Even though it doesn’t really feel like fall with this week’s highs in the upper 50s, one little pest knows the cold temps are on the way. The brown marmorated stinkbug (Halyomorpha halys) are finding any tiny entry into homes, planning to settle down for a long winter’s nap in your attic, kitchen cabinet, bedroom and any other location in your comfy house.
Their name stinkbug described their most distinctive quality, an odor most often compared to that of cilantro, which they freely emit when they are bothered.
They are not just annoying pests; they pose serious economic threat to agricultural crops, damaging many fruits and vegetables, particularly those with soft skins such as tomatoes, pears, apples, green beans and berries. They puncture the exterior with their proboscis to feed on the juices, damaging the exterior and causing rot on the interior.
BMSBs were introduced into Pennsylvania from Asia in 1998 – likely from pallets or shipping materials into ports - and have exploded in population, now in almost all 50 states. Some landowners have more trouble than others – windowsills and walls can appear like a scene from a horror movie for some unfortunate people while homes in relatively close proximity only attract a few of the pests.
A good vacuum can be a fairly good control for a quick and efficient way to get them outside. For those who appreciate a more hands-on approach, the bugzooka can be a satisfying tool. Natural predators have shown some promise in coming to our aid – in particular, the wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) which is prevalent in Virginia, is a predator to both stinkbug eggs and adults.
Wheel bugs (Arilus cristatus) are one of the most effective predators of stink bugs
A lot of people get creeped out by spiders. Some deep instinct directs us to react with surprise and pay attention when we see small, fast and erratically scooting creatures. Spiders are unnerving to some as they are the little solitary beings that dwell in dark corners, immobilize and consume their food while it is still living and sometimes attack and eat each other.
Fortunately, as naturalists, we realize spiders have great value in the ecosystem and when found indoors, we tend to reach for a container to escort them outside rather than immediately grab the insecticidal spray.
The vast majority of spiders in Virginia are completely harmless but black widows (Latrodectus mactans) are one species to treat with caution. Fortunately, they are shy and just want to be left alone. They tend to bite when mashed or squeezed but otherwise they want to live their quiet lives in webs created in rock walls, cement blocks, wood piles and other protected areas.
They are very easy to recognize, particularly the larger females with her shiny jet-black body and very long legs. To aid in identification, they have a signature red or orange hour glass symbol on their abdomen and tend to hang out upside down in their webs, warning others to not eat them – a warning heeded by most predators except for birds and preying mantis who relish them as a snack.
The male black widow is about half the size of the female, brown or gray with lighter stripes across his body. He does not pose health problems to humans since he doesn’t bite. The widows get their name from the occasional practice of the female devouring the male after mating.
The female creates a light tan, round egg mass which contains up to 400 babies. The young tend to hatch at the same time so they will be about the same size, preventing older, bigger spiderlings from eating their smaller brothers and sisters.
Prevention is the best way to not get bitten – wear gloves and don’t stick your hand in places you can’t see or check first. If bitten by a black widow, seek medical attention immediately. Death is not likely but swelling at the bite site, severe muscle aches, dizziness, sweating, headache, anxiety and nausea may result.
As with most things, a healthy respect allows for acceptable cohabitation as long as the black widows stay outside in areas not frequented by humans, particularly kids and elders. If found indoors, the choice of whether to escort outside (very carefully with proper protection) or to spray is up to the individual. Fortunately, black widows do not jump.
As summer winds down, we celebrate one of the brightest and most enduring of flowers – the sometimes humble, often spectacular sunflower. There are over 70 species of sunflowers and, in Virginia, about eight native species. The cultivars grace home gardens in shades of bright russet, orange, pink and lemon yellow, attracting pollinators when in bloom with their spectacular colors. A classic standby of early homesteads, the sunflower provided beauty and a healthy snack with their seeds following blooming. Many Lepidoptera use the leaves as food.
Birds relish them as well, particularly goldfinch who choose the varieties with smaller seeds to dine upon, leaving the huge Russian mammoth sunflowers to others.
