’s essential to get out early is because adult beetles have a unique defense mechanism. As soon as you approach, they drop off the plant, land upside-down on the ground, and lie still. Though red on top, underneath they are tan, making them almost impossible to find. But in the cool of early morning, he says they don’t move, and can be easily swept into soapy water or crushed.

In the long-term, biological controls may keep LLB populations so low that they cease to be a threat to lilies. In 2017, the NYS Integrated Pest Management (NYS IPM) program at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in conjunction with Cornell Cooperative Extension, released three species of tiny parasitic wasps in Putnam and Albany Counties, as well as on Long Island. Researchers from NYS IPM say that it will be a slow process, but they are optimistic that natural LLB control will happen in the coming decades.

In the meantime, we’ll need to help lilies keep their splendid garments from being consumed by lily leaf beetles. Garden up, everyone!

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Crabby apples and other complaints

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

We waited a long time for summer to arrive this year, so it is unfair that some flowering crabapples are turning yellow and brown and shedding their leaves already. Mountain-ash, serviceberry, and hawthorn are also affected by the same disorder. Here and there a few maples and other species are also dropping random leaves, which are for the most part still green, often with patches of black or brown. The latter situation has a different origin, but both are rooted in the record-wet spring weather of 2019.

A common pathogen called apple scab (Venturia inaequalis) affects apple trees of course, but quite a few other members of the rose family, including flowering crabapples. Venturia inaequalis is a fungus that overwinters in the fallen leaves of previously infected trees; its spores are released from the old leaves to begin a new infection cycle by the impact of spring rains. Obviously more rain means a greater number of spores in the air and a more severe case of the disease.

Symptoms of apple scab are small brown or olive-green spots on leaves as well as fruit. In a drier season there may be little harm done, but in wet years it often results in many leaves being killed. Sometimes they show a bit of orange or yellow before dropping, though dead leaves may also stay on the branches for the whole season. Apple scab seldom kills trees, but it weakens them. In commercial apple orchards it can lead to blemished fruit that are prone to splitting open.

One of the easiest ways to help minimize apple scab is to rake up and destroy fallen leaves each autumn. Fungicides can reduce symptoms if applied in early spring when buds are just opening. One of the better products is potassium bicarbonate, an organic compound. However, if you have a susceptible flowering crab, it will always be an uphill battle, one which gets worse over time. The very best way to deal with this problem is to replace it with a disease-resistant cultivar. Today there are more than 20 gorgeous cold-hardy crabapples resistant to apple scab. A complete list can be found at http://www.hort.cornell.edu/uhi/outreach/recurbtree/pdfs/~recurbtrees.pdf

Anthracnose is a general term for a group of related fungi which infect leaves of many herbaceous plants and hardwood trees. The pathogens are host-specific, so walnut anthracnose is caused by a different organism than maple anthracnose, even though the symptoms are similar. Look for brown or black lesions, usually angular, and bounded by leaf veins. As with apple scab, anthracnose is highly weather-dependent, being far more severe in wet years than dry. It also seldom kills trees, but does weaken them over time. Another similarity is that the disease overwinters in leaves that were infected the previous year.

It is harder to control anthracnose because spores can overwinter on twig and branch tissue as well. While fungicide applications may help, shade trees are often too large for a homeowner to effectively reach all the foliage, and it is very expensive to have large trees sprayed with a boom truck. Affected leaves should be raked up and destroyed. In addition, take measures to increase air circulation and sunlight penetration around affected trees. It may be necessary to thin out trees planted too closely.

While both these disorders have been around for centuries, more frequent weather extremes in recent years have made them harder to control than ever. Though there are anthracnose-resistant vegetables, to my knowledge there are no resistant trees other than mango and dogwood, so increased planting distance and better sanitation are essential now. But the number one way to prevent crabby crabapples is to plant only disease-resistant varieties that will be happy even when the weather is miserable.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Aid for what ails you

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

One of the most vibrant fall leaf colors hails from a humble source. While many people consider it a weed, and some even think it dangerous, the common staghorn sumac treats us to a brilliant, neon-red-orange burst of color this time of year. Its reputation as a nuisance is well-founded, as it can spread by means of its root system into fields and pastures, but sumac is not a hazard.

When I was a kid, Dad showed me poison ivy and also warned against poison sumac (for some reason, poison oak didn’t make the cut). Just as “Marco” always went with “Polo,” “poison” was followed by either “ivy” or “sumac,” at least in my mind. Having led innumerable nature walks, I know that many other folks also grew up equating sumac with poison. Staghorn sumac is not only safe to touch, it tastes great.

Mind you, poison sumac does exist. It’s just that very few people ever see it. If you do, as I have, you’ll be ankle-deep (at least) in water. Poison sumac is an obligate wetland plant, requiring saturated, and very often flooded, soils. Poison sumac is a swamp-thing, and other than the fact it has compound leaves and is a shrub, it bears little resemblance to the sumac we see every day.

Poison sumac has loose bunches of berries that turn whitish when mature, and they droop down. “Good” sumac, on the other hand, has tight clusters of red berries proudly held up like Lady Liberty’s torch. Poison sumac has shiny leaves, smooth glossy twigs, and its leaves turn yellow in the fall. In contrast, staghorn sumac has fuzzy twigs. Its matte-finish leaves turn a vibrant red in autumn.

There are several species of “good” sumac, and all have the same red berries held aloft. The stuff that makes apples tangy is malic acid, and sumac berries are loaded with this tasty water-soluble flavoring. To make “sumac-ade” all you need is a plastic bucket full of sumac berry bunches (don’t pick them individually), which you then fill with cold water. Agitate the berries a few minutes and strain through a clean cloth. This leaves you with a very sour pink beverage, which you can sweeten to taste.

Because malic acid is water-soluble, sumac berries lose some (but by no means all) of their flavor by springtime. The next time sumac’s bright red fall “flag” catches your eye, consider stopping to collect some berries to make a refreshing drink. And the sooner the better.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Winged wizards

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Seasonal cues abound that fall is nigh. Gray squirrels feverishly hoard their winter food supplies, yellow school buses have come out of hibernation, and most remarkably, blackbird flocks are practicing their aerial gymnastic routines. Presumably there is some kind of avian Olympics in their winter habitat.

Scout leaders, teachers, and daycare workers are no doubt impressed that Canada geese manage to organize V-shaped follow-the-leader flight formations without any noticeable resistance, squabbling, or bureaucracy. With all due respect to migratory geese (and those tasked with organizing groups of youngsters), a flock of tens of thousands of blackbirds turning and wheeling in unison is far more captivating. Although grackles, cowbirds and the invasive starlings are lumped into the category of blackbird, it’s our native red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) that I most often see across northern New York State.

Considering that red-winged blackbirds are the most numerous bird species in North America, how come their migration often escapes our notice? After all, their flocks are much larger, in terms of numbers, than those of geese. In fact, Richard A. Dolbeer of the USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services in Denver says that a single flock may contain over a million birds.

Canada geese migration is hard to miss. Even if their V-shaped flocks don’t catch your eye, their loud honking will let you know what’s up, so to speak. But blackbirds are smaller and migrate primarily at night, plus they don’t have the pipes that geese have, and their voices don’t carry as far. And admittedly they aren’t as numerous in northern NY State as they are in the upper Midwest.

All blackbirds, red-wings included, are omnivores. They feed on insect pests such as corn earworms, as well as on weed seeds, facts which should endear them to us. Unfortunately they sometimes eat grain, which has the opposite effect. Studies indicate they seldom cause significant damage to crops.

Along with robins, they’re one of the first signs of spring. Usually I hear them before I see them; the males’ “oak-a-chee” call is music to my ears in more ways than one. And the red and yellow wing patches, or epaulets, of the males are a welcome splash of color in the sepia-and-snow tones that characterize mid-March.

Red-wings often nest in loose colonies in marshes. I recall canoeing with my young daughter through cattails, peering into red-wing blackbird nests while adults hovered overhead, objecting loudly and sometimes diving a bit too close to our heads. Marshes afford red-wings some protection from predators like foxes and raccoons, and the females, which are a mottled brown, blend in well. Hawks, and owls to a lesser extent, take a toll on blackbirds regardless of where they nest, though.

In the fall, blackbirds flock together before migrating to locations in the southern US. This is when they display their avian acrobatics. Perhaps you’ve driven along great undulating flocks of blackbirds and marveled at the way they’re able to all change course instantly.

One morning this fall a great number of red-wings landed in a large sugar maple in my yard. I watched in awe as they streamed up out of that tree and poured themselves back down into another large maple nearby. They repeated this “avian hourglass” performance several times.

Researchers have long puzzled over synchronized flock movement. In recent years they’ve made some progress thanks to high-speed imaging, algorithms and computer modeling. Movie animators have used these algorithms to depict movements of fish and herd animals.

Apparently, each bird keeps track of its six – no more, no fewer – closest neighbors, and coordinates its movements with them. No matter how many times they turn or dive, they maintain about the same distance between themselves and the six closest birds.

But precisely how do birds maintain distances within a flock, or know when to change course? In the words of Claudio Carere, an Italian ornithologist deeply involved in studying starling flock behavior in Rome, “The exact way it works, no one knows.” I like an honest researcher.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Fish forestry

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

As many anglers know, trees and trout are closely related. Not in a family sense, of course. And not like the way in which tomatoes and fish were briefly married in a 1996 experiment at Oakland, California-based DNA Plant Technology in an attempt to get a frost-tolerant tomato (or possibly a saucy fish). If it weren’t for tree cover, cold-water fish species would not survive in most of the streams they now inhabit.

Forests provide us with many “ecosystem services.” While term sounds like you can call up Ecosystem Services when camping and order wine delivered to your tent, these services, or gifts, range from the sublime (aesthetic beauty) to the mundane (dollar value of tourism).

They also include essential things like the production of oxygen, and the removal of airborne particulates. Another service is reducing the impact of extreme storm events. Dense forest cover dampens (so to speak) the force at which rain hits the ground, which leads to less water running over the land and more seeping into the groundwater. Also, canopy shade makes the winter snowpack melt slowly, reducing the risk of downstream flooding.

Forest soils are great at absorbing and filtering rainwater because tree roots hold the duff layer in place. Roots also help stabilize stream banks.

Limiting overland flow prevents erosion and keeps sediment out of waterways, but the benefits go well beyond that. When more rain and snowmelt end up as groundwater, as opposed to running off into surface water, it leads to much colder stream temperatures. A dense canopy also helps keep water cool along the length of its course.

This makes fish happier because they can breathe easier. By way of explanation, anyone who has opened a carbonated drink knows that gasses certainly will dissolve in liquid. A near-freezing seltzer bottle can be opened safely because cold water holds dissolved gas a lot better. Put the same bottle on the dashboard in the sun for an hour, though, and it will spray all over when you crack the top, because the gas is in a hurry to come out of solution.

The same principle holds true for dissolved oxygen in streams. Humans and other land species have the luxury of wallowing around in an oxygen-rich environment: about 21% of the Earth’s atmosphere is made of this important molecule. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) states that rescue personnel must wear self-contained breathing apparatus if a site measures below 19.5%. Some people get woozy at 19% O2 and death occurs at around 6% oxygen.

The highest possible concentration of dissolved oxygen (DO) in water is 14.6 parts per million at a temperature of 0.1 C or 32.2 F. To put this in perspective, the best a fish can hope for is 0.00146% oxygen in wicked-cold water. In general, trout and other salmonids need a minimum DO of 9 to 10 ppm, but can survive in as little as 7 ppm in water colder than 10 C (50 F). Trout eggs are even more fastidious, becoming if the DO drops below 9 ppm even in frigid water.

Forests do more than keep sediment out of, and a chill in, streams and rivers. They donate wood, which is a lot more important to healthy waterways than it sounds. In fact, in some areas where forests have been degraded or clear-cut, landowners are paid to install logs in streams to improve habitat. Fallen trees occasionally block a waterway and change its course, which may be stressful to organisms on a temporary and localized basis. But the vast majority of limbs and trunks which end up in streams help provide habitat for fish, as well as the things they eat. A partial or complete log barrier acts as a pool-digger, creating deep, cold sanctuaries. It helps wash gravel, making it more conducive to stonefly, mayfly and caddisfly nymphs (juveniles).

Anyone who owns a couple of acres or more of wooded land can help preserve or improve its health by getting a forest-management plan. This can be done by hiring a private forester, or through the New York state Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC).

Timber harvests can be perfectly compatible with forest health, so long as they are conducted in accordance with your management plan, and are overseen by a professional forester. In fact, not only are sustainable timber harvests better for fish, they net the landowner far more income in the long term. All the while, those well-managed forests are able to maintain those critical ecosystem services on which we depend. Minus the tent-side wine delivery of course.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Never tire of recycling

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

One of the mantras for waste reduction and energy efficiency is the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan, which indicates the order of preference for resource conservation: It’s best to use fewer things in the first place, but once you got ‘em you may as well reuse them. In the end, though, it’s better they get recycled than chucked in a landfill.

Not all products fall neatly into this hierarchy, though. Being round, an automobile tire should be a poster-child for the idea that what comes around should go around as many times as possible. One problem is that the customers most eager to reuse the estimated nearly 300 million car and truck tires that Americans discard each year are mosquitoes. And the fact that tough, durable construction is what defines a good tire makes recycling them a special challenge.

Early on, it was recognized that a discarded tire was a mosquito farm. So in the old days it was common to provide a dead tire with a shallow grave and call it good enough. But on average, a buried tire is 75% air space, so if it is not very deep it becomes perfect for the young rat couple or yellow-jacket queen looking for a nice starter home.

When tires were sent to landfills, one issue was that they could not be compacted, and therefore wasted a lot of space. Plus it turned out that they rose from the dead, becoming methane-filled and wriggling their way to the surface.

In 2004, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) rounded up a statewide list of tire dumps, revealing 95 sites for a grand total of 29 million tires. Since then, more sites have been located, but the overall numbers of tires are slowly dropping due in part to a 2003 amendment to the Environmental Conservation Law called the Waste Tire Management and Recycling Act. This is the Act which requires garages to charge you a fee for proper tire disposal.

Prior to 1990, only about 25% of discarded tires were recycled, but these days the number is up around 80%, which is below the 95% rate found in Europe, but still a vast improvement. More than half of our recycled tires are used as fuel, mostly by industries such as cement kilns and steel mills. Tires are also shredded or ground, and the resulting crumb-rubber is added to asphalt or concrete for road construction, which imparts resiliency and shock-absorption qualities. For similar reasons, shredded rubber is mixed with soil under athletic fields, and is employed in playgrounds under swings and play structures to help cushion falls.

In recent years, ground rubber has been marketed as a mulch option for landscapers and homeowners. This seemed like a perfect end-use for recycled tires, but some researchers are questioning the wisdom of rubber mulch. According to Dr. Linda Chalker-Scott, an Associate Professor at the Puyallup Research and Extension Center at Washington State University, the toxicity of the rubber is a real concern, especially if it is used near vegetable crops.

In one of her published papers, Dr. Chalker-Scott has stated that “Part of the toxic nature of rubber leachate is due to its mineral content: aluminum, cadmium, chromium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, sulfur, and zinc...rubber contains very high levels of zinc – as much as 2% of the tire mass. A number of plant species…have been shown to accumulate abnormally high levels of zinc sometimes to the point of death.”

The paper notes that in addition to metals, organic chemicals which are “highly persistent in the environment and very toxic to aquatic organisms” leach out of shredded rubber. Chalker-Scott concludes that:

“It is abundantly clear from the scientific literature that rubber should not be used as a landscape amendment or mulch. There is no question that toxic substances leach from rubber as it degrades, contaminating the soil, landscape plants, and associated aquatic systems. While recycling waste tires is an important issue to address, it is not a solution to simply move the problem to our landscapes and surface waters.”

When asked what the best type of mulch is, I generally recommend “free.” Plastic mulch can be handy to smother tough weeds, and old bunker-silo cover is often free for the taking if you know a dairy farmer in your area. But where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, natural, plant-based materials are mulch better. They help conserve water and suppress weeds, as well as improve soil structure and enhance the mycorrhizal (beneficial fungi) community. They also act as a slow-release fertilizer. Rotted wood chips, mature compost, or spoiled hay can often be had for little or no cost. As long as you do not use weed-control on your lawn, grass clippings can be used in moderation (they are very high in nitrogen).

