Giant Coneflower: Taking your garden to new heights

Rudbeckia maxima

Piercing the sky like a lighthouse in a sea of plants and shrubs, the giant coneflower attracts eleven different species of butterflies, native bees, and beautiful birds to your garden.  Guided by a beacon of yellow petals, hover flies and minute pirate bugs are drawn to this plant, as many pollinators are, and will feed on common garden pests such as thrips, aphids and whiteflies.   The giant coneflower is a plant that stands tall in any garden and is worth searching for at local fall plant sales, native plant nurseries, or online plant retailers. 

Where to find it

The giant coneflower is native to a small geographic area incorporating parts of Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas.  This herbaceous perennial can be found growing naturally in open woodlands, prairies, pastures and along roadsides and railroad tracks.

In 1816, near the Red River, in then Oklahoma Territory, the giant coneflower was first identified by the English botanist and plant explorer Thomas Nuttall.

Easy care and adaptable

The best part: giant coneflower is low maintenance. It thrives in clay or sandy soil and tolerates dry to medium soil moisture, drought conditions, heat and even short term flooding.  Sounds like Houston weather to me!  This golden giant has no serious disease problems and is resistant to pests, an impressive combo any gardener will love.

Begin planting in early fall to allow the basal clump time to establish itself during the cooler months, and allow adequate spacing to accommodate the 3-4 foot spread of the mature plants.   Giant coneflower thrives in full sun but tolerates part shade.   Throughout the first year, only the beautiful blue green leaves will be visible.  In warm climates like ours the leaves are evergreen, adding to the plant’s winter interest.  At maturity, these attractive cabbage-shaped leaves may be 15” to 18” in length, earning this plant the common name: cabbage coneflower.

The second season is when this plant really becomes a showstopper.   Tall stalks reach 6-8 feet in height and 3 inch wide flowers with drooping yellow petals and tall, dark brown cones make a strong statement in the garden. Use the stunning flowers in fresh or dried floral arrangements but be sure to leave some on the stalk as food for gold finches, chickadees and other backyard birds. 

The J.C. Raulston Arboretum located at North Carolina State University has provided an online collection of photographs of this beautiful plant.   Check out these gorgeous pictures HERE and get ready for some fall garden inspiration.

Giant coneflower is a uniquely beautiful and towering plant that will enhance not only the visual appeal of your garden, but will  reward you with visits from  a variety of pollinators this fall.


TURF WAR: THE BATTLE BETWEEN INVASIVE AND NATIVE PLANTS

Everyone needs a home. For pollinators, and every other organism, that home, or habitat, means food, water, shelter and space. But what happens when our Texas pollinators can’t find a home? Well, it’s fairly simple; their numbers decline, often dramatically. And while there are many causes of habitat loss, some of the biggest culprits are non-native invasive plants.

One of the easiest and most effective ways for you to help our native pollinators is to avoid planting non-native vegetation and to replace any that currently reside in your landscape with natives. The types of plants, shrubs and trees you choose for your landscape is critical as they are primary providers of both food – pollen, nectar, leaves and seeds – and shelter. Many insects acquire most of their water from the vegetation they eat. Our Texas butterflies depend on Texas native plants for reproduction, laying eggs on the leaves. When the eggs hatch into caterpillars, those young butterflies eat the leaves to sustain themselves as they grow large enough to make their chrysalis, later emerging as adult butterflies. Many pollinators have evolved with native plants, both adapting to the local climate and growing season.  Non-native plants may not provide pollinators with enough nectar or pollen, or the plants may be inedible to some caterpillars.


Native plants play a critical role in the survival of pollinators

The existence of these plants impacts more than just pollinators. Many non-natives become invasive, out-competing existing natives for soil nutrients and crowding them out. Some of the worst offenders in our community include air potato vines, Chinese and Japanese privets, Japanese honeysuckle, Nandina (often called heavenly bamboo), elephant ears, and Japanese climbing fern. While some may look good in our yard and can be effectively managed, their seed or runners often escape into neighboring greenbelts, pathways and open spaces. The resulting loss of native vegetation and habitat value in these areas is never pretty.



Learn more about the challenges posed by invasives and simple steps you can take to help solve the problem. Attend The Woodlands Township Environmental Services Department Invasives Task Force Workshop on Saturday, August 10, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the HARC Building located at 8801 Gosling Rd. For details and to register for this FREE workshop, click here. Space is limited, so register early to guarantee your spot.

These pollinators aren’t winning any beauty contests

Recognized as the beauty queens of bugs, bees and butterflies have reached celebrity status in the world of pollination. But, while they get the limelight when it comes to pollination, they’re only a small portion of the over 200,000 species that help produce our crops.  Many of these less adorable species include beetles, ants, moths, wasps and even flies.  Combined, pollinators service over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1,200 crops, impacting nearly 1 out of every 3 bites of food and more than $20 billion worth of products annually in the U.S.

Awareness of the decline of the monarch butterfly and the honeybee has spurred communities across the country into action to ensure their survival.  But what about the less celebrated?  Let’s take a look at some of the underrated pollinators in our gardens.


Hover Flies

Hover Flies, also known as Syrphid Flies, are a large group of medium to large flies with black or brown bodies, yellow banded abdomens and two wings.  Resembling a bee or wasp, adults can be seen hovering above flowers, feeding on their nectar.  They can’t bite or sting but may try to steal some of your salty sweat from time to time.  The larvae play a beneficial role in gardens, consuming up to 30 aphids per day – a great natural pest control.  Hover flies feed on the same flowers preferred by bees, such as purple coneflowers, blanketflowers and sunflowers.

Black and yellow stripes don’t always belong to bees. Hover flies can easily be mistaken for bees but these petite pollinators don’t have stingers.

Hawk Moths

Experts at finding sweet-smelling flowers at night, hawk moths have the longest tongues of any moth or butterfly  – some up to 14” long!  These acrobatic fliers include sphinx and hummingbird moths, built with stout bullet-shaped bodies and long, narrow wings.  See them mostly at night hovering in place enjoying nectar from heavily fragranced flowers. While many tomato gardeners, admittedly, fear the larvae of the hawk moth (a.k.a. green hornworms), the adults are excellent  pollinators for your garden.

