A reader recently asked about how to care for a gardenia plant as a houseplant. I was reminded of a meme (which I think we used to call cartoons?) that showed 3 racks of plants for sale at a garden center. One rack said “Houseplants that will die in less than one month $8.” The second rack said “Houseplants that will die in less than three months $15” and the third rack said “Houseplants that will live for a year $25.” Sadly, Gardenias fall into the top rack category.

Coincidentally, I visited a friend here in Bradenton this morning with an eight foot tall and almost as wide, Gardenia, growing in his driveway. It was covered in fragrant blossoms. I picked a handful and put them in my car, where their delightful fragrance even overcomes the pervasive smell of dead fish bait that I have become used to. Many of the perennial landscape plants I see here every day in Florida are relegated to houseplant status in upstate New York. It is nice to see the full, outdoor, potential of some common “houseplants.” If you get to St. Petersburg, Florida, I highly recommend visiting a place called “Sunken Gardens” for a horticultural treat.

Several readers wondered what was cutting the tips of the branches off their spruce trees. The ground beneath the tree was almost covered with these branch tips. In this case the culprits are red squirrels, which like to eat the lateral buds, thus pruning off the very end of the branch. Fortunately, this “tip pruning” does not usually damage the tree permanently. Other than shooting or trapping the squirrels, I don’t know of any other remedy.

For those of you who may have spent many hours trying to eradicate the invasive “garlic mustard” (Allilaria petiolata) from your property, I am sorry to inform you that it is better off to leave it alone. I won’t say that you wasted your time, because pulling weeds is wonderful exercise, but you will never eradicate it. Research at Cornell University has determined that if left alone, garlic mustard will eventually “peter out” on its own, until it grows in relatively small numbers but efforts to remove it only serve to make it spread even more. It produces a huge “seed bank” in the soil that is essentially inexhaustible. The presence of garlic mustard in the forest has more to do with deer than the plant itself. When deer eat almost everything on the forest floor, as is often the case, except garlic mustard, the mustard gets blamed for “choking out” all the native plants. It does not “choke out” anything at all. Garlic mustard is “exotic” and a good scapegoat for ecosystem disruption, whereas deer are “native” and highly protected.

Last week I wrote a bit about deer ticks, which also are more of a result of overly high deer populations than any other ecological factor. Deer ticks spend the winter on, mate, produce eggs and generally survive because of deer. The more deer there are in any given area, the more deer ticks there will be. It is really that simple. Invasion biologists will point out the fact that forested areas with high densities of Asiatic barberry, considered a very invasive plant, harbor far larger populations of deer ticks than forested areas that do not. This bolsters the argument to eradicate “exotic” barberry to reduce the number of deer ticks but it ignores the reason why the barberry is there to begin with. Like garlic mustard, deer don’t eat barberry, either.

I would hope that in time, herbivores like deer will develop a “taste” for invasive plants like garlic mustard, barberry, stiltgrass, mile a minute vine, black swallowwort and knotweed, (aka Japanese or Mexican bamboo). Perhaps we should feed nothing but garlic mustard to captive deer herds for several generations and then release the deer to breed in the wild and hopefully pass on the habit to their offspring. Time is subjective in the sense that we tend to measure it mostly in our own life cycle, a tiny drop in the bucket of evolution.

I know that some horses relish knotweed and perhaps some goats or sheep might enjoy eating it as well. I have tried eating it myself a few times and it tasted pretty awful to me. I do make a tincture from the roots that some herbalists consider a remedy for Lyme disease. Garlic mustard tastes pretty good actually, when stir fried or made into a pesto mixed with basil. Barberry contains some powerful alkaloids that are used medicinally, both in herbal, as well as conventional medicine. No plant, is inherently evil, in all aspects, regardless of what may appear to be the case.

Reach Bob at rlb14@cornell.edu.

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