Recycling is great, but keep tires out of the garden. You can help reduce the number of dead tires in the world by regularly rotating your vehicle tires and keeping them inflated properly, and by having your vehicle aligned as recommended in the owner’s manual. The NYSDEC has more information on waste tires at https://www.dec.ny.gov/chemical/8792.html

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

(N)ice meadows

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Now that the weather has finally warmed up, we can appreciate ice a little more. Among other things, ice greatly improves summertime drinks, and an icy watermelon is hands-down better than a warm one. And in this part of the world, ice also provides us with unique wildflower meadows. Along stretches of riverbank in the southern Adirondacks, rare Arctic-type flowers are blooming now in the fragile slices of native grasslands that are meticulously groomed each year by the scouring action of ice and melt-water.

Known as ice meadows, these habitats are few and far between in the world. They are found almost exclusively near the headwaters of rivers which originate in mountainous terrain; in New York State this includes the St. Regis, Sacandaga, and Hudson Rivers. In these habitats, ice mounds up along the banks to depths of between three and five meters each winter. Obviously, such quantities of ice will compress the plant community on the shoreline. The ice also takes a long time to melt, leading to a truncated season with unusually cold soils for ice-meadow inhabitants.

For these reasons, as well as the fact that inundation kills the roots of most tree species within about ten days, native trees cannot develop in ice meadows. The groundcover species which do survive and thrive there are adapted to extreme short seasons. According to the SUNY College of Environmental Sciences and Forestry’s New York Natural Heritage Program, thirteen rare plants are found on New York’s ice meadows, though not all occur at every site.

Dwarf cherry (Prunus pumila var. depressa), New England violet (Viola novae-angliae), auricled twayblade (Neottia auriculata), and spurred gentian (Halenia deflexa) are among the plants a visitor is apt to see. Personally, I’d like a glimpse of something called the many-headed sedge (Carex sychnocephala), but only if accompanied by a team of martial-arts experts. In addition to these boreal plants, other native wildflowers like tall cinquefoil (Drymocallis arguta), bastard toadflax (Comandra umbellata), and thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana) often add to the profusion of summer blooms in an ice meadow.

The processes which account for the formation of ice meadows are not completely understood. It was often thought that slushy ice called frazil was responsible for scouring the riverbanks, but the deposition of frazil ice is not particularly violent or forceful. Frazil is formed when turbulence entrains very cold air – usually below 16 F (-9 C) – into near-freezing water. This results in rod-shaped ice crystals that often coalesce into loose clumps. When they float at the surface they look much like chunks of snow.

An unusual feature of frazil as compared to solid ice is that it can get sucked under the ice covering a stretch of river and “hang up” on a rock, snag or other feature. This can form a “hanging dam” in the water under the ice which can drastically raise the water level in a matter of hours.

Frazil ice is known to occasionally form in many rivers and good-size streams in NYS, but it only accumulates enough to alter riparian habitat in a few locations. The shape of a riverbed, rate of elevation change, and size and nature of its watershed probably also influences the genesis of ice meadows.

North Creek resident and lifelong naturalist Evelyn Greene has spent countless hours observing ice meadows, especially during winter. She suggested to me that the scouring action of water, a force which after all has carved gorges such as the Grand Canyon, is mainly responsible for the ice meadows. She says that ice sometimes does get pushed along the riverbed, but this happens rarely. She points out that being under flowing water for more than a month per year leaches out nearly all available nitrogen from ice-meadow soils. Since the plant community is one which is common to the thin, nutrient-poor, acidic soils at high elevations, I would call that a confirmation. Greene also notes that ice-out conditions have changed in recent decades, with multiple significant thaws during winter becoming common.

A good example of an Adirondack Park ice meadow can be accessed through Warren County’s Hudson River Recreation Area on the Golf Course Road, about 1.4 miles (2.25 km) north of NYSDEC’s Region 5 Warrensburg Suboffice. From the Recreation Area parking lot you can hike out to the ice meadows in a few minutes. The New York Natural Heritage Program lists “trampling by visitors” as a threat to ice meadows, so please stay on marked trails, and when on the shoreline, do not step on any vegetation. Other ice meadows can be found in the Silver Lake Wilderness and Hudson Gorge Primitive Areas in Hamilton County.

In a region characterized by long winters, it can be refreshing to enjoy mountains of ice, or at least the results thereof, in short sleeves.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Most things in moderation

BY PAUL HETZLER
ISA Certified Arborist with Cornell Cooperative Extension

As a teenager, my son had a saying, whether original or borrowed I don’t know (the saying, that is), which went something like “All things in moderation. Especially moderation.” It would seem Mother Nature took that to heart, and dispensed with moderate rainfall and snow melt this spring. If not her, then maybe it was Creepy Uncle Climate Change. At any rate, the resultant flooding has been heartbreaking to observe.

While I am of course sensitive to the anguish of those people affected by the record-high waters, as an arborist I cannot help but think about the suffering trees as well.

Flood water impacts trees in many ways, one of which would be literal impacts, such as when objects entrained in flowing water scrape against tree trunks. That kind of injury is obvious, as well as relatively uncommon and typically not too severe. What really harms trees is a shortage of oxygen in flooded soils.

Soil pores are what allow oxygen to passively reach tree roots. This is the main reason tree roots are so shallow: 90% in the top 25 centimetres (10 inches) and 98% in the top 46 cm (18 in). It is also why adding fill to raise the grade over a tree’s root zone causes stress, and often leads to the tree’s decline starting 2-5 years later. Very few tree species are adapted to extreme low-oxygen conditions.

Many of us have seen photos of the semi-tropical baldcypress happily growing in swamps. Baldcypress have evolved structures called pneumatophores which enable them to channel air to their roots so they don’t suffocate. But our trees have no such adaptations, and can’t hold their breath for long.

The extent of root damage wrought by flooding depends on many factors, such as time of year. In the dormant season, soils are cool, and root-respiration rates are commensurately low. This means roots can forgo oxygen longer. Severity of flood damage also depends on a tree’s health before the event.

Soil type makes a difference. If a site is sandy, it will drain faster once the water recedes, as compared to a heavy soil. Sand also naturally allows oxygen in more easily. Trees on clay or silt soils will be more acutely stressed.

The length of time roots are under water is critical as well. Two or three days may not cause undue harm, but if it goes a week or more, most species will suffer grave injury. In part, flood tolerance depends on genetics – some species can survive inundation better than others.

In cases of a week or more of flooding, trees like red maple (Acer rubrum) and silver maple (A. saccharinum) fare better than sugar maple (A. saccharum), for example. River birch (Betula nigra) will suffer less than paper birch (B. papyrifera). Pin oak (Quercus palustris) can handle saturated conditions much better than red oak (Q. rubra). Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) is another tree that can hold its water. Black tupelo, also called black or sour gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is fine with a couple weeks of water-soaked roots. Willows (Salix spp.), American larch (Larix laricina), balsam fir (Abies balsamea), and northern catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) are other flood-tolerant trees.

Shrubs that can withstand high water include American elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata), chokeberry (Aronia spp.), highbush cranberry (Vburnum trilobum), and native shrub-dogwood species (Cornus spp.).

However, hickories (Carya spp.), black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia), linden (Tilia spp.), black walnut (Juglans nigra), eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), Colorado spruce (Picea pungens), as well as all fruit trees, are more likely to come to harm when surrounded by water for a week.

Symptoms of flood stress include chlorotic, wilting, undersize, or curling leaves, a sparse crown, early fall color (as compared to others of its species), and branch-tip dieback. Depending on all the factors discussed above, symptoms may occur the first season, or they may take several years to manifest.

After things dry up a bit, most people affected by this year’s flood will understandably be quite busy with more pressing things. When the time comes to think about the trees, one of the more important ways one can help them is to avoid causing further harm. This is a key point. Do not park, drive, or stage materials within the root zone, which is two times the branch length. After having been submerged, a tree’s root zone is vulnerable even to modest activity, which in such conditions can destroy soil structure and compound tree stress exponentially.

You can hire an ISA Certified Arborist to assess the tree, and also to potentially aerate the root zone through pneumatic soil fracturing, vertical mulching, or other treatments. To find a Certified Arborist near you, visit https://www.treesaregood.org/findanarborist/findanarborist

I wish all the best to those suffering from high waters. May you have a more moderate summer.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County. He has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996, and is a member of ISA-Ontario, the Canadian Society of Environmental Biologists, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and the Society of American Foresters.

Welcome infestations

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

It is not too often one hears about a good-news infestation. I’d like to come across a bulletin on a new invasive money-tree that was poised to spread through the region. Granted it would produce in foreign currency, but we could make peace with that situation, I imagine.

A money-tree invasion is unlikely, but some areas will soon be overrun by hordes of insects programmed to eat black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. Dragonflies and damselflies, carnivorous insects in the order Odonata, date back more than 300 million years. Both kinds of insects are beneficial in that they eat plenty of nasties. Of the estimated 6,000 Odonata species on Earth, about 200 have been identified in our part of the globe. I’ve been told it’s good fortune if one lands on you, but the luck is probably that they terrify biting insects.

In late spring I generally get at least one call asking whether it was NY State, Cornell, or the Federal authorities who dumped all the dragonflies out onto the North Country. Dragonflies and damselflies have an unusual life cycle which makes it seem as though someone did release them en masse.

Damsels and dragons lay their eggs right in the water or on vegetation near the edges of streams, rivers or ponds. The juveniles, called nymphs, are monster-like with little resemblance to their parents. You can get a sense of what their choppers look like if you watch the movie Alien. When magnified, you can see the primary jaws of dragon and damselflies open to reveal a second and in some species, even a third, set of hinged jaw-like palps. The only detail missing is Sigourney Weaver.

Dragonflies, powerful fliers, can be so large they can look like a bird at first glance. At rest they keep their wings outstretched, and a line of them basking on a log resemble planes queuing up on a taxiway. A dragonfly's front pair of wings is longer than its hind, which is one way to tell them from damselflies.

Damselflies are more slender than dragons, and in damsel-like fashion, they fold their wings primly along their bodies while at rest. And although many dragons are colorful, damsels outshine them with bright, iridescent “gowns.” Damselflies are sometimes called darning needles, and even scientific literature lists such damselfly names as “variable dancer” and other descriptive titles.

Damsel and dragon nymphs spend between one and three years underwater where they gobble the soft grub-like larvae of deer flies and horse flies hiding in the mud. They also munch on ’skeeter larvae near the surface, growing larger each year. Depending on the species, a dragonfly nymph can be as long as the width of your hand. Nymphs don’t pupate, but when they are full-grown they will crawl from the water, anchor their “toenails” or tarsal claws into a handy log or boat dock, and open their skin along the center of their backs.

Outdoing any sci-fi film, a graceful dragon or damsel emerges from its monster-skin. After drying its new wings in the sun for a while, these killing machines fly off to eat pests, and also to mate in a precise and complex choreography. Fortunately, dragonfly and damselfly populations are not at risk, even though we kill plenty while driving around rural areas in summer.

It is impressive enough that a fat, striped monarch caterpillar sews itself into a gold-flecked membrane, dissolves into green soup, and emerges two weeks later as a regal butterfly. Dragonflies, though, change within a matter of hours from a water-dwelling creature with gills into an air-gulping high-performance biplane. It’s like having a muskellunge unzip its skin and step out as an osprey.

Because it is triggered by temperature, this extreme makeover happens to each dragonfly or damselfly species all at once. Already several years old, they emerge within a day or two of their age-peers, making it seem as though they materialized out of thin air. Or were dropped as a group out of a plane. I know for a fact that no group or government agency releases dragonflies. But if anyone hears a rumor about exotic money trees being let loose, please drop me a note.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

 

Call the dogs off the lions

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Some immigrants continue to be persecuted, even if they can trace their roots to the first Europeans who arrived in this continent. The non-native dandelion does not get the esteem it deserves as a plucky immigrant that colonized a new land, or as a vitamin-packed culinary delight, or as a multi-purpose herbal remedy.

On this latter point, the dandelion is so well-respected that it garnered the Latin name Taraxicum officinale, which roughly means “the official remedy for disorders.” There are many reported health benefits of dandelion, including as a liver support and for alleviating kidney and bladder stones, as well as externally as a poultice for skin boils. I don’t pretend to know every past and present medicinal use of the plant, and I strongly recommend consulting a good herbalist, as well as your health care provider, before trying to treat yourself.

That said, the University of Maryland Medical Center has devoted an entire web page to dandelion, with many peer-reviewed studies cited. I had previously heard that dandelion was used as an adjunct diabetes treatment, and the U of M Medical Center confirms this:

“Preliminary animal studies suggest that dandelion may help normalize blood sugar levels and lower total cholesterol and triglycerides while raising HDL (good) cholesterol in diabetic mice. Researchers need to see if dandelion will work in people. A few animal studies also suggest that dandelion might help fight inflammation.”

Not bad for a weed. You can buy dried and chopped dandelion root in bulk or capsule form at most health-food stores, or you can get it for free in your back yard, providing you don’t use lawn chemicals.

Dandelion’s common name comes from the French “dent de lion,” or lion’s tooth, referring to the robust serrations along their leaves. Leaves vary widely in appearance, though, and aside from their yellow mane, not every dandelion is as leonid as the next. The other dandelion moniker is also French: “pis en lit,” or “wet the bed,” as the dried root is strongly diuretic. More on that later.

Dandelion greens are best in early spring before they are done flowering. Harvesting late in the season is kind of like picking lettuce and spinach after they have bolted—edible, but not at their best. If you had a few dandelions take root in your garden last year, they are probably ready to uproot and eat right now. Sort of a new twist on the phrase “weed-and-feed.”

Young greens can be blanched and served in salad, or else boiled, but I like them best when chopped and sautéed. They go well in omelets, stir-fry, soup, casserole, or any savory dish for that matter. Fresh roots can be peeled, thinly sliced and sautéed.

The real treat is dandelion crowns. The reason they flower so early is that they have fully-formed flower bud clusters tucked into the center of the root crown, whereas many other flowers bloom on new growth. After cutting off the leaves, take a paring knife and excise the crowns, which can be steamed and served with butter.

Roasted dandelion roots make the best coffee substitute I have ever tasted, and that’s saying something because I really love coffee. Scrub fresh roots and spread them out on an oven rack so they are not touching each other. You can experiment with higher settings, but I roast them at about 250 until they are crispy and dark brown throughout. Honestly I can’t say just how long it takes, somewhere between 2 and 3 hours. At any rate I always roast them when I have to be in the house anyway, and check them frequently after the two-hour mark. Grind them using a food processor or mortar and pestle. Compared to coffee, you use a bit less of the ground root per cup.

The beverage tastes dandy, but as mentioned above, it is more diuretic than coffee or black tea. I have never found this a problem, but if your morning commute frequently involves a traffic snarl, choose your breakfast drink accordingly.

I have not tried dandelion wine, a tradition that dates back centuries in Europe, and so have no first-hand experience to report, but scads of recipes can be found on the Internet. Several friends and family members have tried it, with negative and positive reviews pretty well split. I have no idea if it is personal preference or winemaking skill that is so evenly divided.

Given all the virtues of dandelions, it is amazing how much time and treasure our culture puts into eradicating them. It seems to verge on an obsession with some people, who drench their lawn with selective broadleaf herbicides. These all come with health risks, not to mention hefty price tags.

For those who perhaps take the whole lion connection too far and can’t sleep at night if there are dandelions lurking on the premises, I’ll share a secret to getting them out of the landscape. Setting the mower to cut at four inches high will not only get rid of most weeds, it will help prevent diseases, and will greatly reduce the need for fertilizer.

I say we stop trying to kill the only North American lion that is not in danger of extinction, and learn to appreciate and use it more.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Maple motion sickness

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

No one wants to be told they have a weathered complexion, but many trees this summer, especially maples, are looking a bit worse for the wear as a result of conditions earlier in the season. “Leaf tatter” is a term used to describe foliage which may be torn and bedraggled-looking, distorted, sometimes with blackened spots or zones. It can easily look like a disease or mysterious pest is ravaging the tree.

