Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Know Thy Weeds

In this early spring there are already flowering plants growing wild where my lawn used to be. Unlike the large-petaled and gaudy crocuses and daffodils planted in place, there are plants that just seem to turn up. I could describe these as weeds i.e. plants growing where they are not wanted. But for me right now these tiny plants with their delicate flowers are forming a good groundcover that will be replaced by violets later in the month. They attract wildlife and are edible for the gardener too.

Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) attracts butterflies such as the Spring Azure. It bears clusters of tiny white four-petaled flowers on long stalks above a basal rosette of deep green compound leaves. Seeds are held in long, narrow pods, which release seeds explosively far and wide. If you want to stop the spread of this annual plant pull up the basal rosette of leaves before the seeds ripen and use as a bitter herb. As with other members of the mustard family its leaves are loaded with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

Common chickweed (Stellaria media) got its name because chickens eat it. This plant turns up anywhere there is disturbed, cleared ground on the edge of yards and is often considered to be the bane of vegetable gardeners. This plant can form large dense patches and here on my ex-lawn robins and other birds relish its seeds. It has a pretty little flower of five, deeply lobed petals that look like tiny, ten-pointed stars. The succulent stems bearing fleshy leaves are easy to pull up and can be an ingredient in a wild green salad. When cooked it tastes a lot like spinach.   

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The trees have feathers

On a walk in some nearby woods I came across a tree adorned with countless little shelves of fungi all the way up its trunk. It looked quite spectacular. Shelf fungi also add colors, texture and form to my winter woods. They grow layer upon layer and in great profusion on tree stumps, trunks and nooks and crannies of log piles. The turkey-tail fungus, Trametes versicolor, is especially colorful en masse and each shelf has contours of rich browns, yellow, orange, blue or purple. The variation in color is due to different minerals extracted from the decaying wood.