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Do You Have Poisonous Plants in Your Garden?

Castor bean plant

Castor bean plant – one of the first poisonous plants I knew I had in my garden

Few of us hear much about castor oil anymore, but my childhood memory is that it was a common laxative and I never imagined there was a castor bean plant and it was one of the very poisonous plants  Even as an adult I never gave a thought as to where castor oil came from so it was with great shock that when I admired a beautiful big plant with dark red-tinged leaves and prickly red seed cases it was identified as the poisonous castor bean (Ricinus communis) plant.

I continue to admire castor bean plants, but I would be too nervous to grow it in my garden. Castor bean plants are very poisonous. The poisons are ricin, a toxic protein, and ricinine, an alkaloid. When ingested the beans will cause serious symptoms from nausea, convulsions, coma and death.

Like most of us I don’t often think about whether the plants in my garden are poisonous, but I just read a startling statistic from the 2015 Annual Report by the National Poison Control Center that “plants were implicated in over 28,000 cases of poison exposures.” That statistic is a warning that if we have pets or young children we should be aware of the level of danger of some of our favorite plants.

Rhubarb only eat the stalks

Rhubarb – beautiful foliage but the leaves are poisonous

The list of plants that will cause illness and death is much longer than I imagined. I knew that rhubarb leaves were poisonous and should not be eaten, and all parts of the beautiful datura are dangerous causing hallucinations, delirium convulsions and even cause death. Foxgloves are so toxic that even the water left in a vase holding a foxglove bouquet is toxic. Poisonous plants  surround us.

If you are a reader you may recall that water hemlock, Cicuta maculata, played a vital part in A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley. Water hemlock is considered the most toxic plant native to North America.

Delphiniums and foxgloves are poisonous plants

Delphiniums and foxgloves are among the list of beautiful and poisonous plants

All parts of several familiar and common plants like delphinium, foxglove, lily of the valley, daphne, monkshood, azaleas and rhododendrons are toxic and if taken in sufficient quantity can sometimes cause death.

I am fascinated that many creatures are aware of plant poisons and know they must not nibble on them. I got all excited when I was told that rhodendron flowers were toxic to honey bees. I had just planted three rhododendrons! But just in time I learned that bumblebees love rhododendron flowers and that the honey bees had zip interest in them. I can relax and enjoy my rhodies, knowing that visiting pollinators are safe. I don’t think there is anyone else of my acquaintance who might be tempted to nibble at the flowers or the foliage.


Rhododendrons – avoided by honey bees but delighting bumblebees

While we should all be aware of the toxicity of the plants in our gardens, I do not think we need to avoid these plants, we just need to be aware of the dangers. I don’t have children in my garden anymore, nor do I have pets. The squirrels and rabbits who visit must take their chances, but I actually think they are much too smart to eat anything that would upset their little stomachs.

Some houseplants are toxic as well.  Cyclamen, spathiphyllum, philodendron, kalanchoe, pothos,  and scheffleras are all dangerous for cats. Bouquets can sometimes be toxic. Lilies are highly toxic to cats who might nibble on the petals, stamens or even the roots after they knock the vase over.

You can go online to find out about the toxicity of garden plants. Cornell has a database listing poisonous plants that can hurt livestock and other animals like humans at I can tell you that the AMA Handbook of poisonous and injurious plants by Kenneth Lampe published by the American Medical Association and The Handbook of poisonous and injurious plants by Lewis Nelson are both available through our local library system.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart

One of my favorite garden writers is Amy Stewart. An early book she wrote is titled Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln’s Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities. This fascinating book tells the story, among others, that you don’t even need to eat a certain plant to have it kill you. Nancy Hanks, Abraham Lincoln’s mother, didn’t eat the Eupotorium rugosum that caused delirium, tremors, weakness and ultimately death. It was the cow she milked that ate the white snakeroot making its milk poisonous. In 1818 when Hanks died Abraham Lincoln was only nine years old. Milk sickness was not an unheard of ailment. It was a problem for cows, as well as for those who drank their milk. Areas where the weed grew in pastures even came to be called Milk Sick Ridge and Milk Sick Holler. It was not until the 1920s that the cause of milk sickness was identified.

