Monday, January 20, 2014

Notable Native Herb: Redring Milkweed

By Carol Kagan, Master Gardener
Redring Milkweed (T.G. Barnes, USDA)
Selected by the Herb Society of America, Asclepias variegata [Ass-KLE-pee-us  var-ee-GAY-tuh] is the Notable Native Herb for 2014. This species of milkweed has white, waxy flowers with reddish rings around the middle resulting in its common name, Redring Milkweed.
Redring Milkweed native areas & endangered in CT, NY & PA

This perennial plant is native to the lower 48 states as well as Canada and is hardy in zones 6a-8b. It is on the endangered list in Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. It does best in moist to dry shaded roadsides, woodlands and open forest. While it likes moderate shade it tolerates full sun.
Redring Milkweed on edge of forest (J.S.Kos)
The plant grows to 3 ft. tall and has terminal clusters of white waxy flowers with a red ring between the sepals and the upper part of the flower. This species of milkweed has many of the same characteristics as other milkweeds. The plant has a long taproot that makes it very hardy and it produces lots of nectar.  The broken stems and leaves leak a milky liquid.
Crab spider on redring milkweed (J.S.Kos)
The flowers have a sweet odor. Bees, wasps, butterflies, flies, spiders and ants can be seen on its flowers. Although pollinator fans know milkweed as a host plant for monarch butterfly caterpillars, the milk of this species is not an important food source for them. The stands of this plant are sparse and often in shade which may contribute to the few monarchs seen on them.

Redring Milkweed Pods (G.S.Williamson)

This plant flowers from May to June and produces narrow, upright seed pods. It can be propagated from the seeds or plant division. Note that it is on the endangered list in Pennsylvania.

Redring Milkweed Close-up (D.D. Taylor, USDA)
Links for more information

USDA Plant Database: Redring Milkweed
Anybody seen my focus-JS Kos Blog: Redring or White Milkweed




Saturday, January 11, 2014

“For the Birds” Workshop Brings in A Flock

By Carol Kagan

Linda Secrist presents tips to attract birds

“Think of yourself as a bird,” said Master Gardener Linda Secrist, “and if you were flying over your yard, what would you see?”
The “For the Birds” Master Gardener workshop on January 11 hosted 23 participants interested in learning how to attract birds and getting tips on plant selection, bird watching and treats for birds.

“I have a great horned owl that sits on my roof and wakes me every morning,” said Carol Sirbaugh, Fayetteville. But there is a dearth of other birds despite her efforts with bird feeders so she was looking for more ways to attract birds.
Secrist described the four things that birds need to thrive: water, food, shelter and nesting areas. This time of year providing water for birds is a challenge and she presented several options to keep water from icing over in bird baths and ponds.
Bird nesting in a simple clay feeder
“Birds can eat up to three times their body weight every day,” Secrist noted. “So ‘eats like a bird’ really has a different meaning than we use every day.” Since different birds like different food, she listed the seeds and foods, such as suet and fruit, that various birds prefer.

Linda Secrist talks about different seeds and bird foods

Inspired by the book “Cooking for the Birds” by Adele Porter, Secrist displayed interesting food concoctions including belly jelly and pasta al fresco. Joyce Randolph, Hagerstown, MD, was particularly interested in the woodpecker waffles and intended to make some at home.
A variety of foods for birds
Kylie Deaton, Hagerstown, came with her mother and said, “I learned about different foods like the waffles and pasta.” As the 4th grade reporter for her class, she expects to do a report on the workshop for the next newspaper issue.

Many in the workshop raised their hands when asked who had not cleared every perennial in their yard in the fall. Secrist pointed out that this is a good strategy for attracting birds during the winter months.
The best flowers to attract birds are single-petaled varieties like this coneflower.
With some plants already in place, Penny Farrah, Greencastle, said she wanted “to know more about what plants” to add. She had already jotted down coneflowers, a new plant to add.

Selecting native plants and flowers that birds like are important for providing not only food but shelter and nesting sites. Hedgerows and larger shrubs offer cover for birds and trees are the typical nesting site for most birds.  

