Tuesday, December 31, 2013

December 31, 2013, Kims Weekly Garden Newsletter

December 31, 2013 - Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

These weekly garden notes are written by Kim Willis, unless another author is noted, and the opinions expressed in these notes are her opinions and do not represent any other individual, group or organizations opinions.

Hi Gardeners

There is beauty in the ice as well as devastation.
Oh what a fun time we had with the weather the last 2 weeks!  I was without power for a couple days and I know some of you were without power for many more.  My yard is a mess of broken trees.  As I drive around Tuscola, Lapeer, Sanilac and northern Oakland County I want to cry seeing all the devastating damage done to the trees.  My beautiful white pine was just starting to look better from the last ice storm several years ago and it’s a mess again, I don’t think it can ever look normal again.

You think you are prepared for emergencies but after spending a couple days in the cold without power you suddenly begin to wonder if you can survive.  Our biggest failure in preparedness was not having a back- up heating plan.  I had stored a lot of water and we had lanterns and candles, plenty of food and a way to cook but our only source of heat was boiling soup pots of water on the stove.  We closed off most of our rooms and that kept the core of the house about 55 degrees but it required a lot of close monitoring even at night.

After 2 days, knowing that the temperature outside was going to get much colder we decided we had to get a generator to keep the pipes from freezing.  I braved the icy roads and was lucky to get to a store just as they received a generator shipment and waited in line to buy one.  Then I waited in a longer line to buy gas for it at the only open gas station in Marlette.  Most stores were still without power and closed.   I came home and announced happily that I was able to get a generator – and I kid you not- the lights popped on.  So now you know how to get power restored to a house without it. 

Storm damage to trees

The recent ice storm will have a long lasting effect on our trees and shrubs.  White pines, willows, poplars, and box elders are some of the trees most affected but all species can and do have damage.  While large limbs on the ground and hanging unnaturally in the trees are obvious, some damage will not be so easily seen after the ice is off the tree and the limbs return to a more natural position.

This spring check your trees carefully.  Look for sap leaking from cracked or split branches, limbs that don’t fully leaf out or look yellow.  If you can safely reach branches that were broken off a good distance from the trunk or in a jagged manner, trim them back to the branch collar close to the trunk.  In the spring you may need to trim branches to restore a natural shape and balance to a tree or shrub.  

Some split or cracked branches will heal on their own, but some will need to be removed.   If they don’t look good by mid- summer I would remove them.  If the tree is valuable sometimes propping or splinting a branch may help it heal.  Tree service companies can sometimes apply devices to save branches.

Except for oak trees you do not need to paint tree wounds.  If your oak trees were damaged during the ice storm you should use a tree sealing paint on any stumps you can reach before the sap starts flowing.  Insects are attracted to sap and plant wounds and they often bring disease.  In oaks sap attracts picnic beetles, which spread deadly Oak Wilt disease.   During the next spring and summer damaged trees of all kinds will be more susceptible to insects and disease and should be carefully monitored and treated if necessary.

Shrubs and small trees who were bent or deformed in shape can often be carefully tied up or supported for a few months to restore their shape.  Some heavily damaged shrubs can be pruned right to the ground for a new start.  Lilac, spirea, barberry, forsythia, shrub dogwoods,  and mock orange are examples.  You may lose blooms for a season but have nicer, healthier looking plants.

Obvious tree damage.

Pay particular attention to trees that overhang your house or outbuildings.  On a mild day before the trees leaf out you may want to examine them with binoculars.  If they were cracked or split from ice they may come down in a spring storm.  Deciduous trees that were damaged may break when they leaf out and become wet in a spring storm.  You may have to have a professional remove these branches.
Give your shrubs and trees some fertilizer about April this year to help them with repairs.  Keep them watered during dry spells.   

Herb of the year- Artemisia

The herb of the year is Artemisia, which isn’t just one herb but a whole range of species.  Artemisia’s grow around the world and are native to many different countries.  You may know an Artemisia by the name of Sweet Annie, Mugwort, Wormwood, Tarragon, Southernwood, Sagebrush, or by other names.  Artemisia’s of many species have had a long history in herbal medicines, being one of the bitter herbs traditionally used for the digestive system, as a liver tonic and to stimulate the immune system. 