Stewart’s book is organized by the types and severity of poison plants from Deadly and Dangerous to Painful and includes the plants are Destructive for the way they can spread and play havoc with the environment. Purple loosestrife and Caulerpa taxifolia, a killer algae are just a few examples.  C. taxifolia is considered one of the worst invaders by the Invasive Species Specialist Group. There are many ways a plant can become dangerous and deadly.

Enjoy your gardens, but beware!

Between the Rows   March 10, 2018

Witch Hazel – Hamamelis Spring Bloomer

Hamamelis - witch hazel

Hamamelis – witch hazel

A  shrub with golden blossoms, a witch hazel, is blooming our our street. Some thought it was a forsythia that got it’s dates mixed up, but it is witch hazel, properly known as a Hamamelis, and about the earliest blooming plant in our area.

Witch hazel hamamelis

Witch hazel – Hamamelis

You have to get up close to appreciate and admire the twirly little blossoms. This is probably Hamamelis mollis, a Chinese witch hazel, because it is blooming in  the spring, beginning in February. Our neighborhood witch hazel has been blooming for about a month, enduring several snowstorms and frigid weather.

Arnold’s Promise, the golden spring  blooming witch hazel, is one of the most popular with gardeners. It usually grows no more than 12 feet tall with a generous spread.  Diane, with its red twirly blossoms is another popular spring bloomer.

Hamamelis virginiana,  our native witch hazel, blooms late in the fall. I have to say that I find Hamamelis mollis so encouraging when it bloom in the spring.

Witch hazel is a plant that  some of us may not recognize in a garden, but it is quite likely that we have a bottle of witch hazel in our medicine cabinets. It has been used for centuries to soothe various skin problems like poison ivy and hemorrhoids.

A witch hazel branch is also used by dowsers searching for water – or anything else. Experienced dowsers say you can dowse with anything  and many of them travel with a dowsing pendulum. Helen, a dowsing friend told us we  could dowse with a needle as pendulum hanging on a thread. While living in Maine we successfully needle dowsed to find the underground pipes in our new house when there was a plumbing problem.

We also asked the dowsing spirit where we should move in Maine to find our heart’s delight. It gave us a town midway up the coast, but in the end we moved to New York City. We found our heart’s delight there, too.

Delicious Culinary Herbs for Taste and Pleasure

Culinary herbs basil

A handful of basil – culinary herbs at Stockbridge Herb Farm

Culinary herbs bring flavor and savor to a meal, that bit of piquance that can turn a bland dish into something delectable. They all have their own stories as well. I enjoy thinking of women from time immemorial harvesting their herbs and preparing meals and medicinal potions for their families. Herb gardens have an ancient history and we moderns can still grow a handful of the herbs we use most often.

Simon and Garfunkel aside, parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are just the beginnings of the culinary herbs that can fill an herb garden. In my experience it is easy to find space for annual herbs in an herb garden or added to flower beds .

Every spring I buy a flat or two of Italian parsley, and a flat of curly parsley. Italian parsley with its flat leaves is considered the best culinary parsley, but I like growing curly parsley as well. Although I consider it an annual, I often find the curly parsley sending up new shoots early in the spring and it is usable almost until the Italian parsley can spare some shoots for the kitchen. Parsley is possibly the most basic used of the culinary herbs.

I do not plant parsley from seed because it takes so long to germinate. There is a saying that parsley has to go to Satan and back seven times before it will germinate. Buying a flat of plants is easier. Buying a collection of herb starts means I can have a pretty herb garden in just one afternoon.

I also buy annual basil, rosemary, tarragon and fennel, cilantro, and onion plant starts. The rosemary can sometimes make it through the winter indoors, but that really depends on the indoor climate of your house.

Aromatic fennel is both a vegetable and and an herb. The fennel ‘bulb’ can be braised for a delicious side dish, and the fronds can be used in salads, pesto and adding a piquant note to salmon en papillote. You can add that licorice-y flavor to any number of dishes. While scallions are not really an herb I plant a handful of spring onion starts as well. Many summer salads and dishes call for a few scallions and it is a treat to be able to go outside and pick them as needed.