Hawk moths, including this Hummingbird Moth, have long tongues, or proboscis, to suck nectar from flowers, similar to a straw.

Soldier Beetles

Beetles present the greatest diversity of insects and pollinators, with more than 450,000 known species.  Regular flower visitors like the soldier beetle feed on pollen and even chew on flowers.  Solider beetles are one type of “mess and soil” pollinators, as they will defecate within flowers in the process of carrying pollen from one flower to another.  Soldier Beetles are commonly seen on flowers that are strongly fruity and open during the day such as marigolds, magnolias and many flowering herbs.    

Beetles have been pollinators for millions of years.  Based on fossil records, they were among the first insects to visit flowering plants as far back as 150 million years ago.

Ten Things You Can Do In Your Yard To Encourage Pollinators

1. Plant a pollinator garden—provide nectar and feeding plants (flowers and herbs).  Visit our website for more information on planting a pollinator garden or register your existing garden.

2. Provide a water source—place shallow dishes of water in sunny areas or create a muddy spot.

 3. Provide shelter and overwintering habitat (bee boxes, undisturbed soil areas, and piles of woody debris).

4. Stop using insecticides and reduce other pesticides.

5. Provide sunny areas out of the wind.

6. Use native plant species whenever possible—mimic local natural areas.

7. Grow flowers throughout season. Provide a variety of colors and shapes.

 8. Plant in clumps and layers. Use trees, shrub layers, with some low growing perennials and vines—intermix with flowering annuals.

9. Use compost instead of commercial fertilizers.  The Woodlands Township offers free compost classes October – March.  For more information, view this page.

 10. Look but do not touch.

Join Us In Celebrating National Pollinator Week

Beat the heat with Bluebells

 

Native Plant Focus: Texas Bluebell

Eustoma exaltatum ssp. Russellianum

Copy of Texas Bluebell

Try to think of one thing that wildflowers and ice cream have in common.  Not so easy, is it?

Texas’ native wildflowers need the summer heat to survive just as many of us depend on a scoop of cold, delicious ice cream to get us through a summer afternoon.  But there’s only one wildflower that has influenced a nation of ice cream lovers more than any other.  An enchanting specimen that at one time was so abundant across the Texas prairie that a large creamery located near Brenham decided to adopt its name in 1930.  This native beauty is the Texas Bluebell.

Where to find it

Ranging southward from Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota to new Mexico, Texas and Louisiana, the Texas Bluebell (known also as Showy Prairie Gentian or Prairie Gentian), is considered by many to be the most beautiful of Texas wildflowers.   Sadly, in Texas, the plant’s range has decreased dramatically over the past century.  The upright, showy blue to purple bell-shaped flowers are so attractive in cut flower arrangements that admirers have over-picked it, drastically reducing the number left in nature to produce seed capsules.  Today, locating Texas Bluebells in the wild requires a focused effort.  In our local area, some of the isolated prairies within Sam Houston National Forest provide limited viewing opportunities.

Easy care & adaptable

With blue blooms emitting a natural iridescence and a velvety texture, the two-inch bell-shaped flowers stand upright on deep blue-green stems and leaves covered with a waxy bloom.  Texas Bluebells thrive in moist sandy or sandy loam soils and are most likely to be found along the edges of creeks, streams, or drainage areas.  This perennial plant develops a long taproot to access the required moisture from deep within the soil.  While it prefers full sun, the Texas bluebell will grow in part shade.  During periods of rain, the beautiful blue blossoms will close and will re-open when the sun emerges.  The plant is heat tolerant and continues to produce blooms during the summer when other wildflowers are past their prime.

In the home landscape, Texas Bluebells are perfect for the edges of water or rain gardens, in ornamental beds, borders or cutting gardens.  They’re easy to maintain and have no known serious insect or disease problems.  If you’re incorporating Texas Bluebells, consider beginning with young rosettes; starting from seed can be challenging. 

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Attract pollinators

As a native plant, the Texas Bluebell offers a number of benefits for the environment.  Birds are attracted by its tiny black seeds while hummingbirds, butterflies and bees enjoy the nectar and pollen.  Since bees are attracted to blue flowers, the major pollinator for this plant is the metallic green sweat bee, whose long tongue is able to reach the nectar deep within the large flower.  Metallic green sweat bees are one of the most prolific native bees in local yards and gardens.

Providing habitat for native bees is an important role for homeowners.  The University of Texas offers some excellent tips for improving native bee habitat.

Growing native Texas Bluebells and creating enhanced native bee habitat in your own landscape will support restoration of this stunningly beautiful blue flower.  Bluebells will begin their bloom cycle in June and continue blooming throughout the heat of the Texas summer.  Visit a local native plant retailer now to establish these rewarding plants in your own garden. 

of bright lisanthus flowers on white background

Approximately 80 years ago, the Japanese imported Texas bluebell seeds, as the flower is considered by the Japanese people to be extremely beautiful. Commonly called ‘lisianthus”, the Japanese hybrids vary in color to include white, pink, lavender and yellow.

Monarchs on the move

The amazing monarch!

mxc-blog-monarch-g

Outweighed by a penny and powered by wings no wider than a toddler’s hand, the iconic monarch (Danaus plexippus) is right now embarking on the first stage of a migration that will cover upwards of 3000 miles, with some individuals traveling over 200 miles in a single day! They will wind their way across mountains, deserts, and cities, through multiple seasons and weather extremes, in a round-trip effort that will span five generations.

Monarchs in the United States are split into two populations, one east of the Rockies and the other west, along the Pacific Coast. The western monarchs spend their winter in California. Those to the east winter in the mountainous oyamel fir forests of southern Mexico.

It’s now in early spring when the eastern monarchs descend from the oyamel firs and move northward through Texas, allowing us to re-appreciate their beauty and marvel at their incredible stamina, navigational abilities, and the unique spectacle that is the monarch migration.

An epic journey

As temperatures warm and days lengthen, monarchs finish their development which was suspended over the winter, become reproductive and begin mating with fervor. Once mating completes, around February and March, the females leave the males behind in Mexico and head for the milkweed that is now sprouting across Texas.

And so the migration back to the United States and Canada begins.