Many Artemsia’s have silvery foliage that is fernlike but the foliage and form of Artemisia’s varies widely.  Some have dark green narrow leaves, some have broad leaves.  Some Artemisia’s form small rounded bushes, some grow as sprawling mats, with many variations in between.  There are even species that form small trees. The flowers of Artemsia’s are insignificant for the most part, although some are used in medicinal products.  Some species are annual, others perennial.  There is a wide range of hardiness in Artemisia’s.  When you are purchasing plants make sure to check if the species is hardy in your zone.

Tarragon is a culinary herb and many Artemisia’s including Sweet Annie, an annual member of the Artemisia family, are used in herbal crafts.  Artemisia’s of many species are also used as ornamental plants, lending a soothing silvery cast to the perennial garden.  (There is now a golden foliaged Artemisia ‘Gold Mound’ wormwood on the market too.)  In the garden Artemisia’s are used for their foliage.

Native Americans pounded the seeds of sagebrush into flour; they burned the leaves in ceremonial cleansings and used sagebrush for chest congestion.  They also placed sagebrush leaves in stored grain to keep away insects.  In Europe wormwood was used to stimulate the appetite, expel intestinal worms, as a liver tonic and colic reliever.  In Russia and China the shoots of some Artemisia’s were eaten when young, it was used to stop bleeding and cure infections as well as a digestive aid.   They were used for male impotence and female reproductive problems.

In Africa Artemisia’s were used as digestive herbs but also in the treatment of malaria.  Recent research has isolated a chemical, artemesinin, that is quite effective in killing the malaria parasite in the blood and it is sold as a prescription medicine in Africa, Asia and Europe.  This anti-malarial compound is isolated from Sweet Annie, Artemisia annua.  This plant is also used in the treatment of fungal pneumonia’s common to AIDS patients. Dog wormwood, ( Artemisia keiskeana) is being studied as an anti-cancer agent, particularly for breast cancers.

Any discussion of Artemsia’s must mention their use in alcoholic beverages; they are used to make Absinthe (Artemisia absinthium), and Chartreuse, ( Artemisia genipi), some very potent drinks.  They are bitter and were probably first concocted as medicinal drinks.  At one time vermouth also was flavored with Artemisia, but modern vermouth doesn’t use it.  French soldiers were given absinthe or chartreuse to ward off malaria and our current research suggests it may have had some benefit. 

Absinthe had a reputation of being a psychoactive drug as well as a drink and it was banned in some places.   It was probably the high alcoholic content of the drink that really caused the problems.  However it was later found that Absinthe and Chartreuse also had high levels of thujone, a chemical derived from Artemisia (and other plants) thought to cause cancer.   That caused some additional restrictions on selling the drink.  However modern versions of the drinks do not contain thujone, and absinthe is enjoying a revival in popularity.

Many gardeners already have an Artemisia in their gardens but if you don’t, 2014 might be the year to add the herb of the year to your garden.


You may notice a pretty new plant on the market this spring, a cross between common Foxglove (Digitalis)  and a cousin, Isoplexis, that is being called Digiplexis‘Illumination’ .  The plant is hardy only to zone 7 but can be grown as a tender perennial in other areas. ( Additional growing experience may change this hardiness rating.) It will make an excellent addition to containers or beds.

Illumination has exotic foxglove like flowers of peachy red with a yellow throat on tall spikes.  Unlike common foxgloves it has a long blooming period because the plants are sterile and don’t set seed.  They also form on side shoots after the main shoot stops blooming. Digiplexus Illumination grows to about 36 inches high and is semi-evergreen.  It won the Chelsea Flower Show Plant of the Year Award 2012.  Garden stores and catalogs will be carrying it this spring.

Oca- an unusual plant for the vegetable garden

Want something new and unusual to try in your vegetable garden this year?  Want to make some money on a new crop that foodies are focusing on?   Try Oca, (Oxalis tuberosa) a root vegetable from South America, the country that gave us potatoes.  As a bonus the plant with shamrock like leaves and little yellow flowers can be quite pretty.

In the Andes mountains of Peru the natives grow more than potatoes.  They also grow Oca, a plant cultivated and modified by selection for so long it no longer exists in the wild.  Like potatoes the stems of Oca swell and make small tubers underground, which are harvested for food.  The tubers come in a wide range of colors like the potatoes of the Andes, varying from purple to white.  There are said to be different flavors associated with different colors, some being sweeter than others.  The leaves of Oca are also eaten like spinach when they are young.