As tree buds open and young leaves begin to unfurl, they can get damaged by a couple of different situations. One of the main causes of leaf tatter is a late frost that is just cold enough to freeze the folded edges of the baby leaves, yet not kill the whole thing. When it finally opens all the way and hardens off, there are slits or holes along the lines where the leaf was folded. Sometimes the leaf cannot open fully, and may remain partly cupped.

The other case is when we get strong wind events while tender young leaves are still expanding. Depending on wind strength, this physical abrasion can result in leaves that are a little beat-up, to ones that are utterly shredded. Usually this damage is not as neat or uniform as compared to that caused by frost injury.

No one needs to be reminded that this year set all-time records for total rainfall as well as for consecutive days of rain. As a result, the “tenderized” margins of tattered leaves became waterlogged. Normally, foliage does not become water-soaked because of a natural wax on the upper and lower leaf surface of all leaves. But torn edges have no such barrier. Moisture seeped in, the soggy tissues died, and opportunistic decay fungi started to break down the dead areas. To add insult to injury, tiny insects called pear thrips may have colonized some damaged leaves as well (they are not specific to pears).

Another thing adding to unruly tree complexions this year is the proliferation of seeds. In the case of maples, these are in the form of “helicopters,” winged seeds known to tree-nerds as samaras. As crazy-wet as this season is, 2018 was dry to the far opposite extreme. Woody plants determine the number of flowers, and therefore seeds, it will make in any given spring during the previous summer. If things are peachy, it will set a modest number of flower buds for the next year. If life is hard, it will make few or none.

However, if conditions are so dire that the life of the tree is at risk, it will use much of its stored energy reserves to produce an exorbitant amount of flowers. This paradoxical response seems to be an evolutionary mechanism to preserve the species even if it kills the parent tree. The plethora of seeds, many of which are turning brown as they dry and prepare to fall, gives maples an even more “weathered” appearance.

On the leaf-tatter matter, Cornell’s Plant Disease Diagnostic Clinic states: “Though alarming in appearance, this does not generally harm the tree… unless it is repeated several years in succession or some other adverse factor weakens the tree.”

There is a something called anthracnose, which is unrelated to anthrax, and is not as bad as it sounds. Caused by a number of different fungal pathogens, anthracnose is worse in very wet years, and affects many deciduous trees and shrubs, mostly ones already in a weakened state. Anthracnose causes dead or necrotic zones bounded by major veins, and usually leads to early leaf drop. Simply rake up and destroy the leaves, which is how the disease overwinters.

Otherwise, relax if you think you have a terribly sick tree. It is just having a bad-complexion year.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

A tale of nine lives

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

The two cats at my place have endured life-threatening traumas such as falls, fights, and the compulsory “devotions” of small children. It’s amazing the hazards they can survive. Sadly, my contacts in the veterinary field continue to assert that cats have but a single life, and that the whole nine-lives thing is just a cat tale.

However, the story about cattails having at least nine lives is no yarn. An obligate wetland plant, the common cattail (Typha latifolia) is native to the Americas as well as to Europe, Africa and most of Asia—basically the planet minus Australia, all Pacific Islands and most Polar regions. It can be found growing along wetland margins and into water up to 30 inches deep, from hot climates to Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Its name comes from the brown puffy seed head it produces, which resembles a corn dog far more than a feline’s tail. But to avoid a global outbreak of incessant laughter, which could potentially slow the world economy for a few minutes, the World Bank pressured botanists to name the plant cattail instead of corn dog.

Aptly named or not, the cattail is truly a wonder of nature. As someone who likes to eat more than three meals a day, it makes sense that I first got acquainted with cattails through their culinary uses. The young shoots, sometimes called Cossack asparagus, are delicious raw or cooked, but definitely opt for cooking them if you’re unsure of the water purity.

The thick rhizomes or tuber-like roots are about 80% carbohydrates and between 3% and 8% protein, which is a better profile than some cultivated crops. Rhizomes can be baked, boiled, or dried and ground into flour.

In his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons details how to process roots with water to extract starch, which I’d have to say works nicely. The starch, wet or powdered, is added to flour to enhance the nutrient value of foods like biscuits and pancakes.

What I like best are the flower spikes, which are two-tiered affairs having the male or staminate pollen-bearing spikes on top, and the thicker female or pistillate heads below. The male flower spikes wither away after they shed pollen, but the female spikes mature into the corn dogs – I mean cats’ tails – we all recognize. Both spikes are edible, but must be gathered just as they break out of their papery sheaths. Boil and eat with butter as you would corn on the cob. They taste just like chicken. Kidding. They’re similar to corn.

In the fall you can gather the tails and burn off the fluff to harvest the edible, oil-rich seeds. (Confession: due to my undiagnosed Laziness Syndrome I have not yet tried this.)

For years, my daughter and I sally forth (not her real name) in mid- to late June and gather bright yellow cattail pollen. Just slip a plastic bag over the flower head, shake a few times and you’re done. An acre of cattails can yield over three tons of cattail pollen, and at 6-7% protein, that’s a lot of nutritious flour. Substitute cattail pollen for up to one-fourth of the flour in any recipe. You can use more, but experiment on a small scale before you serve it to others (a tip from my kids).

OK, so that’s what, five lives? Euell Gibbons called cattail the supermarket of the swamp, and he wasn’t kidding. You can find thousands of articles and research papers on the uses of cattails. Technically that might not get us to nine lives yet, so let’s name some names.

Throughout cattail’s range, Native peoples for millennia have woven cattail leaves and flower stalks into roof thatch, sleeping mats, duck decoys, hats, dolls and other kids’ toys, to name but a few uses. Fresh leaves and roots were pounded and used as poultices on boils. Cattail fluff was used as diaper linings, moccasin insulation and wound dressings.

Today, cattail swamps are created by engineers for the treatment of wastewater, and artisans make paper from cattail leaves. Kids still have fun playing with the leaves, and especially the mature cats’ tails. Here’s to the many lives of the cattail.

Maybe some social-media influencers could lead a campaign to dub this amazing plant the corn-dog tail. The world could use a good fit of laughter right now.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Local volcanoes

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

When you think about it, landscape trees have a rough life Rooted in one spot day in and day out, year after year, they suffer from – well, boredom, I imagine. They may need to contend with helpful watering by territorial dogs, materials-testing by energetic kids, or issues such as restricted root area, drought stress, competition from turf grasses, reflected heat from pavement and buildings, deicing salt in the soil – that sort of thing.

However, in recent years there has been an epidemic of seismic proportions which threatens the well-being of our beloved shade trees: volcanoes. That’s right, over the past ten to twenty years we have had an outbreak of mulch-volcanoes. They seem to erupt at the base of landscape trees, particularly young ones, and the results aren’t pretty.

Geologists and botanists have been hard at work trying to account for this phenomenon. Until a cure can be found, though, the public is urged to watch for rogue volcanoes in their area. Please be on the lookout for sudden eruptions of much around the bases of trees. Mulch volcanoes can sprout overnight, especially on commercial and institutional properties.

Banking mulch around the trunk of a tree can have severe detrimental health effects. For the tree, just to be clear. One issue is that insect pests are chicken. Like vandals and Internet trolls, they are afraid to do their dirty work if they think anyone can see them. No, they like it dark and damp, just like the atmosphere under a mulch pile, or in the case of trolls, in Mom’s basement. Wood-borers and bark beetles love a mulch volcano because it gives them free access to the tree’s trunk.

Who doesn’t like a cute rodent? OK, some of us probably don’t. Trees are not fond of rodents either. Mice, meadow voles and pine voles all enjoy the taste of tree bark. The trouble is that eating bark takes them a long time, during which they can be vulnerable to predators. But under a mulch volcano, leisurely lunches are on.

Tree roots need oxygen. This may seem obvious – of course they do, and they get oxygen through their veins, right? Well, no. Trees do have vascular systems and they also make oxygen via photosynthesis, but they lack something akin to hemoglobin to transport oxygen to all their parts. Turns out that roots get their oxygen through the soil surface. Anything which obstructs access to the surface will smother roots. And trees are not any better at holding their breath than we are.

Another problem is adaptation. To a great extent, trees are “self-optimizing.” This means they adapt and respond to changes in their environment. But mulch volcanoes are a wrench in the machine.

When tree trunks get buried by a mulch volcano, which limits oxygen to their natural roots, trees begin making adaptive (adventitious) roots to compensate. Fine rootlets will sprout from the trunk in response to being smothered by wood chips. However, over time the mulch volcano will break down and subside, and as a result, those tender roots will dry out and die, which stresses the tree.

Finally, there is the issue of water. Transplanted trees may need additional water for several years. The rule is one year of supplemental watering for each inch of trunk diameter. Mulch volcanoes act like a thatched roof, shedding water very effectively. For a mature tree that is not as big a problem, but a young tree may have all or nearly all its roots under that mountain of mulch, (not) nice and dry.

Maintaining two to four inches of mulch around a tree – twice its branch length is ideal – is beneficial, as long as the mulch does NOT contact the trunk. Please help stamp out mulch volcanoes in your lifetime! You won’t even burn your foot.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Wasteful science

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

From time to time I hear complaints about scientists who allegedly squander taxpayers’ money. Examples of supposed wasteful research include how snow fleas have sex, and why rope gets tangled up so easily. In the UK, a whole team of scientists tried to discover why corn flakes get soggy in milk. Other well-funded research has revealed that plates wobble when they are thrown across a cafeteria, and that certain mosquitoes love the smell of Limburger cheese. Honestly, the argument goes, it is enough to make one sick.

The truth is, it is helping to keep us well.

On the face of it, these real-life examples sound ridiculous, and so it is natural that some people would react angrily to such reports. But things are often not as they appear at first glance. When we look more closely, this kind of science vindicates itself.

Snow fleas or springtails are cute little arthropods in the order Collembola. Active year-round, they are most easily seen on top of the snow on a mild winter day. Biologists still don’t agree how to classify snow fleas, but studying the tiny creatures has given us the means to improve organ transplantation. Snow fleas make a unique glycine-rich protein that keeps ice from forming inside their cells even in extreme cold. Transplant organs can be stored for much longer if this protein allows them to be kept at below-freezing temperatures without damage.

String-like molecules such as DNA do get tangled up, sometimes resulting in a cell incorrectly reading and replicating them. This can lead to many problems, including cancers. Certain cells have evolved chemicals that untangle these errant “strings.” Researchers, who began by studying actual string and rope snarls, are now developing anticancer treatments based on chemical detanglers.

A 2006 study showing that a malaria-vector mosquito had a fetish for Limburger was initially mocked. But very soon, this knowledge led to improved mosquito traps being deployed in some parts of Africa, which has aided in the battle against malaria.

American physicist Richard Feynman shared in the 1965 Nobel Prize for physics because of flying saucers. Actually he said that observing dinner plates being thrown across a university cafeteria got him curious about the manner in which they wobbled. As it turns out, this related to the spin and wobble of electrons, and helped to advance the field of quantum electrodynamics, though in ways I cannot begin to fathom.

To my knowledge, the British scientists trying to unlock the secrets of mushy cereal did not make any interesting discoveries, however. But they were different. They were privately funded by a popular cereal-maker.

I think the point is that we have no way of telling in advance if a study is trivial or important. Judging from history, there may not be any such thing as a trivial topic.

So the next time we hear about research on poker theory, or how birds are able to identify which famous artist created a given painting (a real phenomenon, by the way), or the mathematics behind a billowing curtain, we should stifle our laughter. The life that is improved or saved by this kind of “ridiculous” science may be our own, or that of a loved one.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Welcome infestations

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

It is not too often one hears about a good-news infestation. I’d like to read a bulletin on an invasive money-tree that was spreading through the region. Granted it would produce in foreign currency, but we could make peace with that situation, I imagine.

A money-tree invasion is unlikely, but some areas will soon be overrun by hordes of insects programmed to eat black flies, mosquitoes and deer flies. Dragonflies and damselflies, carnivorous insects in the order Odonata, date back more than 300 million years. Both kinds of insects are beneficial in that they eat plenty of black flies, deer flies, mosquitoes and other nasties. Of the estimated 6,000 Odonata species on Earth, about 200 have been identified in our part of the globe. I’ve been told it’s good fortune if one lands on you, but the luck is probably that they repel biting insects.

In late spring I generally get at least one call asking whether it was NY State, Cornell, or the Federal authorities who dumped all the dragonflies out onto the North Country. Dragonflies and damselflies have an unusual life cycle which makes it seem as though someone did release them en masse.

Damsels and dragons lay their eggs right in the water or on vegetation near the edges of streams, rivers or ponds. The juveniles, called nymphs, are monster-like with little resemblance to their parents. You can get a sense of what their choppers look like if you watch the movie Alien. When magnified, you can see the primary jaws of dragon and damselflies open to reveal a second and in some species, even a third, set of hinged jaw-like palps. The only detail missing is Sigourney Weaver.

Dragonflies, powerful fliers, can be so large they can look like a bird at first glance. At rest they keep their wings outstretched, and a line of them basking on a log resemble planes queuing up on a taxiway. A dragonfly's front pair of wings is longer than its hind, which is one way to tell them from damselflies.

Damselflies are more slender than dragons, and in damsel-like fashion, they fold their wings primly along their bodies while at rest. And although many dragons are colorful, damsels outshine them with bright, iridescent “gowns.” Damselflies are sometimes called darning needles, and even scientific literature lists such damselfly names as “variable dancer” and other descriptive titles.

Damsel and dragon nymphs spend between one and three years underwater where they gobble the soft grub-like larvae of deer flies and horse flies hiding in the mud. They also munch on ’skeeter larvae near the surface, growing larger each year. Depending on the species, a dragonfly nymph can be as long as the width of your hand. Nymphs don’t pupate, but when they are full-grown they will crawl from the water, anchor their “toenails” or tarsal claws into a handy log or boat dock, and open their skin along the center of their backs.

Outdoing any sci-fi film, a graceful dragon or damsel emerges from its monster-skin. After drying its new wings in the sun for a while, these killing machines fly off to eat pests, and also to mate in a precise and complex choreography. Fortunately, dragonfly and damselfly populations are not at risk, even though we kill plenty while driving around rural areas in summer.

It is impressive enough that a fat, striped monarch caterpillar sews itself into a gold-flecked membrane, dissolves into green soup, and emerges two weeks later as a regal butterfly. Dragonflies, though, change within a matter of hours from a water-dwelling creature with gills into an air-gulping high-performance biplane. It’s like having a muskellunge unzip its skin and step out as an osprey.

Because it is triggered by temperature, this extreme makeover happens to each dragonfly or damselfly species all at once. Already several years old, they emerge within a day or two of their age-peers, making it seem as though they materialized out of thin air. Or were dropped as a group out of a plane. I know for a fact that no group or government agency releases dragonflies. But if anyone hears a rumor about exotic money trees being let loose, please drop me a note.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

A new tick in town

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Black flies bite, but ticks really suck. Enough complaining – that never helps.

After such a long winter, we are all grateful that spring has finally sprung, even though the price of warm weather seems to be the advent of biting insects. Swarms of mosquitoes can drain the fun from an evening on the deck, but a single black-legged or deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) can take the shine off an entire summer if it infects you with Lyme disease and/or another serious illness.

As recently as a decade ago in northern NY State it was unusual to find a single deer tick on oneself after a long day outdoors. Now all you have to do is set foot in the brush to collect a whole set of them on your pants legs. Research has found that deer ticks were never here historically, even in low numbers, but moved up from the Mid-Atlantic states over the past few decades. Arguably they are an invasive species in northern NYS.

The newest tick on the block, however, is without question an invasive species. Native to Korea, Japan, eastern China, and a number of Pacific Island nations, it is known as the Asian bush or cattle tick (Haemaphysalis longicornis). It is also called the Asian longhorned tick, which is confusing because it we already have Asian longhorned beetle. Plus, the bush tick has no long appendages of any kind.