Cilantro, with its lacy foliage resembles parsley and is in a class by itself. The cilantro foliage is useful in many ways, but it must be admitted it goes to seed quickly. It is best to make succession plantings to keep flavorful cilantro foliage coming throughout the season. Cilantro is a staple in many Mexican, and southeast Asian dishes. When cilantro goes to seed, it is called coriander so it is really two herbs in one.

dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Dill is one of my favorite culinary herbs

Other useful and common herbs are the perennials: dill, chives, lemon balm, and mints like spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint. Dill and chives are well behaved in my garden. I don’t make dill pickles and confess that I love the dill for its fragrance as much as its flavor. It’s a reminder of my childhood and the vegetable gardens of my grandmother and aunt in Vermont. Dill fronds, otherwise known as dill weed, add flavor to many dishes as do the seeds when they are set and ready to be harvested for winter use. Some of that dill seed always falls on the ground and plant another year’s crop. I have not found it to be invasive at all.

Chive clumps will increase in size every year so from time to time you can share a piece with a friend. The globular lavender flowers can be tossed into a salad for a bit of color and laughter when served.

Sage is almost like a tiny bush in the herb garden. I prefer the plain silvery sage. I harvest leaves during the season as necessary, and I always dry a few leaves to keep for the winter. There are fancier sages showing off golden foliage, or purple or tri-color, but these are not as hardy.

Finally there is thyme and I plant thyme in my lawn. The English have been known to have thyme lawns and I have found common thyme pretty in the lawn, and useful as an edging plant, just waiting to be harvested as needed. Like sage, thyme is available in shades of gold and green and a dull gray-green that covers the ground like a carpet.

A circle of thyme

This circle of thyme at Pickety Place has thyme to eat and thyme to admire

There is absolutely no reason that herbs cannot be planted among the ornamentals in your garden. However, I like having my herbs near the kitchen door. One benefit is that they are close at hand and I can nip out when I need a few leaves for recipe. There is also the advantage that since I walk by it several times a day I often stop to do a bit of weeding, keeping it neat, turning it into a welcoming doorway garden.

Still, I find that parsley makes a great edging plant, and any of the fancy sages would be a pretty note in the flower garden.

Herbs are not demanding plants. They have been grown since ancient times when they had medicinal as well as culinary uses.  They require sun and soil of average fertility. Like all new plantings they should be kept watered as they are becoming established, but beyond that they need very little care.

Herbs are also happy outdoors in containers, whether a collection of classic terra cotta pots, or more decorative pots. Herbs and other plants grown in containers do need to be watered regularly which in the summer heat means every day.

Between the Rows  March 10, 2018

Stonehurst, Robert Treat Paine Estate in Waltham, Mass.

Stonehurst - Paine family home

Stonehurst – the home of the Robert Treat Paine and his family

While we Greenfield Garden Club members were on a trip to Waltham, MA, to see the Lyman Greenhouses we also visited Stonehurst, the beautiful house built for summer visits by Robert Treat Paine.

Stonehurst reception room

Stonehurst reception room

I am calling this the reception room, but you can see there is a little room where the entry door is before coming into this large space. There is built in seating, and a beautiful golden marble fireplace, but am not really sure how the space would have been used. Nowadays the house is used for events – like weddings and receptions! I wish I had had a wide angle lens to take this photo.

Paine's Study at Stonehurst

Paine’s study at Stonehurst

I do understand the function of this handsome study.

Stonehurst ballroom


I doubt this was really a ballroom, especially since there are nice bookshelves on the wall opposite the fireplace. But our friends held their wedding and reception at Stonehurst and there was dancing in this room.

Stonehurst butler's pantry

Stonehurst butler’s pantry

This room was originally the kitchen, but over time a big kitchen was built on the other side of  this cabinet wall. Note the little pass-through. Nowadays caterers use that big functional kitchen.

stonehurst bow parlor

Stonehurst Bow Parlor

This lovely little room, named Bow Parlor, is built under the grand wide staircase .

bow parlor

Bow parlor plaque

I was very glad for these explanatory posters.