In the 1800’s Oca was introduced to New Zealand where several varieties are now grown as commercial crops.  It’s found in supermarkets there in the fall.   Oca has been grown in the US and Europe from time to time and was a food craze in the 1830’s for a while.  In recent years many gourmand chefs have been featuring Oca in recipes and demand is growing for the vegetable.  In Mexico raw Oca is sliced and served with lemon and hot sauce as a tasty appetizer.   Chefs are using Oca to add zing to sautéed and stir fried dishes.

Oca is about the size and shape of small potatoes, generally longer than they are wide , about 3-4 inches long.  They have a thin tender skin that doesn’t need to be peeled.  They are high in an easily digestible starch, vitamin C and iron and contain some protein. They also have oxalic acid, (also found in Rhubarb) the concentration of which varies depending on the variety.  For this reason people with gout or prone to kidney stones may want to avoid Oca.

Oca is said to vary in taste depending on variety.  Some are sweet tasting, some have a tart lemony taste, some are blander and starchy like potatoes.  They are cooked in all the ways potatoes are cooked and are also eaten raw.  Oca can be sun dried which concentrates sugars and the right varieties are said to taste as sweet as dates when dried.  One named variety from New Zealand ‘Apricot’ is said to taste like its name.  The leaves and flowers are used in salads and the leaves are also cooked like spinach.

Oca can be started from seed but that is difficult and like potatoes they are usually grown from tubers saved from the last season.   In practice pieces of tuber or small tubers are generally left in the ground during harvest and will return the next season. ( It is not known how well they survive in the ground in planting zones lower than 7.)  They will slowly increase in a garden setting but are not as invasive as Jerusalem artichokes.  

Oca tubers are planted like potatoes in rows or mounds 18-24 inches apart.  Plant when the soil is moderately warm and heavy frost is no longer expected, just like potatoes.   They can have soil pulled up around the stems two or three times to increase the amount of stem underground that will form tubers.  Oca plants have clover like leaves and form bushy plants about a foot high.  They need full sun and fertile, well-drained soil.  Like potatoes they do not tolerate drought well and will need to be watered when it’s dry.
Tubers are harvested after the tops are killed by frost.  They can be left in the ground until just before the ground freezes.  Sun curing for a few days after harvest is recommended.  Tubers become sweeter during storage.  They store about as well as potatoes and should be kept in a cool dark place.

While Oca could be an interesting, even lucrative crop to grow there are some challenges.  Oca is a perennial plant. The plants need a fairly long frost free season to grow and while the plants may survive in colder climates the tubers start growing when days are less than 12 hours long and stop growing at a heavy frost which kills the foliage.  That means in a zone 6 climate the plants would begin forming tubers in September but if there is an early frost they might not have time to produce many tubers.  The suggestion here would be to add low or high tunnels before a heavy frost is predicted or growing them in tunnels in planting zones lower than 7.

Another challenge is finding planting stock.  Few varieties are available.  Potted plants are usually sold and they are expensive compared to potato sets. Territorial Seed company www.TerritorialSeed.com  sells potted plants.   A couple of well cared for Oca plants should give you a harvest of many tubers that could be planted the following year.  Producing planting stock to sell might net you more profit than producing tubers for cooking. 

While many trendy chefs are using Oca in recipes, sales could be slow outside of major cities unless one develops a market with local chefs or foodies.  But if you just want something unusual to offer at a farmers market or just want to try something different for your own dinner a few Oca plants might be just the thing this spring.  I intend to try a single plant and see how it grows and how I like the taste.
Christmas ice.

Have a Happy New Year.  I wish you enough love, happiness, health and wealth.
Garden as though you will live forever. William Kent

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17, 2013 Kim's Weekly Garden Newsletter

December 17, 2013 - Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

These weekly garden notes are written by Kim Willis, unless another author is noted, and the opinions expressed in these notes are her opinions and do not represent any other individual, group or organizations opinions.
Amish buggies in the snow.

Hi Gardeners

I really enjoyed the sun yesterday even though the temperature didn’t get above 20 F.   Today we are back to a dreary snowy day but at least temperatures are going to climb a bit.  The clear day yesterday had me hopeful I would be able to see the Geminid meteor shower last night but the clouds began to roll in around sundown.  The Geminids ( falling stars, meteors) have been very bright and plentiful this year – where they could be seen which wasn’t very many places.  (Well, they were still falling up there above the clouds we just couldn’t enjoy the show).

The shortest day, and longest night, the winter solstice, is this Saturday.  After that, the celestial end of the year,  we begin to climb out of the darkness again, and the new cycle of seasons begins.  I always get a spiritual lift as this day passes and the New Year begins.  Yes its winter now but the days are getting longer, the low point is behind us.   The early Christians chose this time of the year to celebrate Christ’s birth, because this time of year has been celebrated as a time of beginning and renewal since the origins of human society.