In fact it is short on any distinguishing features. As Jody Gangloff-Kaufman of NY’s IPM Program writes, “Longhorned ticks are difficult to identify, especially in the younger stages. Adults are plain brown but look similar to brown dog ticks.” NYSPIM also states that tick-ID services can be found at: http://www.neregionalvectorcenter.com/ticks

Closely related to our beloved deer tick, the Asian bush tick was discovered for the first time in the wild in North America in 2017 in New Jersey, where a pet sheep was reportedly infested with over a thousand of them. Since then it has spread to eight other states, including NY. Their high reproductive potential is one of the worrisome features of the species. They are all parthenogenic (asexual) females, meaning they churn out 1,000 – 2,000 eggs apiece without the bother of hooking up to mate.

Columbia News reported a good example of the new tick’s fecundity last December: When the Asian bush tick was first confirmed on Staten Island in 2017, surveys found their density in public parks was 85 per square meter. In 2018, the same parks had 1,529 per square meter.

Another concern is whether it is a vector of human and animal disease. In its home range, the bush tick is known to transmit a plethora of diseases including Lyme, spotted fever, Erlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Powassan virus, tick-borne encephalitis virus, and severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome, similar to Ebola. As terrifying as this is, researchers have yet to find infected ticks in North America.

Experts disagree about the bush tick’s potential to spread illness. Dr. John Aucott, who directs the Lyme Disease Research Center at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center, has said that we should not extrapolate that because the bush tick carries serious illnesses in its home range, people here are at risk for the same diseases. However, the deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases, Dr. Ben Beard, is quoted on the CDC website as follows: “The full public health impact of this tick is unknown. In other parts of the world, the Asian longhorned tick can transmit many types of pathogens common in the United States. We are concerned that this tick, which can cause massive infestations on animals, on people, and in the environment, is spreading in the United States.”

Right now the bush tick is restricted to Downstate NY, but it is considered cold-hardy and will be heading our way. Though ticks only walk a few meters in a lifetime, they hitch rides on migratory birds. A study on deer tick range expansion led by Katie M. Clow of the University of Guelph in Ontario concluded that they are moving north at an average rate of 46 kilometers (28.5 miles) per year, aided by birds.

This isn’t to say we need to panic, though feel free to do so if you like. Avoiding this tick is done the same way we avoid deer ticks. Since ticks “quest” at the tips of tall grass or brush, waiting to glom onto the next thing that brushes past, hikers should stick to marked trails, and never follow deer trails. Use products containing 20-30% DEET on exposed skin. Clothing, footwear and gear such as tents can be treated with 0.5% permethrin. Treat pets regularly with a systemic anti-tick product and/or tick collar so they don’t bring deer ticks into the home. Talk to your vet about getting your pets vaccinated against Lyme (sadly there is no human vaccine at the moment).

Check for ticks each evening after bathing. Ticks like hard-to-see places such as armpits, groin, scalp, sock hems, and the backs of the knees, so look closely in these areas. If you find a tick has latched onto you, prompt removal is critical. The CDC recommends you grasp it as close to the skin as possible with tweezers and pulling straight up until it releases. You may have to pull hard if it has been feeding for a while. Tick mouthparts commonly remain in the skin after tick removal; this is not a problem. Do not use home remedies to get a tick to release, as it induces it to disgorge back into you, greatly increasing the chance you may get sick.

Homeowners can help themselves. The CDC website states: “Maintaining a 9-foot distance between lawn and wooded habitat can reduce the risk of tick contact. Permethrin-treated clothing and DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 can be used as personal repellents. Follow all label instructions. Consult your veterinarian for recommendations specific to your situation and animals.”

Please keep yourself and your loved ones ticked off, and have a great summer.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Time to protect ash trees

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Given that the North Country has been alternately either white or brown from mid-November through the first week in April, it is natural that we are hungry to see a bit of green show up in the landscape. So it is especially unfair that some areas have too much of a certain shade of green. Emerald to be exact.

After caterwauling for several years that the sky was going to fall, I have finally been vindicated. This is one case where I am not pleased to be right, however. The fallen-sky scenario is that the emerald ash borer (EAB), a tiny bullet-shaped Asian beetle sporting a metallic green paint job with copper highlights, has arrived in large numbers.

Just within the past two months, citizen volunteers have found many new EAB infestations along the Seaway from southern St. Lawrence County near the Jefferson County border to eastern Franklin County. The Massena area has a particularly heavy and widespread EAB population. At this time, the emerald ash borer has only been found within a few miles of the Seaway.

First discovered near Detroit in 2002, EAB quickly spread throughout the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions in the US, and across southern Ontario in Canada. Apparently they came free in boxes of cheap Chinese auto parts, like an unwanted Crackerjack prize. The adult beetles do little harm, but their babies (larvae) feed on cambium, the living tissue between the inner bark and the wood, of ash trees, girdling and thus killing them. Since EAB kills only true ash, mountain ash is safe.

The sky may not be literally falling, but soon, plenty of ash trees will be tumbling to Earth. One of the big problems with the infestation is that when the EAB kill an ash, the wood loses strength much more rapidly than if the tree was killed by another cause. Within 12 to 18 months, an EAB-killed tree undergoes a fivefold reduction in shear strength. Such trees will snap off with no wind or other provocation, posing more of a risk than we are accustomed to.

All three species of native ash – white, green and black – are equally vulnerable to EAB. Sadly, we will lose all our ash trees. A very small percentage of ash seem to have a degree of resistance to EAB, taking longer to die, but none are immune. These “lingering ash” are of interest to researchers for genetic studies. Otherwise, the only ash which will survive are those protected by systemic insecticides.

For residents within 15 miles of the Seaway who want to protect landscape ash trees, the time to act is now. Before deciding to treat your trees, it is essential to have a Certified Arborist evaluate them. Some trees will have hidden problems that could limit their lifespan, and they should be removed. Only sound, healthy ash should be treated, and the best way to determine that is a visit by a Certified Arborist. Find one near you at isa-arbor.com

The most effective chemicals are restricted to licensed pesticide applicators. Some products are good for several years; they are either injected into the trunk or sprayed onto the lower trunk. The only pesticide available to homeowners is an imidacloprid soil drench, which should be applied in spring. If the tree is near a water body, though, or if the home is on a well, this method should be avoided. You can search for a licensed applicator by county at dec.ny.gov/nyspad/find?

Formed in 2016, the St. Lawrence County EAB Task Force is a volunteer group comprising foresters, arborists, officials at the County, Town and Village levels, educators, utility workers, and concerned citizens. If you would like a representative from the EAB Task Force to speak your group, club or association, please contact John Tenbusch at [email protected]

For more information on the emerald ash borer, see emeraldashborer.info or contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Grubbing for healthy lawn recipes

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

At around forty-two percent protein, they’re very nutritious, and in many parts of the world are considered a treat. In our region there are five different flavors of lawn grubs, which are actually beetle babies. Those C-shaped whitish larvae can be the little darlings of the Japanese beetle, European chafer, rose chafer, Oriental beetle, or Asiatic garden beetle. I have never eaten grubs, but am told they are best when cooked, that hot sauce helps, but that timing is important.

If killing, rather than eating, lawn grubs is your goal, timing is in fact everything. Selection is generally a good thing, but each brand of grub killer on the shelf has a different active ingredient. Some need to be put on before mid-May, while others only work when spread in June and July. Applying a grub-control product at the wrong time is a complete waste of money and effort, and depending on the chemical used, may put children, pets and wildlife at risk.

Before unpacking this dilemma, I want to say a few things about blades of grass (the non-Whitman kind), which are solar panels that make food from the sun. Pretty neat to think about it that way. If that solar panel is teeny-tiny because we keep shaving it to a nub, the whole plant starves and cannot develop a strong root system, fight off diseases, or compete with weeds. The resulting shallow, weak-rooted lawn is extremely vulnerable to grub damage.

I wonder if our addiction to close mowing stems from ogling lush golf greens. According to golfcourseindustry.com, in 2015 it cost $4.25–$6.00 per square foot to meet USGA standards for soil conditions to construct a green. That’s peanuts – annual maintenance costs run in the tens of thousands per green. Golf courses can mow short because the grass is on a steady diet of cash.

Our lawns can’t look like theirs, but if we allow grass large enough “solar panels,” it will look better, have fewer diseases, require less fertilizer, cost less, and be essentially grub-proof. I realize this is a lot to promise, but set your mower to four inches high, and give it a year. Other practices like sharp mower blades and leaving the clippings on the lawn will help too. Oh, and easy on the lime. Many lawns wind up with a soil pH too high due to repeated lime application.

Back to our tasty topic. Controlling grubs works best when they’re small, in mid- to late August. Full-size grubs migrate up near the surface in spring to feed a bit, and then they pupate. Spring-applied “24-hour” treatments range from 20% to 55% effective on these mature grubs, according to Michigan State Extension. So-called “24-hour” products are highly toxic, and care must be taken to keep pets and children off treated areas.

“Preventive products containing imidacloprid, thiamethoxam or clothianidin will consistently reduce 75-100 percent of the grubs if applied in June or July and are watered-in with 0.5-1 inch of irrigation immediately after application,” to quote from Michigan State’s website. These neonicotinoids are much less toxic to mammals, but can harm pollinators, so do not treat areas next to flowering plants. The application window for them is June through July.

Despite its long name, chlorantraniliprole is considered virtually nontoxic to animals and bees. The catch is that it takes a long time to work, so products containing this active ingredient should be applied as early as possible, and no later than the end of June.

Milky-spore is a wonderful disease, unless you are a grub. Unfortunately, researchers believe the soils in northern NYS are not warm enough for long enough for this nontoxic biocontrol to work. However, beneficial nematodes, which are microscopic soil organisms that attack most grub species, are quite effective. Plus they’re safe and don’t target other organisms. Beneficial nematodes are fragile, and must be applied right after they arrive. They can be ordered online, or ask at your local garden center.

With the exception of chlorantraniliprole-based products, applying grub chemicals in the spring is a poor use of money. The best thing to do is to reseed bare spots now, and to mow high so the grass will make stronger roots. Or you could mix some batter, fire up the deep fryer and go grub up some dinner from the lawn. Don’t forget the hot sauce.

PESTICIDE DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to provide correct, complete and up-to-date pesticide recommendations. Nevertheless, changes in pesticide regulations occur often and human errors are still possible. These recommendations are not a substitute for pesticide labeling. Please read the label before applying any pesticide and follow the directions exactly.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Let them eat what?

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Nearly all historians agree Marie Antoinette probably never coined the phrase “Let them eat cake,” a saying already in popular culture before her time. The saying was ascribed to her by opponents to bolster her reputation as a callous and arrogant aristocrat. She would have seemed far more benevolent if she had said “Let them eat tree trunks.”

From remote villages to five-star urban restaurants, people around the world consume all manner of delectable dishes featuring second-hand wood. Although that is not generally how it is featured on the menu. Mushrooms such as inky cap, oyster and shiitake have a voracious appetite for wood, a substance that very few organisms eat because it is so hard to digest. Anyone who has tried to dine on lumber can attest to that.

Wood is made primarily of cellulose along with varying amounts of lignin. This latter compound is to cellulose what steel reinforcing rod is to concrete. There is far less of it but it imparts a great deal of strength and resilience. Even professional wood-eating bacteria in the gut of a termite cannot digest lignin. Only an exclusive coterie of fungi have that superpower.

There are three basic groups of wood-decaying fungi: soft-rot, brown-rot and white-rot. In scientific terms these coteries are not closely related even though they have the same last name. Apparently for fungi, “rot” is like our “Smith” in that respect.

Soft-rot fungi are very common, causing garden-variety decay in tomato stakes and fence posts. Wooden ones, at least. Brown rot is less common. At some time or other you’ve probably seen its handiwork. This fungus results in a blocky pattern, turning wood into miniature, spongy brown bricks. While brown rot needs moisture to do its dirty work, it is sometimes called dry rot because it readily dries out and is often seen in that condition. Both soft-rot and brown-rot fungi consume only cellulose, eating around lignin like a kid who avoids the Lima beans lurking among the tasty food on their plate.

White-rot fungi, on the other hand, belong to the clean-plate club, digesting every component of wood. This category of fungi can cause serious decay in hardwood trees, although a few species attack conifers. Foresters hate it, but foodies love it. It is the group that gives us Armillaria mellea, a virulent and devastating pathogen that produces tasty honey mushrooms.

Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are white-rot fungi, although they are saprophytes, akin to scavengers like turkey vultures, not predator-like pathogens. So we don’t have to feel guilty about eating them. Regionally, shiitake farming has, um, mushroomed over the past decade. It is a source of supplemental income for farmers and a source of fun and good food for anyone who wants to try it.

Shiitake prefer oak, beech, maple and ironwood, more or less in that order. To cultivate shiitake, bolts (logs) made of one of these hardwoods are needed. Bolts are typically about four feet long and range from three to eight inches in diameter. Such logs will bear mushrooms for roughly one year per diameter inch. A series of holes are drilled in the logs, and these are filled with mushroom “seeds” called spawn.

As of September 2015, NY State has recognized “actively managed log-grown woodland mushrooms” as a proper—and significant—farm crop. This allows farmers to designate land they use for growing mushrooms as agricultural, making them eligible for tax breaks. Thanks to Senator Patty Ritchie for helping this happen. However, the 2015 law does not extend to wild-harvested mushrooms.

Cornell University has been proactive in promoting mushroom farming as a source of income for rural residents. In a 3-year study that wrapped up in 2012, Cornell and its research partner institutions determined that farmers could turn a profit in just 2 years. They found that a 500-log shiitake farm could potentially earn $9,000 per year.

Steve Gabriel, Cornell's mushroom-farming expert, points out that raising log-grown mushrooms is sustainable and environmentally friendly, in addition to being a viable income source. You can find a great deal more information on the website Professor Gabriel administers: www.cornellmushrooms.org

Fortunately, Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County is again hosting a regional hands-on shiitake workshop this year at the Extension Learning Farm in Canton. Participants can choose from one of two dates: Saturday April 6, or Saturday April 13, 2019 from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

Each participant will take home their own shiitake mushroom log after having prepared and inoculated it. The log will continue to bear mushrooms for 3 to 4 years. Registration is online through the CCE website: www.st.lawrence.cornell.edu. You may also call the office at (315) 379-9192. Class size is limited, so register early.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Bug bombs no bother to bugs

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

As days lengthen and temperatures climb, it is common to find a few insects bumbling around the house, looking for a way outdoors. Red-and-black boxelder bugs, orange Asian lady-beetles, and gray, slow-moving western conifer seed bugs are but a few of the critters likely to seek a protected, rent-free shelter in the fall and then forget where the exits are come spring. Fortunately, these are harmless as well as clueless, and do not breed indoors or pose health risks.

Warm weather can also bring carpenter ants out of the woodwork. These are a sign that one needs a carpenter, or more likely a roofer, because carpenter ants require wet, damaged wood to begin making a nest. Although they do no harm to structures the way termites do, no one wants them underfoot. Unfortunately some of the least-welcome pests are active year-round, for example cockroaches and bed bugs. Regardless of their identity, household pests can have us crawling the walls in short order.

However, it is essential to size up the problem before reacting. It is natural to want instant results, but the abject failure of the so-called “war on drugs” should serve to warn us that mere hammering on symptoms leaves us tired and broke, and leaves the problem the same as or worse than before. “Shock and awe” tactics will always be impotent unless we change the environment that gave rise to the situation. Some of the most popular pest-control tools, for example the total-release home foggers (TRFs) or “bug bombs,” have been proven utterly worthless, while humble methods such as targeted baits are extremely effective.

The first order of business is to identify the pest. Centipedes, millipedes, cluster flies, and daddy-longlegs are equally unwelcome housemates, but require very different controls. Your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office can help you identify a pest if you email them a few clear photos. The next step is to ask the intruder what it is doing in your house. Part of the ID process is learning what this thing does for a living, why it is in your space, and how it likely got there.

Boxelder bugs, for instance, live on maple sap, and overwinter as adults under tree bark or, unfortunately, vinyl or wood siding. In spring they want nothing more than to leave your premises so they can find a boxelder or other species of maple on which to mate and lay eggs. No amount of home insecticide will provide control for these as they dribble out of their hiding spots over the course of a few weeks. Insecticides are nerve toxins, and even small amounts have been implicated in exacerbating ADHD, depression, and other mood disorders. These products should be used only when it makes sense to do so.