Recently it has become very dry in Virginia, with scant rain for two weeks and temperatures in the mid to upper 80s. As zinnias and dahlias curl and crisp in the hot temperatures and dry conditions, many of our native species thrive. One late blooming sunflower, helianthus tuberosus, continues to bloom, providing valuable nectar for late-season pollinators.
Also known as Jerusalem artichoke or sunchoke, the roots of the this native sunflower grow deep, a necessity when supporting growth of up to 12’. The Latin name of tuberosus refers to the starchy potato-like nodes on the roots, favored by Native Americans from the Mohawk in the north to the Seminole in the south of Florida. Their natural range is as far west as Texas, so Kiowa and other tribes throughout the Midwest would have relished them as well. In Indigenous communities, there is a resurgence in growing and eating native foods and sunchoke is one such food that is receiving recognition for its nutritional and health benefits.
They are particularly good for those with diabetes as they do not spike blood-sugar levels as do potatoes. They can be cooked like potatoes - boiled, roasted, made into soups or thrown into stir fries at the last minute as their hard crunchiness is similar to water chestnuts.
Sunchokes are blooming now and can often be found along roadsides, in empty lots and next to rail roads. The roots can be harvested after first frost but will hold in the ground until late winter.
The early signs of fall can be seen in certain black gum and sassafras trees that already have leaves turning shades of red and crimson. The ironweed and cardinal flower are in bloom, adding splashes of color to meadows and streamsides. Goldenrod is just fading, its yellow blossoms still attracting pollinators.
There is one non-native plant that is also blooming, one that many landowners regard with disgust as this aggressive interloper spreads with abandon, particularly along streams and rivers – anywhere that is sunny and moist- including sections of parks, lawns and roadsides. As naturalists, we know the story all too well as it has unfortunately been repeated often in the landscape industry: an ornamental introduced due to some positive trait which escapes the confines of yards and gardens and grows into a menace for our native ecology.
Such is the case with Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica), first introduced from Japan in the late 1800s as an ornamental, valued for its profusion of small white flowers in the fall and its habit for colonizing quickly.
It resembles bamboo but is not related, instead belonging to the buckwheat family. It is currently found in 39 of the 50 United States and listed as an invasive in 16 of them, including Virginia. It has spread to Canada and is found in all provinces except Manitoba and Saskatchewan. The extensive land area in which Japanese knotweed can flourish is due to its amazing hardiness - it can survive in areas with winter temperatures as low as -31 degrees and flourishes in many types of soils with varying pH levels.
Its reputation as a noxious invasive is supported by its monster growth habit- with roots which can extend 10 feet down and spread up to 28 feet horizontally, it can get started by one small section of root being brought in with a delivery of mulch or hiding within the soil of a potted plant. It can be extremely difficult to eradicate once established.
In fact, it has become such a serious invader in the United Kingdom that property values are decreased and when trying to sell, landowners have to declare the presence of Japanese knotweed on their property and detail their ongoing eradication methods. Some properties may become unsalable due to the presence of the monster since it can crack cement walks and buckle asphalt, impacting building foundations.
We refer to one of our favorite foragers for guidance on the culinary uses of Japanese knotweed and sure enough, Euell Gibbons (1) recommends it as a versatile food. In the spring, the early shoots can be harvested when a foot or so high (before leaves begin to unroll), boiled for three to four minutes and enjoyed with a bit of butter and salt. If it is too tart, a small amount of sugar can be added.
He notes that the asparagus-like tips can be boiled or steamed, pureed with butter and salt (and a sprinkle of sugar) and served as a hot soup. Extending into the dessert realm, Japanese knotweed lends itself well to jams, sauces and pies. When cooked into a pie, the stems are a good substitute for rhubarb.
Now is the time to scout out the colonies of Japanese knotweed for spring foraging as they are at maximum height - six to ten feet tall - and are in full bloom. Good luck spying this noxious invasive and maybe helping to control it just a small amount by eating it!
Euell Gibbons, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Field Guide Edition, David McKay Company, New York, 1962, p. 109.
