We were sitting out on the porch earlier this week enjoying that summery weather. One flower caught my eye, it was fresh and bright among the others that were either gone or fading fast. It was one we forgot that we had planted this spring — it was sneezeweed.
Sneezeweed, also referred to as Helenium by many gardeners, is not as elegant as some other flowers but it provides a nice splash of color this time of year.
This plant is native to our area and in the wild, it is normally found in damp spots. Our flower garden is high and dry with very sandy soil and a southern exposure. Since we water that garden whenever it needs it, the sneezeweed seems to have adapted nicely. Often, when gardeners grow sneezeweed in rich garden soils it grows tall but the stems will be weak causing the plants to fall over. That means more work for the gardener: staking and tying the plants. Cutting the plants back during June encourages branching and keeps the plants shorter avoiding the need to stake them later in the season. Ours are about three feet tall and were never cut back yet the stems are strong enough to keep the plants upright. That’s probably due to the growing conditions in our garden.
Helenium belongs to the compositae family of plants and like most of the plants in this group, they have composite flowers. What most people (other than botanists) call its flower is actually two different types of flowers combined into a single display. The outer ring of petal-like things are the “ray florets” or flowers. The center ball-shaped structure is a cluster of other tiny flowers called the “disc florets”. Daisies, sunflowers and dandelions all have similar flower structures. If you watch bees visit these flowers, you can see them collecting nectar from each little floret.
Sneezeweed is a perennial and will continue to come up every spring for several years. Horticulturists and plant breeders have developed many varieties with different colors and growth habit. They are more civilized than their wild cousins but still retain the basic Helenium characteristics.
When I was aroud ten years old, back when all kids were free-range, I spotted spotted a plant during my wanderings that impressed me so much that I’m intrigued by it to this day. I didn’t know what it was called at the time. It wasn’t until later, when I was in college, that I found out it was called dogbane.
What caught my eye way back then, were the long, thin seed pods. They were hanging from the plant in two’s, connected to each other at the top. What looked weird to me was the fact they weren’t attached like two green beans. They appeared to be one pod that grew into two parts, separating at the top. I’d never seen anything like that before in my young life.
I’m not sure if dogbane was ever that hard to find but I have noticed however, in the past twenty years, more and more dogbane growing all over our area. That’s probably due to more people leaving space for wild plants to grow for butteries, pollinators and other wildlife
A few years back someone brought me a part of the plant that they had collected asking what the plant was. Recognizing it immediately, I said without hesitating “that’s dogbane”. They looked at me like I was BS-ing them, like I made the name up. I could tell they didn’t believe me when they took their plant and just walked away. The next day they told me they had done research on their own and discovered that indeed the was a plant called dogbane and that yes, their plant really was dogbane.
There’s a spot on my property that I cultivated as a vegetable garden for a few years. I decided it wasn’t a good garden spot so I let it go back wild. Lots of different plants moved in including a single dogbane. That one plant has since expanded into a fairly dense stand. Right now the stand is turning a beautiful gold color.
On farms, dogbane can develop into a fairly serious weed. Since it reproduces by seed and by underground rhizomes is can form stands that out-compete field crops. In most cases farmers keep it under control by herbicides or crop rotation.
In many cases, diagnosing plant problems requires an in-person look at the plant in question. Too many disorders look similar when all you have is a photo to go by.
Earlier this week someone sent me a photo asking about spots on a valuable tree they have in their front lawn. That was an easy one. I took one quick look at the photo and knew right away what it was. Their maple tree was infected with a fungal disease called “tar spot”. It’s quite easy to identify because in this case the name is very descriptive, the leaves really do look like they’re covered with spots of tar.
Even though it looks pretty bad, tar spot is relatively harmless even in a heavily infected situation. There’s no good way of preventing the disease. Some years are worse than others for tar spot and some varieties seem to be disposed to having more dramatic symptoms than others.
The spores from the disease over winters in fallen leaves so you wound think that raking them up and disposing of them would help the situation. Unfortunately the fungal spores can travel for miles in the air and can land on your tree and take hold.
When a tree has a severe case of tar spot, it can lose many of its leaves causing the tree raking season tobegin earlier than normal.
One bright spot is: since tar spot is species specific, it will not spread to other types of trees such as oaks.
According to my records, my grapes are about ten days ahead of last year at this date. Every growing season is different and any particular year doesn’t necessarily line up with seasonal average growing conditions.
Ten days is a long time when it comes to grapes. I covered the grapes with netting last week to keep the birds from robbing the grapevines. If I had followed the calendar and waited until last year’s date to cover them, the birds would have eaten them all by now.
I have a trick that I use to determine when to put on the netting. I have a vine of early grapes that ripen about a week earlier than my main crop. When the birds start eating the grapes from that vine, I know it’s time to get the netting on my main crop. It’s a quick and easy way for me to keep track of grape development since I have so many other things going on than just grapes. Serious grape growers have more sophisticated ways o monitoring their grapes but this method works for me.
How did my grapes get so far ahead from last year? Plants need a certain amount of heat during the growing season to grow and develop. Scientist have developed a thing called “growing degree days” to help farmers predict when crops reach a particular stage of development. I looked the the growing degree days for our area to see if how much warmer the growing season was, thinking that might account for the early timing of my grapes. The record shows that there are fewer growing degrees this year than last! How could that be?
Some time earlier during the growing season, we had a warm stretch of weather that pushed the grapes into further along in their development than they normally would be. That means the grapes would be that much further along. Raw degree days won’t tell us very much about plant development for specific crops. Plant scientists have come up with methods to apply that data that are unique to each individual crop. Had I been following those scientific parameters, I would have known even before the birds when the grape would be ready to cover.