The solution to boxelder bugs, Asian lady-beetles, cluster flies and other shelter-seeking bugs is neither flashy nor toxic, and for that reason is often dismissed. Investing in a case of good caulk, a few cans of spray insulation, and maybe some new screen can cure most such infestations for years at a time. Plus, most households will recover that cost the first winter in fuel savings.

Millipedes, carpenter ants and sow bugs enter homes following a moisture gradient. They will return over and over unless water issues are addressed. Treating carpenter ants with a broad-spectrum insecticide may provide the satisfaction of seeing a bunch of dead ants the next day, but the ant factory (i.e. the queen) will crank out babies for the whole season, requiring multiple applications. A nontoxic and dirt-cheap bait made from boric acid powder and sugar-water will wipe out the queen, but takes a couple of weeks. We need to choose between useless shock-and-awe, and quiet effectiveness.

In an article published on January 28, 2019 in the journal BMC Public Health, North Carolina State University researchers found that the German cockroach population in 30 homes did not change after a month of repeated “bombing” with total-release foggers. But the level of toxic pesticide residue in those residences increased an average of 603 times of baseline. In homes where gel baits were used, though, cockroach populations fell 90%, and pesticide residues in the living space dropped. Lead author Zachary C. DeVries states “The high risks of pesticide exposure associated with TRFs combined with their ineffectiveness in controlling German cockroach infestations call into question their utility in the marketplace.”

Fogging or bombing every insect we see indoors may have some cathartic appeal, but it is a dangerous and expensive exercise which will not fix what is bugging us. For more information on pest control that makes sense, visit the NYS Integrated Pest Management website at https://nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/ or contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Race to the bottom: Water bears and moss piglets

BY PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Pint-size pets were practical, once upon a time. A hunter using a wolf to ferret out game would bring home less bacon than one who used a terrier for tracking services. Presumably, small hunting dogs mating with dust-mops is what gave rise to Shih Tzus and other foofy mini-dogs, which sadly are no longer in high demand now that Roombas can do the same job for cheaper. Some years back there was a “teacup mini-pig” craze, but we dumped them when they turned out to be ordinary piglets which would soon outgrow teacups, buckets, and bathtubs. Now it seems the doe-eyed imogee supply is being squandered on teacup dogs, which require nothing more than a pocket protector as a kennel, a few grams of food per year, as well as a second mortgage to cover vet costs.

In spite of global condemnation, oil-rich pretend-princes and others short on life purpose are still driving the demand for micro-dogs as fashion accessories. As Wendy Higgins, EU Communications Director at Humane Society International points out, “It’s unnatural for dogs to be so small, so they often suffer from fragile bones and even organ failure. If you care at all about dogs, the very worst thing you can do is buy a teacup puppy.” But if interest in ever-tinier pets continues apace, I know of one that could set the diminutive limit. Move over, teacup pets – water-bears, also known as moss piglets, are more like teaspoon pets.

These micro-animals, which measure only 0.3 to 0.9 mm (or in non-metric terms, wicked-small to crazy small) long, are often called by their Phylum name Tardigrade, meaning slow stepper. Just because they are tiny does not mean they are short on character and beauty. Their expressive wizened faces, plump, fuzzy bodies and complex behaviors make water bears seem more like an invention of the 1960s psychedelic counterculture (articles have suggested they would be at home in Alice in Wonderland) than a diverse, worldwide group of near-indestructible animals.

Water bears have four pairs of stubby legs, each terminating in 4 to 8 claws. Their bodies can be transparent, white, red, orange, yellow, green, purple, or black. Comprising more than 1,100 species, Tardigrades eat moss, lichen, algae, and occasionally, each other. Most of the time, when an organism is said to be distributed “worldwide,” that is shorthand for “widely.” Not so with these critters. In addition to being the “other polar bear,” they are found in the deepest ocean vents, hottest mud volcanoes, driest deserts and throughout ice sheets and glaciers.

Moss piglets/ water bears are all-around tough, maybe more so than any other life form. Many biologists have remarked that Tardigrades could survive another mass-extinction such as historic ones caused by massive meteor impacts. But to be a true extremophile, an organism must do better in harsh conditions than in average ones. While water bears can survive almost anything, they really prefer the same cushy sorts of things most humans do: enough air, water, food, and temperate conditions.

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going,” which I always assumed meant to someplace quieter. When life gets challenging for a water bear, it forms a cryptobiotic state known as a tun, draining nearly all the water out of its cells and replacing some of it with a sugar called trehalose. It also produces a special damage-suppressing protein to protect against DNA damage. How much tougher are moss piglets in this state? Tuns.

Whereas about 500 rads of X-rays would kill a human, 570,000 rads did not seem to cause mortality or even DNA damage to these things. Tardigrades have been demonstrated to live for 20-30 years in their cryptobiotic form, yet after a few minutes of hydration, continued to function normally. I’ll bet some even pick up the thread of their last conversation.

According to a report in Smithsonian, they tolerate cold down to about -200C (-328F), close to absolute zero. And I’m not sure how one would cook water bears, because they also live through 149C (300F), which is a pretty hot oven. Tardigrades can withstand more than 1,200 times atmospheric pressure, as well as the complete vacuum of space – in 2007, some were taken into low-Earth orbit on the Foton-M3 spacecraft for10 days.

The cryptobiotic strategies of water bears have allowed doctors to develop so-called dry vaccines based on trehalose instead of water. These are not subject to spoilage, a benefit to people in regions where refrigeration is limited.

In addition to the animal-cruelty angle, another drawback to teacup dog ownership must be the flavor of tea, I would guess. Fortunately, tardigrades are born paper-trained. Each time a water bear grows a bit, it has to shed its skin or molt, a process which may be repeated 12 or more times as it matures. Masters of efficiency, they wait until they need to molt before pooping, and leave rows of little pellets lined up inside the old skin. This would make it handy for their owners to pick up when taking their charges to the water-bear park, should such a thing ever come to be. Lifespans vary by species from a few months to a couple years, not counting time spent in suspended animation.

Water bears can be collected from nearly any substrate, especially moist ones like moss, at any time of year, and viewed with a hand-lens or low-power dissecting scope. Because water bears are too small to work even as cufflinks, these naturally tiny critters may not satisfy those who seek living fashion accessories. Please help promote ethical pet ownership—avoid teacup pets, and adopt a tardigrade!

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Playing your brains out

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Body-surfing monster-waves in Australia; snowboarding down rooftops in Alaska using improvised boards; tobogganing into deliberate pileups at the bottom of steep hills—the range of unsupervised play that youngsters can get into is jaw-dropping. That’s not to mention the dangerous romping and horseplay, as well as rude games like spit-soccer in the pool. Honestly, they are such animals.

Biologists have long pondered why so many animal species evolved to play, occasionally at their peril. And to some extent, they are still wondering. Juvenile play in primates such as humans and apes is well-documented, and other mammals such as dogs and cats clearly play as well, but it turns out a surprising array of animals engage in frivolous games.

Writing for sciencenews.org in February 2015, Sarah Zielinski cites reptile-fun research from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville published that same month. Researchers Vladimir Dinets and Gordon Burghardt define animal play as any spontaneous activity having exaggerated (often repeated) motions, initiated by healthy animals in a stress-free environment. They describe a captive Nile soft-shell turtle which would “dribble” a basketball back and forth across the pool in its enclosure.

The researchers apparently observed wild crocodiles body-surfing Down Under, and note that captive ones are keen on fooling around with plastic toys on both land and water. So much so that zoos now routinely provide their ’gators and crocs a variety of objects with which to amuse themselves. Anything that takes a crocodile’s mind off biting visitors is probably quite a good idea, anyway. Zielinski also mentions a biologist from the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, who observed octopuses spitting water for hours on end at floating objects to move them around their aquarium.

And to paraphrase BBC’s Jason Goldman in his January 2013 BBC report, “Gulls just wanna have fun.” He mentions a study done through the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA which recorded young gulls playing “drop-catch” with various objects, especially on windy days when such a game was more challenging.

Ravens are game for a good time as well. Goldman highlights work done by University of Vermont biologists, who say it is “commonplace” to see ravens in Alaska and Canada’s Northwest Territory repeatedly sliding down rooftops, holding twigs in their talons as snowboards. To quote the researchers, “We see no obvious utilitarian function for [raven] sliding behaviour.”

But play must have an evolutionary purpose, or animals would not do it. That seems to be the case, but not in the way we once assumed. There are endless nature documentaries online which show predators play-hunting, which supposedly made them better hunters, or play-fighting, which we thought improved their for-real fighting skills. Young goats and gazelles bounced around to improve their getaway odds, we once said. For some reason this all was so obvious that no one bothered with actual research for decades.

In her well-crafted and funny May 2011 article in Scientific American, biologist Lynda Sharpe writes about elephants filmed sliding, over and over, down a grassy hillside into their peers at the bottom, and asks: where is the evolutionary explanation for that? She spent five years researching meerkats, a desert-dwelling carnivore, in the Kalahari. Her work found that those little fur-balls which engaged in the most play-fighting did not make better fighters, or attract mates faster. Likewise, meerkat cooperative play did not reduce aggression or improve social bonding. “So there you are. Five years and no answers. I simply cannot tell you why meerkats play,” she writes.

She also points out that long-overdue research has proved coyote play-hunting does not predict real hunting success, and the same for domestic cats. But, she concludes, “Play DOES help!” Extra-playful individuals make better parents, rearing more young per litter. And play is necessary for learning. Rats, which reportedly are one of the most playful species, learn fastest when allowed to socialize and play normally. When a rat is given a diverse habitat with all manner of cognitive stimulation, but is deprived of play with another of its species, its brain fails to develop.

Researcher Max Kerney, writing in Newsweek in June 2017, says “Studies of squirrels, wild horses and brown bears have confirmed that the amount of time animals spend playing when young does seem to have an important effect on their long-term survival and reproductive success. Exactly how play achieves this effect isn’t obvious.” But play goes well beyond that. More play means bigger brains.

Kerney’s team found “a close relationship between the amount that animals played and the size of their cortico-cerebellar systems,” which are involved in learning. He also cites earlier studies which “found relationships between [primate] play and the size of...the neocortex, cerebellum, amygdala, hypothalamus and striatum.” Voilà: all work and no play makes Jack stupid.

What does this all mean for our children, those young primates we hold so dear? There is a quote I like, though I can’t find its author, that goes (more or less) “Understanding rocket science is like children’s play compared to understanding children’s play.” Child’s play is so critical to proper development that The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child reads (in Article 31) “Children have the right to relax and play, and to join in a wide range of cultural, artistic and other recreational activities.” Interestingly, every nation in the world except Somalia and the United States has ratified this convention.

In a Psychology Today blog post dated July 07, 2011, Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, says “There are many reasons children need to play. Kids must be allowed to get dirty and learn to take risks...As psychologist William Crain argues, we need to let children reclaim their childhood.”

I heartily agree. We need to let kids free-play more out in the real world, in nature. Maybe not body-surfing with crocodiles or snowboarding with ravens on rooftops, but something along those lines.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Love trees

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Generally speaking, I love trees, even those I must admire from a distance, such as the love-tree, a.k.a. the cacao, Theobroma cacao, from which chocolate is derived. Not only is chocolate associated with romance, most notably on Valentine’s Day, it can potentially help us feel more lovey-dovey thanks to some of the chemicals the tree produces.

Native to Central America, the cacao tree grows almost exclusively within about twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator—in other words, where most of us wish we were in mid-February. The seeds of the cacao have been ground up and made into a drink known by its Native American (probably Nahuatl) name, chocolate, for perhaps as many as 4,000 years.

The cacao is a small tree, about 15-20 feet tall, bearing seed pods measuring between 6 and 12 inches long. Packed around the 30 to 40 cacao beans in each pod is a sweet gooey pulp, which historically was also consumed. After harvest, cacao beans go through a fermentation process before being dried and then milled into powder.

Prior to European contact, chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties—more on that later. In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico descried chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant [to] taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.

Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as adding sugar and omitting cornmeal. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that people noticed it had pleasant effects. One of these is similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and many of these compounds are uppers.

Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It is a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew that it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it is unlikely that would put a damper on chocolate sales.

These days, chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it has had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day, anniversaries, and other events. Chocolate may not always live up to its rumored powers, but another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.

Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as tetrahydrocannabanol or THC, the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.

Don’t be alarmed at this news—these dopamine-enhancing effects are quite minimal compared to what pharmaceutical drugs can do, and it is perfectly OK to get behind the wheel after a cup of hot cocoa. Ingesting chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery, at least not the way my lack of training and experience have.

Most people would agree that chocolates are no substitute for love, but their natural chemical effects may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.

Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine very well, and even a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is one reason you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it is spayed or neutered, your pooch couldn’t benefit from any of chocolate’s other potential effects anyway.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Skip the sequel -- the original was awful

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

If you liked The Godfather: Part II, or Rocky II, or the second Lord of the Rings film, you will not like The Carrington Event: Part II. In fact, no matter what film you love best, you will hate the second installment of The Carrington Event, because when the sequel does show up, no one will be able to watch movies for several months, and possibly years.

Unlike The Poseidon Adventure, Jurassic Park, and other disaster films, The Carrington Event, also known as The Solar Flare of 1859, was real, and it gets repeated every so often, most recently in 2012. Fortunately, Earth usually misses these blasts of radiation, but sometimes only by a matter of hours. It is inevitable that our planet will experience another 1859-scale solar storm in the coming decades, so it is worth looking at the original plot.

Beginning on August 28, 1859, astronomers noted sunspot clusters, and the following day the northern and southern lights (aurora borealis and aurora australis, respectively) were seen at latitudes near the Equator. Then on September 1, British astronomer Richard C. Carrington documented a “white-light flare” around noon that day. A mere 17 hours later, a solar coronal mass ejection or CME struck Earth’s magnetosphere and led to an extreme worldwide geomagnetic storm which lasted through the second of September.

Reportedly, telegraph systems in North America and Europe were electrified, causing telegraph poles and receiving stations to catch fire. A number of operators suffered shocks from the equipment as well. Scientists believe a solar storm of that magnitude today would damage global electrical grids to such an extent that repairs would take months at minimum, and possibly years. A 2012 solar storm of similar strength missed Earth by just 9 days. In 2013, Lloyd’s of London calculated that had the 2012 “sequel” hit us, it would have caused 2.6 trillion dollars in damage in the US alone.

It is hard to imagine suddenly living without cell phones, Internet, and electricity. Not to mention the fact that Bitcoin would evaporate. Following the 2012 near-miss, NASA issued a statement to the effect that there was a 12% chance we will see another such storm by 2022.

Charged particles constantly emanate from the sun—x-rays, gamma rays, UV light, visible light, and other kinds of radiation—at speeds from 300 to 800 km/s. Given that the Sun is a million degrees Celsius at its surface, one would assume these particles are driven off by heat. Actually, the primary force is a result of magnetic fields. This migration of particles is called solar wind. Different regions on the sun eject particles of distinct speed and composition, and at varied intervals, so the wind fluctuates. There is nearly always a breeze, and every so often a storm kicks up. No one knows what causes solar storms, but astronomers can “spot” when one is brewing.

All stars produce zones of intense magnetic activity on a regular basis. It’s not known if they actually cause flares and CMEs, but sunspots usually appear just prior to such events. Flares and CMEs are “gusts” of solar wind which emerge from areas near sunspots, and the radiation they thrust into space is known as plasma. If astronomers observe large sunspots, they keep an eye out for subsequent activity. When a strong CME erupts, its high-energy plasma typically reaches us within 24-48 hours, where it reacts with Earth’s outer atmosphere (magnetosphere) to produce a geomagnetic storm.

Solar flares can happen on a daily basis during the more energetic part of the 11-year cycle of solar activity. During the less active periods, though, flares may only occur every few weeks. Not every flare portends a coronal mass ejection, but they are highly correlated. If I understood solar phenomena better, I might have a stellar career in astrophysics or something. After spending the better part of a day wading through a report full of cryptic formulas explaining flares and CMEs, I came across this line by its author: “...the mechanisms involved are still not well understood.” If he’d only started with that, I wouldn’t have tried so hard.