One of Virginia's butterflies that seems like it should be much more abundant, based on its host tree which grows extensively, is the American Snout (Libytheana carinenta). This cute little fellow does not seem very common, but the hackberry tree (Celtis occidentalis) is quite widespread, growing in a variety of soil types and habitats. It is a delightful encounter to see the American Snout, aptly named for its long and prominent mouthparts or labial palpi. They are masters at mimicking other butterflies flight patterns - ' bouncing like satyrs one moment, gliding like checkerspots the next' as Jim Brock and Kenn Kauffman note in Field Guide to Butterflies of North American.
The snout has a distinctive leaf shape wing with the forewing squared off at the tip. When both wings are closed, the beautiful orange, white and black band is completely hidden, helping the snout blend in with leaves and other forest debris and avoid predators. To further blend in with foliage, the Snout will hold its palps and antennae downwards to resemble leaf petioles.
The hackberry tree is one of the easiest to identify by its bark. Covered in warty protuberances and growths that resemble popcorn, the hackberry is a nice shade tree that grows in well-drained soils in full sun, commonly in mixed deciduous forests.
It has been a nice spring and early summer for frogs and toads. A pair of Gray Treefrogs (Hyla versicolor) made their home behind the rain barrel on the porch and he has serenaded her for the last month. They earned the names Romeo and Juliet since she was first noticed on the window sill when he was hanging out below on the lower wall. About dusk, he begins his musical trills and chortles, even making soft noises that sound like laughter; after one particularly active evening of singing, they decided to take a romantic swim and were discovered floating happily in the water of the rain barrel.
The female chooses the male based on his call and breeding occurs between April and August.
According to A Guide to the Frogs and Toads of Virginia published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (and which each ORMN is issued at the beginning of the training course), the Gray Treefrog is 1.25-2.4 inches in length and typically has a dark star-shaped pattern and many minute warts on a gray to light green background. However, it can also be almost solid color with very subtle markings in order to blend in to their environment.They have a light spot beneath the eye and the inner thighs are orange or yellow.
The Gray Treefrog lives through the winter by producing a type of antifreeze from glycol in the cells. The glycol turns into glucose which keeps the frog from freezing. Its breathing and heartbeat then stop until the temperature warms up again.
Harvesting garden potatoes has slowed to an archaeological pace in order to protect the small Eastern Spadefoot (Scaphiopus holbrookii) frog. The only tool which can safely be used is a small trowel but the safest technique is to slowly move the soil aside by hand and wait to hear the startled squeak when the frogs are uncovered. They are named for the tiny dark spade on their back feet which they use to move soil aside and create cool burrows underground. These little frogs (1.75-3 inches long) are explosive breeders and usually remain buried, only emerging from their burrows after heavy rains to breed. During periods of extensive drought, they encapsulate themselves in an underground mud chamber to prevent moisture loss.
It is worth the extra time it takes to dig the potatoes in exchange for the insect-control benefits the Spadefoot offers.
Virginia is home to 27 species of frogs. Courtship and egg laying differs between the species and occurs starting in late winter and extending into fall. Water is needed for most species, where eggs are deposited which turn into tadpoles (larvae) followed by metamorphosis into frogs.
Difference between frogs and toads:
Many guides cite the Pink Lady's Slipper (Cypripedium acaule) as common in eastern forests, however it is always a nice surprise to come across this lovely spring wildflower.
The Latin word acaule means 'stem less', referring to the leafless flower stem. The stem grows up from two basal leaves.
Lady's Slippers favor pine forests but is also found in deciduous forests which have acidic soils (pH 4-5). The blossoms are light pink to magenta and, occasionally, white. Another variety which is found in Virginia, Cypripedium parviflorum, looks similar but has a yellow blossom.
It takes many years for Pink Lady's Slippers to go from seed to mature plant and requires a specific fungal association.
Like all orchids, the seeds require this symbiotic relationship since the seeds do not contain carbohydrate stores like most seeds to sustain the newly germinated seedling. The threads of the fungus from the genus Rhizoctonia break open the seed pod and provide the plant with soil nutrients that it cannot access on its own.
