It’s a cold and blustery day here, with a little snow flying in the wind. I did take a quick walk outside to check on things. I dislike the way my gardens look this time of year, heck, I dislike the way the whole state looks this time of year. Not enough snow to be pretty, just browns and blacks and grays. It’s the dying time of the year. Just 11 days until the natural year ends though, and we will start climbing toward spring.
The deer have become bold, walking right up the path close to the barn to nibble on a lilac. At least most of my plants can no longer be harmed that much by them. I guess the hunters didn’t do a good job this year. No, I do not think deer make it look Christmassy. Santa can take all of them.
Inside the plants have slowed their blooming a bit. Even with lights they sense it’s the resting time of the year. I still have hibiscus and holiday cacti in bloom. The gerbera daisy quit blooming and I am wondering if it’s just resting or if it’s nearing the end of its life span. The leaves still look good. The pomegranate, diplodenia, and fuchsia are resting. There are still a few penta blooms and a sporadic bloom or two on the lemon tree. And of course, the geraniums continue to bloom.
I decorated my 5 feet tall Norfolk pine as a substitute Christmas tree. No sense having two evergreens in the house. I used tiny gold balls and red velvet bows and some tiny red and gold tinsel. I have a little light set ran by batteries which I put on the tree but haven’t bothered to turn on yet. I’m still looking for something cute and light to use as a tree topper, maybe I’ll decide on something before Christmas, maybe not.
Sometimes I wish I lived where I could garden all year around, but then there is a benefit to a season of rest. Time for planning and dreaming, building up anticipation for the best garden I’ll ever have this year. And spring would never be such a happy time if there was no winter.
Seventy-one new species discovered in 2019
We are still, after thousands of years, discovering new plants and animals on our world. Many times, these species are identified dozens of years after they were collected and stored in a museum somewhere. DNA sequencing has led to some discoveries, identifying animals and plants that may look like another species. But some new species were identified simply because it was just the first time a specimen in the backlog was studied.
There were 17 new fish species, 15 geckos, eight flowering plants, six sea slugs, five arachnids, four eels, three ants, three skinks, two skates, two wasps, two mosses, two corals, and two lizards identified as new species this year.
When researchers identify new species, they often try to find the species still living in the wild where the specimen was collected. Frank Almeda, Curator of Botany at the California Academy of Sciences, tried to find a white-flowered plant named Trembleya altoparaisensis that was identified this year. The identification of this species was based on several specimens collected over 100 years ago by the famous 19th-century botanist Auguste Francois Marie Glaziou.
After that many years you can understand that the plant’s habitat may have changed, and it had. Ricardo Pacifico, a PhD student working with Almeda was able to find a living specimen of Trembleya altoparaisensis in the canyons of Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in Brazil, miles from the spot the original specimen was collected. Another student found another of the new species of plants identified this year, Gravesia serratifolia in a National park in Madagascar. Living specimens of Justicia alanae, a new species of flowering plant from Mexico, were also found this year.
I haven’t found any information about whether the other 5 new species of flowering plants have known living specimens. (Many of the fish and reptile species discovered have living members of the species). No common names were given for the new plant species. But one thing is certain, many of the new species discovered are endangered and must be protected.
It should be important to study the new plant species to see if there are medicinal or other uses of the plant, although this is unlikely. Generally, plants that have medicinal and other uses have been known and used for centuries, although you never know.
None of the plants seems like a likely candidate for ornamental use, although their rare and endangered status might preclude that anyway. Gravesia serratifolia is a shrubby plant found in high altitude rain forest conditions, with moderately pretty flowers. Currently about a thousand living specimens are known. It’s possible if seeds or cuttings from the plant could be obtained that a new flowering shrub for warmer areas might be developed from it.
I do believe that with the rapid pace of extinctions in the last few decades, we should speed up the identification and classification of all the specimens collected many years ago and stored in dusty museum rooms. It’s a sad thing to identify something and find it’s no longer living on earth.
Safety concerns with holiday plants and plant products
While we often think of gift plants and plant-based decorations as a source of plant poisoning around the holidays we need to consider a few other plants and products from them, that might poison children and pets during the hectic holiday season. The poison control hotline reports a big increase in calls concerning cannabis, and plants like kratom and “magic mushrooms, but common holiday plants used for decorations and gifts also contribute to hotline calls.
With the legalization of cannabis in many states, cannabis products are becoming more widespread and people are getting more relaxed about storing the products. Cannabis edibles ( brownies, cookies, candies, smoothies and so on) can be a major problem with children and pets and even with inexperienced or uninformed adults. Dried whole cannabis buds or leaves outside of edibles, are seldom eaten in large quantity and don’t pose the same risk.
Despite some tabloid news stories and the usual guff spread around the internet, no deaths can be directly related to cannabis overdose according to medical and scientific sources. Even in small children no deaths can be directly attributed to cannabis overdose. However, that does not mean that ingesting them is harmless for small children and pets. It is extremely important to keep children and pets from eating cannabis edibles, which can be very tempting.