We can thank our lucky stars we have an iron-rich molten core. Or at least that our planet does. This core induces a magnetic field around Earth, thus deflecting lethal radiation and saving us from becoming the toast of the town. As the stream of radiation bends around Earth like water around a rock, charged particles are “herded” toward the north and south poles, resulting in auroras.

Geomagnetic storms don’t just put on psychedelic shows. As mentioned, they’re capable of disabling electric systems, and can damage or even destroy satellites. In most cases, satellites can be moved out of harm’s way in time. In March 1989, a comparatively small geomagnetic storm shut down Hydro-Québec’s state-of-the-art power grid within seconds of hitting Earth, creating a record outage which left 6 million customers in the dark. Radio and cell phone transmission was also interrupted, and the aurora borealis was seen as far south as Texas.

Fortunately, you can go to noaa.gov to check the space-weather forecast, and sign up for notifications if you wish. NOAA’s space-weather forecast can only provide warnings about when solar plasma will strike Earth a day or perhaps two in advance. While flares themselves cannot be predicted, NOAA can tell you when sunspots, flares, and CMEs are observed. Space-weather reports can also let you know if an aurora is expected (and presumably whether you will need a space heater) on a particular night.

Beyond that, you might consider investing in a typewriter, an abacus, some good twine, and a few tin cans. And I suggest everyone begin hiding their digital currency under their mattress, too.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Please don’t hum along

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

In the ninth grade I was in chorus for a few months until the instructor offered me an “A” for the rest of the year if I dropped her class. True story. You would think a guy who likes music but can’t sing would at least enjoy humming, but that depends. Research has shown that humming can cause anxiety, depression, insomnia, and in some cases, ghosts. Also true—though of course I left out a few details there.

Humming to a song because you don’t know (or can’t sing) the words is harmless, unless maybe it is incessant and happens to irritate your co-workers. But many industrial processes like blast furnaces, cooling towers, and giant compressors and vacuum pumps can emit low-frequency or infrasound hums able to travel tens of miles. Because human-caused hums have unusually long wavelengths—in some cases more than a mile—the hum can travel easily over mountains and through buildings.

Nature can produce these types of sound waves during events like avalanches, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Wind of a particular speed and direction blowing through a canyon can make infrasound. And certain animals, most notably whales and elephants, communicate long distances in this way. Fortunately, natural hums are more transient and less disruptive to us than those of mechanical origin.

Infrasound is sound consisting of waves less than 20 cycles per second or Hertz (Hz), which might also be the standard unit of payment for car rentals, I think. It is estimated that only about 2% to 3% of the population can hear sound at this level. Most humans are able to hear in the range of 20 to 20,000 Hz. Above that is ultrasound, like the kind of waves used in medical scans.

Besides the fact that infrasound can invade our homes on a 24-7 basis, one of the big problems is that we tend to feel it more than hear it. By definition, sound is a series of pressure waves that make subtle changes in the air pressure at our eardrum. The eardrum vibrates in response to pressure fluctuations, which the brain then interprets as sound. The thing is, waves which alter air pressure will vibrate our eardrum even if the movement is too slow to be recognized as sound. This is why infrasound can cause dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and sleep disturbance.

But our eardrum is not the only part of us which vibrates to low-frequency sound waves. All human organs have what is called a “mechanical resonant frequency,” which is the wavelength that will cause tissue to slightly wobble on its own. Human experiments found that cardiac effects occur at 17 Hz; subjects reported feelings of terror, impending doom, and anxiety. And in a 1976 study, NASA determined that the human eyeball resonates at a wavelength of 18 Hertz.

Which is where ghosts come in. Or at least a discussion thereof. In 1998, a British researcher named Vic Tandy published a paper called “Ghosts in the Machine" in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. At some point he began to feel a sense of dread, and then to occasionally see gray, blob-like apparitions, while working alone in his medical-equipment lab. One day he clamped a fencing foil in a vise at the lab to work on it, and the foil began to vibrate wildly. He found that a recently installed vent fan was vibrating at exactly 18.98 Hz. When it was switched off, the foil stopped vibrating, and he felt better and stopped seeing objects in his peripheral vision. Since then, repeated experiments have produced the same visual anomalies.

One of the best-known cases of infrasound in the environment is the so-called “Windsor Hum” in the Windsor, Ontario region, which the Canadian government has traced to a US Steel facility on an island in the Detroit River. This low-frequency, 35-Hertz hum is said to be louder than ever since resuming in late 2017 after a brief hiatus. Since the hum began in 2011, there have been reports of some residents moving away to escape its debilitating effects, which include insomnia and nausea. In 2012, more than 20,000 city residents joined a live teleconference to complain about the situation. Sadly, US Steel has rebuffed all attempts by Canadian authorities to meet with them to try and fix the problem.

Knowingly causing such large numbers of people to suffer that long for personal financial gain constitutes an especially heinous crime. Unlike the case with war crimes and genocide, the concept of Crimes Against Humanity does not have to be connected to armed conflict, although its definition varies by country. The UN began the process of codifying it in 2014. One current statute defines it as any “…inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” No person or corporation should be allowed to hold people’s wellbeing hostage.

In northern NY State, I have perceived a similar hum over the past 15 or so years. Although it varies in its intensity, I have heard it equally loud from Gouverneur to Canton to Massena. My road has no electric service, so I have no home appliances to potentially cause it. More noticeable at night, it does sometimes shut off. In late November 2018 it began again after a break, and is particularly strong at the moment.

Feel free to share your experience with infrasound hum at [email protected]. If you feel such a thing is having a negative impact on your health, I encourage you to contact your elected officials.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

High reindeer

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Last year my neighbor, who grows and sells mushrooms—legal ones—for a living, suggested I do an article on a Christmas fungus that could account for some of the magical features of that holiday tradition. Initially I brushed off his idea, thinking maybe he had consumed some bad stock that day, but since then I have come across a fair bit of evidence to support his idea.

Distributed across North America, Europe, and Asia from temperate zones into the far north, Amanita muscaria is a mushroom which grows among pine, birch and oak trees. It is in fact a symbiont of the roots of those trees, using a small amount of sugar from their roots but vastly increasing the trees' ability to absorb nutrients and water. It is unable to grow outside of a forest setting.

Sometimes called the fly agaric or fly amanita because it has been used to kill flies, A. muscaria is a big, beautiful reddish (sometimes yellow) mushroom. Its domed cap, which flattens as it matures, is dotted with large white spots, making it one of the most recognizable toadstools or free-standing mushrooms in the world. It is the big polka-dotted mushroom of Alice in Wonderland, coloring books, and garden statuary. Even the caps of gnomes are often painted to look like the fly agaric mushroom.

Amanita muscaria also has psychoactive properties, and has been consumed for thousands of years by winter-weary Laplanders as a pick-me-up; by Siberian shaman and other practitioners in healing rituals; and by wild reindeer for—well we're not sure. Possibly to fly, but more on that later. Certainly there are many accounts of reindeer acting “drunk” after browsing that 'shroom.

If the name Amanita rings a bell, it might be due to the fact that the so-called death-cap, maybe the most poisonous mushroom in the world, is a close relative, Amanita phalloides. The death-cap is native to Europe and Asia, but has been accidentally introduced with imported trees to a few locations in North America. Unlike the case with many fungi, its toxin is not neutralized by heat, and a half of a cap is enough to destroy the liver and kidneys of an adult human, making the only “antidote” an organ transplant.

In addition to being psychoactive, our cheerful fly agaric is also toxic, though less so. And it seems it can be rendered “safer” (reports say it may still cause vomiting) by gentle heat or dehydration. Apparently, too much heat takes all the fun out of the fly agaric, as it has been used as a culinary mushroom once it was pre-boiled and the initial water discarded. Reportedly, in Siberia and other regions, A. muscaria was placed in stockings and hung near the fire. This way the moderate heat would render them (mushrooms, not stockings) safe to use ceremonially or otherwise.

Stockings full of red-and-white mushrooms hung by the chimney with care sounds uncomfortably familiar. And yes, Father Christmas may wear a red and white outfit and may or may not surround himself with short, squat, mushroom-esque elves, but I was skeptical about any fungal connection with winter holiday traditions. However, a simple a web-image search for “mushroom decoration Christmas” turned up a bazillion (well, 30,800,000) pictures of Amanita muscaria tree ornaments and made me a believer.

In Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong's hilarious 1971 skit “Santa and His Old Lady,” Cheech explains Santa Claus, “the guy with the hairy jaws,” to his friend. Santa's flying sleigh, according to Cheech, is fueled by “magic dust,” with “a little for the reindeer, a little for Santa, a little more for Santa, a little more for Santa...” Maybe in addition to the stuff they liked to smoke, they also knew about fly agaric.

In the interest of public health, I want to caution against trying this fungus. For one thing, references indicate fly agaric mushrooms picked in spring and summer can be 10 times more potent than those gathered in fall. And that a miscalculation could leave you sick for a week or more. And no, I have not tried A. muscaria and have no plans to do so.

I am no scholar, but I do find it interesting that the more secular trappings of our modern Christmas have a connection to ancient winter traditions in Siberia. Amanita muscaria may help explain Santa's unnatural jolliness, his magical flight, not to mention the choice of colors for his suit, and the millions of Christmas mushroom ornaments are overtly connected.

My advice would be to avoid toxic fungi as well as retail toxicity, and to aim for some old-fashioned cheer not driven by stuff of one kind or other. The reindeer, of course, will make their own choices.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Pine fruit

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Unless gene editing really gets out of hand, the old saying about money not growing on trees will remain accurate. I suppose if bartering ever becomes the norm, however, fruit and nut growers will be awash in tree-grown currency. Figuring exchange rates could be quite a headache, I imagine. Our eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, is not considered a crop-bearing tree and doesn’t appear to sprout cash, at least in this area, but it has borne priceless fruit for humanity all the same.

The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, white pines up to 230 feet were recorded by early loggers. The current US champion stands at 188 feet, and in the Adirondacks we have several old-growth white pines over 150 feet. In terms of identification, white pine makes it simple, being the only native pine out East that bears needles in bundles of five, one for each letter in W-H-I-T-E. To be clear, the letters are not actually written on the needles, just saying.

As tall and impressive as it is, over the past few years the white pine is being sickened and felled by microscopic pathogens. Called Canavirgella needlecast and Mycosphaerella brown spot, these two fungi have been around for ages, but they have never before been a problem. Symptoms of infection are needles which turn completely yellow and drop off over the course of one or more years. Many biologists believe that our changed weather patterns in the Northeast, especially the long unbroken periods of wet weather, are to blame for this change in behavior. In between wet years, the droughts of 2012, 2016, 2018 caused extreme low soil moisture, weakening trees so they are more susceptible to disease and insects.

White pine produces attractive cones, six to nine inches long, having resin-tipped scales, perfect for fire-starting and for adding to wreaths and other holiday decorations (might want to keep those away from open flames). The species is renowned for its exceptionally wide and clear, light-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling and sheathing as well as for structural members. New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards of exceptional width can still be found. Impressive as its lumber is, white pine’s most precious gift is invisible. And hopefully indivisible.

Between a thousand and twelve-hundred years ago here in the northeast, five indigenous nation-states decided they spent too much energy disputing borders and resources. With the help of a visionary leader, they devised a federal system of governance to resolve inter-state issues, leaving each nation-state otherwise autonomous.

White pine, with its five needles joined at the base, helped inspire the new federal structure. It remains an apt symbol for this Confederacy, the Iroquois, or Haudenosaune as they call themselves. The tree was, and is, depicted with a bald eagle, five arrows clenched in its talons to symbolize strength in unity, perched at its top.

The Confederacy comprises fifty elected chiefs who sit in two legislative bodies, with a single elected head of state. Historically, only women could vote. Women also had the sole power to impeach leaders not acting in the public’s best interest, and could quash any legislation they deemed rash or short-sighted. Every chief was expected to be able to recite the Iroquois constitution from memory, a feat which is still practiced today on some reserves, and takes nine full days to complete.

Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe wrote extensively about the Iroquois confederacy, and Franklin in particular urged the thirteen colonies to adopt a similar union. When the Continental Congress met to draft the Constitution, Iroquois leaders attended, by invitation, for the duration as advisers.

Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the white pine remains on Vermont’s state flag. The eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on US currency, a bundle of thirteen arrows in its talons. I suppose in a metaphoric sense, our money did grow on a tree.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Dreaming of a local Christmas

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Even Santa Claus himself cannot grant a wish for a white Christmas—it is a coin toss whether the holiday will be snow-covered or green this year. A verdant landscape is not our Christmas ideal, but we can keep more greenbacks in the North Country, and keep our Christmas trees and other accents fresh and green for longer, when we buy local trees and wreaths.

Not only are Christmas trees a renewable resource, they boost the local economy. Even if you don’t have the time to cut your own at a tree farm, do yourself a favor this year and purchase a natural tree from a local vendor. She or he can help you choose the best kind for your preference, and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets are cut weeks, if not months, before they show up at stores.

There is an additional reason to buy local in 2018: The NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets has announced a quarantine on out-of-state Christmas trees to prevent the spread of a devastating new insect pest. The spotted lanternfly (SLF) is a major pest of many tree species, as well as grapes and various other crops, but it is especially fond of sugar maples. First discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, this tree-killing Asian bug has since spread into New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia. SLF females lay their camouflaged eggs on almost anything, and in 2017, egg masses were found on Christmas trees grown in New Jersey, prompting the quarantine.

Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit quite like the smell of a fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir tree, wreath or garland. Although the majority of American households where Christmas is observed have switched to artificial trees, about ten million families still bring home a real tree.

Every type of conifer has its own blend of sweet-smelling terpenols and esters that account for their “piney woods” perfume. Some people prefer the fragrance of a particular tree species, possibly one they had as a child. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a plastic tree smell like fresh pine, fir or spruce.

The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but evergreen trees, wreaths, and boughs were used by a number of ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, to symbolize eternal life. In sixteenth-century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of the indoor Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries afterward, Christmas trees were always brought into homes on 24 December, and not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on 6 January.

In terms of crowd favorites, the firs—Douglas, balsam, and Fraser—are very popular, very aromatic evergreens. Grand and concolor fir smell great too. When kept in water, firs all have excellent needle retention. Pines also keep their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots (not Scotch; that’s for Santa) pine, the latter far outsells the former, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping. Not only do spruces have stout branches, they tend to have a strongly pyramidal shape. Spruces may not be quite as fragrant as firs or pines, but they’re great options for those who like short-needle trees.

The annual pilgrimage to choose a real tree together has been for many families, mine included, a cherished holiday tradition, a time to bond. You know, the customary thermos of hot chocolate; the ritual of the kids losing at least one mitten, and the time-honored squabble—I mean discussion—about which tree to cut. Good smells, and good memories.

For the best fragrance and needle retention, cut a one- to 2-inch “cookie” from the base before placing your tree in the stand, and fill the reservoir every two days. Research indicates products claiming to extend needle life don’t really work, so save your money. LED lights don’t dry out needles as much as the old style did, and are easier on your electric bill too.

Visit www.christmastreesny.org/SearchFarm.php to find a nearby tree farm, and quarantine details can be found at www.agriculture.ny.gov/AD/release.asp?ReleaseID=3821 Information on the spotted lanternfly is posted at https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/113303.html

Whatever your traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of long-lasting memories this holiday season.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Run, Dorothy—Emerald City is falling

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Watertown is poised to become an Emerald City, but that’s not good news. Jefferson and Lewis will soon be Emerald Counties, and St. Lawrence County began the process of change two years ago. Unfortunately, this kind of transformation does not involve happy endings.

When the emerald ash borer (EAB) kills an ash, something happens never before seen—the tree becomes brittle and hazardous very quickly, beyond anything in our experience in North America prior to this. Municipal leaders, DOT officials, woodlot owners, loggers, farmers and other land managers need to be well-informed in order to stay safe and avoid liability.

Call it an infection or an epidemic, but soon even the most pleasant tree-lined street and well-managed woodlot will seem like something out of Tolkein’s menacing Fangorn Forest in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our ash trees won’t turn vengeful, but they will be dangerous for other reasons.