Native Americans refer to the plant as "moccasin flower" and historically (and currently) use the root as medicine to treat nervousness, insomnia, low fever and a host of other ailments.
-Many of the wild spring greens are coming to the end of their harvestable time as the days are getting hotter and the plants are flowering and going to seed. At this point, many become very bitter and less palatable - though many health-conscious people believe bitter greens are especially packed with nutrition.
There is one wild green that is just now reaching peak gathering time at the lower elevations. Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana ) has now grown to the optimal six to eight inches and is just waiting to be sliced off at ground level, brought home and prepared for the dinner table. Care needs to be taken with poke, however, as it should only be gathered young (most guidebooks say no taller than eight inches) and needs to be boiled three times before eating.
Long- time connoisseurs of this fine green sometimes push these recommendations, gathering it when it is nearly a foot high and only boiling it twice. Too, some books say to only eat the leaves after boiling but for those who have been enjoying this green for years, it is common to throw the stem and leaves into the boiling water and consume both.
As with any wild-gotten food, it is best to gather it with someone whose expertise you trust and follow the recommended preparation guidelines until you know your digestive system is happy with the new addition.
The berries should not be eaten. Ever. They are poison. Interestingly the juice from the berries was used as ink by soldiers writing home during the war between the states and the words are still legible today.
Poke weed is one of the most delicious greens and, due to its size, can be gathered in quantity in a relatively short time once a good patch is located.
It makes super good quiche, can be thrown into stir-fries or casseroles and has a delicate enough flavor that it can be added to smoothies for extra nutrition. Basically, pokeweed can be used any recipe that calls for spinach - except raw salads.
It freezes in ziplock bags extremely well and can provide healthy greens throughout the winter.
Pokeweed us a perennial plant and has a massive taproot. Though maligned by gardeners when it comes up in landscape beds, pokeweed has many valuable aspects. With its deep root, it pulls up minerals deep in the soil, another beneficial aspect to eating it. It grows in fields, along roadsides and tends to appear in disturbed areas.
For the wild green foragers, this is the best time of the year. Almost every lawn, driveway, empty lot and park is filled with choice early spring edibles, just waiting to be harvested and help with the grocery bill.
One of the most common of the choice greens is the humble dandelion (Taraxacum officinale). It is packed with nutrition and the young leaves make a great addition to salads. As they mature, and particularly after the plant blooms, the greens become bitter which, up to a certain point, can be tempered by either boiling or stir-frying. Adding butter and a splash of red wine vinegar (or olive oil and lemon) and you have a dish which rivals the offering of any gourmet restaurant.
Every part of the plant is edible including the root (used for a coffee substitute), the crowns, leaves and flowers (which add a bright splash of color to salads or which can be used to make wine).
The list of ailments treated with dandelions is long and diverse. Euell Gibbons, the famous forager, writes that 'I do not think it is an exaggeration to say this vitamin-filled wild plant has, over the centuries, probably saved a good many lives.' 1
The best place to harvest dandelions is where it grows in soft soil and receives plenty of water. Under these conditions, it grows large and succulent.
Another choice spring green is chickweed, a lovely little tender green that grows with exuberance in many habitats and can be eaten like lettuce or alfalfa sprouts. It has a fresh, delicate flavor which blends well with salads. The quickest way to harvest it is to clip the end two inches of the branching tendrils - farther down toward the crown, the stems become more stringy and tough. Chickweed is very high in zinc, iron and potassium and is a strong antioxidant, rivaling spinach in nutrients.
Chickweed likes cold temperatures and will continue to grow until summer heat hits or spring rains stop. It begins growing again in the fall in cool, shady areas. Each plant grows for about six or seven weeks but reseeds freely so a second crop may grow before conditions become unfavorable.
The third choice spring green which is harvestable right now is purple dead nettle (Lamium purpureum). It is the ground cover which is turning farm fields lavender as the top leaves of the plant turns purple and the flowers bloom like tiny violet orchids. It is an important source of nectar for pollinators but it grows so abundantly that there is generally more than enough to harvest for the dinner table.