Stonehurst was built as a summer retreat and the builders used heavy stone and oriented the house to catch summer breezes as well as the view. Our friends confirmed that they were very cool inside the house on a blistering July day.  H.H. Richardson  and Frederick Law Olmstead cooperated on many projects. I’ll have to come back and see what Olmstead created for the landscape.

Visitors are invited to stroll the grounds designed by Olmstead, or they can hike woodland trails that wind through the 100 acres of woodland of surrounding Storer Conservation Lands.

Historic Lyman Greenhouse in Waltham, Massachusetts in March


Bougainvillea at entry of Lyman greenhouse

In March gardeners need flowers so members of the Greenfield Garden Club set off for the historic Lyman Greenhouse in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was so exciting to be able to walk under this tropical vine as we began our tour of the greenhouse.

wall of succulents

Lyman greenhouse succulent collection

There are literally thousands of plants in the greenhouse of every variety. Most of them are houseplants, some familiar and some dramatic and strange. The greenhouse is filled with orchids, succulents and many other beautiful and strange houseplants. Many of  these are sold to support the Lyman Greenhouse.

Climbing onions at Lyman greenhouse

Climbing onions

In the strange category are these climbing onions with feathery asparagus like lacy foliage.

Cattleya orchids at Lyman Greenhouse

Cattleya orchids

The many orchids, in full bloom, are definitely in the beautiful category.

Lyman greenhouse camellia room

Lyman Greenhouse Camellia room

One of the treasures of the Lyman Greenhouse is the Camellia room. Some of the camellias here are 100 years old. We were fortunate to arrive in March because they began blooming in November and are now drawing near the end of their bloom period.

Camellia tree

Camellia tree

This is just one of the camellia trees. There are still some buds beginning to swell, but some of the flowers are slowly turning a golden shade and then beige as they die and fall away.

Striped camellia

Striped camellia

I love this camellia, partly because it resembles a striped rose I used to have.

As I toured through the different rooms I had to wonder who Mr. Lyman was. There is not too much information online, but the New England Historical Society did come up with information about his family, his successful trading  with China, his philanthropy, his palatial home and gardens.

I confess I only bought a single rhizomatous begonia in delicate bloom – but you have to remember that I have very little space in my house for plants. MAYBE I need a little greenhouse.


New Ways to Make Compost and Vermicompost – Book Reviews

Composting for a new Generation

Composting for a New Generation by Michelle Balz

The first time I learned about compost piles was when a homesteading friend gave me a subscription to Rodale’s Organic Farming and Gardening magazine while we were still living in New York City. We had a tiny backyard in Manhattan, but we never did very much with it because of our fear of heavy metals in the soil. Adverse health effects caused by heavy metals are a real threat if you grow edibles.

We moved to Heath 37 years ago. On our 60 acres we had more than enough room and material to become serious composters. Composting For a New Generation: Latest Techniques for the Bin and Beyond by Michelle Balz (Cool Springs Press $22.99) gives a refresher course in the basic science of composting. Balz reviews then reviews old techniques and brings us fascinating new techniques.

This comprehensive new book tempts you with the benefits of composting from improving your soil, saving money on fertilizers, benefitting the environment and maybe even making you a happier person. Did you know that Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil and compost piles acts as a natural antidepressant? These bacteria enter your body through your breathing and through your skin.

Balz has a degree in Environmental Studies and worked as a “solid waste (garbage) professional before devoting herself to all manner of composting which she explains in her book. If you raise chickens, brew beer, make coffee, have a clothes dryer or trees you have extra riches for your compost pile. Who knew spent grain left from beer brewing, or coffee grounds really got the action going in a compost pile?

You can make compost just by layering brown matter like leaves, straw, shredded paper and sawdust with a lesser amount of vegetable scraps, chicken manure, and things like plant trimmings in a casual pile. However, for making larger amounts of compost more easily, Balz gives clear instructions for building wooden compost bins, wire leaf bins, a compost tumbler and other items. I was really taken with the simple aerator which would help break down raw materials more quickly. Air is vital to good compost making.

Balz also suggests some unusual ways to compost. She gives directions for making bokashi, a pickling process, as well as compost tea, vermicomposting which is composting indoors with worms, and trench composting. I was fascinated with her explanation of an African Keyhole Garden which puts a compost pile in the center of a raised bed. Rains will wash the nutrients from the decomposing compost pile throughout the garden.

