About Dorothy Boorse

A child watching ants and mud, my small town life filled with animals and plants gave me a passionate interest in the world around me. Im an aquatic ecologist and have a degree in entomology, but I spend more time writing about the environment, natural history, and the relationship between science and faith. I have an abiding love of living things, and walk around noticing them. I'm a follower of Jesus, am trying to be a peacemaker and love others, and desperately want to help heal the earth where humans have harmed creation. Most of this blog will be about the joy of noticing. I'm an author on a textbook. My writing here does not reflect the opinions of either the school where I work, or the textbook publisher.

In Praise of the Late August Goldens

IMG_2031The end of August slides warmly past, hot sticky days end in nights cooler than those of a month ago. The dry ground of the garden waits for a storm. In the dark on the weathered steps in the back of the house I sit at night to listen to the loud insect chorus of the later summer.  Into this time, poised for those first leaves to change, waiting with baited breath for the start of school, sneak the goldens.  Their lacy blossoms shimmer in a haze of bee and beetle activity, nestled in the thick of plants most would call weeds.  Suddenly the sides of roadways and  the rare unmown meadows glint with the dappled flecks of goldenrods, patient natives offering nectar while their neighbor, Joe Pye weed fades from mauve to tan.

 

Goldenrods are members of a genus in the aster family.  The genus, Solidago, has more than a hundred species. Several are native to this area, most to North America, although some are in Central America and a few on other continents. Some like seaside goldenrod, Solidago sempervirens, live in more specialized niches  such as salt marches.  Goldenrods are rugged perennial plants with tough stems and    underground rhizomes (lateral stems new plants can grow from). The stems produce a latex when cut, once used to make rubber. The plants also contain compounds used in traditional medicines against sore throats, toothache and kidney problems.

 

In addition, goldenrods have an important place in the history of ecology. Dick Root, an eminent ecologist at Cornell University, spent much of his career studying the groups of small creatures (insects, mites etc.) that live on goldenrods. Within that tiny microcosm of the world, he looked for, and with his many students, found new ideas about how ecological niches are organized, how communities work, and what herbivores do to the plants they eat.

 

Goldenrods are insect pollinated. Their heavy sticky pollen does not cause the hayfever that ragweed, flowering at the same time, does.  Insects such as bees and  wasps, buzz about, sometimes collecting the nectar many goldenrod species produce.  In Europe, goldenrods are planted in gardens; their  abundant, tiny flowers form a halo of yellow on the tops of stalks .  In China and Germany, cultivated goldenrods have escaped and become invasive. However, in North America, where they are an important part of ecosystems, their natural beauty is often overlooked.  Rejoice in the pleasure of the goldenrod,  which can be found swaying in the light late August breeze, by many of the roads and walkways in this area!IMG_2032

 

 

Towering Summer Purples

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Walking past a marsh I see regularly  in these last days of July and early days of August, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the scale of some of the plants. Above my head, smoky plumes of purple hover like a haze, a thick crown of mauve blossoms. These are the later summer foliage of summer wet meadows, and habitat for common pollinators. Both are in the larger plant family that sunflowers are in, the Asteraceae.

The taller, Ironweed, is one of the seventeen North American species of  the genus Vernonia, named after the English Botanist William Vernon. World-wide, there are about 1000 species in this genus, many of which are eaten for food or used medicinally. Although I am not certain of the species, I believe these extraordinary plants you see are probably Vernonia gigantea (Tall Ironweed, or Giant Ironweed). If not, they are a close relative, and I do know that they are native plants, descendants of the 2,000 wetland plants that were planted in this wetland restoration in 2001.

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Above: Iron weed is slightly taller, its leaves slightly darker and its flowers less spread out than the Joe-Pye weed in the same area

World-wide, ironweeds are culturally important. Members of the genus in Africa are important parts of diets,  eaten as leaf vegetables and used in soups. In Cameroon, they are widely consumed and used in a dish called “ndole’” Some of the plants in the genus have anti microbial properties, and others have been used to treat diabetes, fevers, and  joint pain.  Vernonia galamensis,  a relative grown in Ethiopia, is used  as an oilseed, producing an oil used for industrial purposes. The ironweed we have might have medicinal leaves, although I’m certain you shouldn’t just go chewing on it, and it doesn’t have oil-producing seeds. Nonetheless it is lovely.