MonarchMap-NatureServe-10.20

Used with the permission of the Xerces Society  https://xerces.org/monarchs/

The energy expended to complete this first leg of the journey is tremendous. After six weeks or so, now March and April, the female monarchs must find a milkweed leaf on which to deposit their eggs before they die. Once laid, four days will pass before the eggs hatch into voracious eating machines – baby monarch caterpillars.

Monarch caterpillars feast night and day on the leaves of their host plant and, incredibly, will gain 200 times their body weight in just two weeks. When the feasting ends they form their chrysalis and spend the next 10 days metamorphosing into an adult butterfly, vibrating with color and ready to renew the march north. This is generation 1, the offspring of the butterflies that overwintered in Mexico.

chrysalis

Monarch chrysalis

Several more generations will live and die over the summer, travelling further afield, but just one generation will make the entire journey back to the oyamel firs beginning in October.

The fall migration is even more dramatic than the spring, after reproduction has bolstered the population, dozens and even hundreds can be spotted hourly.

Creating safe havens for pollinators in our yards and communities provides vital waystations during spring and fall migrations.

The migration in crisis

Once 700 million strong, monarch populations have now crashed. It’s estimated the eastern population has plummeted by more than 85% while the western population is suffering even more – only 28,000 were counted this winter. Multiple issues are to blame:

Habitat loss and fragmentation. Over 160 million acres of monarch habitat has been lost to development since 1996.  Illegal logging of the overwintering sites in Mexico is also taking a toll.

Climate change. The increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events can devastate migrating populations. Because of the incredible density of monarchs in the overwintering grounds, severe freezes there are catastrophic.

Pesticides and herbicides. Milkweed used to grow throughout corn and soybean crops across the south and midwest. But herbicides have driven milkweed to near extinction in these agricultural landscapes and depleted monarch populations along the way.  Monarchs are also being impacted by neonicotinoids, a new class of insecticides that spread their toxins through the plant’s tissues. Caterpillars that dine on these plants quickly perish.

OE. Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) is a parasite that infects monarchs, causing them to die in the pupal stage or emerge deformed. Milder infections result in shorter life spans and an inability to fly properly. OE pervades in our area as non-native tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) continues to grow through the cooler months, after native milkweeds have died back. Follow these important steps if you choose to grow tropical milkweed.

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Monarchs overwintering in the oyamel fir forest of Mexico

What You Can Do

Join The Woodlands Township Plant for Pollinators Program. Through this program you can…

Learn

  • Get notified of upcoming lectures, classes and workshops by signing up for the Township’s Environmental Services blog and calendar updates. These free events focus on pollinators, native plants, invasives removal, organic gardening, no-chemical pest control and more.
  • Ask for a presentation on the Plant for Pollinators program and how to create habitat from the Township’s team of Environmental Education Specialists.
  • Follow the monarch migration with Journey North, check out the Pollinator Partnership’s Million Garden Challenge and more with these partner links.

Grow

Choose a sunny spot

Volunteer

  • Volunteers are needed for larger community planting projects. Help to weed, seed and spread habitat for all types of pollinators. Contact enviro@thewoodlandstownship-tx.gov if you or your group can lend a hand.

Observe

  • Download the easy-to-use iNaturalist app on your phone and monitor your habitat for monarchs and other pollinators. Your findings will support the Plant for Pollinators Project. It’s also a great way to learn more about nature!

 

Spiderwort is stunning color for shade

Native Plant Focus: Spiderwort

Tradescantia virginiana

 

Spiderwort (1)

An easy to grow clump-forming perennial, spiderwort is a Texas native which thrives in nearly any growing conditions—including shade. This plant’s deep blue to violet purple flowers with their contrasting yellow stamens bloom continuously for several months beginning in March in southeast Texas. Although each blossom lasts only about one half day, the numerous buds contained in each flower cluster provide new flowers each day. Spiderwort is a member of the iris family with long narrow bright green leaves that offset the unusual, slightly fragrant blue flowers.

Spiderwort’s scientific name, Tradescantia virginiana, is in honor of John Tradescant who served as the gardener to King Charles I of England. The plant’s common name, Spiderwort, has its origin in the angular arrangement of the leaves which suggest the shape of a squatting spider.

Easy care & adaptable

This highly adaptable plant will thrive in nearly any conditions although it prefers slightly moist soil in an area of dappled shade. When planted in drier areas, the plant adapts. Included in spiderwort’s many assets are its ability to grow in any soil as well as in light conditions ranging from shade to full sun.  In addition, Spiderwort has no known disease or pest issues.

Attract pollinators

In the home landscape, Spiderwort is a beautiful addition to a native plant garden, pollinator garden, shade garden or natural area. Spiderwort also adapts to containers. Many types of bees are attracted to the deep blue color of the spiderwort blossoms.  Bumble bees are the plant’s major pollinator although honeybees, small carpenter bees and halictine bees also provide pollination. Butterflies enjoy the nectar of this plant while syrphid flies feed on the pollen.

spiderwort-1347209

The distinctive and beautiful flower of Spiderwort adds color to shady spots in the landscape through spring and into summer.

Missouri Plants has some wonderful close-up photographs of this wide-ranging native.

For those interested in foraging, both spiderwort leaves and flowers are edible. The leaves are useful in salads, soups or teas while the flowers can also be used in salads or can be candied.

Where to find it

Obtaining spiderwort is easy since many on-line retailers offer both the seeds and the plants. Spring is a perfect time for shipping these plants before the Texas heat arrives. April is an ideal planting time for either Spiderwort transplants or seeds. Since Spiderwort grows quickly, planting it now will provide for pollinators in only a few short weeks.

 

More Texas Wildflowers

To learn about more native Texas wildflowers, join Anita Tiller from Mercer Arboretum on April 4 at HARC. Anita will lead an exploration of HARC’s grounds, which is bursting with spring color and will explain many of the sustainable landscape practices HARC has put in place. The walk is followed by an indoor presentation on wildflowers native to our region. Space is limited register here – walk-ups welcome as space permits.

ES_3.28_WITW Wildflowers

Plant for pollinators this spring!