Celebrate winter solstice, and welcome back the sun by taking at least take a few moments to reflect on what has happened to you over the year and think about what changes you would like in your life in the next year, before the hubbub and earthly celebration of a modern Christmas.  A yule log or bonfire to gaze into is traditional and a fun addition to your holiday traditions. 

I have had several new subscribers to this newsletter recently, welcome.  I would like to remind everyone that there will be no newsletter next week, on the 24th.

Two Garden books to enjoy or give as gifts

Neither of these books is full of glossy pictures but if you or someone you know enjoys reading about the history and use of plants these books are both educational and entertaining.  I read Wicked Plants, the Weed That Killed Lincolns Mother by Amy Stewart several years ago.  It’s an excellent book about the poisonous and dangerous plants that surround us and that have been used by man for thousands of years.  Read about strychnine, oleander, rosary pea, peyote, deadly nightshade, hemlock, coca, opium, death camas and some 200 toxic plants.  Tales of botanical crimes and intrigue are sprinkled through the book.  It’s written in a charming manner that will make you want to sit and read the book at one sitting.

I have just read another Amy Stewart botanical book- The Drunken Botanist, which was published this year.  This one is about all the plants that make the alcoholic beverages man has been enjoying since the beginning of time.  Without plants the liquor counter at the local store would be empty.  Stewart explores the grains, fruits, vegetables and herbs that make up common and uncommon alcoholic drinks.  And for those of you who like to experiment with alcoholic beverages she sprinkles recipes for unusual cocktails and mixed drinks through the book.

If you don’t know what absinthe is made from or what a marasca cherry (not maraschino) is then this book is a fascinating read.  Both of these books are packed full of odd and unusual things you didn’t know about plants.  Both books have been on the New York Times best seller list and are available as soft or hard cover books or ebooks. ( I read Drunken Botanist on my Kindle).  Amy Stewart is a fascinating garden writer and also writes Garden Rants- a popular garden blog.

New species of cockroach invades US

Those of you who don’t like the creepy crawlers –beware, a new species of cockroach has invaded the US and this one can live outside as well as inside.  It is an Asian species, Periplaneta japonica, which was found in a New York park and identified by entomologists at Rutgers University. 

Several specimens of the insects were found by an exterminator in the High Line Park, an elevated park on the west side of Manhattan.   The park is fairly new and was extensively planted with nursery plants.  It is thought that the roaches arrived in the soil of imported potted plants.  These roaches can live outside even in cold weather but aren’t afraid to move inside where it’s warmer also. 

Beautiful Christmas amaryllis
The new roach looks very similar to cockroaches already in place in New York but entomologists say the new roaches won’t be able to mate with the current residents because their sex organs are incompatible.  It’s still too early to tell what kind of impact the new roach will have but New Yorkers may have to get used to roaches scuttling across the garden paths- even in winter.

Camelina sativa

You may have seen this weed growing in fields or along roads and never thought much about it.  Common names include Gold of Pleasure, False Flax and Wild Mustard.  It’s not native to North America, it was introduced early in European colonization of the new world, but it grows freely throughout the cooler parts of the US.  It was grown as an oilseed crop, grain, and medicinal plant from early history to the 1950’s when crops like canola were introduced and largely replaced it.  The Romans used the oil of Camelina in their lamps.  Early people of many cultures used camelina oil for cooking and as a medicinal oil.

Camelina is a rangy looking plant about 2 feet high. The leaves are arrow shaped and clasp,( surround) the stout stems.  Both stems and leaves are lightly hairy.   Camelina puts out clusters of tiny golden flowers with 4 petals at the top of the plants in late spring- early summer.  The flowers turn into fat rounded pods with orange brown seeds inside.    Camelina is a Brassica, a relative of broccoli and mustard and an annual, cool season plant.

Camelina began to be studied as a bio-fuel a few years ago and some camelina is being grown for this purpose in the US and Europe.  But when scientists began to search for a new source of Omega 3 fatty acids, preferably a plant based source, they struck gold in Gold of Pleasure.  Camelina oil is about 45% Omega 3 fatty acids, it also has high levels of tocopherols, which makes it very stable and resistant to oxidation and rancidity.  It has a high level of Vitamin E.  Camelina oil also has a pleasant nutty flavor which makes it easy to use in cooking and nutritional supplements and doesn’t cause fishy burbs like fish sources of Omega 3 fatty acids often do.  The oil and seeds are high in protein too.

