|Akebia - it's delicious|
the days grow cold.
The Goddess pulls her mantle of Earth around Her
as You, O Great Sun God, sail toward the West
to the land of eternal enchantment,
wrapped in the coolness of night.
the hours of day and night are balanced."
- Mabon Sabbat and Lore
Sadly, it’s almost here, the fall equinox, the beginning of autumn. It’s Friday September 22, when the days and nights will both be close to 12 hours long. After that the days get shorter more quickly and the sun slides lower on the southern horizon. It’s a cool and kind of misty day here today but we are actually supposed to get some much above normal heat by Friday, with temperatures in the mid 80’s.
We badly need some rain here. It’s very dry and my plants are covered with white dust from our limestone gravel road. Everything looks kind of old and droopy. I have been watering and watering and I am ready for some fall rains. The forecast looks dry though, unless one of those hurricanes out there throw some rain far enough west to help us.
Last week I said there was nothing left for first bloom in the garden except my cup and saucer vine but I forgot about the colchicum, the fall crocus, which popped into bloom this week. The flowers are pretty and much larger than spring crocus but they still kind of get lost in all the mature vegetation in my beds. I also forgot about the tuberose, which are in a pot, and also began to bloom this week.
I have a Lycoris radiata, red spider lily, which is sending up shoots finally. It’s in a pot too, because it isn’t quite hardy here. With the warm weather coming it just might have time to bloom. And that cup and saucer vine opened one flower today.
I think the hummers have begun to leave for the south. I’m only seeing one, rather than 6-8 at a time and the feeders aren’t emptying out in a day anymore. Suet consumption has dropped a lot too; I guess there are lots of things for birds to eat right now.
I have been watching the small leopard frogs that invaded my little water feature this spring. There are at least 6 of them and they sure gave grown over the summer. They started out little tiny things, now some of them are 3 inches long. I hope they grew big on mosquitoes.
The Farmers and Old Farmers Almanacs came out last week. I enjoy reading the almanacs but I don’t believe their weather predictions are very accurate. I keep track of the weather, daily precip., and minimum –maximum temps and have done so for 5 years at least. Last winter when bored one day, I compared my weather stats to my collection of old almanacs and found that they were not even near being accurate.
The almanacs both claim they have secret formulas to predict the weather but they have to have those predictions at least 18 months in advance for the almanacs to be published on time and there’s just no way predictions that far out can be accurate. Indeed several research projects that compared weather from across the US to both almanacs predictions found them to be right only about 50% of the time, which is about the same as a random guess. I check the official NOAA weather forecast each day- and it often changes from day to day.
Here’s how to predict your own weather, with results just as accurate as the Almanacs. Take out a coin; decide which side of the coin will stand for rainy or snowier than normal weather and which for drier than normal. Assign one side of the coin for colder than normal temps and one for warmer than normal. Get out a 2018 calendar. For each month flip the coin for once for the precipitation and once for the temperature and mark your results on the calendar.
Then you’ll need to look up the average temperatures and precip totals for your area for each month also. The national weather service has that information. (They also make long range predictions but warn they aren’t too accurate) Put your averages on the calendar next to your predictions from flipping a coin. Now you can just wait and observe the weather as it happens and compare your predictions from coin flipping. Chances are you will be as accurate as either of the Almanacs. (You might want to keep this formula locked up in a safe or metal box like the Almanacs say they keep theirs).
I mentioned in an earlier blog that I had Akebia, (chocolate vine), fruit on the vine and was hoping that they would ripen before frost. Well I lucked out. I was walking by the garden this weekend and saw that the fruit had ripened to a lovely lavender color and was beginning to split. I picked it and brought it inside- after getting some nice pictures of it.
The fruits are shaped somewhat like small bananas. They split along the bottom seam to reveal a roll of white jelly like stuff, with clumps of small white threads sticking out all over. It certainly does not look terribly appetizing, I posted a picture on Facebook and most people thought it looked like a large grub or someone said a sea urchin.
