Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Two Views of Buckthorn

I'm often struck by the different language used to describe native vs. non-native species(see previous post). But the Friends of the Mississippi River's description of Buckthorn is just wrong. "So where we see a lush-looking sea of bright green leaves, butterflies, bees and insect-eating birds see the equivalent of a barren desert." http://www.fmr.org/volman/exoticspecies/buckthorn  This contrasts with personal observations of blooming buckthorn covered in bees. I saw more bees visiting flowering buckthorn than any other plant in bloom at the same time, the end of May. And in fact buckthorn flowers are so popular with the bees that a single source honey from buckthorn can be produced and is by Ames Farm here in Minnesota. 

Ants seem to love the buckthorn as well, and the trees are covered in ants during and just after the flowering. Because of all the insect activity there are also many spiders on the buckthorn. This is clearly not a barren desert. It's true that no butterflies feed on buckthorn in the United States, but given time maybe one will adapt to it, or maybe the European Brimstone butterfly, which feeds exclusively on buckthorn will make its way across the Atlantic. The situation is quit different in England where buckthorn is being planted to encourage the dwindling populations of the Brimstone. This article from the BBC takes a very different tone that ones in this country. "Another aim was to raise awareness of the merits of the bush for other species. Buckthorn flowers provide nectar which seems particularly attractive to bees and hoverflies. Later in the year, shiny black berries provide a valuable source of food for birds." http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/legacy/natureuk/2011/07/brimstones-and-buckthorn.shtmlA valuable food source for birds, see my previous post about robins no longer being a sign of spring, clearly not as FMR says "While birds (and sometimes mice) do often eat the berries of buckthorn bushes, the berries produce a severe laxative effect. For smaller birds, the laxative effect can be strong enough to result in death."  It's clear that an organizations agenda shapes its statements, but the willful ignorance displayed by a supposed environmental steward like FMR is deeply troubling. Get out and look around, you may be surprised by what you see.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Language used to describe native trees is different that language describing naturalized trees.

The language used to describe the natural history of trees is more often than not different if the tree is non-native. The green ash is very common is MN and sprouts up all over. In the “Trees and Shrubs of Minnesota” by Welby Smith the green ash is described in a positive way because it is native. “Young trees grow rapidly and re-sprout vigorously if cut or damaged, and they produce large numbers of seed. Green ash is also one of the most effective colonizers of abandoned agricultural and urban lands, which only enhances its reputation as a tough, durable tree.” This is how buckthorn is described. “It grows quickly in the open and in brushy habitats. Control is very difficult. Young trees have shallow root systems and can be pulled up by hand. But larger plants must be mechanically uprooted or treated with herbicides. If they are only cut or burned, they will re-sprout vigorously and control will become even more difficult. Common buckthorn spreads only by seed, which it does with great proficiency. Forests can become carpeted with seedlings, as many as 500,000 per acre, leaving room for little else.” They both re-sprout vigorously and are prolific seed producers and effective colonizers, but the ash has a reputation as a tough durable tree and buckthorn must be uprooted and attacked with herbicides.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Plight of the Monarch

People have been worrying about the Monarch butterfly for years now, but an early report out of the winter grounds in Mexico is grim. So far only 3 million Monarchs have shown up. Last year was considered low at 60 million. Here in the upper Midwest we had warmth late into October and this may be contributing to a slightly later migration and arrival in Mexico, but it remains to be seen. The official count takes place in December so stay tuned. .Jim Robbins sums up the situation in this recent NYT piece.  Unfortunately he digresses into the usual native species propaganda and loses sight of the monarchs. There are many studies and resources about the loss of monarchs because of our corn and soy deserts. The Union of Concerned Scientists offers a farming solution.
U.S. agriculture is at a crossroads. The path we've been on, industrial food production, is a dead end. It damages air, water and soil, harms rural communities, and limits future productivity.
They have a cool interactive graphic too, http://www.ucsusa.org/food_and_agriculture/solutions/advance-sustainable-agriculture/healthy-farm-vision/ 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Buckthorn Green

I spent this past year working at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts developing work from local non-native species. I focused on fiber from white mulberry (Morus alba) and siberian elm (Ulmus pumilla). I also worked with buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica) which is great for color, but not good for fiber. It turns out that people have been using buckthorn pigment for thousands of years. The unripe and ripe berries yield a yellow/green color that is very striking. It was the the pigment in Sap green a common watercolor. You can easily extract color from the berries using a simple recipe.

  • Add approximately ½ cup buckthorn berries (ripe or unripe will work) to 1 Qt. of water.
  • Simmer for 1hr and smash the berries while cooking to release more color.
  • Strain out the solids and add 1/2 teaspoon of alum and use it like a watercolor paint or  fabric dye.

