Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Weed a Week

Over the years, I've gotten pretty good at identifying common plants, trees, and flowers in my neighborhood.  Usually the girls or Jeff will turn to me and ask "What is that bush over there called?"  and nine times out of ten, I'll know ... as long as it's something you would find in a seed catalog or greenhouse.  Years of perusing catalogs and web sites when the spring fever bug bites has resulted in a wealth of knowledge. 

What I DON'T know about are common weeds.  Other than dandelions, I know very little about the hundreds of plants I see every day on the roadside and creeping surreptitiously into my yard.  So, I'm doing some investigation and learning about at least one new weed each week. 

Today's weed is the Garlic Mustard.  This thing is growing like crazy at the back of my yard up on a hill where it's hard to get to.  It has four-petaled white flowers borne in clusters at the end of the stem.  It's leaves are opposite, veined, and heartshaped with toothed edges. 

I had a devil of a time trying to identify this thing.  The breakthrough came when I identified it as a member of the mustard family thanks to this site, which divides plants into their families based on common characteristics.  One of the key identifying features of a mustard is that the flower has 6 stamens, 4 tall and two short.  And so did the sample I pulled out of my yard.  Once I knew it was a mustard type, I went to another site that showed lots of pictures of the various mustards and I was able to identify my mystery plant as probably being a garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata).  Then I looked up garlic mustard on Wikipedia and learned that it has a thin white taproot that smells like horseradish.  Bingo!  When I crushed the root and sniffed it, it DID smell like horseradish. 

Further research showed that this plant is a biennial that grows a small low cluster of leaves the first year and then the tall flowering plant in the second year.  (So they've been growing in my yard for TWO years?)

Although it's characterized as an invasive weed (and I can attest to its invasive properties), it can also be useful.  The root can be used in the same way as horseradish, as a spicy flavoring, and the leaves are garlicy and taste good chopped up in a salad.  I tried them and they were pretty good.  Garlic mustard greens are very nutritional, and contain Vitamins A, C, E and some of the B vitamins, potassium, calcium, magnesium, copper, iron and magnese. 

As a medicine, garlic mustard leaves are supposed to be good for bronchitis and asthma if taken internally and they supposedly relieve the itching of insect bites if rubbed on the skin.  I can't vouch for either of those, but it's interesting.  :) 

Finally, the entire plant can be used to produce a yellow dye.  Who knew? 

It's so useful that I almost hate to get rid of it.  Almost.

In other news, I took myself for a hike this morning and enjoyed the spring wildflowers (that's the name for weeds in their natural habitat and not in my yard).  Several years ago the boyscouts created a nature trail near my house and I've just never gotten around to checking it out.  This morning, I finally got there.  Good job, boys!  The trail was lovely, well marked, well maintained and had convenient benches and bird houses all along it. Here are some pictures I got with my phone.  If Annette reads this, maybe she can identify some of the plants for me.  I'm done identifying for the day!

Honeysuckle bushes

May Apple -- my Mom loved these

These were very large shelf like fungus of some type

Giant shelf fungus, part deux
Wild phlox?
Wild phlox, pink?
This is definitely something -- it's just not in bloom right now.
These lovelies were all over the forest.
This looks like a woodruff type thing ...
Somebody's been putting big holes in this tree.  Too big for a woodpecker?
Beautiful blue flowers

Sort of a yellow daisy shaped flower

Even the mosses were getting in on the spring action with their fruiting bodies.

The beautiful trail.

Oh!  One last thing.  I was looking for places to hide letterboxes along the trail and approached a tree that had been knocked over and appeared to have a hollow place at the top of the stump.  The stump was about eye level high, so I had to get on my tiptoes to look in and I saw what looked like a four inch black worm moving around at the back of the hollow and then it disappeared into a hole.  Shortly afterward I heard a slight sound to the left of the stump and I saw the head of a large black snake peering at me across the roots. The four inch "worm" was apparently the end of his disappearing tail.  

The black part in the middle of the frame with a white chin (?) is the snake.

This is the snake's home, apparently. 
 I looked at him and he looked at me.  Then he came a little closer to see me better and smelled me with his tongue.  He didn't really seem to be afraid, just curious.  He climbed a couple of feet up the trunk and then turned and went back into the hollow stump.  I tried to get some pictures, but they all came out blurry.  He didn't seem to have a triangular head at all -- more of a rounded head -- and he was shiny black and about four feet long.   Anybody know anything about snakes?  Could he be a racer?  I didn't see any stripes or markings, just black and his underside might have been pale.