I worked up the nerve to taste it – and made my husband taste it. Surprisingly it was very good, sweet with a flavor hard to describe, maybe melon mixed with passionfruit. The texture was jelly like. It did not taste like chocolate, although I had already read that it didn’t. It’s the smell of the flowers that it gets the common name from- although I didn’t think they smelled like chocolate either.
The biggest problem with it was the seeds; the jelly is loaded with small black, hard seeds, about the size of a BB. The only way I could find to eat it was to try and pick out the seeds with a fork or swallow a bit and spit out seeds. I looked up “how to eat Akebia” but all I found was information that it was a delicacy in Korea and other SE Asian countries and expensive to buy.
I suppose one could push the jelly through a colander, which was what I eventually did to separate out the seeds to save. I used warm water to rinse off the remaining jelly and then I spread the seeds out on a paper towel to dry on the window sill.
As soon as I set the seeds on the window sill a yellow jacket wasp appeared out of nowhere- yes in the house- and he picked up a seed and began climbing up the window screen with it. It was too heavy for him to fly with. Evidently there was a gap somewhere along the window frame because he got above my head and disappeared with the seed.
Later in the evening after the house was quiet I heard noises in the kitchen and went to look. I caught a glimpse of a mouse scurrying away – and saw he had eaten some seeds or carried them away. (A trap was set for the mouse; in our old house mice aren’t uncommon. Maybe Akebia seeds would be good bait.)
In nature it seems Akebia seeds are carried away by ants and other insects and taken to their burrows where they eat off the jelly and effectively plant the seed. The seeds must have a very compelling scent as they seem irresistible to critters. I have saved some seeds for sharing and planting.
The rind of the akebia fruit was thick, like the rind of a melon and was so pretty, the lavender outside and shiny white inside, that I tried to save and dry the rind but that didn’t work well so they went to the compost pile.
I got 6 fruits this year and according to other gardeners who grow the vine I was lucky as in northern areas they often don’t set fruit. It will be interesting to see if it fruits next year and equally interesting to see if I can get some of these seeds I saved to sprout. (By the way there's an article about growing Akebia to the right of this blog.)
Praying Mantis- Are they good for the garden?
You often see egg cases of praying mantis for sale in garden catalogs and some gardeners believe that the little creatures are the answer for problem insects in the garden. But are praying mantises really beneficial for the garden? Most entomologists would tell you their presence in the garden is neutral- the benefits are erased by the costs.
|Praying mantis, probably Chinese|
Praying Mantis should really be called preying mantis, because they do far more preying than praying. These odd looking creatures are the source of folklore around the world and are even kept as pets. There are several native species of mantis, the most common being the Carolina Mantis, (Stagmomantis carolina) which is found throughout most of the eastern half of the US and even south into Mexico. The European mantis (Mantis religiosa), and the Chinese mantis (Tenodera sinensis), were introduced into North America with the hope they would clear out garden and crop pests. Both of these species are fairly common across most of the US and all species are called by the common name Praying Mantis.
A mantis has a large head shaped like a triangle with a distinct “snout”. There are two large prominent compound eyes and 3 small simple eyes most people don’t notice. The head also has 2 antenna. Most mantis species have a flexible neck and can rotate their heads almost 180 degrees.
Mantis have 2 large forelegs, with spikes and a claw at the end that allow them to firmly grasp their prey. They also have 2 other sets of legs close together in the middle section of their body. (Like most insects there are 3 segments to the body.) Mantis have long bodies that are slimmer in males and in both sexes end in 2 cerci, tail like appendages many people think of as “pinchers”. Females usually are larger with plumper abdomens. The Carolina Mantis can be 3-4 inches long.
All of the common mantis species mentioned have 2 sets of wings, an outer tough, colored set and an inner, thin almost clear set. Once adult, mantises don’t do a lot of flying, especially the heavy females. Mantis colors range from brown to green and tend to match the surroundings so they blend in and are camouflaged from their prey and things that might prey on them.