I'll follow-up this post with pictures and more info about buckthorn and the other trees. In case you're wondering, the buckthorn berries can be collected during the winter. Some get eaten and others fall to the ground but some remain on the trees all winter. I collected a bunch this past March, they were quite easy to find and they're already dried out.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Free Happiness Project

Palmer Amaranth (aka pigweed) is now famous as the “super-weed” that evolved resistance to glyphosate, commonly known as Roundup. Roundup has been shown to cause DNA damage in humans and it’s a leading cause of pesticide illness among CA farmworkers. This plant is a model citizen in the populist fight against corporate fouling of the Earth. Proving that polluting our land and water with poisonous herbicides is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce life-sustaining crops. If we value a move to an organic Earth, we should celebrate amaranth’s continued evolution by using it to nourish our bodies. Amaranth is a delicious edible plant native to the Americas that has been a food source for thousands of years. In addition to eating this high-protein pseudo grain as a staple food, the Aztecs used it to make ritual sculptures made of the popped seeds held together with blood and honey.These sculptures offended the Christian conquistadors so much that they enforced a ban against growing Amaranth. Despite the ban, a confection, with a recipe very similar to the Aztec ritual sculptures (sans blood), is still popular in Mexico today. It is called “Alegria”--“Joy or Happiness,” in English. I make alegrîas with a small amount of Roundup resistant amaranth seed incorporated into them, along with the more widely available organic amaranth seeds. The Roundup resistant amaranth is both a figurative and literal way for consumers of the alegrîas to incorporate the defiant properties of the roundup resistant amaranth species-- recent scientific research has shown miRNAs from ingested plant material are present in our bodies, and can manipulate gene function. Research has also shown Roundup to be present in every person tested. By fortifying our bodies with roundup resistance we will be better prepared for a chemical-laden world.


  Make your own alegrîas!
1/2 cup of unpopped amaranth
4 oz. honey
 First pop the amaranth in a pan with a tight fitting lid. Get the pan hot first, check by dropping in a few amaranth grains and if they pop immediately it's hot enough, if not they will just burn. Add amaranth one spoonful at a time, it will pop very quickly, then dump it into a bowl, repeat until all is popped.
Heat the honey, a candy thermometer is very useful, to at least 240 degrees aka "soft ball" stage. I prefer it a little crunchier which requires heating to the "soft crack" stage or about 282 degrees. Watch out for boil over and burning. After reaching desired temp pour in the popped amaranth and stir until it's all mixed. Add a pinch or two of salt and spread in a greased baking pan or onto parchment paper.
Cool cut and enjoy.
You can also add dried fruit and nuts for a different twist.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Robins are no longer a sign of spring.

The reason robins left the north was never the cold, but lack of food. The changing landscape over the past several decades has included many more berry producing shrubs like honeysuckles and buckthorn. Mark Davis from Macalaster College in St. Paul authored an interesting paper "Do Native Birds Care Whether Their Berries Are Native or Exotic? No." Now the true indicators of the arrival of spring are grackles the iridescent blue/black birds with yellow eyes. This spring in Minnesota has been VERY slow to emerge and while I've seen plenty of robins we're still waiting for the grackles.
A good example of the dangers of assuming the worst of nonnative spe- cies is illustrated by Gleditsch and Carlo (2011), who described the effects of nonnative honeysuckles on native bird species.
They found that birds were eating large amounts of the non-native honeysuckle berries, but they were also eating more native berries than were eaten in areas without the "invasive" honeysuckle. Davis relates this to the car dealer effect. Car dealers often locate next to one another because they enjoy higher overall customers than if they were located in separate locations. The same is true of artist studios and art galleries. The ones grouped together generally have more visitors for open studio events and first Fridays. The often repeated line on invasive species is that they outcompete native species. This paper shows that when studied it turns out that non-native berry producers are actually encouraging birds to distribute native berries as well. This is our new evolving landscape, and it's working just fine.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

National River and Stream Assessment and Asian Carp

The EPA has released its River and Stream Assessment and it shows widespread nutrient pollution. The nutrient pollution leads to algal blooms and the Gulf of Mexico dead zone.
Our rivers and streams are under significant stress. Reducing nutrient pollution and improving habitat will significantly improve the biological health of rivers and streams and support important uses such as swimming and fishing. This survey suggests that, although many actions are underway to protect our rivers and streams, we need to address the many sources of pollution — including runoff from urban areas, agricultural practices, and wastewater — in order to ensure healthier waters for future generations.
Asian Carp were first imported to this country by catfish farmers to clean the algae out of their catfish ponds. The great Mississippi flood of 1993 allowed them to escape in the River. Our farming and lifestyle practices have led to a better habitat for the carp, and are probably a main reason they have thrived in the Mississippi River system. I think it's a fair question to ask if this river system would be even worse off without the Asian Carp. It seems like the best way to address the carp issue if to reduce the nutrient pollution of our rivers. Switch to organic farming, and stop using fertilizers on our suburban lawns. We've created an ideal environment for the carp, and they are currently part of the solution not the problem.