In August 2017, citizen volunteers trained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) discovered emerald ash borer in an EAB trap in the St. Lawrence County township of Hammond, and later the same year, a large infestation was found near Massena. Foresters from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Environment Division also confirmed several EAB in Franklin County in 2017.

Early this summer, volunteers trapped EAB in other northern NY locations, including on the southern Jefferson County border. The NYSDEC has not yet released final data from 2018’s trap program, but we do expect confirmations in more areas. Understandably, we may be tired of hearing about this invasive wood-boring beetle and how it will wipe out ash trees. After all, chestnuts and elms died and the world didn’t end. The difference is in the degree of hazard posed.

Usually when a healthy tree is killed by a pest, disease or flood, it stands there 5, 10 or more years. If you don’t show up within 15 years, it shrugs, mumbles something about your lack of work ethic, and topples over. Think of all the dead trees in beaver ponds that stand for a decade or more as herons nest in their bleached crowns. After the chestnut blight wiped out that species, there were reports of the dead snags remaining upright for 30 or more years.

But the emerald ash borer has a peculiar effect on the ash trees it kills. Ash that succumb to EAB become dangerous in as little as one year, and after only two years, they start leaping onto cars, trucks and busloads of schoolkids. That is taking it a little too far, but many people have been injured, and many homes and vehicles damaged in the wake of EAB infestations. In Ohio, a school bus was hit by a large EAB-killed ash tree, injuring 5 students and the driver, and pretty well totaling the bus.

No one seems to have an adequate explanation for this rapid and profound loss of wood strength, but I’ll pass along what we do know. According to the Davey Resource Group, the consulting and research branch of Davey Tree, the shear-strength of ash wood undergoes a five-fold decrease after the tree is infested by EAB. Trees become dangerous so quickly that Davey Tree will not allow its climbers into any infested ash that shows a 20% decline or more.

In the words of Mike Chenail, an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist from Pennsylvania, “Two realities make an ash tree killed by EAB especially dangerous. EAB cuts off the flow of water and nutrients through the tree. Additionally, the fatal pest creates thousands of exit wounds. Both conspire to dry out the tree and make it brittle.”

One of the issues is that the sapwood, the outermost layer of wood, dries very rapidly. Since sapwood may only be a few inches thick, having it suddenly dry out may not seem like much. Jerry Bond, a Consulting Urban Forester and former Cornell Extension Educator, explained it to me this way: “Ninety percent of the structural strength of a tree resides in the outermost ten percent of the trunk.” In other words, when sapwood is weakened, there’s not much strength left in the tree.

There may be yet another facet to the picture. Anecdotes from arborists and other tree workers point to the surprisingly advanced decay in some ash wood that had only been infested one season. How widespread or significant this may be is not yet known.

But none of that is really the point. The point is that those who work or spend much time in the woods, and anyone responsible for the safety of others need to be aware that when EAB kills ash trees, they behave differently.

Woodlot owners, Town and Village Supervisors, Town Board members, NNY County Legislators, arborists, farmers and others who want to learn how to prepare for EAB are urged to attend an upcoming EAB informational session at the Adams Municipal Building, 3 South Main Street, Adams, NY on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 from 8:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Presenters include representatives from NYSDEC, National Grid and others. The session is free, but please RSVP to Mike Giocondo in the NYSDEC Lowville sub-office at (315) 376-3521 or [email protected]

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Thanks for giving

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

If the Pilgrims had known what a big deal Thanksgiving was going to become in America they would undoubtedly have taken some pictures. Even the menu has been lost to us, although Wampanoag oral history, plus a few Pilgrim grocery receipts found by archeologists, suggest there was corn, beans and squash as well as fowl and venison. Beyond that there may have been chestnuts, sun chokes (“Jerusalem” artichokes), cranberries and a variety of seafood.

Many historians believe the Pilgrims would have all perished during the winter of 1620 if not for food provided by the Wampanoags, whose land they appropriated. In the spring of 1621, Wampanoags gave the Pilgrims crop seeds, as well as a tutorial (possibly an App; we can’t be sure) on the production, storage and preservation of food crops including corn, beans, and squash.

That fall—we’re not even certain if it was October or November—Pilgrims gave thanks for Native American agriculture, and feasted upon its bounty for three days straight. The Wampanoags probably gave thanks that there weren’t more ships full of Pilgrims on the horizon just then.

Barley was the only European-sourced crop that the Pilgrims managed to raise in 1621. Unfortunately, they seemed unaware it could be eaten. The upside, however, was that there was plenty of beer at Thanksgiving dinner.

While corn, beans and squash, “The Three Sisters,” were, and are, grown by many native peoples in the Americas, other indigenous crops will grace American Thanksgiving tables this year. Maybe you’ll have appetizers out for company before dinner. Mixed nuts, anyone? Peanuts are a big-time Native American crop. Pecans and sunflower seeds, too. And everyone likes corn chips with dip, right? Those hot (and sweet) peppers and tomatoes in the salsa are Native American foods. Prefer dip made with avocado? Yep, another native food. And the same for popcorn.

Turkeys, which had been domesticated by native peoples long before European contact, are of course indigenous to the New World. Modern turkey breeds have been selected for heavier bodies, but they are the exact same species as our wild turkey, whose range extends from southern Mexico north to southern Canada.

But a lot of the “fixings” used in today’s Thanksgivings also come from the New World. Cranberry sauce is a good example (a related Vaccinium species occurs in northern Europe, but its berries are much smaller than the cranberry species found here, which have now been domesticated worldwide).

And it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy. White (“Irish”) potatoes are a New World crop, as are sweet potatoes. We can thank Native American agronomists for green beans and Lima beans. Don’t forget the squash—Native peoples developed many varieties, including Hubbard and butternut squash, and pumpkins, which are technically a winter squash.

Which brings us to the iconic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie—I think just about everyone is thankful for that treat. Nothing goes with pie like ice cream, which is not from the New World, but some great flavorings are. Maple-walnut is one of the earliest ice cream varieties in New England, two indigenous flavors that go together famously. While not from the Northeast, vanilla is from the Americas, and so is chocolate. If you add some toppings like strawberry or blueberry (even pineapple) sauce, you’ll be having more Native American foods for dessert.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, filled with family and gratitude. Among other things, we can be grateful to Native peoples and their crops. But please, don’t blame First-Nations agronomists if you need to loosen your belt a notch or two afterward.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Faster than a speeding plant

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

When he first appeared eighty years ago, Superman was said to be “faster than a speeding bullet.” Of course some bullets fly faster than others, but in 1938, common average speeds ranged from about 400 mph for a .38 special to around 580 mph for a .45 automatic. At the risk of getting on Superman’s bad side, I question whether he could outpace today’s AR-15 .223 round zipping along at 2,045 miles per hour. Plus he’s a lot older now. In fact, I wonder if he’s peppy enough to catch a speeding plant.

A quick look outside assures us that plants do not appear mobile, or if they are, they move too slowly to measure their progress. Good thing, considering the way we uproot weeds, cut grass, and chop limbs off trees. Were plants able to skulk about seeking revenge, no one would sleep well at night. The fact is, plants tend to stay put. Any gardener can tell you that even slugs can catch plants. So it seems unduly harsh to suggest the Man of Steel is slower than that.

There is a difference between moving fast and moving around. Plants may be rooted, but not all of them sit still. Most kids are mildly entertained when they encounter the mimosa, or sensitive plant. When touched, its leaf folds up within seconds in an orderly, if unhurried fashion. Mimosa plants learn from experience, though, and if you poke a leaf repeatedly, it eventually takes a break from reacting for several hours.

People of all ages are usually enthralled by the Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant which snaps closed on insects, then creates an airtight pouch and dissolves its victims in an acid-filled external vegi-stomach. Despite its name, the flytrap dines mostly on ants and spiders, some beetles and grasshoppers, but very few flies. With faster reflexes than the mimosa, it can shut its trap in 100 milliseconds.

It can also count. When one of its trigger hairs is touched, the trap remains open, but when a second hair is stimulated within 20 seconds, the trap closes. Not satisfied with that performance, the meat-eating bog plant next counts to five. That is, it takes five more hair-triggers from a wriggling spider before it seals the airlock and pumps in the hydrochloric acid. If you ever get trapped in the jaws of a giant flesh-eating plant, remember this lesson: Don’t struggle. Remain still for 12 hours, and the jaws will open again. You’re welcome.

Venus flytraps are found in temperate wetlands to our south, but we have a plant that is much more fly than the flytrap. Dwarf dogwood or bunchberry is a common native wildflower which prefers cool moist soils. Sometimes found in mat-like groups, it has clusters of bright red berries, and blossoms that put NASA to shame. The bunchberry flower opens in 0.5 milliseconds, reportedly ejecting its pollen at 2,000 to 3,000 times the force of gravity (G), which would shred an astronaut, who normally feels no more than 3G during launch. No one knows why bunchberry does this, other than to show off, since it is pollinated by dozens of native bee species.

But the plant kingdom’s rapid-movement pièce de résistance is the white mulberry tree. Native to China, it has been spread around much the world because it is necessary for the rearing of silkworms, which for the past 4,000 years have been producing the world’s silk (not the same silkworms; they don’t live that long). When the mulberry tree’s staminate (male) catkins are good and ready, they open in 25 microseconds or 0.025 milliseconds, propelling their pollen at approximately 350 mph, just over half the speed of sound. Unlike bunchberry, mulberries are wind-pollinated, and may benefit from its pollen-bomb strategy.

As impressive as these feats are, no one really understands the exact processes by which plants move so fast that the most advanced high-speed photography cannot adequately photograph the events. What we need is someone faster than a speeding plant to examine this further. I wonder if an aging superhero could maybe be coaxed into such an endeavor.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Got Gas?

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

Even if its precise definition isn’t at the tip of your tongue, most everyone gets the general drift of what is meant by the term biogas—there’s biology involved, and the result is gas. One might guess it’s the funk in the air aboard the bus carrying the sauerkraut-eating team home after a weekend competition. Others would say biogas is cow belches, or the rotten-egg stink-bubbles that swarm to the surface when your foot sinks into swamp ooze.

Those are all examples of biogas, which is composed primarily of methane, CH4, at concentrations ranging from 50% to 60 %. Methane is highly combustible, and can be used in place of natural gas for heat or to run internal-combustion engines for the generation of electricity and other applications. Formed by microbes under anaerobic conditions, it is a greenhouse gas twenty-eight times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The fact that it can be useful if harnessed but dangerous if released is why we need to trap biogas given off by landfills, manure pits, and someday, maybe even cow burps.

By itself, methane is colorless and odorless, but it often hangs out with unsavory friends like hydrogen sulfide, H2S, which is responsible for the rotten-egg smell we associate with farts and swamp gas. Not all biogas is equal—the stuff given off by landfills is contaminated with siloxane from lubricants and detergents, and manure-sourced biogas may contain nitrous oxide, N2O. Siloxane, nitrous oxide, and hydrogen sulfide gases are toxic at high concentrations, and are very corrosive. They usually burn off harmlessly when used for heat, but must be removed if biogas is to be used to fuel an engine.

As mentioned, methane occurs when organic matter decomposes in oxygen-deprived conditions. This led to numerous biogas explosions in landfills across the US and Europe, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, although a series of such incidents in England in the 1980s spurred tighter regulations in that country on collecting biogas. The frequency of explosions at dumps is much reduced in recent times, but it does still happen. A dump at Walt Disney World in Orlando caught fire in 1998. In 2006, the US Army (which is exempt from many environmental laws) evacuated twelve households near one of its old landfills at Fort Meade, Maryland due to high methane levels.

Even though it provides benefits like electricity generation, extracting landfill biogas is necessary for health and safety. But biogas is also produced intentionally in something called a methane digester, which I thought was another word for a cow. Despite the name, these things do not digest methane. Rather they use animal manure, municipal sewage, household garbage, and other organic matter to produce methane, much of which would otherwise have been released to the atmosphere.

The basic process is this: an airtight reactor is filled with animal manure or whatever your favorite filling is, and after a 4-part bacterial process and some amount of time you end up with a “digested” slurry that can be used for fertilizer, and biogas. Digester technology can work from a massive industrial scale to a very small backyard unit which runs on household waste.

At about 60% methane, digester biogas is a better fuel than landfill biogas, which tends to be about 50% CH4. Gas from a digester can be used directly for cooking or heating, but must be processed before it can be put to other uses. In addition to being used to run internal-combustion engines, “scrubbed” biogas, which is nearly pure methane, can be injected into the natural-gas grid, or compressed and sold to distant markets.

These days, livestock farmers are being encouraged to install methane digesters as an additional source of income or to offset heating costs. Digesters reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and manure processed in a digester retains more nitrogen than manure stored in open-air lagoons. It’s not brain surgery, but there is a learning curve, as well as labor inputs. The idea is being promoted now, but it is far from new.

The Chinese have been involved with methane digestion since about 1960, and in the 1970s disseminated something like six million home digesters to farmers. Currently, home digesters are common in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and parts of Africa. On the larger scale, Germany is Europe’s foremost biogas producer, with around 6,000 biogas electric generating plants. Germany also has incentives and subsidies for farmers and others to adopt digester technology.

Cryo Pur, a French company based in Palaiseau, outside Paris, has recently developed a one-step method to remove CO2 and other impurities from biogas using cryogenics. Due to the extreme low temperatures, biogas is liquefied in the process, which allows it to be shipped much more safely.

Cornell Cooperative Extension will host an in-depth small-farm biogas workshop this winter. The class will be repeated on three different dates at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm, 2043 State Highway 68, Canton. While it is geared toward small-scale dairy farms, livestock & horticulture producers, and those with an interest in alternative energy production are welcome. Participants can choose one of these three dates: Wednesday, December 5, 2018 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM, Thursday, February 7, 2019 , 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM, or Wednesday, March 6, 2019, 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM.

Classes are free and include a small stipend as well as a meal. Registration is required. To register or for more information, call Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County at (315) 379-9192.

You can learn all about small-scale methane digesters, but to my knowledge there are none for strictly personal use. If you’ve eaten too much sauerkraut you’ll just have to let digestion run its course. Away from others, please.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Ducking my French lesson

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

My francophone wife is often amused as I commence à apprendre la langue, like the time I said connard when I meant canard. For the monolingual English-speakers out there, canard means duck, while the rough equivalent of connard is a word that rhymes with “spithead,” and that you don't want your kids to say. But where mallards and other puddle-ducks are concerned, the two are related. The drake (male) can be an absolute connard sometimes.

The Darwinian principle “survival of the fittest” is not always about who wins the antler fight or arm-wresting contest. Fitness means being well-suited to one’s environment so as to live long enough to reproduce and thus pass on one’s DNA. Above all else, it means being adaptable.

The mallard, perhaps the most recognizable duck in North America with the drake having a glossy green head, bright orange bill and prim white collar, may be the fittest species ever. In fact, University of Alberta biologist Lee Foote has called them “the Chevy Impala of ducks.” For those under 30, the once-ubiquitous Impala was an all-purpose, nearly bullet-proof sedan.

Native to North and Central America, Eurasia and North Africa, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has been introduced to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It might be more serviceable even than the Impala. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group dedicated to the sustainability of natural resources, lists it (the duck, not the car) as a “species of least concern.” This designation sounds apathetic, but there is concern in places such as South Africa and New Zealand, where mallards have become invasive.

Unlike with automobiles, where hybrids are good but rarely free, mallard hybrids are so common that other ducks may soon disappear as distinct species. Typically, a defining feature of a species is the fact it is unable to cross with other species to produce offspring, or at least not fertile ones. Mallards, evidently, have not read the literature. I hate it when nature does that.

Mallard hyper-hybridization is due to the fact that they evolved in the late Pleistocene, recent in evolutionary terms. Mallards and their kin “only” date back a few hundred thousand years. Animals originating millions of years ago have had time to spread out and develop unique adaptations, often including physical and behavioural changes that render them incompatible with once-related species.

Mallards frequently mate with American black ducks, but also breed with at least a dozen other kinds, in some cases resulting in the loss or near extinction of species. According to the Global Invasive Species Database (GISD), “As a consequence [of mallard interbreeding], Mexican duck is no longer considered a species and less than 5% of pure non-hybridized New Zealand grey ducks remain.”