The Carolina mantis can be brown or green. The wings of the male reach to the end of the body, while those of the female end about ¾ of the way down the body. The females of this species are very large and plump when mature. The European mantis is usually green, with distinctive black spots on the underside of the first body segment (chest), some of which may have a white center. The Chinese mantis is usually slimmer and smaller than the other two. It can be either brown or green but has a light green stripe running along the edge of the outer wings. It can be difficult to tell the species apart, especially when they are young.
Praying mantis are predators, eating all kinds of insects and even small frogs, toads, lizards and the occasional small bird, like hummingbirds. Usually they lay in wait for their prey, moving with remarkable speed when the victim is close enough to grab. Sometimes however they stalk their prey, moving slowly and carefully until they are close enough to grab it. They usually begin munching the head of the victim first. They have strong mandibles (jaws) to crush insect shells.
Praying mantis can bite a human if provoked, but it’s not poisonous, is only a tiny prick and won’t happen if you leave them alone. You cannot catch diseases from a mantis and they will not attack you. The old wives tale that mantis can spit into your eyes and blind you is just that, an old wives tale. While mantis may produce some brown discharge from the mouth when scared, they don’t spit and the discharge won’t harm you.
Because they do not specialize in any type of insect praying mantis also eat many beneficial insects including bees and butterflies which is why most experts consider their status neutral for pest control. For every pest insect they consume they probably consume a helpful insect too. They also eat each other so you usually won’t find many mantises in the same area. When people buy egg cases to hatch out in the garden, many mantises may hatch and then turn on each other, leaving only a few in the garden.
Praying mantises are also eaten by other things, birds, frogs, and small mammals. When attacked they often stand up their back legs, spread their wings and wave their front legs in an effort to look larger and intimidate their enemy.
Praying mantises live about 1 year, one season in colder areas of the country. Mating season is in late summer- early fall. Yes, female mantises may eat the smaller males when they mate. But it’s not as common in nature as the stories would suggest. In captivity cannibalism during mating is about 90% but researchers found that in nature the odds of a male being eaten during any single mating are only about 25%. However since males generally mate with several females their odds of escaping death during the mating season are probably low.
After mating females lay eggs that stick to objects like twigs, posts, and garden ornaments. They then produce a brown foamy substance that covers the eggs and quickly hardens into a protective case. (I think it looks like the foam stuff you spray into cracks that expands and hardens to seal them.) In cold climates the eggs don’t hatch until warm weather in the spring. Egg cases are called ootheca. You can collect and move them to the garden and they will be fine.
Eggs hatch into mantis nymphs, wingless but looking like small versions of the adults, and then rapidly become winged adults. Praying Mantises usually don’t fly far from where they hatched. But because they consider each other food, only a few mantises will survive from any egg case you place in the garden.
Praying mantises are fascinating to observe in the garden but in reality they probably won’t do much to control insect pests since only a few will be able to co-exist in the garden. If you see one around your hummingbird feeder I would remove it to another part of the garden. I have heard bee keepers complain that they sometimes hang around hives to eat bees. Buying several egg cases for the garden is probably wasted effort but it can be fun for children to watch the insects hatch and catch their prey.
Toad lilies (Tricyrtis species)
If you are looking for something different for a shady spot why not try some toad lilies? These interesting plants with their dainty, exotic, orchid like blooms in late summer add color to the shade when few other shade plants are blooming. They are perennial plants and relatively easy to grow. They are also deer resistant but rabbits are said to eat them.
No one knows how Tricyrtis got the common name toad lily. It might be because it likes to grow in shady damp areas where toads might be found. Or it could be because of the splotched and spotted flowers although they look nothing like the spots on toads. Despite the name toad lilies are charming. They are relatively new to the modern garden scene- probably first seen in garden stores in the early 1990’s.
