Monday, December 27, 2010

Twas a good Yule!

We hope yours was too. As you can see, we got a new camera!

I built this playhouse for the girls last summer out of scrounged or salvaged wood, used windows and some "boughten" lumber. Don't look too closely; I'm a biologist, not a builder.

We hosted a Solstice / Advent Spiral gathering for our homeschool group. I'm not sure how it worked 'cause I was off replacing a tire that developed a leak after hitting a gargantuan pothole.
Our favorite family gift was Wildcraft, a cooperative herbal foraging game from the nice folks at It's great fun for a wintry day, beautifully decorated, and really nice because the game ends when everybody makes it back to Grandma's house!
Now my mind turns to garden design and seed catalogs. But first I need to get a roof on the sugar shack so we can boil sap here!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The virtues of Elaeagnus umbellata

Much to the chagrin of the native plant lovers, I've had a conversion since we move in here at Snowy Hollow. I've come to appreciate Elaeagnus umbellata, know far and wide as autumn olive, the fast-growing invasive, thorny shrub that forms dense stands if left to its own devices. Years ago, I knew it as host to fruit-eating birds in fall and early winter. My first Bohemian Waxwings and Pine Grosbeaks were found in autmn olive thickets. As a kid, we planted one in the yard in northwestern Pennsylvania. Somewhere along the road, I bought into the "evil invader" line.
So, when I found a few on this land, I thought about taking them out. Then I started looking at them through the eyes of the ecosystem. I learned they fix nitrogen, a most valuable trait in restoring worn out and devastated soils. They can also act as a nurse plant for young trees, shading them lightly, protecting them, and providing extra nitrogen as they get started. And if that's not enough, the berries have 17 times the lycopene content of tomatoes! Autumn olive may be seen as invasive in some eyes, but I hold it to be an ecosystem healer and a free health food! We made a few pints of autumn olive berry jam this fall.

I'd highly recommend trying it; sort of a complex tart flavor that can be balanced with as much sugar as you want, but don't overpower it.
So here's what I've learned from Elaeagnus umbellata: dense growths of any species are a sign that it has traits or abilities that make it well suited for those places, and dense growths of anything don't last long. All ecosystems are trying to build fertility as they go through the process of ecological succession. In the case of autumn olive, it grows well where native ecosystems have been displaced and, very likely, where soils were trashed by efficiency-minded farming practices. It grows well in places that need its healing, nitrogen-fixing skills. If you seek to get rid of it, acknowledge this and replace it with something native that can do the same job. I'd also bet that this plant will put itself out of business as the fertility of the ecosystem improves.
One might come to another anaolgy involving "aliens": they do the jobs that natives (a.k.a. gringoes) can't or won't. Why do we depend on migrant labor to tend and harvest our food? Because we're incapable or too damn lazy! Let's not deport them unless we're prepared to take their places. So instead of annihilating a very helpful plant in the name of botanical purity (one could really make some analogies here!), consider what it does; then make some jam!