A recent research study showed that adding camelina oil to the diets of those with high cholesterol lowered their “bad” cholesterol levels.  Camelina oil and the waste from pressed seeds used for bio-fuel are being fed to chickens and goats to raise the Omega 3 levels in eggs and milk, making them healthier to consume.  Trials are on-going with adding camelina to the diet of hogs, hoping to change the nature of pork fat, making it healthier and higher in Omega 3 fatty acids.  A whole range of “health” food manufacturers are exploring the use of camelina oil in their products.

The production of camelina seed is an exciting new crop for farmers in colder regions where short growing times limit some other oilseed crops.  Camelina also grows on marginally poor soil and doesn’t require lots of fertilizer, water or pesticides.  And the seed can be harvested with conventional farm machinery.   The seeds are either cold pressed (edible oils) or treated with chemical solvents to extract the oil.  

A gardener or farmer could grow a small crop of Camelina and harvest and extract oil in the same manner as flax seed.  However commercial seed is still hard to find and there are few named cultivars available, although that will probably soon change. You can buy Camelina seeds from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds- www.rareseeds.com

Camelina  plants are alleopathic- meaning that they limit the growth of other plants near them so they would need to be in their own bed/field and not intermingled with other plants.  They are a good cover crop, or a crop grown in rotation plans and may eliminate some weeds.
Camelina oil and even seeds are showing up in some health food stores. The oil is excellent as a base for ointments and creams as it softens and heals rough skin.  Cooking with camelina oil adds a mild flavor as well as many nutritional benefits but the oil is still expensive.

This years all American plant selections

These are plants that have been trialed by the All American Plant Selections organization and found to be outstanding growers over a wide range of the country.

Petunia ‘African Sunset’ F1 is a prolific blooming mounder-spreader petunia of bright, clear orange shades, very different from most petunia colors.

Pepper ‘Mama Mia Giallo’ F1 is a sweet yellow Italian type pepper with long narrow fruits.  It is easy to peel and disease resistant.  Plants are compact and it’s an early producer.

Tomato ‘Chef’s Choice Orange’ F1 is a bright orange mid-size tomato developed from the heritage variety ‘Amana Orange’.  It is highly disease resistant and widely adaptable across the US.  Chef’s Choice Orange has a good tomato flavor and it keeps its color during cooking. 

Tomato ‘Fantastico’ F1 is a cherry tomato of the determinate variety.  It is a stocky plant loaded with long clusters of red cherry tomatoes.  It works well in patio containers or hanging baskets as well as in the garden.  Fantastico is very disease resistant including good tolerance to late blight.

Two new shrubs of note

Proven Winners has two new shrubs that caught my eye.  One is a barberry- Sunjoy® Tangelo- that has tangerine orange color leaves with lighter gold edges that stay colorful all season.  It is certified wheat rust resistant and a strong grower. It’s hardy to zone 4 and 3-4 feet in height.

Tiny Wine™ Ninebark is another addition to landscape ninebarks of more manageable size but it still gets to about 4 feet in height.  It does have smaller, dainty wine purple leaves that stay colorful all season.  In spring the stems are loaded with tiny white flowers that are set off well by the purple foliage.

Proven Winners is a wholesale distributor, look for these shrubs in your local garden stores and in nursery catalogs.

Find a low cost fresh Christmas tree

Did you know you can cut your Christmas tree from the Huron-Manistee National forest for only $5?  Find out more information on my Examiner article.

I hope that all of you have a great holiday season and that you and your family are safe, warm, happy, healthy and full of good food.   I hope that in the New Year you grow in wisdom, love and compassion and that you find peace in your heart and soul.  
Garden as though you will live forever. William Kent
Star of Bethlehem 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December 10,2013 Kim's weekly garden newsletter

December 10, 2013 - Kim’s Weekly Garden Newsletter

These weekly garden notes are written by Kim Willis, unless another author is noted, and the opinions expressed in these notes are her opinions and do not represent any other individual, group or organizations opinions.

Hi Gardeners

Barberry in winter.
Although the sun has peeked out a little today its bitter wicked cold out there.   It is supposed to get much nastier tonight with wind chills below 0 and light snow so stay home if you can.  Winter has come early and hard this year and I hope that the prediction for a milder January holds true.  But we have it better than some areas of the country that’s a fact. 