At first glance, a pollinator garden may look like any other pretty flower garden. But for a garden to be a haven for native bees, butterflies, and moths, it needs to meet their needs for all life stages. And the most important ingredient are plants rich in nectar and pollen to feed adult pollinators and host plants specific to butterfly species. Here are simple guidelines for creating a pollinator garden that will reward you with three seasons of garden visitors and help protect these vulnerable insects.

Choose a sunny spot.

Most blooming plants require sun. Four hours of sun is ideal, but a minimum of two to three hours will work too. Some great nectar and pollen plants thrive in part shade (two hours of sun with dappled shade the rest of the day).

Plant natives.

Native plants support more than 29 times the number of insect species than non-native plants. Aim for at least 70% of native plants in your garden. (Print the PDF for recommended plant list.)

Plant host plants.

Host plants are where the female butterfly will lay her eggs and her young caterpillars will feed. Some butterfly species—like the monarch and some swallowtails—only have one host plant. It is vital, therefore, to include some of these plants to support these species. Most of our host plants are native, but some are non-natives well adapted to our area. By including these host plants, you’ll welcome more diversity into your garden. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant variety.

Adult bees and butterflies like some variety in their diet, just like us. By including different varieties of plants, your garden will attract a diverse assortment of pollinators.

Plant for three seasons.

Pollinators that overwinter in our area start emerging as the weather warms, and that could be late February to early March. As the weather turns cool, bees and butterflies go into hiding. As a general rule, they can’t fly when temperatures fall to 55 degrees. Bumblebees and some solitary bees will hibernate underground; other solitary bees will hibernate in nests they create in rock crevices and dead wood tunnels . Honey bees don’t hibernate, but buzz all winter keeping the hive warm—only the queen hibernates.  The monarch butterfly is the only migrating butterfly in North America and usually leaves its overwintering site in central Mexico in March, returning in November. You can track their migration each season at journeynorth.org.

With pollinators active and needing food spring through fall, it’s important that your garden provide blooms each season. (Print the PDF at the bottom for recommended plant list.)

Plant in dense color blocks.

Avoid planting different plant varieties singly. Go bold! Group a minimum of five to seven of the same plant to create large swaths of color in your garden. This helps pollinators find them. A dense planting has another advantage. When host plants especially, are planted densely, the young caterpillars have a better chance of survival by hiding from predators.

Include a puddle.

If there’s a low area that holds water after a rain in or near your pollinator garden, leave it! These “puddling” areas are great for providing certain butterfly species (like male common buckeyes) with necessary minerals and nutrients. You can create your own puddle by filling a shallow pan or plate with soil, some rocks, and pieces of a kitchen sponge and keeping it wet.

puddler

A simple butterfly “puddler” is easy to add to a garden.

Provide shelter.

Shelter can take various forms, from a nearby fence or trellis, dense shrubbery, or a man-made bee house for solitary bees. It can also be as simple as leaving a pile of fallen leaves and pine needles in a nearby spot. Shelter provides safe places for caterpillars to pupate, and for overwintering pollinators.

Use no pesticides.

In your garden or near it. Period.

 Print a PDF of these tips and recommended plants.

Register your garden!

Register your pollinator garden with The Woodlands Township as part of the Plant for Pollinators program and receive a window cling for recognition and appreciation.

window cling.FINAL

Learn more about registering your pollinator garden.

Important note about tropical milkweed

If you already have tropical milkweed in your garden, be sure to cut it to four to six inches of the ground every October to prevent the spread of OE and interference with normal migratory behavior. Consider planting native varieties of milkweed. Learn more about OE and tropical milkweed, and native milkweed species for our area in our recent blog post.

 

 

 

In celebration of trees

It’s undeniable. There seems to be a universal human response to the majesty of trees. Trees do us a lot of good and not all their benefits are visible by the eye. These benefits are often grouped by their social, environmental, and economic qualities.

(Be sure to see the upcoming Township events that pay tribute to trees listed below.)

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Social benefits

One might say that trees help make us happier. They provide a sense of place and when we are in their presence, we feel serene and peaceful. Trees’ calming effects extend to the workplace, where trees can reduce worker stress. It’s also been cited that trees can decrease recovery time after surgery or illness and reduce crime in urban communities. A large, mature tree imparts a sense of majesty, strength, and even awe. This and their capacity for a long life may be why they are so often planted as living memorials to those we love and have lost.

The oldest verified flowering tree is a 2,293 year-old Sri Maha Bodhi Sacred Fig. It is also the oldest human-planted tree, known to be planted in 288 BC at Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka.

People are drawn to shaded parks, pathways, and sidewalks, which in turn encourages social interaction and enhances a sense of community.

Environmental benefits

Trees improve the environment by moderating our climate from sun, wind, and rain. Sun is absorbed or deflected by leaves and the larger the tree, the greater its cooling effect. In urban environments, trees moderate the heating effect caused by pavement and buildings. Compact foliage and dense tree plantings provide an effective windbreak. Rain and stormwater runoff is not only slowed by trees, but is reduced by the water trees take up by their roots and store.

Improved air quality is another great benefit—leaves filter the air we breathe by removing particulates and pollutants (such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and lead) and replace them with oxygen. They absorb the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Trees are natural air conditioners that can lower temperatures 6 to 8 degrees by evaporating water through their leaves. Their roots stabilize soil and prevent erosion, and improve water quality by filtering rainwater.

Trees can block and absorb sound, reducing noise pollution by as much as 40%.

Finally, trees provide important food and shelter for urban wildlife, including birds, pollinators, and small animals.

Economic benefits

Although determining a “value” of a tree can be very difficult, trees increase in value as they grow. The value of trees is also evident in home sales: homes landscaped with trees sell more quickly and are worth 5% to 15% more than homes without trees. When trees are planted strategically to shade a home, air conditioning costs are lower. And when they form a windbreak they can reduce heating costs in winter.

Native trees

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The native Mexican Plum, Prunus mexicana, has a spectacular spring display that is a feast for the eyes and pollinators as well.

There is a wealth of native trees to use for landscapes in our area. The benefits of native trees are many and can include colorful spring blooms, fall color, or food and nectar for wildlife. Natives are well-adapted to our weather conditions and soil, and once established, require no supplemental water (except for times of extreme drought).

View and print the list of Trees Suitable for The Woodlands. This list is far from exhaustive, but meant to provide a good sampling of those that can be found at local nurseries and provide special benefits.

