It's up for debate

Archive for February 2016

To Sow a Delicious Invasive

with 2 comments

Today, I was excited to sow my stratified garlic mustard seeds. May the ignorant of botany-based bloggers be aghast and rank me among those who still opt to use kudzu for soil control.

Garlic mustard leaves and flowers

Garlic mustard leaves and flowers

I’m a massive fan of Alliaria petiolata, or garlic mustard, and have been since being introduced to the leafy green living in Ridley Park, Delaware County, with my sister. Her boyfriend had pointed it out as a nuisance that kept popping up in their yard, and I immediately recognized it from a book, strangely enough, given to me as a Christmas gift by my sister some years ago.

The Complete Guide to Edible Wild Plants, Mushrooms, Fruits, and Nuts by Katie Letcher Lyle is one of the few books I’ve taken to writing notes in the margins, and it’s from this handy guide I first heard of garlic mustard and its wonderful culinary and medical uses.

True to southeast Pennsylvania, the author sufficiently describes the plant as appearing “to have infiltrated fields, paths, and the edges of woods with its pretty, light green, scalloped round leaves that smell and taste faintly of garlic.”

And she goes on to mention mustard garlic’s invasive behavior, which may be thanks to its allelopathic tendencies, basically putting out chemicals in the soil to inhibit the growth of certain other surrounding plants.

Milkweed at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

Milkweed at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum

I saw widespread evidence of this during my brief volunteering with the Visitor Center at John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum. The largest remaining freshwater tidal marsh in Pennsylvania, this refuge is home to protected nests of bald eagles and turtles and a fertile grounds for native milkweeds and toadflax.

Unfortunately, given the refuge’s disturbed and industrial past, it is plagued by invasive species like white poplar (Populus alba), false indigo-bush (Amorpha fruticosa), and, of course, garlic mustard.

And there exist numerous news articles on methods and proposals for the eradication of garlic mustard, all of which seem so very deplorable: the introduction of rogue and unpredictable weevil predators, fire control, chemical spraying, etc.

Mile-a-Minute Weed in Cobb's Creek in Delaware County

Mile-a-Minute Weed in Cobb’s Creek in Delaware County

Whilst volunteering for Weed Warriors, a program run by the refuge, I listened to veteran volunteers lament the spread of garlic mustard throughout the refuge, overcrowding and -shadowing other potential plants. The only other contender for worst invasive, according to them, is mile-a-minute weed, or Persicaria perfoliata. And during my time with the refuge’s visitor center, I was elated when the volunteers told me I could harvest garlic mustard to my heart’s content.

And while I’m skeptical of the green’s affect on asthma, I was happy to fill up to my heart and bodys’ content with Vitamin C and absolute tastiness. Both the leaves and stems are fantastic in any rice dish and even in a simple salad. Though, as Lyle wisley points out in her book, the leaves mustn’t be boiled/cooked so much that they become slimy; adding them in to a boil or steam in the last few minutes is best.

Though I’ve since moved from Delaware County, I hope to rejoin the refuge’s volunteer force, not just for the garlic mustard but because I really do trust and believe in their efforts to rehabilitate this fantastic preserve. You can join me this spring and summer in my eradication efforts/harvesting by reaching out to the Friends Group coordinator Suzanne Kelley at


Pilea, not Urtica & Plants vs Bedbugs

with one comment

The serrated leaves of Pilea pumila, NOT Urtica dioica

The serrated leaves of Pilea pumila, NOT Urtica dioica

I am not without sin and error. And sometime ago, during my heady days as a gardener extraordinaire in Delaware County, I came upon a sun-speckled clearing of the plant pictured above. Though I did run into a thicket of nasty Urtica dioica, or Stinging Nettle, this photo is actually of an entirely different plant that spread over the forest floor nearby and is often mistaken for the more prickly kind within the very same Urticaceae clan.