The seed and nursery catalogs are starting to pile up by my chair and I am spending some time enjoying the pretty pictures.  I have been gathering information on some new plant introductions and hope to highlight some of them soon in the newsletter.  If you have a gardener in your life and you are still searching for that perfect gift for him or her why not give them a gift certificate to their favorite catalog nursery.

I have a couple of longer articles in this newsletter.  When I get started writing about something it’s sometimes hard to stop. I hope you enjoy them.  And just a heads up- there will not be a newsletter on the 24th, although I plan to do one on New Years Eve.

Black truffles

Black truffles are a foodies delight.  And just as Vidalia onions have a unique flavor because of the area they are grown in Périgord black truffles, grown in New South Wales, have a unique ‘aroma” that famous cooks are willing to pay $900 a pound to get.  With such an expensive delicacy there are bound to be imposters, so researchers decided to find out just what made the   Périgord black truffles so enticing and how they could identify imposters.

Out of the 2,500 proteins in black truffles only 9 proteins were involved in the exquisite taste of the Périgord.  The study, published in ACS' Journal of Proteome Research, will allow producers to test black truffles for the favored proteins and identify their product while discouraging the producers of less delectable truffles to identify them as Périgord.

Black truffles are also receiving interest from other researchers.  Usually black truffles grow on the roots of oak and hazelnuts.  Researchers recently identified the symbiotic Pseudomonas fluorescens bacterium that allows the truffle fungi to grow on tree roots and were able to get it to inoculate pine tree roots, and allow black truffles to grow on them.  This may lower the cost of black truffle production and allow them to be grown in new places.

Squirrely Facts

Squirrels are one of the most common critters that share our yards and gardens. We notice them more than most other animals because they are active throughout the day like we are.  Squirrels can be annoying and destructive but many people are also fond of the little beggars.  But it is also surprising how little people know about the squirrels that share our gardens.

There are 3 common types of tree squirrels in the Eastern US, Fox, Gray and Red.  (There are also northern and southern flying squirrels.)  In the western US there is a Western gray Squirrel and a relative of the red squirrel called the Douglas squirrel.  And Fox squirrels have recently begun to infiltrate some areas of the west.  People are often confused however about what squirrel they are seeing because of common names and because the gray squirrel in particular has several color variations.

Squirrel differences

Fox squirrel.
The fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) is the largest American tree squirrel.  It has a reddish brown coat tipped in black.  Its most obvious distinguishing trait is the rusty colored underside of the tail and slightly paler gold to reddish coloration of the belly.  Unfortunately Fox squirrels are sometimes called red squirrels because of their red coloration and this confuses them with the other Red squirrel. When Fox squirrels are startled they flee quickly, directly away from the disturbance in as direct a route as possible. 

Gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), are a little smaller than Fox squirrels and while they sometimes are reddish in color the back tends to be a darker grayish color, at least in the typical color of the species. Gray squirrels have white or silver colored bellies and a frosting of white hairs on the tail. Gray squirrels however come in a wide range of color mutations including white and solid black.  When you see an odd colored squirrel chances are pretty good it’s a color variation of the gray squirrel. 

When a gray squirrel is startled it tends to freeze along a tree limb or play hide and seek with a predator, trying to see it but keep something between itself and danger, unlike a Fox Squirrel that just flees.  They are the most common urban squirrel. 

The American Red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a small squirrel.  It has a reddish back with white belly and white rings around the eyes. There is a dark line between the white belly and red back color and along the tail margins. They are sometimes called Pine squirrels. There is often confusion over the American red squirrel and the endangered European red squirrel, which are different species.  American red squirrels are abundant and not endangered.  However they are more likely to be found in rural areas rather than the suburbs or urban environments.  They are aggressive and chase the larger squirrels out of areas that they frequent.  Red squirrels are more likely to be active at dawn and dusk and not as visible in midday as other squirrels.

Red Squirrels cannot breed with Gray or Fox squirrels but there is some disagreement about whether Gray and Fox squirrels interbreed.  Most researchers believe that such crosses are rare although the two squirrels are sometimes in the same area. Most odd colored squirrels that have been collected and studied have been Gray squirrels.

Gray squirrels were taken to Europe where they quickly became an aggressive invasive species.  They are said to be responsible for the near extinction of the European red squirrel.