Upcoming events

Mark your calendar for these events that each in their own way, celebrate trees.

Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup
The Howard Hughes Corporation® is excited to host the Arbor Day Tree Seedling Pickup on Saturday, January 26, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Hughes Landing®. This year, more than 44,000 tree seedlings will be handed out, representing nine varieties including Bald Cypress, Laurel Oak, Live Oak, Loblolly Pine, Overcup Oak, River Birch, Sawtooth Oak, Silky Dogwood and Water Oak.

2019 Community Tree Planting
The community will come together to keep the woods in The Woodlands at the fifth annual Village Tree Planting event Saturday, February 9, 2019, from 8 a.m. to noon at Spindle Tree Ponds Park in the Village of Sterling Ridge. Volunteers of all ages are called upon to help reforest our community. Register now!

Creating Habitat in the Garden and Community
Saturday, February 2, 2019 from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at The Woodlands Emergency Training Center. This free seminar will address how wildlife has been impacted by growth and why home and community habitats matter. Learn how to create habitat for butterflies, bees and birds and help them thrive. Register now!

Helpful resources

Visit the International Society of Arboriculture for loads of great information about trees. View and print their useful guides for planting and caring for trees:

New Tree Planting

Proper Mulching Techniques

Pruning Mature Trees

Insect and Disease Problems

Irrigation can’t replace rain

You’ve seen it. The luminous post-shower greenness of a lawn; the sudden growth spurt of a plant that didn’t seem to be doing much at all; or the effervescence of new blooms on an otherwise sleepy plant. Why are these effects so evident after a good rain and absent with irrigation?

What’s the magic of rain? It’s all about what it has that tap water doesn’t,  and what it doesn’t have that tap water does.  And this all boils down to chemistry.

Rain water is free of minerals

good elements

Rainwater lacks the minerals usually found in irrigation water. In The Woodlands, the water that flows through an outside spigot is the same as what flows from the kitchen faucet—that is, treated water suitable for consumption. This is of course, what you want for water use in the home, but your landscape can actually suffer for it when used in excess.

Chlorine and fluoride are the first plant-offending additives in treated water. Chlorine is a necessary disinfectant and fluoride helps to prevent tooth decay.  But nearly all plants are susceptible to chlorine toxicity and many are subject to fluoride toxicity as well—especially common house plants.

Another chemical component to tap water is sodium, which can help remedy the pipe-corroding effects of calcium and magnesium, also present. When a white sediment is present on the outside of containers or on the leaves of plants, it’s evidence of calcium and magnesium. Sodium, like chlorine, is toxic to plants.

Rainwater has the right stuff

good elements

Oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide. Rain highly saturated in oxygen goes right to the roots that take up this vital element. Nitrogen is what makes your lawn and plants seem to glow green after a good rain. Air is 78% nitrogen and this element in its nitrate and ammonium forms comes down in rain and is immediately absorbed by plants through their roots and leaves.

Carbon dioxide is also delivered to plants with rain. When carbon dioxide combines with other minerals in the air, it gives rainwater an acidic pH. Acidic rainwater (and we’re not talking about “acid rain” which has excessive pollutants mostly an issue in the Northeast) helps the soil release essential micronutrients such as zinc, manganese, copper, and iron that are vital to plant growth.

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Something can be said about the physical properties of rain too.

Rain penetrates the soil better than irrigation. Raindrops fall at about 20 mph while irrigation droplets fall at about 5 mph. And rain falls uniformly. Both properties help water reach plants’ roots. And they do something else: they help leach salts away from the root zone of a plant where they may have accumulated over time through irrigation. This cleansing effect can have a pronounced effect on new plant growth.

The cleansing effect of rain extends to the entire surface of a plant as well. We can see how foliage glows after a rain washes away mineral deposits, dust and pollutants from leaves. This is a boon to photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is much more efficient when light reaches a plant’s leaves unobstructed by grit and grime.

Harvest it

The benefits of rain water over tap water used for irrigation might even motivate a person to harvest rainwater. So often, rainwater harvesting is presented only as a method for conserving water. Yet it’s more than that. By storing up rain water, you’re also creating a supply of high quality water that your plants crave.

A Drip Irrigation and Rainwater Harvesting class will be offered free by the Township later this spring.

OE and tropical milkweed

The relative virtues and problems associated with tropical milkweed, Asclepias curassavica, continue to be a hot topic within the monarch conservation community, but the disparity between the two is becoming more and more clear. Scientific research suggests that its problems, namely its link to the spread of the Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (OE) disease, far out-weigh its virtues. In fact, it’s those very virtues—availability, adaptability, and long bloom season—that multiply its negative effects relative to the health and sustainability of the monarch butterfly species.

What is OE?

OE is a protozoan parasite that infects butterflies that host on milkweed. Its life cycle starts as a microscopic spore that breaks open when ingested by a caterpillar. Within the caterpillar, it grows and multiplies. Because a parasite depends on its host for its own life, OE rarely kills the caterpillar.

scales and spores

OE spores are only visible under a microscope.

But the disease affects the development of the adult butterfly while pupating, and adults emerge weak and often with crippled wings. While many monarchs may carry OE as spores attached to its wings and thorax, the size of the spore-carrying population and the heavy level of spores within that population in the Gulf Coast region—especially Texas and Florida—is cause for alarm. Visit Project Monarch Health for more about OE.

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An adult butterfly with OE has no chance of survival when wings are malformed.

Recent studies corroborate earlier studies and tighten the link between tropical milkweed and an increase of OE. Gardening to help conserve monarchs requires an understanding of the risks associated with tropical milkweed as well as the steps to take to minimize its ill effects.

The introduction of tropical milkweed in the U.S.

Monarch enthusiasts with the best intentions were thrilled when local nurseries began to offer tropical milkweed for sale and embraced the Mexican native with gusto. It didn’t take long to discover that aside from being very easy to grow, monarch butterflies love this variety of milkweed. It seemed that a solution was in hand to help restore milkweed habitat for the Eastern migratory monarch population. As a result, tropical milkweed has been well established in parts the southern states—especially southeast Texas and southern Florida.

Then research began to emerge that showed an increase in monarch disease caused by OE was linked to tropical milkweed grown in the southern states.