Not a grave mistake, given I’m alive and well enough to barely maintain this blog, but merely one that could leave you with hours of painful itching. Or, if you’re me, slight sadomasochistic pleasure for the better part of an hour after coming into contact with the hairy pricks — or trichomes, if you’d rather — of the plant.

It’s really these trichomes that are my real fascination, despite my wrongful identification, and they harken back to my personal terrible experience linked to a nearly indestructible critter that plagued New York City and my own Astoria apartment in 2012: bedbugs.

Dewy trichomes of Drosera

Dewy trichomes of Drosera

Trichomes can be found in a number of plants and in various forms, including that in the remarkable Drosera, or sundew, species. In the form they appear in nettles, however, they act more as Velcro, albeit with more deadly consequences. According to a rather unique study done in 2013, trichomes pierce the bugs’ legs, whereas Velcro (which incidentally was inspired by the plant Burdock) only (often temporarily) snags them.

People of the Balkans utilized the microscopic trichomes of the bean plant to pierce and prevent infestation of bed bugs. Knowing, however, of the pervasiveness and near indestructible nature of bed bugs from my unfortunate experience in New York, you’d need a hell of a lot of plant trichomes to get rid of these nasty buggers.

Written by Robin Lee Dunlap

February 12, 2016 at 11:25 pm

Lovely Laurels of Jim Thorpe

leave a comment »

The very pretty petals of Mountain Laurel

The very pretty petals of Mountain Laurel

I’m inclined to favor Kalmia latifolia, commonly known as Mountain Laurel, as it is the namesake of my sister and speaks to my inexplicable love for the letter ‘L” (the very reason I started going by “Lee” rather than my real given name).

Recently, some family friends graciously invited me to spend a weekend with a plus one in their posh three-floor-apartment-for-rent in Jim Thorpe in eastern Pennsylvania, an hour-and-a-half’s drive from Philadelphia (and a pleasant three-hour bus ride via the reasonably priced Susquehanna Trailways!). Upon my arrival, I decided to trek up along the ridge and came upon the Switchback Trail, along which I found an unbelievably endless stretch of drooping Mountain Laurels.

Asa Packer mansion overlooking Jim Thorpe and Route 209 curving through the surrounding mountains

Asa Packer mansion overlooking Jim Thorpe and Route 209 curving through the surrounding mountains

As it was winter, both the Laurels and the town lacked their usual vivacity, yet there was still some interest. Like the flaccid leaves of the Kalmia on the slopes, the woman behind the counter at Stonekeep Meadery at first entertained my boring questions about the business, the mead-making process, and so on, but soon lit up when my native friend asked her about Edna, her “other personality” that normally comes out at Halloween.

A small waterfall along the Switchback Trail

A small waterfall along the Switchback Trail

Indeed, Edna hit the town the very next day, and my plus one decided it best to avoid her despite the town being as intimately small as it is. Even so, Edna or her alter ego, as I knew her, was extraordinarily knowledgeable about meads and wines and even treated me to a mead-drizzled ice cream dessert.

Jim Thorpe has only two main streets in its downtown, Broadway and Race Street, so stores such as the Stonekeep, which is actually housed in a building leased out to other businesses as well, are quite within walkable distance. Just upstairs from Edna, or whoever she is on said day, are LuLu’s Loft and Bee Stung.

The supposedly haunted Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe

The supposedly haunted Carbon County Jail in Jim Thorpe

The sharp Irish woman running the former will soon close the store (sale ongoing, so check out her things before she closes; I myself bought charms for a bracelet there) and continue on with her micro needling therapy business. Next door, the owner of Bee Stung has crafted an amazing menagerie of Wizard-of-Oz—inspired glass necklaces and fantastical glass orbs containing miniscule flowers, and much more. My traveling buddy and I spent quite a bit of time in here, unable to leave without buying everything.