Balz also describes hugelkultur, a permaculture technique, which is about composting wood. We have our own hugelkultur project at the back of our garden, and I have written about that before.

Worms Eat My Garbage

Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Applehof and Joanne Olszweski

Balz focuses on some new ways of making compost, but this is the 35th anniversary of the classic book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof and Joanne Olszewski. The subtitle is How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System and that system is alive and well at the Four Corners School where several classrooms have simple worm bins filled with damp newspaper and worms that are making good compost. In the spring the children will be planting seeds in potting soil amended with that vermicompost.

Think of all the questions children, or any of us might have about worms. Do they have a mouth, or teeth to eat all that lettuce? Do they have eyes? Do they have brains? All will be revealed in Worms Eat My Garbage.

Along the way the children, and other new vermicomposters, will learn all about worm anatomy, worm mating, cocoons, and baby worms.

Vermicompost is a term that encompasses not only the worm castings (worm manure) but also the rotting bedding and bits of kitchen scraps left as the worms munched their way through the day. The various steps in the making of vermicompost and the harvesting process are explained fully, along with estimations of the time it will take from set up to harvest.

The children use a simple small plastic bin in their classroom, but there are a variety of commercial bins that come in various sizes, accommodating different amounts of bedding and food scraps as well as different numbers of worms. I have known people to keep their worm bins in the kitchen or nearby, and many keep larger worm bins in the basement.

Vermicompost is powerful stuff, but each harvest will give you a limited amount so it is best to use it carefully. It is very useful when planting seeds or transplanting your spring starts. Prepare your little row and sprinkle the length of the row with the vermicompost, or put a small handful in each hole for transplants.

If you are a gardener who likes to create soil blocks for seed starting vermicomost is an ideal additive to the potting soil. Plant your seed in the vermicompost enriched seed block and when the seedling is of sufficient size put the whole block into its planting hole in the garden. It will already have gotten off to a good start.

Fully finished compost and vermicompost can also be used for top dressing in houseplants.  Choose your technique and begin!

Between the Rows   March 3, 2019

Mt. Holyoke Spring Flower Show

Mt Holyoke Spring Flower Show

Mount Holyoke Spring Flower Show

The Mount Holyoke Spring Flower Show, “Gateway to Spring” is open. Now in its 47th year, this beloved College tradition features a thoughtfully designed display of thousands of colorful and fragrant spring favorites, including tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, pansies, cinerarias, pocketbook plants and more to entice and inspire those eager for spring’s arrival.
This year’s show also features a large fountain created by three Mount Holyoke students, Deb Kelly,  Stella Chepkwony and Samiha Tasnim,  evocative of the Fidelia Nash Field Gate. The show is open daily from 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. March 3rd – 18th and is free and open to the public.
Mount Holyoke Spring Flower Show 2018

Mount Holyoke Spring Flower Show 2018

Smith College is also holding its Spring Bulb Show until March 18, 2018. 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM daily.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday extended hours 10:00 AM – 8:00 PM.
Spring is coming!

Sunrise Farms- Maple Syrup – A Sweet Life

Maple syrup

Marilyn Lively and nearly done maple syrup

Sunrise Farms welcome the sweet life when it’s time to boil up the maple syrup. These days we are more likely to see little hoses (called lines in the vernacular) snaking through the snowy woodlands than tin buckets hanging off the maple trees. Maple sugaring has changed over the years and I got to see the whole process at Sunrise Farms in Colrain.

The Lively family, mom and dad Marilyn and Rocky, with sons Erik and Jordan welcomed me to the steam filled room in the sugar house where the maple sap had nearly completed its transformation into sweet maple syrup. Rocky then ushered me to the top of the three level space. This room, at the same level as the woodshed, holds a day’s worth of wood chips that have been harvested in late fall. The chips are sent down a chute that slowly and regularly feeds the furnace that heats the steam condenser on the bottom level.

