Thursday, October 27, 2016

Persimmon Lore

Driving south on Hwy. 63 this month, it's hard to not take notice of the heavy laden persimmon trees in the fencerows. Last week's high winds knocked the leaves off any tree that was ready for a fall color display, leaving only green and brown leaves in the canopy. But on the fencerows, the persimmons with their bright orange fruit steal the fall color show lately.

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I'm fortunate to have a friend with a massive persimmon that is a descendant of the state champion tree from Missouri's Bootheel. This related tree produces ample fruit every fall which brings in all kinds of wildlife, especially white-tailed deer. But if you collect the fruit early enough, just as the plump orange fruits fall to the ground ripe and juicy, one can process enough pulp to make several batches of persimmon bread and cookies. The best recipe for persimmon cookies comes from an old colleague in New Madrid, Missouri. Her recipe is in the local Chamber cookbook which I purchased specifically for it.

So, tonight I washed all of the persimmons and macerated them with a potato masher in a colander, sending the pulp into a Pyrex bowl below. The slimy seeds and skins are headed for my backyard compost heap where undoubtedly the raccoons and opossums will find them and have a grand time. I cut into three seeds to see what the seeds would forecast for winter. Some folks believe that if you split the seed of a persimmon and it looks like a knife, the winter will be icy. A spoon? Lots of snow. A fork? A mild winter. I cut into three seeds and they all resembled spoons. So, at least for this Outer Ozark Border country on Hwy. 63, the forecast is for a lot a of snow. Let's see if it holds true!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

After the Harvest

While September is officially Missouri Wine Month, I particularly like visiting wineries at the end of harvest in October and November. I relish in asking what the harvest looks like each year, though often the folks at the tasting bar say the same thing every time: "Looks great!" Admittedly, it's much more fun to talk to the winemaker or the grower for the real scoop. Like, "the robins ate all the Traminette," or "we're not looking forward to that early frost," and so forth.

In a wise move, the Wine and Grape Board initiated a new rewards program that will hopefully encourage visitation to our state's wonderful wineries. Not all wineries are participating, but there are some new ones that have opened up in the past few years that I haven't visited. I love returning to places I haven't visited in several years to investigate how their wine has changed, whether through the aging process or winemaker experience. I don't necessarily participate in the rewards program (in previous years a passport program)for the swag (though the Missouri Wines logo is really charming and well-executed), but for the experiences and meeting people behind this great agricultural product.

A small cadre of local friends and I are setting out next weekend for a grand tour of the Hwy. 50 wineries to pick up Wenwood Farm Winery's pumpkin wine and maybe White Mule Winery's Norton port, to check in with the German gentleman from Phoenix Winery, and to have a great Missouri winery and fall colors weekend. November is Chambourcin month and several other wineries besides St. James are releasing their Nouveau, but you'll doubtfully find this bright red wine in stores since it's usually produced in limited release. But it's perfect for the Thanksgiving table. If you haven't done so, check out the details of the rewards program here and start traveling!

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Laying Out the Welcome Mat

Last week, on my walk to the gym, I heard over 20 American goldfinches twittering their dizzy call on a busy street in my neighborhood. Several neighbors have converted their front lawns into wide swaths of native plant gardens interspersed with big stands of charismatic sunflowers and zinnias. The goldfinches were mobbing the dying sunflower stalks, stripping the enormous seedheads of all available food. My neighborhood has been transformed in the past 8 years with more and more yards converting to wild gardens that are habitable by wildlife. Members of my neighborhood association are busy posting photos of the red-shouldered and broad-winged hawks that we hear over the backyard, and more native plants including purple coneflowers and Rudbeckias are filling flower gardens. I have too much shade for a full-on wildflower garden, and I seldom see goldfinches at my feeders, but the native plants in my yard must be good for our birds and all of the pollinators that we have documented through the years.