Toad lilies are native to Eastern Asia, China and Japan and into the Himalayans. There is a great deal of confusion still in the market place as to the proper labeling of the different species, some 20-22 of them- and the many hybrids coming on the scene don’t help matters. Toad lilies are members of the lily family (well, most agree on that).
Tricyrtis likes cool, moist areas and does best in zones 5-7 (some species hardy to zone 4). It can be grown in warmer zones if it is in a very shaded location and kept consistently moist. In the north partly shaded or lightly shaded areas are ideal.
Tricyrtis sends up 1-3 foot stems from rhizomes just under the ground. The oval leaves of Tricyrtis clasp the stem and partially surround it. Some species have leaves only on one side of the stem; others look fuller, with leaves on both sides of the stem. The leaves are dark green in most species but there are now many cultivated varieties of toad lilies with variegated leaves. In some species the stems are slightly hairy.
Tricyrtis blooms in late summer and early fall and the blooms appear at the end of the stems. The flowers of toad lilies are quite interesting and most face upward so you can admire their beauty more closely. (Some Tricyrtis species also have dangling bell shaped flowers.) Despite the attempts of many catalogs to make them appear larger, the flowers are only an inch to 2 inches long. There are six long narrow petals. (Actually like most members of the lily family there are actually 3 petals and 3 sepals which look like petals.)
The toad lily flower stamens are fused together in a cone in the center of the flower and three feathery pistils, or female parts are prominent in the center, these are often forked or lobed at the ends and dotted with color like the petals. Some flowers are solid colors in white, lavender, yellow or pink but most toad lilies are known for their speckled and spotted flowers.
An interesting new development links the spotting and blotching in some varieties of toad lilies to a virus similar to Mosaic Bean virus. The University of Minnesota did some tests on blotched and spotted toad lilies and found the virus. The infected plants seem to grow normally otherwise and more work needs to be done to see how the virus affects the various species.
What Tricyrtis needs
Toad lilies need a shady moist area to do their best. They prefer a rich, organic soil. They are plants that need several years to fulfill their best potential. They normally bloom the first year but often on only one stem. They may need several years to spread and form a nice vigorous clump to make an impact. Heights vary from compact varieties about 8 inches tall to species ranging about 2 feet tall.
Toad lilies must have consistent moisture or the leaves dry on the edges and look ratty. Too much sun will also cause the drying. They benefit from the addition of compost and a good slow release fertilizer in the spring and again in mid-summer. They are best planted in the spring.
The plants can be propagated from cuttings, seeds or dividing the rhizomes. Dividing takes some care, as a new growth bud must be on each division of the crown. Tricrytis seeds germinate easily if they are given a cold, moist treatment for several weeks before planting. Most gardeners will want to buy their toad lilies as bare rhizomes or as potted plants. The plants spread slowly in the garden and are not considered to be invasive.
Remember the flowers are small, and to be seen and appreciated, toad lilies need to be close to the front of the bed or along a woodland path. They are charming in naturalized settings.
There are new hybrids, varieties and species being offered each year as the plants become more popular. Here are some named selections.
‘Togen’ is one of the oldest varieties on the market. It has white petals with lavender edges. ‘Taipai Silk’ has purple flowers with white edges. ‘Sinonome’ has white flowers with purple specks and the leaves are on both sides of the stem, and the plant is compact.
‘Empress’ has the largest flowers of the Toad Lilies, they are white dotted with purple. ‘Raspberry Mousse’ is a solid wine red. ‘White Towers’ has solid white flopwers.
‘Golden Leopard’ is a shimmering yellow with brown spots. ‘Moonlight Treasure’ has rounded, variegated leaves and large golden yellow flowers. ‘Lightning Strike’ has tall arching stems of golden foliage with green markings and light lavender flowers. ‘Imperial Banner’ is a sport of ‘Empress. It has the same flowers but the leaves have a broad white streak down the middle and are slightly wavy. ‘Gilt Edge’ has leaves outlined in gold. ‘Lunar Landing’ is a hybrid toad lily with silvery, velvet like leaves, each bordered in dark green, reddish stems and purple flowers.