There has been some evidence that cannabis overdose may exacerbate existing, undiagnosed heart problems in children when large doses are consumed. Overdose might also require hospitalization to monitor breathing and keep the child safe from hallucinatory effects. And a child would not understand what is happening to him or her and may become very scared.
Pets may also require hospitalization after consuming edibles and could harm themselves when under the influence of cannabis. And people who did not know they were consuming cannabis edibles and inexperienced users of cannabis edibles can have a very scary experience if they overdose, even though they will not die or be permanently harmed. They may even go to an emergency room with symptoms. They could drive under the influence, especially since the effects of edible cannabis products don’t present right away.
Therefore, if you have edible cannabis products around be very, very, careful to store them in a way that children and pets can’t get to them, at any time of the year. Make sure that adults who consume them know what they are consuming and that inexperienced users start with small amounts. Since the effects of edible cannabis don’t begin right away, inexperienced people often consume more than they should.
Two other plant products used to get “high”, kratom and “magic mushrooms”, can cause death. These products are also illegal in most places. They should never be around children or pets. If they are consumed by them the children or pets should receive immediate medical attention.
Plants have been brought into the home to decorate it around the winter solstice for hundreds of years. They have become part of the tradition and lore of the holidays and the practice persists even today. But not all holiday plants are safe for children and pets and knowing which ones are poisonous is important for a happy holiday.
The poinsettia has long been listed as a poisonous plant, but as toxic plants go, it’s probably not that harmful. Yes, if someone ate a lot of poinsettia there could be serious consequences, but that scenario is unlikely. The sticky white sap of the poinsettia is unpleasant tasting enough that even the naughtiest dog probably wouldn’t eat enough to get more than a stomachache. It would take eating several large plants to be lethal to a pet or child.
Mistletoe on the other hand is extremely poisonous and just a few of the berries dropped on the floor and eaten by a pet or child could cause death. All parts of the plant are toxic, dried or fresh. Mistletoe is a plant that does not belong in homes where children and pets are present.
Holly is often used in decorating for the holidays, but all parts of the plant are poisonous. The leathery leaves would be unlikely to be eaten but the bright red berries that some holly has would be attractive to children and pets.
Another very poisonous plant that is sold around the holidays as a potted plant is the Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum). The plant is a compact bush-like house plant with glossy green leaves and bright orange-red berries. All parts of this plant are poisonous.
In fact, around the holidays many plants with red or orange berries are sold. Some of these are new to the trade and little is known about their toxicity - whether they are poisonous or harmless. It’s a good idea to place any of these attractive plants out of the reach of children and pets. Always keep a plant label with a plant so if any part is ingested you can tell poison control what it is.
Amaryllis bulbs are often sold around the holidays either in bloom or as kits that you add water to and watch it grow. They have long strap-like leaves which appear after the bloom stalk. The amaryllis bloom is trumpet shaped; there may be one or several blooms on each tall stalk. It comes in red, white, pink and other pastel shades. All parts of the plant are poisonous.
Another bulb often given as a gift is the narcissus or daffodil bulb. The common one sold is called paper white narcissus. They are often set in gravel and water to grow roots and bloom. They have flat, grass like leaves, and the typical daffodil flower of a “cup” surrounded by a ring of petals. They are white or yellow and have a strong fragrance. All parts of the plant are quite poisonous as is the water surrounding the bulb, or if the blooms are cut and put in a vase of water, that water is also toxic. Narcissus and daffodils should never be put where children or pets might taste them or drink the water they are in.
Yews are not used as often as some evergreens for holiday decorating, but they are sometimes used in floral arrangements and unsuspecting homeowners may bring branches inside for decorating. They have soft, flat dark green needles and are often sheared into hedges around a home. The yew is an extremely toxic plant with only a bite of the plant causing death to a pet. It sometimes has fleshy red berries with a hard seed inside that attract children and pets. The soft part of the berry is harmless, but a few swallowed seeds can be deadly. A mouthful of the plant can kill a grown cow. It is not a plant that should be brought into the home.
Sweet Annie or other kinds of wormwood (artemisia) are often used in wreaths and other dried arrangements. While unlikely to be eaten in quantity, these plants are also poisonous, and munching should be discouraged. Since wreaths, dried arrangements and fresh floral arrangements can have all sorts of exotic plants tucked in them and might be sprayed with chemicals, it’s a good idea to keep them out of the reach of children and pets.
Are probiotics for plants and soil useful?
You may have heard of people taking probiotics for various reasons and people giving probiotics to pets. My vet prescribed a very expensive probiotic for my elderly dog when she was having digestive difficulties. (I didn’t think it did much good, but a tiny bit of cannabis in vanilla ice cream perked her appetite right back up.) But what about probiotics for plants or your soil?