What they eat

Most squirrels are primarily seed and nut eaters although they also eat buds, fruits, insects and birds eggs.  They may also eat baby birds in nests and even carrion (dead things) at times.  Squirrels have a very good sense of smell, so good that they can smell a worm inside of a nut or acorn.  These infested foods are always eaten first and not stored.  Nuts and seeds can be stored in caches in tree holes and other spots or buried for later retrieval.  Red squirrels rarely bury food, but they store enormous quantities of nuts and seeds in anything that will hold them.

Squirrels are fond of various types of mushrooms and American red squirrels have been observed draping pieces of mushrooms on tree branches to dry for storage.  Squirrels can safely eat species of mushrooms that are poisonous to humans and other animals.  They can also eat acorns that are high in tannic acid without harm.  Fox squirrels accumulate porphyrin, a chemical found in acorns, that makes their teeth glow pink to red under an ultra violet light.

Squirrels don’t remember every nut they store but they are smart enough to know when another squirrel is watching them hide nuts and they will often try to fool the observer or will move their nuts after it leaves. They also watch other squirrels to find out how they get food, such as at a bird feeder and copy them.  Urban squirrels can become quite tame when fed and often eat out of people’s hands.  This does not mean they are tame however, and many people have been bitten by squirrels that aren’t afraid of humans.

Homes and social life

All squirrels establish territories which they then defend to some degree.  Territories may be up to a mile and a half in size but squirrels also forage outside of their own territories.
While Fox and Gray squirrels tolerate others of their race at feeders and other food sources squirrels are not social animals and prefer to be alone except at mating time.  Red squirrels are very territorial and don’t tolerate any other squirrels in their territory except during mating season.  Mothers do tolerate their babies being around for a while but chase them away before the next litter is born.  

Squirrels use two main types of nests, a big ball of leaves and other material in a tree called a “drey” and nests in tree cavities (or in your attic).  They usually have several nests in their territories that they use at various times of the year. Squirrels don’t hibernate but may stay in a warm nest for days at a time in bad weather.

Squirrels have a number of calls or vocalizations that have different meanings.  They seem to be able to understand calls of other species of squirrels and even the warning calls of birds and other animals. 

Squirrels live about 2-6 years in the wild, although some have lived 20 years in captivity.  They are preyed on by hawks and owls, cats, coyotes and bobcats.  Raccoons and opossums are known to raid squirrel nests to eat the babies. 


A female squirrel is called a sow and a male squirrel is called a boar.  Mating occurs once or twice a year.  Gray squirrels and red squirrels are seasonal breeders with a “heat period” in late December –early January and again in late June.  Fox squirrels can breed any time of the year but tend to breed at about the same time as gray and red squirrels. Not all squirrels will breed twice in a year, it depends on how big the first litter was and how abundant food is.  

Female squirrels are very promiscuous and breed with numerous males during their heat. There is a lot of chasing and fighting during squirrel mating and it’s a time when many squirrels die because they are almost oblivious to predators and other dangers. Gestation is 31-35 days and litter size ranges from 1-8, with 3-4 babies being average. 

Male squirrels keep their testicles tucked up inside them out of sight except during the mating seasons.  This accounts for the old wives tales that squirrels castrate the males of other species or that females castrate males.

Baby squirrels are born blind and hairless.  Mother squirrels often move their young from nest to nest, probably to avoid predators. They begin coming out of the nest at around a month of age but remain with their mom and nurse for at least another month and often until the mothers next breeding period. 

While most squirrels will gladly kill and eat the young of other squirrels a study done with red squirrels found that a female red squirrel will adopt abandoned baby red squirrels to raise if the babies are closely related to her, such as being grandchildren or nieces and nephews. Researchers aren’t quite sure how the squirrel determines the relationship.

People and squirrels

Squirrels were a popular menu item for the early European settlers because they were abundant and relatively easy to kill. There are many people that still enjoy the taste of squirrel and squirrel brains mixed with scrambled eggs is a popular southern treat.  While Native Americans ate squirrels they were not a preferred source of meat.  The Cherokees were said to believe that eating squirrels caused arthritis and other tribes had beliefs that eating squirrels could bring bad luck.

By the early 1800’s the clearing of land for farming and heavy hunting pressure were slowly eroding squirrel populations and they were seldom seen in cities.  But by the mid-1800’s people were beginning to plan large parks in urban areas and to plant more trees.  In some of these large urban parks gray squirrels were brought in and released to make the parks more “natural.” They were protected from hunting and people were encouraging children to feed squirrels to discourage animal cruelty.