The top of the plant is edible, again, for adding to salads but does not lend itself well to cooking. It can make a pleasant tea and like dandelion and chickweed, makes a healthy addition to smoothies.
There are many other choice edibles but these three are generally easy to identify, taste good, are very healthy additions to the diet and are available in the outdoor produce aisle now. They are generally considered weeds and considerable effort is expended on their eradication, however, by adding them for culinary use, they can provide a very pleasant addition to meals.
As with any harvesting, it is best to go with a friend who can positively identify the plants or consult a trusted guidebook which details less desirable look-alikes. Also, be choosy where you harvest to ensure no herbicides have been sprayed in the area.
1 Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, David Mackay Co., Ltd,. NY, 1962, p. 77
During the highest outbreak years of the gypsy moth (Lymantria dispar) in Virginia populations were so high that the sound of the caterpillar's frass dropping from the tree canopy sounded like soft rain falling through the forest. For those whose homes were surrounded by highly infested trees, uncovered coffee cups were bound to receive extra flavoring; enjoying a meal on the porch was out of the question unless a large umbrella covered the table to deflect the small dark green balls of digested foliage continually falling from above.
Above: The wings of the gypsy moth are furled and crimped immediately following emergence from the pupa case. Within an hour, the wings gradually grow larger and lie flat along the body of the moth.
Since their accidental escape from the breeding location into the wild they have done millions of dollars in damage to eastern forests.
Fortunately, nature is now helping with their control: A natural fungus and a virus have kept their numbers in check for the last 10 years or so and aerial spray is not needed in as many areas in Virginia as during the highest outbreak years.
The baby caterpillars emerge from their egg masses usually at the end of April to early May in the Shenandoah Valley and Piedmont. They go through five instars, eating more vegetation as they get larger and become adults. The caterpillars are unmistakable with two rows of red and blue dots and long dark hairs. Pupation occurs in June or July, depending on elevation, and by then, the damage to trees and shrubs can be significant if populations are high. The adults moths breed - the female moth is quite large, averaging about one and a half in length - and lays her signature tan egg mass on tree trunks, the underside of limbs or the sides of structures. The larvae overwinter, emerging again the following spring.
It is believed that a new outbreak occurred in Oregon when an automobile part was sold on Ebay: the vehicle from which the part was taken was parked under a tree in the East and an gypsy moth had laid an egg mass on the part. It was installed on a vehicle in Oregon, the caterpillars hatched and a new infestation occurred. Each egg mass can contain up to 500 larvae.
It is difficult to predict when gypsy moth populations will once again increase in Virginia but hopefully we will not experience the substantial tree mortality that previous outbreaks have caused.
, My brother was sometimes mean to me. One summer afternoon when we were little kids, he suggested excitedly that we go pick Mom a 'bouquet'. He led me to a patch of lush green foliage and said that even though the plant didn't have blossoms, she would like a big vase of it. He directed me to grab several handfuls and we walked back to the house to present "our" lovely arrangement. The moment she saw me her expression turned to horror and, in two days, I was covered head to foot with a horrible, red rash that necessitated a trip to the doctor. I never had any trouble identifying poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) afterwards. I looked like an alien with pink blotches of Calamine lotion spread everywhere and even my blisters had blisters. Looking back on the poison ivy picking experience, it is one of those once-in-a-lifetime events, kind of like purposefully tearing up a one hundred dollar bill or walking into the animal shelter and declaring that you will adopt them all.
However, even though the plant may not have leaves and be actively growing in the winter, it can be a problem as all parts of the plant contain urushiol, the oil that causes the contact dermatitis or skin reaction. For sensitive people, even rubbing a pet that has brushed against a vine can result in blisters or handling boots or clothes that came into contact with poison ivy the previous year - the oil can stay active for up to one year.
Firewood should be inspected to make sure there are no vines attached since inhaling the smoke from burning poison ivy can be a serious health risk as the blisters may form inside the lungs.
Poison ivy grows in a wide range and variety of habitats and can form either a bush , trailing or climbing vine. It is said that the juice from crushed leaves and stems of jewelweed (Impatiens biflora) can prevent or decrease the reaction and fortunately, the two plants often grow in close proximity to each other.