On the market right now are a number of usually expensive products sold as plant “probiotic supplements”. There are miraculous claims attached to these products. They are said to make plants grow faster, live longer, produce more, make the soil better, cure plant disease and kill plant pests. Don’t waste your money on them.
Probiotic simply means good biological creatures. These can be bacteria, viruses, yeasts or fungi. Probiotics that are useful to plants can come in two basic types, those that work in the soil or on the surface of the plant to provide benefits or those that must be inside plant tissues to be of benefit. While there are some species of organisms that might be beneficial to plants in general, many other beneficial probiotic species are narrowly targeted to one species, one area of the plant, one type of soil, one set of environmental conditions and so on.
It is these narrowly defined probiotics that are probably going to be the miracle plant fertilizers and pesticides in the future. Once we learn to identify and grow these organisms in quantity, how to keep them alive in storage, and know exactly how and when to apply them we’ll finally have good biological control for plant problems.
There is lots of research being done on these probiotic organisms and indeed, we know they are vital to life here on earth. Our research has probably identified only a small portion of the organisms that exist. There are good and scientifically proven “probiotic” products being used in human medicine and even in agriculture. The problem is that the vast majority of products on the market aren’t scientifically tested and approved, they are hocus pocus, magical potions that don’t do much but take your hard earned money.
Every month we hear about some new research involving probiotics. The University of California Berkley just released a study about the benefits of probiotics for tomatoes, a very specific probiotic mixture applied in a precise manner to tomatoes made them more robust and produce better. It took years of research to develop the mixture and so far, it is too complex and expensive to replicate and sell to consumers. That is the reason this research is being done, however, to develop commercial products that might one day replace fertilizers and pesticides. But that day isn’t here yet.
This valid and important research is one reason hucksters are better able to sell people the dust in a cannister “probiotic” mixtures so readily. People are hearing and reading about the research being done, but not quite understanding how that research applies to home garden conditions. It sounds good, and if someone mumbles a bit of scientific jargon in a cute video or prints it on the bag, viola, the claims must be true, right?
There’s no regulations or inspection of these products being done. So, when you buy a probiotic product there’s no way you can even know what you got isn’t just the dust from someone’s vacuum cleaner bag. No one is forcing the sellers to prove the claims they put on the boxes and bags are true. All these sellers have their own theories and ideas, most of them not proven by any rigorous trials or research.
Probiotics must be alive to do any good. And keeping tiny biological organisms alive in suspended animation while they wait for you to buy them or take them off the shelf in the shed and use them, is a very tricky process. Then there is the collection or growing and identification of those organisms, which is also very difficult. It takes a lot of skill and good equipment to positively identify good organisms and ensure no bad organisms are present in the mixture.
This is also why those recipes for home made probiotic products, the fermented seaweed, compost tea, manure coffee, banana peel water, and other inventive little concoctions also don’t work. You never know what you are growing if anything at all. These recipes can even be harmful to you and your plants, when instead of helpful organisms you brew up a batch of E.coli or salmonella, which is very possible.
There are a few biological products on the market which have been proven to be effective and which if you store and use correctly, will be helpful. These include Bt products for mosquito control and those targeted to other specific insects, milky spore disease for grubs (sometimes works) and products that inoculate pea and bean seeds with nitrogen fixing bacteria.
Anything that is sold as a general garden or soil conditioner, a miracle product for this plant or that, or that boasts it works on everything, that makes claims that it is a fertilizer, plus it kills diseases and pests, is just voodoo dust. When you put these products on your soil or plants, if there is anything alive there at all, it probably won’t be harmful, but it won’t be helpful either. You could burn a few $20 dollar bills (or ferment them) and use the dust on your soil with the same results.
If you are tempted by claims of scientific evidence, clever upbeat videos, and user testimonials (often fake) ask your local Extension office if the product is science based, reliable and worth buying. (Note; Don’t ask a Master Gardener, ask someone with an actual science degree, an Extension educator. Master Gardeners vary tremendously in how well they are trained and how educated they are.)
Instead of buying probiotics for plants buy some wood mulch, fertilizer if the soil needs it, compost or more plants. Compost and wood mulch are full of probiotics. Also, if you want to encourage good organisms in the soil don’t rototill it or disturb it more than necessary for planting. Every time you rototill you disturb the soil microorganisms, which grow in specific layers of soil. Rototilling stirs them into environments they can’t exist in and the remaining organisms in any layer have to slowly build up their population again. Just add your mulch and compost to the surface and let nature work.
Probiotics show promise for future solutions to our gardening problems, but the promise has not yet materialized for the average gardener. In short most probiotic plant products currently sold for gardens are not helpful and your money is best spent elsewhere.
“From December to March, there are for many of us three gardens —
the garden outdoors,
the garden of pots and bowls in the house,
and the garden of the mind’s eye.”
— Katherine S. White, from Onward and Upward in the Garden
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And So On….
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