Monday, January 13, 2014

Winter Weeding: Hairy Bittercress

Cardamine hirsuta
Hairy Bittercress
By Emma Erler, The Alice and J. Liddon Pennock, Jr. Endowed Horticulture Intern

This time of year there isn’t too much happening in the garden. Most plants have gone dormant for the winter. However, as the snow melts you may notice a low growing plant with a basal rosette of leaves. This is a common weed in the mustard family called hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta).  Hairy bittercress is a winter annual, which means its seeds usually germinate in cool, moist weather. Seedlings emerge mainly in late summer or fall. They are frost hardy and will remain dormant through the winter until temperatures warm up. In early to mid-spring, hairy bittercress will resume growth, produce flowers, and go to seed. Plants die back as soon as hot weather arrives in late spring and summer.
As a seedling, hairy bittercress has simple kidney-shaped leaves. Mature plants have prominent basal rosettes of hairy, compound leaves with shallowly lobed kidney-shaped leaflets. Flowering stems emerge from the rosette and have only a few small leaves. Hairy bittercress flowers are very small (2-3 mm) in diameter with four white petals. The subsequent fruits are 1-2 cm long capsules that explosively disperse their seeds up to 3 meters from the plant.

The best way to control hairy bittercress in the garden is to remove it before it sets seed. Each plant is capable of producing many thousands of seeds, hence removing the plants before seeds are set will greatly control the population. Small populations can be easily hand pulled from the garden. In large areas, regular hoeing will prevent plants from flowering and going to seed.
 For the adventurous gardener, hairy bittercress is an edible green. Tender leaves collected in early spring or late fall can add a peppery taste to salads.

As the winter progresses, keep an eye out for hairy bittercress and get ready to weed as the weather warms up!

Photos: Emma Erler

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Counting the Birds: A Christmas Tradition

From December through January tens of thousands of volunteers throughout the Americas take part in an annual mission: The Christmas Bird Count. For over one hundred years, the desire to both make a difference and to experience the beauty of nature has driven dedicated families and students, birders and scientists to brave the winter weather, armed with binoculars, bird guides and checklists , to count the birds!
Each of these citizen scientists make an enormous contribution to conservation. Audubon and other organizations use data collected in this longest-running wildlife census to assess the health of bird populations - and to help guide conservation action.
On December 21, 2013 several Morris Arboretum staff members participated in this annual tradition. Of the birds sighted, some of the most notable were:  
  • A flock of 220 Snow Geese
  • Cormorants, Mallards, and Wood Ducks
  • Wood Thrush
  • Brown Creepers
  • Carolina wren
  • Red-tailed hawk
  • White-throated sparrow
  • Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

And perhaps the most exciting sighting: A pair of Bald Eagles spotted at Bloomfield Farm!

Pictured left to right: Carolina Wren, Red-tailed Hawk, White-throated Sparrow (Photos by Susan Marshall).

Visit the National Audubon website for more information about the census and how you can participate in 2014.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bluebird Monitoring Program at Morris Arboretum

Tracy Beerley, McCausland Natural Lands Horticulturist

Do you enjoy spending time outdoors and have a passion for birds? Perhaps you would be interested in joining our Bluebird Monitoring Program at Morris Arboretum.  This volunteer project has been organized to monitor the eastern bluebird and the nest boxes which have been mounted throughout the Arboretum.

The eastern bluebird is a migratory songbird in the Thrush Family which includes the American robin.  However, the bluebird is much smaller in size compared to this relative.  Male bluebirds are royal blue with warm red-brown breasts.  The females are much drabber in appearance yet maintain the similar elegance and shape of their counterpart.  This energetic bird is a medium-distance migrant, following patterns of north-south migration remaining in North America, and occupying the area east of the Rocky Mountains.  Bluebirds rely on insects for food.  Diving from a perch they hover over the ground to pluck beetles, caterpillars, spiders and other insects and small invertebrates.  When insect food becomes scarce in the fall and winter the birds seek fruiting trees and gulp down their juicy berries.  Bluebirds perch on wires, posts, and low branches, occupying meadows and openings surrounded by trees that offer suitable nest holes. They are cavity-nesting, building loose cup-like nests with fine grasses in cavities of trees, old woodpecker holes and man-made nest boxes which are mounted in suitable locations.  
photo by Susan Marshall
Bluebird populations are making a come-back from decline in the early twentieth century.  Contributing factors of decline included lack of suitable nesting cavities from increasing urbanization, pesticide use, and severe weather conditions.  Bluebirds also face competition for nesting cavities from the introduced European starling and house sparrow. Conservation efforts, such as the introduction of nest boxes, have been successful.  The eastern bluebird is becoming a more common sight on farmland, fence-lines, open woods, swamps and gardens. They are fairly present and a delight to see in the Natural Areas and Bloomfield Farm sections of the Arboretum.   