However, it was on the second level where the sap lines, aided by a vacuum pump bring sap into the sugar house. The pump keeps the sap moving, protecting it from heat and air that might allow bacteria to form.  The sap is first filtered through cloth bags and then is run through an ultraviolet light sterilizer to kill any bacteria.  At this point the filtered and sterilized sap is sent to the reverse osmosis tank where magically 75% of the water is removed from the sap. With so much of the water removed the final boiling goes very quickly. No longer do syrup makers have to spend hours into the night watching the sap as the water evaporates.

On the steamy ground floor the sap is boiling away. Rocky checked it and was a little surprised. “Usually the first run is a pale color, but this batch is more amber,” he said. That comment led us into a conversation about the new grading system.

Back in the 70s when I was first buying local syrup I was delighted to find that I could get Grade B maple syrup which I thought had much more flavor than Fancy or Grade A that was paler in color. The new grading system allows that every level of syrup is Grade A, but the new terms refer to color and flavor. Fancy is now named Golden and Delicate Taste. Then comes Amber and Rich Flavor. Third in line is Dark and Robust. This is my favorite which might even be slightly richer in taste than the Grade B I used to favor. The color is beautiful and the flavor is so satisfying.

The final maple syrup grade is Very Dark and Strong Flavor. This used to be Grade C which most of us never saw because it was sold commercially.

When I told Rocky that I thought that Grade C syrup was used for making candy, he said absolutely not. Candy needed the much lighter amber syrup. The amber grade made the candy set up properly, and the color was much more attractive than the very dark (formerly) Grade C. “On the other hand, the Strong Flavor grade works very well for baking. Just a little will give you great taste for maple cookies,” Erik added.

The Lively Family

The Lively family at Sunrise Farms in Colrain

I asked Marilyn if she ever drank the pure sap, which is mostly water and which some consider to have health benefits. “No, I don’t drink the plain sap, but sometimes I like to make coffee in my old percolator pot using sap instead of water. It gives the coffee a sweet flavor and I don’t have to use any sugar. It’s delicious.”

Sugaring isn’t a very long season in the agricultural year. After all the sugaring equipment has been given its final cleaning the Lively men are busy tending their beef cattle, hayfields, and the woodlot. They sell timber, lumber and firewood. They also do some construction work. Marilyn continues with her job in the Mohawk Trail Regional School office where she works – even in sugaring season.

You can buy Sunrise Farm maple syrup at Green Fields Coop and at farmer’s markets.

Sugaring season isn’t the only sign of spring. The Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association is holding its annual Spring Symposium on Saturday, March 17, 2018 at Frontier High School in South Deerfield. Henry Homeyer, the Gardening Guy and author of books like Gardening in the Northeast, will speak on Sculpting the Living Landscape.  There will also be a wide variety of workshops from vegetable gardening, shrubs, to an herbal spa workshop, good and bad insects, invasive plants, pollinator plants, and more. There will also be books from Timber Press and Storey for sale and items from local vendors.

Cost for the Spring Symposium is $35. Register early to get the workshop of your choice.  If you wish to order the $8 lunch from the River Valley Market you must sign up with your Symposium form.  Full information is on the website

The UMass Extension Service is offering several hands-on workshops beginning on March 3, 2018 Edible Landscaping with Fruits in Amherst $35.

March 11, 2018 – Tree Grafting in Belchertown $100, all day with tools and materials supplied

March 24, 2018 – Home Orchard Pruning in Great Barrington $45.

For full information about Extension programs check online for programs, time, locations, and cost.

Between the Rows  February 24, 2018


George Washington Carver – Peanut Man

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

The United States has been built by people of every class, color and nationality, people who had a burning desire to learn, to spread new information, and to make people’s lives better, no matter their class, color or nationality. Sometimes their stories surprise us, but then they inspire us to find ways that we might improve our communities, our country, and even the world.

George Washington Carver (1860s – January 5, 1943) was just such a man. He was born to slaves but by the time he was 36 he had earned a Bachelor and Master’s degrees. He had studied plants, agricultural practices, and worked with farmers to share the knowledge he acquired from his researches and practical experiences. He had more than book learning when Booker T. Washington, the first president of the Tuskegee Institute, asked Carver to head up the Agricultural Department in 1896. He taught there for 47years.