Mallards are a type of puddle or dabbling duck, tipping their heads under water to feed on mollusks, insect larvae and worms, as opposed to diving after prey. They also eat seeds, grasses and aquatic plants. Well-adapted to humans, they seem just as pleased to snap up day-old bread in city parks.

Their mating strategy, while not responsible for their success, may be emblematic of it. In about 97% of the planet’s bird species, mating is a brief, external event in which the male’s stuff gets passed to the female by the two touching their back ends together in what is called (by humans at least) a “cloacal kiss.” The cloaca is a bird’s all-purpose opening used to pass eggs, feces and whatever, as needed. This PG-13 performance sounds anything but romantic.

Certain ducks went to the other extreme, dabbling in X-rated, violent sex. Puddle-duck males can have members longer than their bodies, which certainly puts things in perspective for us guys. Also, a number of mallard drakes copulate with each hen, sometimes at once, occasionally resulting in injury or (rarely) death of a female.

This seems like a bad way to run a species, with drakes killing hens. But there is some sense to it. Females have been observed rounding up guy ducks who seem to have nothing better to do. The reason a mallard hen might barnstorm drake hangouts to get them to follow her has to do with lifespan. In contrast to the Canada goose, known to live 10 to 25 years in nature, wild mallards have an average lifespan of 3-5 years. This means a high percentage of females, which begin breeding at age 2, will mate only once in their life. Multiple copulations will ensure the hen’s eggs will be fertile.

And girl-ducks have a secret strategy—once a hen gets the attention of the guys, she can pick the duckling-daddy. If a male does not suit her, she will guide the loser-drake’s penis into a vaginal dead-end until he is done, a copulation fake-out. The lucky drake will be allowed to go the whole nine yards. So to speak—I doubt it’s that long.

Obviously, mallards don’t need our help finding food. In most cases it is not a good idea (and local by-laws may prohibit it) to feed waterfowl, which can increase water pollution and diseases, even some that can affect humans. So-called “swimmers’ itch,” a duck parasite that can afflict beachgoers, is the least of them. The GISD states “…mallards are the prime long-distance vector of H5N1 [bird flu] since they excrete significantly higher proportions of the virus than other ducks while seeming immune to its effects…their extreme wide range, large populations, and tolerance to humans provides a link to wild waterfowl, domestic animals, and humans rendering it a perfect vector of the deadly virus.”

The short lifespan of mallards drove the species to develop strategies that include harsh behaviour. We humans have no such excuse. It would be ducky if we could agree never to act like a connard, but that is not realistic in a complex world. Maybe we could at least try to become bilingual.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Head of the class

By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension

When the topic of animal smarts comes up, we might argue whether a crow or a parrot is the more clever, or if dolphins are smarter than manatees. Seldom do we ascribe intelligence to life-forms such as insects, plants or fungi. And it is rare indeed that we question our intellectual primacy among animals. It is true that no other species can point to monumental achievements such as the Colosseum, acid rain, nerve gas and atomic bombs. But that does not mean other species are bird-brained. Metaphorically speaking.

It makes sense that elephants and whales are whiz-kids, given the size of their heads. Depending on species, whale brains weigh between 12 and 18 pounds (5.4-8 kg.), and Dumbo's cranium would tip the scale at around 11 lbs. (5.1 kg.). Compared to them, our 3-pound (1.3 kg.) brains are small potatoes. What sets mammal brains apart from other classes of animal is the neocortex, the outermost region of the brain responsible for higher functions such as language and abstract thinking.

But size is not the only thing that counts. Our neocortices, unlike those of most animals, are highly convoluted, which means we make everything way more complicated than necessary. Actually, convolution gives our brains a lot more real estate by volume—as if Texas were a rug and it got scrunched up to the size of Vermont. A lot of acreage would fit in a small space if it were nothing but valleys and mountains. This greater surface area equates to more processing power than a less highly folded brain like a whale's.

The ability to make and use tools, and to carry them for future use, is one of the widely accepted indicators of intelligence. In the past, it was thought that only humans and our close ape relatives used tools. Some gorillas in Borneo use sticks to spear catfish, and western lowland gorillas have been observed using a stick to gauge water depth. In at least one case, a gorilla used a log to fashion a bridge to cross a stream. I suppose if they started charging a toll, we would give them more respect.

Only just recently has the intelligence of cephalopods like cuttlefish, squid and octopodes been documented. Octopodes have been observed foraging for discarded coconut shells and using them to build sea-castles of sorts in which to hide. If their ability with tools progresses, I bet they could knit an awesome sweater in no time.

Birds also use tools—crows, for example, will use a stick to poke at bugs they can't otherwise reach. When the insect bites the stick, the crow pulls the stick out and eats the bug. Humans always assumed birds were not very smart because their brains weigh a few grams, and range from pea-size to maybe the size of a walnut. Well, we've had to eat crow, because bird brains are far more neuron-dense than mammal brains. It's like we were comparing the microchip brain of birds to the big vacuum-tube human brain and sneering, when in fact many birds test on par with primates for intelligence.

We know that honeybees use a sort of interpretive bee-dance to communicate with each other as to the location of flowers and picnickers. Our native bumblebees seem to have one up on them. In 2016, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that bumblebees learned within minutes how to roll a tiny ball into a little hole to get a sugar-water reward. I assume the researchers are now busy with bumblebee golf tournaments.

Even vegetables can learn new tricks. Experiments have shown Pavlovian responses when light and other stimuli are presented together from various angles. Plants of course will grow in the direction of light. But when the light was switched off, the plants tilted toward the other stimuli, just like the way Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard bells. I imagine the winter holiday season was frustrating for those drool-pooches.

Humans, apes, squids, birds, bugs, and plants—there's nowhere to go but down. Enter the plasmodial slime mold, a slow-moving single-cell organism that can scout the landscape, find the best food, and engulf it, growing ever larger. Coming soon to a theater near you. It sounds like a sci-fi film, and a blob of pink, yellow or white slime mold, possibly a square yard in area, does look pretty alien. They usually live in shaded forest environments, but can show up on your flower bed, and a friend once sent a picture of a slime mold which had engulfed his empty beer can left out overnight.

Researchers discovered that a plasmodial slime mold uses complex algorithms to make decisions—logical ones, it turns out—regarding which direction to proceed as it slimes across the landscape. One of the lead researchers in the 2015 study is Simon Garnier, an Assistant Professor of Biology at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He said that “[studying slime molds] challenges our preconceived notions of the minimum biological hardware required for sophisticated behavior.”

Maybe it's time we paid more attention to our non-human relatives. I bet they have a lot to teach us.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Porcelain berry

By PAUL HETZLER

A total lunar eclipse is likely more common than the swift removal of a novel invasive plant infestation, but fingers are crossed that such a thing happened in St. Lawrence County this summer. The plant eradication, I mean—we all know about the celestial event this past July, the first central lunar eclipse since June 2011. Thanks to the sharp eyes of Dr. Tony Beane, a Professor of Veterinary Science at SUNY Canton who is also an avid naturalist, an exotic vine capable of smothering fields and forests has been eliminated within weeks of its confirmation in the Ogdensburg area.

Commonly called porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), there is nothing “brev” about the Latin name, nor the growth habit, of this aggressive woody vine which can quickly blanket vegetation along streams and forest edges, killing native plants and curbing regeneration. It is banned in most states, and is listed as a “Prohibited Species” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), meaning it “cannot be knowingly possessed with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport or introduce.” Sadly, web searches still turn up dozens of ads to buy this vine, even when “invasive” is added to the search parameters.

The discovery of porcelain berry in northern NY was relayed to the St. Lawrence-Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (SLELO PRISM), a group of conservation groups, land trusts, and government agencies at various levels whose goal is to limit the economic and environmental damage done by invasive plants, insects, and aquatic organisms. On the heels of dr. Beane’s report, SLELO PRISM’s Early Detection Team made a site visit, and the plants have since been destroyed. The team plans to make follow-up visits over the next few seasons to scout for re-growth.

Native to Japan and parts of northern China, porcelain berry was first brought to the US around 1870 as an ornamental. It is related to our native wild grape, with which it can be easily confused. Unlike grapevine, which has shaggy, exfoliating bark and a brown pith, the porcelain berry vine has smooth, lenticeled bark (rough when old but not exfoliating), and a white pith. The hard, multicolored berries for which it is named progress from lavender to green to bright blue as they ripen, and do not hang down like grapes, but are held upright. Porcelain berry leaves are often deeply 5-lobed as compared to grape leaves, which are generally 3-lobed and not as deeply incised, but this varies greatly and is a poor diagnostic feature.

Although the possible elimination of an invasive species never before seen in the North Country is heartening, people are urged to keep an eye out for porcelain berry. Its fruits are eaten by birds, and seeds from this one known population could easily have been carried to other locations in northern NYS. If you think you may have found this plant, please report it to your nearest Cornell Cooperative Extension or NYSDEC office. The full list of NYSDEC Regulated and Prohibited Species can be found at dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/isprohibitedplants2.pdf. For more information on controlling invasives in the St. Lawrence-Eastern Lake Ontario region, visit sleloinvasives.org

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Plant a tree, don't rent it

By PAUL HETZLER

Planting a tree isn’t rocket science, which is a good thing. If it were that complex, I’d wager we’d have a lot fewer trees lining our streets. It may not take a scientist to plant a tree correctly, but a lot of money is spent each year to buy and plant trees which may as well be leased, because they will only live a fraction of their potential lifespan.

When trees decline and die after 15, 20, or even 30 years, the last thing we probably suspect is shoddy planting. Although landscape trees like mountain-ash and birch have naturally short lives, a sugar maple or red oak should easily last a hundred or more years. Yet all too often, a long-lived species will expire at twenty because it was planted “fast and dirty.” You can find examples of trees declining as an age-class in housing developments, and especially along major routes where contractors replaced trees cut down for road improvements. One may as well consider such trees rentals, not purchases.

Deep planting sets the stage for a sickly tree, one often headed for an untimely end. Every tree comes with a handy “depth gauge” called the trunk flare, which should be just visible above the original soil grade. Planting too deep leads to serious future health problems. For the tree, primarily. Here is an arborist joke: What do you call a 3-foot-deep planting hole for a tree? Its grave.

Given their druthers, tree roots extend 2-3 times the branch length, or drip line, but 90% of them will be the top 10” of soil. To reflect this fact, a planting hole should be saucer-shaped and 2-3 times the diameter of the root system, but no deeper—ever. Otherwise the Planting Police will ticket you. OK that’s fiction, but if an arborist happens to come along, she or he may scowl ominously.

When a tree is dug in the nursery, most of its roots are cut off by the tree spade used to dig it. The term transplant shock refers to this catastrophic loss of roots. Obviously, trees can survive transplanting, but they need to have the right conditions for re-growing roots. It’s essential a transplant’s roots be able to penetrate the surrounding soil, as any slight barrier can induce them to turn aside in search of an opening. Compacted soils—common along streets—as well as heavy clay are examples.

Even burlap around the root ball has been shown to cause roots to circle inside the fabric. Wire cages surrounding the burlap can last decades, and often lead to further problems as roots enlarge. Once a tree is at the right depth in the hole, remove all burlap as well as the wire cage from ball-and-burlap trees. Roots of container-grown trees need to be teased out straight. If necessary, cut them to do this. Over time, circling roots increase in diameter and constrict one another. Some eventually become girdling roots which strangle the trunk, either partially or wholly, below the soil line, and stress symptoms like early fall color and twig dieback appear.

Selection is important. Like kids, trees look cute when you bring them home from the nursery, but they can grow fast and take up more room than you expected. If a site is under wires or has restricted space for branches, you need to pick a species and variety that can grow full-size without causing conflicts. Choose a tree hardy to the area—some stores may carry trees not well-suited to the climate where you live. And not all trees have sunny dispositions. Maples can stand a bit of shade, but a shaded crabapple may get crabby. Finally, trees such as hawthorn, hackberry and Kentucky coffeetree have aesthetic interest in dormancy, a consideration given our long winters.

With very sandy or heavy clay soils, moderate amounts of organic matter can improve the backfill. But more than 30% by volume can cause a “teacup effect,” leading to root suffocation. Fertilizer is stressful on new trees, so wait at least a year on that. In healthy soils, trees may not need commercial fertilizer.

Water as you backfill, prodding the soil with a stick or shovel handle to eliminate large air pockets. Unless a site is very windy it’s best not to stake trees—they need movement for strong trunks to develop. Mulching 2-4 inches deep over the planting area (not touching the trunk) will help conserve moisture and suppress weeds.

With the same amount of cost and effort, it’s possible to plant a specimen our great-grandchildren can point to with pride. Or, we can plant an identical tree which fizzles out before we retire. It’s just a matter of a little homework, and attention to a few details. No rocket science, fortunately.

If you would like to learn how to plant trees that your grandchildren can point to with pride, please join St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District and Cornell Cooperative Extension on Saturday, October 13 from 9 a.m. to noon in Canton’s Bend-In-The-River Park at 90 Lincoln Street for a workshop on tree planting and care. The class is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is requested. To register or for more information, call Aaron Barrigar at the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District at (315) 386-3582.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

Fifty shades of night

By PAUL HETZLER

Many nightshades are safe and delicious, and go well in sandwiches and sauces. A few are deadly, dished up mainly by criminals, but most occupy a gray area between these two extremes. Worldwide, there are around 2,700 species in the nightshade family, known as solanaceae to Latin geeks. The group comprises tasty crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatillos. It is also composed in part by shady characters such as jimsonweed and deadly nightshade which have wrought mayhem and death, both accidental and intentional, throughout history.

Nightshades are present on every continent except Antarctica, though Australia and South America have the greatest diversity, and overall numbers, of species. Tobacco is one of the most economically important nightshades, while other family members, for example petunias and Chinese lanterns, spice up our yards. The majority of nightshades are wild species, some of which have been used as sources of medicine for millenia.

It seems that the word “sumac” is preceded by “poison” in the minds of many folks, which is sad because all the sumac we see on roadsides and in fencerows are perfectly harmless. Poison sumac, which requires standing water, is a glossy-stemmed shrub with drooping white berries. It can cause a poison ivy-like rash, but is an uncommon species. To an even greater extent, everyone assumes the term “nightshade” always comes after the word “deadly.”

Obviously, part of the problem is one of branding. The “real” deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is worthy of its name. A single berry can be fatal to a child, and 8-10 berries or just one leaf is enough to kill an adult. Accidental poisonings may occur because the deeply hooded purple berries taste sweet, and may be consumed by kids or adults. The plant has also been used deliberately as a way to kill political foes and unfaithful spouses. In at least one case, a whole garrison of soldiers was wiped out by sweet wine spiked with A. belladonna berry extract (helpful hint: do not accept drinks from enemy kings or other people you do not know well).

However, deadly nightshade prefers temperate or subtropical climates, and is not known to occur in northern NY. What we commonly call “deadly nightshade” is the native bittersweet nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, the seeds of which are very slightly toxic. But we do have a dangerous nightshade, jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) also known as devil-apple or mad-apple. All parts of the plant are toxic, but especially the seeds. Native to Mexico and Central America, this coarse annual weed has very long, white, funnel-shaped flowers and bizarre-looking spiny pods, and can be found infesting pastures and barnyards.

All nightshades contain some amounts of atropine, scopolamine, and other compounds which in minute quantities have medical uses, but are extremely dangerous at larger doses. Within very narrow limits, these chemicals have also be used recreationally. Tragically, some poisonings are a result of people consuming A. belladonna, D. stramonium, and other nightshades with especially high concentrations of such chemicals in the mistaken belief they can get high. A plant in one location may be many times as toxic as the same species growing on a different site, and there is no way outside of lab analysis to tell.

The skin of potatoes which have been exposed to light will turn green, indicating that some toxic principles have accumulated. The danger is small, but to be on the safe side these should be discarded. The chemicals can penetrate into the flesh, and removing the green portions is not enough to completely eliminate the risk to infants or the elderly. Likewise, there is little danger in consuming a small amount of tomato or potato leaf, but where children are concerned, refer all questions to a poison-control center. Enjoy your vegetable nightshades, but steer clear of the shady ones.

Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.