American Holly, dying

In the middle of the winter, my American Holly, probably 6 years old, started to look sick. At least that’s what I thought. Almost overnight, at least half of the bush was brown. The leaves were shiny and brown, though, not dull and dry like I might have expected if they were dead. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. I wondered if perhaps, they were just in some type of rotation, were they going to drop off and be replaced like the white pine needles do periodically? ?  Why would only have the bush be rurning brown? Perhaps it was really a second Holly , rooted next to the first?


This mystery remained and I passed the bush each day, watching it turn browner and greener on one half and the other, as snow melted, grass grew, , and weeds becan to fill the hollow at its base. Overwhelmed by the spring grading, finals, and an early summer course, I let the mystery lie. One day however, i took a closer look. It is one tree. Half was indeed, looking dead.  The branches from the two halves are intertwined, but all the green come from one base branch, and the brown from the others.


Further investigation suggests that i have a case of  Botryosphaeria Canker, a type of fungus, although there is an off chance the problem actually started with a different fungus, invading through the roots.  All of the fungi are worsened by a combination of drought (which we experienced last summer) and flooding, which we had experienced in the spring.  So I guess just leaving the holly and figuring that it would all be fine as long as it didn’t die from the drought, probably wasn’t best. The holly was likely stressed and more susceptible to an infection.

So keep your plants healthy, and avoid all of this grief, I suspose is the take home lesson. I removed the dead parts, but cannot guarentee the fungus cannot spread to the living remaninder.


In praise of mud

(I”m on the left. With  a student in a tidal creek in Essex, MA)

I am covered in mud at the end of the day after a field trip with a small class to a salt marsh in Essex.  My hands smell of the deep rich sulfur scent of marshes by the sea, of sea wrack and salt water. I sniff deeply and exhale and remember the joy of hundreds maybe thousands of hours spent in marshes both salt and fresh. Hours on days like this, counting minnows,  counting larvae invertebrates, mapping vegetation .

In a salt marsh, the mud sucks at your old sneakers, clings to your calves, creeps up your pants.  Soft, and thick, it is the life of the marsh. In a tidal creek, I sink to my knees as I move forward slowly, trying to seine minnows. The mud’s richness comes from the death of plants, the trapping of tiny particles, the soft decay of algae. Bacteria quietly grow, using up the oxygen and turning the layers below the very thin top layer, a rich dark color.

Mud is elemental here. It holds the history of the marsh, the tale of hurricanes and storms, the movement forward and back of the constantly changing coast.  Crabs sidle by on its surface, ribbed mussels stick out only a bit, filtering the changing tide, cleaning the water from one cycle to the next. Up at the surface, the tough marsh pants will trap mud particles, raising the marsh surface while the processes of sea level rise and decay lower it. Tens of thousands of years of marsh accretion and loss , growing and declining,  have brought this place to be. I get to be here, and would have no other place today.Some people are made to revel in mud.   I am one, and today is a day for a tidal marsh.