A similarly striking plant, slightly smaller and slightly lighter in color, is Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum).  This rugged wetland plant is also native and has several other common names including: Kidney-root, Scented Joe-pie weed, Trumpet weed and Gravel root. It is a perennial plant that forms clumps. This plant is also in a genus of closely related plants, and there is a possibility that the ones we see are one of those other relatives.  For those of you who don’t know how exciting plant taxonomy can be, when I first worked with Joe-Pye weed, I learned it as a member of the genus Eupatorium. Sometime when I was not paying attention, those busy taxonomists split the genus and put Joe-Pye weeds and close relatives in a new genus.

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Above: Joe-Pye weed was used by Native Americans as a medicinal plant. It looks similar to , but a little lighter than the Ironweed int he same area

I first encountered Joe-Pye weed  in my research in the Midwest. I have fond memories of late summer and early fall slogs through wetlands, looking for the flowers of fall as the leaves of summer plants browned and curled. The dark leaves and earth tones of both Ironweed and Joe-Pye weed lend some of the richness and texture that characterize upper Midwestern wetlands.  Browns and russets abound in a landscape that to a first view looks flat and unremarkable.  As in almost everything I study, the remarkable becomes obvious with closer inspection. The bright color of spring is gone this time of year, but a depth emerges, and endless variations on green, brown, red and purple turn the upper, drier portion of the marsh into a zone of interest and mystery.

Here in New England, these plants were called “Joe-Pye” weed after an indigenous word “Jopi”. Like ironweed, Joe-Pye weed has  medicinal properties; folklore holds that it was used by Native Americans and colonists against kidney stones,  and fevers, including typhus outbreaks.

I am hoping we will not need to raid the marsh upland for emergency medicines, but that you, like me, will take a moment to look at the lovely later summer  purples high above your heads.

Wait, Don’t Plant That!

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Iris pseudacorus photo by Jean-Jaques Milan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iris_pseudacorus#mediaviewer/File:Iris_pseudacorus_001.jpg

Walking around  the campus, I am almost cheered by the bright bloom  of the yellow iris (Iris pseudacorus L. )  in  the streams and along the paths  toward the woods . Almost , but not cheered, it turns out, because I know two things. First, there is a lot more yellow iris on campus  than last year, and second, because the yellow iris doesn’t belong here.  It is an invasive species, albeit a lovely one.

Yellow iris spreads. While in some temperate regions it is still planted for horticulture, in others, like Massachusetts  it has been banned. Did you know there were banned plants?  Usually they are plants that are considered “noxious” even if they are attractive, because they are so hard to control.  In fact, the yellow iris is on the  Massachusetts list of prohibited  plants. This list is not a list of all the plants you ought to avoid as a gardener  but is a list of plants that are so difficult to control  that “the sale, trade, purchase and distribution” are prohibited in the state.  In case you think this is a case of governmental overreaching, consider that invasive species  have been estimated to cost  the US upwards of $120 billion a year1. In 2011 the Department of the Interior spent 100 million on  invasive species  from prevention to control and restoration2.  Every state, the federal government, and  other nations, have agencies set up to limit the spread of invasive species., which represent not only economic costs but one of the major causes of species extinctions.

I discovered that yellow iris was on this list last year when I was admiring some in a clump near the parkinglot  toward the back of campus. “Wow,” I thought. “I know blue flag iris is a common native  wetland plant. These yellow ones are really lovely  too, I wonder why I haven’t seen them before? I wonder   if they belong here?

And indeed, the reason I had not seen here is because they are not native and are only now establishing .To prevent their spread,  we will  need to have a plant removal day.

Look for invitation!

In the meantime, if you are looking for plants that won’t spread and cause ecological problems, I  would plant natives. One place to find out about native plants is the New England Wildflower Society, both online or at their Garden in the Woods site near Framingham.

1. Pimentel et al 2005. Ecological Economics.  52:273-288.

http://www.plantright.org/pdfs/Pimentel-et-al2005.pdf

2. http://www.fws.gov/home/feature/2012/pdfs/costofinvasivesfactsheet.pdf

Click beetle

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The click beetles are members of the beetle family Elateria. They have a spine on one part of their exoskelton that fits into a groove in another part. The beetle can use it to make a suddenly click and dramatic popping movement. It uses this to evade predation and to right itself from laying on its back .There are about 965 species in North America, so don’t ask me which one it is specifically. On this on you can see alarming looking spots on the back which are likely to frighted bird predators.

Younger son and a friend found this one in a wood pile. They had no idea what it was and thought it was dead. I initially filmed it for about 6 minutes before I gave up . It just laid there. Then later, it popped around a lot. I eventually released it back to the wood pile. This one was about 3cm, which you can see in the photos. Here is a short video of it clicking. This is 5 seconds of what was a 5 minute clip.

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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.