Carver taught agricultural practices from crop rotation systems, soil improvement, farm self-sufficiency and also continued his research into various crops. He recommended sweet potatoes for their nutritional value. He had new ideas about teaching, and transformed a wagon into a mobile classroom. He visited farmers in that wagon on their land to give them additional training and information. This project was funded by the white scientist and philanthropist Morris Ketchem Jesup. This makes me wonder whether Carver’s fame had extended to the New York financial and philanthropy world, or if he was a good fund-raiser.

sweet potatoes and peanuts

Peanuts and sweet potatoes were two of the crops George Washington Carver promoted

At the same time that Carver joined the Tuskegee staff the boll weevil was making its way from Mexico into the United States taking a terrible toll of the cotton crops. Carver had already been teaching farmers to diversify their crop plantings because cotton was depleting the soil. He suggested planting peanuts and soybeans because they would add nitrogen to the soil. It was his promotion of peanuts when the boll weevil was destroying the cotton industry that brought about the great increase of peanut farming.

His work with peanuts earned him fame and he became known as the ‘peanut man’ after a talk he gave to the Peanut Growers Association in 1920.

His fame went beyond agricultural organizations and beyond the educational world. President Theodore Roosevelt went to him for advice on agricultural issues and he advised Mahatma Gandhi on agricultural practice and nutrition. In 1916 he was made a made a member of the British Royal Society of Arts, a rare honor.

For the last two decades of his life he enjoyed great fame and toured giving talks on interracial cooperation as well as agriculture and peanuts. Henry Ford built a replica of the cabin where Carver was born at the Ford Museum, and dedicated and named a laboratory in Dearborn after him as well. The USDA named a portion of its Beltsville, Maryland campus the George Washington Carver Center.

Carver has been memorialized in many ways. In 1943, during World War II a Liberty Ship named the George Washinton Carver was launched by Lena Horne who was accompanied by Bill Bojangles Robinson, Dorothy Dandridge and welder Beatrice Turner, the first female African American worker at the Richmond Shipyards.

Oddly, that ship was almost immediately refitted as a hospital ship renamed the Dogwood and served by making trans-Atlantic trips and then moving to the Pacific, finishing at San Francisco in the fall of 1946. By that time she was no longer needed as a hospital ship and regained her name as the George Washington Carver until 1964.

Although Carver died 75 years ago I believe he would be happy to know that the peanuts he encouraged African American farmers to cultivate more than 100 years ago, are now being used to save starving children around the world, in Africa and more close-by in Haiti.

Inspired by Nutella, the delicious nut sandwich spread, a French pediatrician and nutritionist Andre Briend created a peanut paste mixed with skim milk powder, sugar, vegetable fat and vitamins in 1996. It does not need to be fed to children in hospitals, and can simply be distributed to families at home.

Tinfoil packets of this nutritious paste, named Plumpy’nut, do not need refrigeration. Nor does it need clean water to help the child eat it and it does not spoil after the packet is opened. It can take a starving child from the brink of death to sure survival in just six weeks.

UNICEF is the largest buyer of Plumpy’nut and in 2013 they fed two million children. UNICEF now gets its supply from 19 approved producers. UNICEF ( has a website and anyone can go online and order an amount of Plumpy’nut from 21 packets for $15 or 105 packets for $58.

As the world wide refugee crisis has grown over recent years, Plumpy’nut has become even more important as families have found themselves living in tents in refugee centers.

George Washington Carver could not have foretold the global crisis of starvation, but I am sure he would join us in celebrating the continuing life-giving benefits of the humble peanut.

In 2010 I wrote about Plumpy’nut here.

Between the Rows   February 17, 2018

Trees, Caterpillars and Butterflies in the Backyard

Red Admiral Butterfly

Red Admiral butterfly

I have trees, caterpillars and butterflies and other pollinators in my backyard. Trees provide us with many environmental services. The obvious benefit is cooling shade. When we visited friends in Sacremento we learned that the Sacremento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) was putting trees on residential properties to cool the houses and lower the cost of power. Other benefits are not so obvious. They filter our air, take in carbon and breathe out oxygen. They filter water to protect our streams and rivers and prevent erosion. These are essential services.