The squirrel population quickly boomed in urban areas and by the early 1900’s squirrels were becoming less popular with people because of the damage they did to gardens and homes.  During the wars and through the depression squirrels once again became food for the hungry and populations dipped. 

The squirrel populations began to increase after WWII.  Washington DC is one of the places that had and still has a very high population of squirrels. President Eisenhower hated them. He ordered them trapped and removed from the White house grounds which sparked protests. President Regan however, was a squirrel lover.  He brought the Whitehouse squirrels acorns from Camp David and had a Christmas card painted that depicted a squirrel on the White house lawn. (No word on whether Obama likes squirrels.)

In the 1960’s however, with the influence of environmental movements and Disney people once again began treating squirrels as cute creatures that needed to be protected.  Squirrels are very common in most cities but they can become a problem.  Besides the damage they do to gardens, bird feeders and trees a squirrel causes a power outage somewhere in the US every day. Whether you like them or despise them however, squirrels are probably here to stay.

Holly for the holidays and beyond

One of the plants long associated with winter holidays is holly, said to bring good luck to a home. You may picture holly as having thick, dark green, glossy leaves that remain green all winter.  Others of you may know hollies that you call winterberry or possumhaw, which lose their leaves in the winter to display branches lined with beautiful berries.

There are over 600 species of holly, from many parts of the world. Hollies may be widely divided into groups, English hollies, Ilex aquifolium, American hollies, Ilex opaca, Blue holly, Ilex meservae, Chinese holly, Ilex cornuta, Japanese holly, Ilex crenata, possumhaw, Ilex decidua and winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata. There are other species grown for ornamental use and each of the above species has numerous named varieties.  Hollies species are also crossed to provide some ornamental hybrids.
Blue holly 

American and English hollies make excellent landscape trees.  Blue hollies and others are used as landscape shrubs and specimen plants.  English hollies are often trimmed into hedges.  The deciduous hollies are excellent as shrubs for winter color and for naturalizing.  Winterberries will grow in wetter areas such as rain gardens and pond side plantings. Hollies are deer resistant.

Most evergreen holly leaves are thick and glossy green.  Many evergreen species have toothed leaves, with a spine at the end of each tooth.  Some however, have smooth, nearly oval leaves.  There are some variegated varieties.   Hollies that drop their leaves in winter generally have long, oval leaves with smooth margins.

All hollies have one interesting feature.  Male and female flowers are born on separate plants.  To get those beautiful berries you will need at least one male plant for every 10 or so females.  Only female plants have berries.   The holly flowers are small and whitish.  They have a sweet scent that attracts bees and other insects to do the pollinating.  You can tell male flowers if you look inside the flower and see yellow pollen.  Female flowers already have a round, green swelling at the base of the pistil that becomes the berry.
Holly plants may not flower for several years after planting so it’s important to label the males so you will know if a male dies and you need to replace it. Pay attention to catalog descriptions or label information, which tells you what type of male plant you need for each female you buy.  Blue hollies are needed to pollinate blue hollies and possumhaws are needed to pollinate possumhaws and so on.  Even within a group some plants will be better mates for each other.
Most holly berries will be red or black, but there are orange, yellow, coral, pink, blue and white berried varieties on the market.  Some people are not interested in the berries, only the evergreen foliage and for them there is no need to worry about male and female plants.  There are a few varieties of hollies that will produce berries without a male.

Birds like holly berries later in the winter, after they have been frozen several times.  This allows you to get a good winter show and still feed the birds.  Birds also like to shelter in evergreen hollies during the winter.

Holly culture
Both deciduous and evergreen hollies prefer slightly acidic soil but can be grown in more alkaline soils with the right fertilizers.  They like rich, well drained soil in full sun.  The winterberry group will tolerate damp areas, although it will also do well in average garden conditions.  Evergreen hollies like some protection from winter winds, at least while they are young.

The evergreen hollies are slow growing, the deciduous much faster. In the spring both benefit from some acidic fertilizer.  You can use a slow release acidic fertilizer that is formulated for holly, rhododendrons and so on that is commonly found in garden stores.  Cottonseed meal, pine needles and other acidic organic mulches are good. Keep holly watered during dry spells.

Hollies vary as to hardiness; the winterberries and American holly are probably the cold hardiest.  Check the zone hardiness of any variety that you buy.  Some forms of holly are considered to be invasive, spreading by the berries.  All parts of the holly plant are poisonous so keep that in mind when you select a planting location.

Remember to fill the bird feeder!
Garden as though you will live forever. William Kent