What the research shows is particularly troubling for the monarch migration that passes through Texas gardens to feed and breed.

The effects of tropical milkweed

Research by Karen Oberhauser, Dara Satterfield, and others has and continues to demonstrate that OE in monarchs increases where tropical milkweed flourishes. (See links to studies at the end of this blog.)

What’s been determined is that the proliferation of tropical milkweed (in the southeastern parts of Texas and south Florida in particular), coupled with its near year-round foliage and flower production does two things:

It interferes with the monarch’s migratory cycle. Tropical milkweed encourages them to linger in the southern states and continue breeding and laying eggs, “trapping” them here where they cannot survive temperatures that drop toward the freezing mark. Possibly more important is the effect of milder winters. Given a non-stop supply of milkweed, interference with normal migratory behavior produces populations of monarchs that overwinter in Texas and Florida instead of completing their migration to the oyamel fir tree forests of central Mexico.

Monarchs who stay in the southern states for the winter are five to nine times more likely to be infected with OE than migrating butterflies.

It significantly increases the rate monarchs are infected by the debilitating OE protozoan pathogen. If mild winters don’t produce a freeze, infected milkweed continues to thrive, not dying back like native milkweed species. This means infected plants persist. Infected plants in Texas are especially harmful because they sit in the gateway for the spring and fall monarch migrations.

Migrant butterflies at sites with overwintering residents were 13 times more likely to have infections compared to migrant populations that don’t come in contact with residents.

Adult monarchs migrating from Mexico in the spring that visit infected plants pick up hundreds of OE spores and carry them to other plants—increasing the number of infected plants and as a result butterflies, exponentially.

What to do?

If there’s any good news in this it could be that originally, most of the tropical milkweed planted was done so in gardens. By definition, gardens are tended. Gardeners should consider taking one of two actions.

Replace tropical milkweed with native species. While native varieties are more challenging to start, the effort would help minimize the spread of OE. Try these native species:

  • Asclepias incarnate, Swamp milkweed
  • Asclepias perennis, Aquatic milkweed
  • Asclepias tuberosa, Butterflyweed
  • Asclepias verticillata, Whorled Milkweed
  • Asclepias viridi, Green milkweed

Or, be diligent about cutting it back every winter. Cut tropical milkweed plants to within four to six inches of the ground each October.

If you have tropical milkweed in your garden and didn’t cut it back in October, do it now.

Milkweed for habitats

Milkweed used for non-gardening purposes poses a more clear guideline. Dara Satterfield  recommends, “that habitat restoration for monarchs focus on native species of milkweed, which are synchronized with the monarch’s natural migratory cycle and do not enable the year-round breeding that can lead to high parasitism rates.”

The spring migration approaches

Tracking the spring monarch migration starts on February 14. Visit Journey North to learn how you can enter your own monarch sightings and track the migration real time.

Delve in and learn more about tropical milkweed and its effect on the health of monarchs with these recent studies:

Patterns of parasitism in monarch butterflies during the breeding season in eastern North America, Ecological Entomology, 2018

Migratory monarchs that encounter resident monarchs how life-history differences and higher rates of parasite infection, Ecology Letters, 2018

Monarch butterfly migration and parasite transmission in eastern North America, Ecological Society of America, 2011

Loss of migratory behaviour increases infection risk for a butterfly host, The Royal Society Publishing, 2015

Learn more about native milkweed species at these resources:

Native Plant Society of Texas

Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center Plant Database

PDF of Identification of Milkweed in Texas, by Texas Parks & Wildlife

Healthier lawns, cleaner streams

One thoughtful action can help promote both: Think before you fertilize. All too often, lawns are fertilized too heavily, at the wrong time, or when they don’t need it at all—thanks to the formidable marketing efforts by fertilizer companies. Instead of automatically reaching for your spreader, consider what your lawn really needs and the consequences of over-fertilization.

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Know what your lawn needs

Timing. The time to fertilize a lawn is when it’s growing more roots than blades; and to know when that is, know the type of grass in the lawn. Grass can be categorized in two ways: warm-season or cool-season. These terms refer to the weather in which the grass has adapted to grow. Turf grasses most common in our area, St. Augustine, Zoysia and Bermuda, are all warm-season grasses and start their growth in spring, making that the best time for fertilization.

Fall is when these grasses go dormant making fertilizers moot. Fertilizing at the wrong time can actually be harmful. Feeding your warm-season turf nitrogen in fall can force new top growth making the lawn susceptible to frost, shock and disease. What’s more is that this takes away energy from root growth, leading to weak, thin lawns.

No matter what, always follow a fertilizer’s instructions exactly when it comes to application.

Test it. Having said all this, don’t assume you need to fertilize every spring. The only way to know what nutrients your soil is lacking is to have your soil tested. Instructions for how to take a soil sample and the form for sending it to Texas A&M for analysis can be found with this link: Soil Test Form.

Go organic. If you find your soil needs supplemental nutrients for turf grass, consider using organic instead of synthetic fertilizers. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, organic fertilizers don’t create high levels of salts which kill beneficial soil organisms—the key to good soil health. And organic fertilizers work slowly, wasting nothing. They also improve soil texture making it easier for air to get to the roots and helping the soil retain water longer.

Organic forms of fertilizers include:

  • Alfalfa meal
  • Bat guano
  • Fish emulsion
  • Cotton seed meal
  • Seaweed
  • Manure
  • Compost

Refer to Best Organic Fertilizers for a full list of organic fertilizers and what they specifically offer.

How does this affect the quality of streams?

When quick-release synthetic fertilizers are over used, the chemicals are washed from our lawns in a downpour. The polluted run-off is channeled into the nearest waterway via storm drains, untreated and unfiltered. This water in turn contaminates our creeks, rivers and groundwater. High concentrations of nitrogen in water can also lead to an algae overgrowth, threatening the health of aquatic life.

Pond-LVphoto

Currently, over 80% of waterways in Texas are listed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as “impaired,” creating poor habitat for aquatic organisms such as fish and turtles. High bacteria levels are another culprit and may lead to restrictions on water-contact recreation, such as  swimming and wading, fishing, and kayaking.