It would have been nice if my early and severe introduction to poison ivy had imbued me with immunity for life but it did not and I had future doctor visits to address encounters - an expensive and time-consuming necessity. Some people (self included) swear by a natural homeopathic remedy called Rhus-Tox as both a treatment and a preventative for poison ivy; this is particularly good for those who work outside a lot and who frequently encounter the plant. Rhus-Tox can occasionally be found in local drugstores and apothecaries.
The oil is so potent that in 1748, Peter Kalm wrote that 'the letters and characters made upon linen with it cannot be removed, but grow blacker the more the cloth is washed'. (Source: Wildly Successful Plants, A Handbook of North American Weeds by Lawrence J. Crockett, Collier Books, NY, 1977, p. 61).
However, as difficult as poison ivy is for some humans to deal with (about 15% of the population are not sensitive to the oil), it is native to North American and therefore has numerous ecological benefits; deer and other mammals eat the foliage with impunity and many bird species relish the berries that form in mid to late summer.
There are a couple of look-alike plants which are also native to Virginia and which provide valuable habitat and food for wildlife : Virginia creeper and the boxelder tree. As with any control measure, making a positive id is crucial before treatment options are determined.
One suggestion: if you are allergic to poison ivy, mechanical control with bare hands is not advised.
Many a holiday meal includes the nuts of one of Virginia's tallest and most valuable commercial trees - the walnut (Juglans nigra). Walnuts are known for their high protein content and oil, utilized by many Native American tribes in the east as well as the attractive dark dye which comes from the walnut husks and is used to dye reeds and wood for basketry.
Small mammals relish the nuts, particularly in the spring when freezing and thawing temperatures help to break open the tough exterior.
The rich, dark wood is prized for furniture, the hard wood lending itself to large, functional pieces like cupboards and sideboards and also for interior architectural embellishments such as stair bannisters and cabinetry .
The roots of walnut trees are allelopathic - they emit a biochemical which discourages the growth of competing plants, however, other native plants do not seem to be as susceptible to the effects of these chemicals as do non-native species.
A close relative, the white walnut or butternut (Juglans cinera) also grows in Virginia and is similar to black walnut but produces smaller, but still edible, nuts.
Unfortunately, Thousand Cankers Disease poses a threat to walnut trees and currently, ten Virginia counties and six cities are under quarantine. The disease, a fungus carried by a bark beetle, was first discovered in the west but has moved east and is now affecting the native range of black walnut.
According to Dr. Douglas Tallamy in his seminal book Bringing Nature Home, the walnut is the host of more than 100 Lepidoptera species. A couple of the more unusual are the Walnut Sphinx Moth and the peculiar Butternut Woolly worm.
It seems like a late fall this year in Virginia with leaves turning color later than usual - not that most folks mind - businesses in the Piedmont and Shenandoah Valley welcome the visitors who come to admire the brilliant yellow oranges and reds. Those of us fortunate enough to live here can enjoy the mountains bathed in color and pick out favorite trees to watch as they turn different shades and drop their leaves to reveal their branching structures.
One of our most colorful vines is the native Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus quincifolia). It turns brilliant red and burgundy and adds splashes of color to tree trunks, sides of buildings and anything else it uses as support.
It can be used in the landscape to stabilize soil on eroded banks or planted in shaded forests to add diversity and habitat. If used on a fence or rock wall, plan for the future - it can be pruned to keep it somewhat controlled but can also grow 50-60 feet.
Birds appreciate its abundant foliage to build protected nests and the blue-black berries provide valuable sustenance in the fall to migratory species as well as our year-round avian friends (note to foragers: the berries are toxic to humans).
According to the recently published Piedmont Native Plants - A Guide for Landscapes and Gardens*, Virginia Creeper is the host to 32 species of native caterpillars, including the Virginia Creeper Sphinx.
Guide published by Repp Glaettli, www.albemarle.org/nativeplants
The red foliage in this photo (left) is Virginia Creeper and the yellow and green leaves belong to the invasive non-native Oriental Bittersweet.