Caution: All parts of the Tricyrtis plant are poisonous.
Heath Aster, Symphyotrichum ericoides
For those of you who like native plants or those who need a little color in the late fall garden the heath aster may be a good choice. The heath aster produces a froth of tiny white daisy like flowers that lend an airy elegance to informal beds in fall.
Heath asters are suitable for planting zones 5-8, are a hardy perennial plant and drought tolerant. They will grow in full sun or partial shade and will grow in most types of soil. They are common along roadsides and in abandoned fields but you can also buy plants from native plant nurseries or start them from seed. Heath asters survive fires well and are one of the native prairie plants that may benefit from periodic burning.
Heath asters have one or more stems with narrow, long leaves about 3 inches long and a ¼ wide at the base, and leaves get smaller and narrower farther up the stem. Near the top of the stalk the leaves may have a short spine at the tip. As the stalks grow the lower leaves are shed. Leaves are arranged alternately. Stems are hairy near the top and become brown and woody with age. The plant stems branch by the end of summer, forming an open bush shape about 2 feet tall. Plants die back to the ground each winter.
In late summer and until frost heath asters produce abundant clusters of tiny white flowers about a ½ inch across. There are about 8-20 white ray flowers and a cluster of yellow disk flowers in the center, a typical “daisy” flower. As the flowers age the disk turns reddish. The back of the flower is surrounded with rows of narrow blunt tipped bracts which may curl back away from the flower. The flowers have no scent.
Heath aster flowers produce flat brown seeds, each with a tiny bit of fluff to help move them to new locations. Plants can be started by sowing seeds where you want them to grow in fall or early spring. They need a period of cold stratification to germinate.
Heath asters have rhizomous root systems and can be aggressive spreaders when they like the location. I pull all but a few plants from selected areas of my garden beds in early spring. If you let them multiply too much the bed will become a matted mass of aster plants. You can divide the rhizomes and share plants if you like.
The flowers of heath aster are popular with bees, flies, beetles, and butterflies. The tiny flowers make good cut flowers and can be dried for arrangements also. Some plants have thick, short clusters of flowers, forming more of a wand shape and others have looser clusters.
The plants are the larval hosts for the silver checkerspot butterfly and several moths. The plants may be eaten when young by deer and rabbits or livestock but are avoided as they get older. Hay is considered unusable if it has too much heath aster mixed in it.
Native Americans used the heath aster as an aromatic herb in sweat lodges. It was used to revive people who had fainted or who were unconscious. From what I can gather a smoldering piece is held close to the patient for this purpose.
So what is summer or fall without some zucchini bread? If you grow zucchini you almost always too much zucchini and personally I think this is the absolute best way to eat zucchini. You can vary the spices in this recipe to suit your personal taste. This makes one large loaf.
If you don’t have time to bake some zucchini bread this fall you can freeze shredded zucchini to use later. To freeze zucchini shred it with a shredder or food processor. Blanch the shreds in boiling water in a colander until they turn clear. Pack your shreds in freezer bags or containers and set them in ice water. When they cool move the containers to the freezer.
2 cups shredded zucchini (thawed and drained if frozen)
1 cup crushed pineapple
1 cup shredded coconut
1 cup melted butter or vegetable oil
3 cups flour
2 ¼ cups sugar
¼ cup chopped pecans
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
In a food processor place the eggs, oil, vanilla and sugar and blend until smooth. (You can also use a bowl and hand mixer.)
Blend in salt, baking powder and baking soda, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Add the flour 1 cup at a time, blending well after each addition.
Add the zucchini, pineapple, pecans and coconut and blend just until well mixed.
Pour into a greased large loaf pan and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. Insert a toothpick to see if it comes out clean. Cool before slicing.
When the turkey vultures leave fall is truly here
“He who has a garden and a library wants for nothing” ― Cicero
© Kim Willis - no parts of this newsletter may be used without permission.
And So On….
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