Trees also make our gardens beautiful in multiple ways, beginning with the shape and texture of foliage. They can provide colorful flowers in the spring. Think of the loveliness of redbuds, magnolias, serviceberry, dogwoods, as well as blooming fruit trees that will give us a harvest. We can see and enjoy that beauty. What we cannot see is the ways trees help keep all the nearly invisible creatures in the garden in balance.

spicebush butterfly caterpillar

Spicebush butterfly caterpillar photo by Bill Benner

Many of us don’t give too much thought to pollinators, especially since many of them are so tiny that we don’t even see them, but we do think about how nice it is to have beautiful birds and butterflies in our gardens. Many of us put out bird feeders to attract birds, and aside from suet with seed blocks, most feeders hold seeds. However, especially in the spring birds need bugs and caterpillars to feed their young.

While many birds do have a diet that depends on seeds almost all North American birds depend on insects to feed their babies because of their great need for protein. Insects provide that protein and other nutrients in good measure. I also just learned that if there is any chance bluebirds might nest in or near your garden a makeshift feeder for mealworms would be very attractive. Bluebirds eat many other insects and mealworms should not be used as the sole bluebird food, but a helping every morning would keep the baby bluebirds thriving.

In his book Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in our Gardens, Douglas Tallamy describes and explains how important insects are for birds. He also explains why using pesticides in the garden in order to keep flowers and foliage looking pristine is a bad idea.

Monarch caterpillar

Monarch caterpillar

Native trees like red maple, sugar maple, river birch, white oak, red oak and black oak, to name just a few, are all strong enough to let insects eat their fill without damaging the vitality of the tree. He says that oaks, willows and cherries combined are trees that support about 1400 insect species, including butterfly larvae, otherwise known as caterpillars. Butterfly caterpillars often have very specific plants they can feed on in order to live through their cycle of egg, larvae, pupa otherwise known as chrysalis, and finally adult butterfly. Most of us know that the endangered monarch butterfly depends on the different species of milkweed plants as hosts where they can lay their eggs, so the larvae will have the proper food when the eggs hatch.

When we lived in Heath we did have a pussy willow. One day when I was examining it to see how much damage a browsing moose had done I saw an odd brown bump on a stem and leaf. What was it? Some kind of disease growth on the willow or something else? A little research and I found that it was the larval form of the viceroy butterfly. The viceroy larvae masquerades as a pile of bird poop, which no bird would ever think looked appetizing.

Swallowtail butterfly

Swallowtail butterfly

Here is a very short list of common trees that act as host plants for particular butterflies:

Viceroy                                   Willow, aspen, cherry, plum, poplar

Mourning cloak                       Elm, poplar, willow

Red spotted purple                 Apple, aspen, hornbeam, poplar, willow, cherry

Giant swallowtail                    Hop tree

Question mark                         Hop tree, elm, hackberry

Spring azure                            Dogwoods

Baltimore checkerspot            White ash

Hairstreaks                              Oak

Elfins                                       Pines

Dr. Bob Benner, veterinarian extraordinaire, gave a talk to the Greenfield Garden Club at their annual meeting recently, about butterflies, their needs, and the delight they can bring to our gardens and to our eyes. His photos of some of the 105 Massachusetts butterfly species, including their caterpillar stage, were stunning, and surprising. He gave us advice about choosing plants to act as hosts and provide nectar. He also gave us permission to be a little casual about weeding because some ‘weeds’ act as host plants for caterpillars.

He also suggested that we might want to join the Massachusetts Butterfly Club which has numerous benefits including about 50 butterfly field trips a year, publications like the twice yearly journal Massachusetts Butterflies and the MBC Guide to Good Butterfly Sites which comes with maps.

Benner left us on tenterhooks as he told us about the election to choose a State Butterfly. The MBC partnered with Girl Scout Troop #85103 of Norfolk and proposed the Black Swallowtail, the Mourning Cloak or the Great Spangled Fritillary. Voting ended this past October and now we wait for the results. Benner suggested that we might be looking to the Black Swallowtail to win. Can’t wait for the announcement.

Between the Rows   February 10, 2018