Other ways to help keep our water clean:

  • Pick up pet waste—it’s the number one source of bacteria in our waterways.
  • Maintain cars so they don’t leak oil and other chemicals onto driveways.
  • Compost, compost, compost.
  • Never flush unwanted or out-of-date medicines down the toilet or drain.
  • Minimize areas of turf grass and pavement while increasing areas of native plants
  • Install a rain garden

For more information about lawn care, download Guide to Yard Care, by Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

To learn more about water conservation in The Woodlands, visit The Woodlands Township’s Water Conservation webpage.

Water Conservation Yard Sign 3

The great pumpkin

It’s an iconic symbol of the season. Porches, lamp posts, benches and steps are decorated with pumpkins—they are so ubiquitous that today 80% of the pumpkins grown in the U.S. are available in the month of October alone.

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The jack-o-lantern

For Halloween, these orange orbs are often carved with ghoulish faces illuminated with candles to the delight of children and adults alike. Originally known as jack-o-lanterns, we have the Irish to thank for this tradition that has folded into the fabric of our holiday. But the original jack-o-lantern wasn’t carved of pumpkin—pumpkins didn’t exist in Ireland. Ancient Celtic cultures in Ireland carved turnips. On All Hallow’s Eve, the Irish placed an ember in them to ward off evil spirits. The lore behind this tradition is the Irishman, Stingy Jack, who bargained with the devil and was doomed to roam the Earth with only a hollowed turnip to light his way.

There are other ways to use pumpkins as festive decoration. Use them as planters and set your Thanksgiving table apart.

History of the pumpkin in the Americas

There is more to the history of pumpkins to appreciate. One of the oldest known food crops in the western hemisphere, pumpkins are native to parts of the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Pumpkins are known to have been cultivated since about 3500 BCE. Some archaeological evidence shows that ancient Aztecs used pumpkin seeds as a quick energy snack. Native Americans roasted long strips of pumpkins over a fire and also dried pumpkin, weaving the strips into mats. Throughout South and Central America pumpkin pulp has long been used as a treatment for burns.

When European colonists arrived in the New World, they relied heavily on pumpkin as a food source. Colonists prepared pumpkin by cutting off the top of the fruit, removing the seeds and pulp and replacing them with a mixture of milk, spices and honey. This food was the origin of the pumpkin pie enjoyed today.

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Growing pumpkins

Cultivating pumpkins in the southeast Texas home garden is possible, although challenging. Pumpkins are heat-loving plants with seed germination dependent upon warm soil. In Montgomery County, late March to early April is the optimum planting time. Pumpkins require a day time temperature of 85-95 degrees with a night time temperature range of 60-70 degrees.

When preparing the garden for pumpkin growing, apply a generous amount of high quality compost to provide the nutrition requirements of these heavy feeders. Select a location with well-drained soil and few weeds, and select a pumpkin variety that’s small or dwarf since the large-fruited varieties require a space at least 18 feet in width and length for the vigorous vines. Smaller pumpkin varieties can be successfully grown in a space with plants two feet apart and rows 6 feet apart. If space is limited, you can even grow them in a pot.

Since pumpkin is a member of the cucurbit family, it’s susceptible to the same pests and diseases which plague squash, cucumbers and other cucurbits. Insect pests include:  squash bugs, squash vine borer, cucumber beetles and aphids. Plant diseases include powdery mildew, leaf spot, black rot, gummy stem blight, mosaic virus and bacterial wilt. Our local, frequently damp climate provides perfect conditions for these diseases. Removing plant debris and careful tool cleaning and sanitation will help prevent disease. For high quality fruit with a long life, harvesting at maturity is crucial. A pumpkin is mature when the entire shell has developed uniform hardness.

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Cooking with pumpkins

A versatile fruit for culinary endeavors, pumpkin lends itself to preparations ranging from soups to pies and breads. No wonder the pumpkin has found its way onto the Thanksgiving table. For inspiration in the kitchen, see these pumpkin recipes  from Fine Cooking.

Nutritionally, pumpkin is a powerful food which is low in calories and fat but high in fiber, Vitamin A, Vitamin B, potassium, protein and iron. One cup of cooked pumpkin contains only 49 calories. Since every part of the pumpkin is edible, experiment with preparing not only the pulp but also the seeds, flowers, leaves and stems. Check out these guidelines for processing pumpkins.

Add beauty and manage rain with a rain garden

Rain gardens are simple landscaping features used to slow, collect, infiltrate and filter storm water. They offer a great way to turn a landscape “problem” into a real benefit. Rain gardens are planted areas—best added to a low lying area that collects rain water—that include deep-rooted native plants and grasses that are designed to thrive in wet soil, soak up excess rain water, and withstand intermittent dry periods.

There are aesthetic benefits to rain gardens as well, transforming a bare, wet area into a green, blooming habitat that provides food and shelter for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife. Amphibians such as frogs and toads will be attracted to this naturally wet area.

The problem

Increased stormwater runoff is the real problem. Add soil erosion to that and the result is vulnerability to flooding. Rain gardens help prevent both, helping to conserve water and soil.

Water Cycle

Consider the water cycle shown above and then add human development to the picture. Humans create stormwater runoff when natural areas are developed, replacing them with a sea of impervious surfaces fragmenting our green spaces.  Within a developed residential area, pollutants such as fertilizers, herbicides, pet waste, and oil are washed from lawns, streets, and parking lots into local streams and drainage systems.

Polluted runoff is the number one water
quality issue in the United States. 

How rain gardens help

While a single rain garden may seem inconsequential, it has great value, and several in a neighborhood collectively can produce substantial benefits. They slow the water down and let it collect in the garden’s depression, settling soil, silt and organic material that are washed by the water from higher ground. Water slowly filters back into the soil where it is needed most.  The deep rooted plants and grasses in the rain garden hold of the soil, keeping it in place. Rain gardens can also be designed to divert run off from sewer systems.

Plants within the rain garden increase the infiltration of water, giving the natural process that removes pollutants time to do its work. Naturally purified water then recharges the groundwater system. The end result is that by adding a rain garden to the landscape is a strategy that makes a difference.  Flooding is reduced.  Pollutants are filtered from the water. Runoff is diverted from streets and storm sewers.