The Bluebird Monitoring Program was initiated this year at Morris Arboretum as a conservation effort to monitor the activity of nest boxes.  From March through July, volunteers assisted in monitoring over forty nest boxes within the Arboretum. Our findings were contributed to a citizen science based program, Nest Watch, through Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  The volunteers and I quickly learned of the immense nesting competition bluebirds face from house sparrows and natural predators. The results for this season are in; five nest boxes were used by the bluebird and a total of sixteen eggs were laid and assumed to have fledged.  We also enjoyed the experience of observing nesting swallows and Carolina chickadees.  Thanks to volunteer effort, the Arboretum was able to provide and monitor nesting habitat for the eastern bluebird. 
photo by Gretchen Dowling

For more information about bluebird volunteer opportunities please contact              
Tracy Beerley,

Learn more about birds seen at Morris Arboretum at                                    

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

An Unwanted Garden Invader

Phytolacca americana
Over the past couple months you may have noticed a large, shrubby plant with reddish stems and beautiful purple-black berries. What you are seeing is Common Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. Although I often find it attractive, pokeweed is generally considered an unwanted garden invader.
Pokeweed is a native herbaceous perennial. It can grow one to three meters tall and resembles a small tree. The large, thick stems are smooth and upright, while the leaves are alternate, egg-shaped and pale green. Pokeweed is supported by a large fleshy taproot that persists through the winter after the succulent stems have died back.  Pokeweed flowers are small and white and give way to conspicuous green berries that ripen to a deep purple-black color. Even though the fruit may look tempting, don’t eat it! All parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous, including the berries.
In natural areas, pokeweed is an important wildlife plant. Berry-eating birds, such as Northern Mockingbirds, American Robins and Cedar Waxwings, load up on pokeweed berries. Many mammals including gray fox, raccoons, and white-footed mice enjoy the fall fruit as well. Both birds and mammals are directly responsible for the spread of pokeweed seeds. Despite pokeweed’s wildlife benefits, it is generally considered a weed in the cultivated landscape. Pokeweed grows very quickly and will shade out desirable bedding plants if it is allowed to grow. In many cases, pokeweed is not an aesthetically pleasing addition to a garden bed.
Pokeweed is fairly easy to control once you have identified it. The plant can be destroyed simply by digging up the taproot with a spade or soil knife. If possible, try to remove plants before they form fruit. Otherwise, the animals in your area will help spread this weed throughout your yard. Although it is probably too late to stop the spread of seeds this year, keep an eye out for new plants in the spring. In the meantime, happy weeding!

Photos by Emma Erler

Thursday, August 22, 2013

5 Reasons new moms need this popular class..

This fall Morris Arboretum is excited to announce a brand new class just for moms: Stroller Strides®! This class is a total fitness program that moms can do with their babies - it includes power walking, strength-training intervals, and a unique blend of Pilates, barre, yoga, and stroller-based exercises designed to help moms build strength and muscle tone and improve posture. Taught by certified instructor (and fellow mom), Jacqueline Walsh, it is a great workout for any level of exerciser. Jacqueline will weave songs and activities into the routine designed to entertain and engage baby, while moms are led through a series of exercises specific to her role as mom.

Top 5 Reasons new moms need to sign up for Stroller Strides:
  1. To get out of the house and experience the unique natural surroundings of Morris Arboretum
  2. To exercise and engage with baby
  3. To form new friendships and future playdates with other moms
  4. To improve your health and well being
  5. To get back that pre-baby body (or better)!
Spots are limited, register today!

In the case of inclement weather, class will be modified in order to be comfortably held indoors. You must be at least six weeks post-partum to participate in this series. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Gloomy garden days, the best kept secret

Most people think of visiting a public garden or park on a picturesque sunny day, right?

Of course, we think every day is the best day to visit! But in particular, overcast days can be a great, yet often overlooked, time to visit the garden. In case you're skeptical, here are a few reasons why a seemingly gloomy, gray day is a visitor's best kept secret:

Beat the Crowds
Because the typical response to a cloudy day is to shy away from outdoor excursions, it often means less crowds in our gardens. Take this opportunity to stroll through the grounds like it's your own secret garden!

Cooler Temps
Generally speaking, clouds act as a "heat shield". Much of the incoming solar radiation from the sun is reflected or absorbed by the clouds, resulting in slightly cooler temperatures.

Optimum Photography Conditions
The even white light of an overcast day is great for outdoor photography. Sunlight is gently diffused by the clouds, eliminating harsh shadows and extreme highlights. If shooting with a standard digital camera, use the "Portrait" setting for great outdoor images.

When is your favorite time to visit the garden? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

What to do with all that summer energy?

Summer's here: It's hot, the days are long, and the kids are full of energy!
Camp and swim clubs provide daytime relief for many during these school-free days, but what to do when the sun starts to set and the kids are still searching for something to do?

Thursdays to the rescue!
Morris Arboretum is open late (until 8:30pm) every Thursday during the summer months. It's a unique opportunity to pack a picnic dinner, bring a blanket, and enjoy the garden in a light that's not typically available to visitors. Kids will love catching fireflies too!

If you're looking for something a bit more high energy, be sure to come down this Thursday, July 18 for Let's Move! Garden Dance Party. The Let's Move! initiative was launched by the First Lady, Michelle Obama, to help solve the challenge of childhood obesity and promote a healthy future. Sounds by Shelly Disc Jockey Services will be on hand to lead the party in fun and engaging games and choreography. Free with admission. 

Love live music? Back by popular demand is our XPN Kids' Corner Concert Series! This year's line-up includes the amazing sounds of Alex & the Kaleidoscope Band, Trout Fishing in America, and The Suzi Shelton Band. For the first time, we are offering advanced online ticketing. Purchasing tickets early saves money and time at the gate on the night of the event. Don't forget your lawn chairs and blankets, although we're sure the family will be too busy dancing to use them!

Click here for more family fun events.
Below: A video clip from our latest Summer Solstice Salsa Party!