Going back to the nature of Jim Thorpe, both story-wise and the very next day of my three-night stay at the White Rabbit Cottage, I was unable to get over the extraordinary number of Mountain Laurels cascading over the ridges high above the downtown and beyond. And, just as an incredibly small town gives way to quirky and seemingly out-of-place characters as Edna and the Irish business owner, Kalmia latifolia, as I knew from when I carved and painted a so-inspired necklace for my sister one Christmas, has some surprising characteristics of its own.

Mauch Chunk Opera House from Race Street

Mauch Chunk Opera House from Race Street

While not alone in its seed dispersal mechanism, Mountain Laurel’s way of sexual reproduction is still remarkable. Even more so, if you look upon its countenance, which seems only to confer dainti- and gorgeousness.

While flowers are verily clever at having their pollen transferred via bees and other such vectors by offering incentive presents like nectar, some have adapted ways of avoiding getting stuck with pollen and thus carrying out flowers’ sexual aspirations by “robbing” the nectar, perhaps going in from behind, if one were to be so lewd, and thus avoid getting stuck with pollen.

Mountain Laurel, however, has “invented” a way to fling its pollen onto a visitor, thus ensuring its commune with the other Laurels the bee (or whatever the species) visits. The following excerpt, taken from another time, and a wonderfully loquacious newspaper article, explains the mechanism as follows:

Nature’s Use of the Mountain Laurel in One of Her Many Remarkable Devices.

Flop! and away go the little stamens of the mountain laurel and throw pollen over the bee which alights upon them. The naturalist sees here one of the most remarkable devices in all nature for compelling an insect to carry pollen. The lover of nature sees in the mountain laurel one of the most beautiful of the common woodland flowers, says Edward Bigelow in Boys’ Life. The corolla is saucer-shaped, with ten little pits near the edge, and lightly caught in each of these little pits is the anther at the end of the elastic filament. This natural thing seems to grow in an unnatural manner, but do you know of any other plant that actually grows in distorted or strained position, or puts its own self in an uncomfortable and strained position from which it is glad to be released when the first insect comes along and sets it loose? The whole mechanism is like a hair trigger. It is so carefully adjusted that even a slight jar will sometimes set it loose. Shaking an entire bush releases great numbers of these filaments, and flop, flop, flop they leap out of the pits and the anthers throw their pollen everywhere. The bee which visits the mountain laurel must feel that the times are prosperous, since ho is showered with golden pollen which it carries to the next flower to fertilize the seeds.

There is even a formula that has been postulated to describe the Laurel’s flinging mechanism, catapulting seeds up to 15 cm:

Mountain Laurel equation

Maths being beyond me, I can only marvel at how much can happen with so little.

Monument to a famed professor in the Upper Mauch Chunk Cemetery

Monument to a famed professor in the Upper Mauch Chunk Cemetery

My weekend in Jim Thorpe, a small rural Pennsylvania town in winter notwithstanding, was unexpectedly filled with the unexpected and surprising. Though admittedly owned by the very couple running the apartments in which I was lodging, Stone Row Pub & Eatery was a boon for me as it offered a gluten-free (Celiac’s Disease or sensitive types) menu.

Having bumbled into the Visitor Center (a repurposed and quite beautiful train station) after disorientingly disembarking from the bus, I know Jim Thorpe to be quite the Spring/Summer destination. Bike rentals (no posturing: the prices were fantastic, whether or not compared to Philadelphia’s), kayaking, hiking (despite the cold weather, I still hiked the Fire Trail, which has splendid views of Jim Thorpe and beyond), rafting, zip lining, and more.

Asa Packer mansion

Historic Asa Packer mansion

And the Mauch Chunk Opera House (Mauch Chunk being the native Munsee-Lenape term for “Bear Place”), which my counterpart and I regrettably didn’t have time to visit, is host to upcoming folk and bluegrass bands.

While I forgive Jim Thorpe for having no L’s in its name (respect unduly given for it being named after a venerable Native American athlete) and a mere two main streets, my traveling partner will undoubtedly return for the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, which wends it ways through the area’s beautiful gorges (impressive even in winter), and other river and mountain activities. Mmm…Lehigh.