Concern that a rain garden might serve as a breeding area for mosquitoes is not valid when they are sited correctly. Following a rain, ponding should last no longer than approximately 72 hours. This is a much shorter time frame than the 7 to 14 days required for most species of mosquitoes to develop and hatch from eggs laid in standing water.

texas rain garden

Rain garden basics

Choose a site. Locate your garden in a low lying area of your landscape that tends to collect rain water at least 10 feet from your foundation. Choose a sunny or partially sunny spot. Also consider how it can be incorporated into your existing landscape replacing an area of traditional turf grass where the lawn slopes toward the street. An area that would catch roof run off or water from a down spout is perfect. If the rain garden is located on a slope, create a berm on the low side to retail water and soil.

Compared to a patch of lawn, a rain garden allows 30% more water to soak in the ground.

Test drainage. Test the location’s drainage before you create the bed. Dig a hole 8 to 12 inches deep and fill the hole with water. The water should soak in within 48 to 72 hours. Soils heavy in clay will drain much more slowly than soils heavier in loam, silt or sand. Amend sites heavy in clay with organic compost to improve the soil and help drainage. If the site doesn’t drain within 72 hours, choose another site.

Start digging. Rain gardens can be any size, but a typical residential rain garden ranges from 100 to 300 square feet. The depth of the garden can range between four and eight inches. Anything too deep might pond water too long and if too shallow, it will require greater surface area to effectively manage water.

Add plants. Choose a variety of native forbs and grasses, planting those with higher water tolerance in the middle of the garden. Include plants of varying heights and bloom times to maximize the garden’s depth, texture and color. Plant in groups of three to seven plants of a single species.  Go for diversity. In natural areas, a diversity of plant types not only adds beauty, but also creates thick underground root network that keeps the entire plant community in balance.

The chart below includes plants for our area suitable for a rain garden. Planting zones are indicated as:

Margin: the high edge around the rain garden that is the driest zone
Median: the area between the margin and center
Center: the middle of the garden that is deeper and will stay wet longest

Rain garden plant listHelp it flourish. Rain gardens can be maintained with little effort after plants are established. Weeding and some watering during dry periods will be needed the first two years.

Attend the upcoming rain garden class

Join Patrick Dickinson, Texas A&M Water University horticulturist on Saturday, October 27, 2018 from 9:00 a.m. to noon as he presents Gardening 102:  Rain Gardens.

Register here.

Resources

Refer to Harris County AgriLife Extension gardening fact sheet, Rain Gardens, for more details about planning a rain garden and for a full plant list.

Check out WaterSmart, a presentation by Chris LaChance of Texas AgriLife Extension, for good information and nice photos of various rain gardens.

This how-to manual on Rain Gardens by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources may have plant lists that aren’t suitable for this area, but it’s a good guide to creating a rain garden no matter where you live.

Grow a native American vegetable and treat your landscape and palate alike

Helianthus tuberosus

Cultivated for centuries prior to the arrival of European explorers and settlers, our country’s only native vegetable is also a Texas native sunflower. The “jerusalem artichoke” or “sunchoke” is the enlarged underground stem of helianthus tuberosus, a type of sunflower in the aster family with edible tuberous roots. While commonly regarded as native vegetables, potatoes, tomatoes, corn and peppers all originated either in Central or South America.

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Today, we take the food on our plate for granted, but the History of Vegetables  is a fascinating study.

The common name “Jerusalem artichoke” is likely a corruption of the Italian girasole (turning toward the sun) which is a trait shared by all sunflowers. In more recent years, the edible tubers of helianthus tuberosus have become known as “sunchokes”.

Sunchokes have a delicious, sweet nutty taste.  As an extra bonus, these tubers are nutritious and an excellent source of iron, potassium and fiber.

The original distribution of this native Texas sunflower is unclear because the plant was transported to many different geographic locations for cultivation by Native Americans.  Today, helianthus tuberosus can be found along the edges of wooded areas, in former fields and along roadsides.

Helianthus tuberosus

This showy sunflower is also sometimes grown simply for its bright yellow blooms and tall, fast growing stems. Broad, thick leaves and rough hairy stems add to the visual attractiveness of this native plant.

Blooming in late summer and early fall, helianthus tuberosus requires full sun to part shade. A tough and versatile plant, this sunflower will grow in moist or dry soil and tolerates drought, heat and frigid temperatures. Because of these qualities, it’s very easy to grow. Helianthus tuberosus is extremely useful in the garden where it can quickly become a temporary summer screen, a stunning background for a native plant border or the sunny edge of a natural wooded area.

Nectar source for butterflies

This particular sunflower is beneficial for both insects and wildlife. The large yellow flowers offer nectar for butterflies, pollen for bees while also supporting many predatory and parasitoid wasps, flies and beetles. In fall, the seed heads attract birds while the large plants offer cover for small wildlife.

Beekeepers have noted that helianthus tuberosus  is an excellent honey plant resulting in a clear amber product when harvested.

Very little is known about pests or diseases which damage this plant. It appears to be quite resistant, which contributes to its easy to grow nature. In the southeast Texas climate, the optimum planting time is early spring with the main harvest in fall. Since helianthus tuberosus is a perennial plant, once started in the garden, it’ll return each spring from tubers left in the soil.

Growing helianthus tuberosus in your garden or landscape offers new opportunities for applying culinary skills as well as providing beauty, food for pollinators and cover for wildlife.

The edible tubers or sunchokes can be harvested beginning within two or three weeks after the flowers fade. Harvesting can continue after the first freeze damages the stems and leaves of the plant. Each plant will produce approximately 2-5 pounds of sunchokes. When left in the ground after the first frost, the tubers become sweeter and crispier. To preserve the freshness, store sunchokes in a zip top plastic bag in the refrigerator. This strategy preserves the tuber’s natural moisture.

While sunchokes are frequently used in cooking as a potato substitute, unlike potatoes, they can be used raw and add a nutritious crunch to salads. Sunchokes are also an excellent vegetable for pickling.

If you like to get even more creative in the kitchen, try Pan-Roasted Sunchokes and Artichoke Hearts with Lemon-Herb Butter.

Looks and sounds delish.

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For more information on the nutritional value of various foods, check out this nutrition guide, by the USDA.