Carl Robillard, Shippensburg, has three acres he is landscaping. “I want to include bird friendly plants and shrubs so this workshop was interesting about that,” commented Robillard. A Master Gardener suggested the native elderberry shrub as a good choice to consider.
As for birdhouses, Secrist said, “Your bird house should be boring.” Plain, well-constructed shelters with access to clean them out are what birds seek, not the brightly painted and decorated houses.
John Myers (R) and Rebecca & David Irvin(L) at the workshop
In response to an inquiry if bluebirds in this area migrate over winter, John Myers, Marion, PA, mentioned that his “mother had three or four bluebird houses and the bluebirds were around during the winter.” Myers added the bluebirds had “a couple sets of babies every year.”

Both Rebecca Irvin and her dad, David, Chambersburg, already have quite a variety of bird visitors but wanted to find out how to attract others. Rebecca said she learned about a lot of different stuff that was bird food. 
Rebecca was suited up in her soccer gear and heading to an indoor game but she stayed after the workshop to talk about all the different birds they see both at home and when vacationing. She knows she won’t hear the beautiful song of the hermit thrushes in Maine at home in Chambersburg, but expects to see a bigger variety at home now.

Photo credit: Carol Kagan

Sunday, January 5, 2014

January 17: Time to Go A-Wassailing

by Carol Kagan, Master Gardener
“Health to thee, good apple-tree,
Well to bear, pocket-fulls, hat-fulls,
Peck-fulls, bushel-bag fulls.”

This song was sung during ORCHARD-VISITING wassailing (rhymes with fossil-ing), not to be confused with HOUSE-VISITING wassailing. The orchard wassail tradition is typically done on Twelfth Night (January 17 on the old Gregorian Calendar). It refers to visiting apple orchards to thank the trees for the past year and promote a good harvest in the coming year.

Wassailing is an old tradition, dating back to the 14th century, with lots of variations in communities. It means “to your health” in Old English.  Many communities in England still regularly hold January wassailing events.

Evening Wassails may include bonfires (Finniver Farm &Cidery)
Pennsylvania is the fourth highest U.S. apple producer and Franklin, Adams and York counties have ample apple orchards. Sadly, there're no local wassail events but the tradition is interesting. Terhune Farms in New Jersey holds annual wassailing as does Linville Orchards in Media, Pennsylvania.

Originally, the wassail was a drink made of mulled ale, curdled cream, roasted crab apples, eggs, cloves, ginger, nutmeg and sugar.  It was served indoors from large bowls. After partaking of cider (wassail bowl has alcohol) and cake, people would go out into the orchard carrying an earthen-ware cup of cider and some cake. 

The cake is soaked with cider and left in the tree branches for the birds. (Perhaps drunken birds sing louder and make the trees happier.)

Tying bread crumbs in a tree to honor the robins (Finniver Farm & Cidery)

 Cider is then poured around the tree roots and various songs sung such as
“Here’s to thee, old apple-tree,
Whence thou may’st bud, and whence thou may’st blow,
And whence thou may’st bear apples enow
Hats- full! Caps- full!
Bushel-bushel-sacks full,
And my pockets full, too, huzza!”
In some variations the aim is to wake the apple trees and scare away evil spirits. Shouting, noise makers and musket shots can be part of the ritual. Other variations  include a wassail King or Queen to lead a processional through the countryside, visiting a number of orchards.
A folktale from Somerset reflecting this custom tells of the "Apple Tree Man", the spirit of the oldest apple tree in an orchard, and in whom the fertility of the orchard is said to reside. In the tale a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard and is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried treasure.
In modern times the wassail tradition has been used to promote a good harvest or good growth of other plants besides apples. Is there something in the garden or yard you need to give a little boost for the coming growing season?
Should you wish to make some wassail and bundle up to go into the garden, Colonial Williamsburg provides this recipe:
  • 1 gallon apple cider
  • 1 large can unsweetened pineapple juice
  • 3/4 cup tea
Place in a cheesecloth sack:
  • 1 tablespoon whole cloves
  • 1 tablespoon whole allspice
  • 2 sticks cinnamon
This is great cooked in a crock pot. Let it simmer very slowly for 4 to 6 hours. You can add water if it evaporates too much. At your discretion, alcohol may be added to taste. Serves 20.

Links for more information

Wikipedia: Wassailing
Colonial Williamsburg: Wassailing through History
Pennsylvania Colonial Plantation: Christmas at the Farm Video
Edwardian Wassail from Ronald Hutton's Orchard: Video
Why Christmas: Wassailing and Mumming