There's not much blooming in the yard right now, but the black-capped chickadees have honed in on all of the available seed from the bumper crop of Silphium perfoliatum, a North Missouri ditch weed but pretty composite that grows like gangbusters in my yard. The Northern cardinals really enjoy the shrub layer of redbuds and dying stalks of Silphium, and the Carolina wrens are quite vocal around my brushpile and fire pit. Many months ago, my local Audubon Society chapter sponsored a showing of a grim documentary about declining songbird populations. Titled The Messenger, not to be confused with some violent crime film by the same name and with Hollywood actors, this documentary should be required viewing for anyone dubious about the state of biodiversity and the onslaught of threats our natural world is facing. Climate change, homogenization, development, they all impact bird life and the rest of the natural world. Most folks reading this weblog are well aware of threats to biodiversity and bird life, and probably many readers feed birds and care about the natural world. This documentary does not end on a happy note, much like all of my Bill McKibben books and anything written about European birds (re: Jonathan Franzen, et al.). I realize that I, personally, cannot make much of an impact on the world, but I try my hardest in the areas I can influence which includes my urban yard.

So, it was fun to read the latest weblog from the National Wildlife Federation this morning touting the importance of allowing boneset, Eupatorium serotinum, to bloom. This white flower is blooming profusely in my yard right now; it's a plant not loyal to high quality areas, but along with the asters, goldenrods, virgin's bower, ageratum and the bristly sunflower hanging on, my yard has been a buffet to wasps (especially ichneumon wasps), bees, flies, butterflies, and spiders. The NWF article promoted the importance of small patch habitat such as yards to all suites of wildlife, especially pollinators. This late in the season, but still with warm temperatures, it's important to wildlife to keep one's wild garden wild. The goldfinches found my Echinacea seeds and all of the other birds who frequent my yard have found a veritable buffet, which is just as I had intended. I keep the birdbath filled and clean--with the pokeweed berries now in their prime, the birdbath often turns into water tinged with purple dye. I'm not taking down my pokeweed, nor my wildflowers going to seed, but keeping the birdbath clean and full.

In recent years, especially with the popularity of NWF's Backyard Habitat program, some research is underway measuring the direct impacts of naturalized habitat versus traditional yards with lawns and boxwood. I have seen at least one study, but it doesn't take any research to let me know that I have many birds, butterflies and other insects visiting my yard on a regular basis. The time is coming for my regular purchases of 40 lbs. of seed, blocks of suet, regular warming of the birdbath water, but for now, I'm enjoying the native display and hoping the wildlife I enjoy viewing in my yard are at least finding a habitable place to spend a few hours.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Homogenization, Strictly Observation

Driving south on Hwy. 54 towards Lake of the Ozarks two years ago in May, I first saw it--big stands of Princess Tree in full bloom on the roadside. This fast-growing species, Paulownia tomentosa, covered in pretty purple flowers each spring, is native to China and is a documented exotic invasive plant in the warmer climates of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi. I first learned of Princess Tree from Arbor Day pamphlets that arrived in our mail in the late 1980s, circulated in an effort to encourage homeowners to plant trees, any trees, to provide shade. The flowers are pretty, almost like a purple Catalpa flower, and bloom on long stalks as the large ovoid green leaves come out to provide shade.

During my tenure in the Southeast Missouri Lowlands, I encountered Princess Tree in a lawn setting, planted surely because it's pretty and, again, fast-growing. The climate in the Bootheel ten years ago was reminiscent of Western Kentucky and Northern Arkansas, what with slightly less cruel winters, warmer temperatures and more rain than in the Osage River basin. As has been reported for several years now, the growing seasons and USDA planting maps have shifted north: folks in St. Louis can now grow camellias outside, friends in New Orleans are growing papayas, and the warmer climate has allowed me to grow kale year round. Not only have the gardening maps shifted due to warmer weather, but now a new group of southern exotic species are creating a foothold in the Ozarks. The warmer temperatures and milder winters have not just encouraged Princess Tree to explode around Lake of the Ozarks, seemingly overnight, but also the ornamental Pampas grass, the scourge of South Louisiana swamps, and Miscanthus, a common ornamental that is now invading glades around Branson.

I don't know how Princess Tree and Pampas grass with its huge white plume and vicious blades arrived in the Ozarks, but I see them frequently on roadsides. Just as I blinked one year and found an entire woodland filled with bush honeysuckle to a point that nothing else exists there, these southern invasive species seem to be thriving in what was once a too cold climate for them. I realize roadsides are not necessarily high quality ecosystems to begin with, but they can serve as vectors into intact systems. With so many exotic invasive species already in Missouri, I don't know how our ecosystems can deal with any more. But new ones are here and doing quite well.