Nature News: At what point should we give up trying to control the invasives?

published June 24 2021 in The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Fosters’ Daily and other Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.

I’ve been driving back and forth to Manhattan fairly frequently to visit my aunt and like to spend some of the long drive checking out the vegetation growing in the various rest stops.  There is one pretty little clover-type plant growing in both my super-sandy scrubby field and in most of the roadside rest stops and median strips, bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), that I decided to investigate further.  This is not the lotus blossom famous for its beauty or, in Greek mythology for its narcotic powers (check out the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey fame), but rather the name given to the genus of a group of plants in the pea family.  The species name, corniculatus, refers to its common name ‘bird’s-foot’ in reference to the ripened seed pods which curve outwards resembling a bird’s foot, each toe curved like a talon (hence “corniculatus” meaning small horns).  The “trefoil” part of the name, which means ‘three leaves’ is a misnomer, these actually have 5 leaflets, three prominent ones and two hidden beneath.  

Bird’s-foot trefoil are beautiful, aggressive, soil-building, nitrogen-fixing non-natives -sue pike photo

3-foot taproots, fibrous mats of rhizomes–yikes!!

If you take a close look you’ll see that they do have clover-like leaves and flowers that resemble most of our other wild peas.  Sadly, they are non-native, have spread throughout the United States and up into Canada and Alaska and are considered noxious invasives in some states.  A native of Europe and Asia, they were introduced as forage for livestock. With their 3-foot taproots and fibrous mats of rhizomes they can quickly take over an area, smothering other native species.  

Considered edible but all parts are poisonous

I thought, since they are in the pea family, they might be edible. Here’s where it got interesting.  After some intensive googling I found one of my favorite descriptions of its edibility:  “Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Lotus corniculatus, is a member of the Pea Family and has been considered both edible and medicinal but be aware that all parts of this plant are poisonous.” (cargocultcafe.com).  This is one of those plants that contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides (cyanide) that are not a huge issue in small amounts (and have been used medicinally in the past)  but can be lethal to humans if enough is consumed.  However, for wildlife it is a different story; bird’s-foot trefoil  is considered a choice food by Canada geese and deer and attracts a variety of pollinators.  

Most of the flowers in my meadow aren’t native anyway….

While I would love to have only native species growing in my yard, I would guess that at least 50% of the plants growing in my field/lawn are non-native.  This is partially because these mowed fields are not a native habitat to this area and so attract and support any non-native open field plant that can get a toe-hold.  I am trying to figure out whether to control this plant to keep it from dominating the field, reducing the overall biodiversity, or to eradicate it completely. Given that we have nutrient-poor sandy soil that many plants don’t like to grow in to begin with, and, as a legume it is a nitrogen-fixer, I’m leaning towards controlling but not eradicating it.   In addition, bird’s-foot trefoil has beautiful clusters of bright yellow pea-like flowers shot through with streaks of red which the bees, wasps and other pollinators seem to love as much as the dandelions, butter-and-eggs toadflax, black-eyed-Susans and daisies that populate the field, which, by the way, are also non-natives. 

Nature News: Where’d the chickens go? The real life story of the foxes and the chickens

published June 19 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, York Weekly, Foster’s Daily and more Seacoast Media Group newspapers and online.

We are seeing lots of evidence of baby animals in our backyard these days. 

A persistent little red squirrel we’ve named Rusty is always coming by to see whether we have any seeds for her young. We figured out she was a female this spring when her eight teats were suddenly impossible to ignore. Baby nuthatches and house sparrows follow their parents through the trees begging for food. We can’t go into the barn until the young phoebes have finally left the nest. And, our neighbors told us about a red fox den just a couple houses down, with beautiful little pups (or kits, both are acceptable names for young foxes) frequently spied rolling around outside their den. 

Red fox pups play outside their den next to neighbors’ house -steve morello photo

I have yet to see the fox, but, unfortunately my chickens have. We had a nice small flock of 11 chickens shrink to an even smaller flock of one lonely bird within two weeks. We don’t know this for a fact, but based upon the piles of feathers that leave a Hansel and Gretel breadcrumb-esque trail up toward the fox den, we have a fairly good idea who the predator is. At least there are some well-fed young foxes out there!

Don’t encourage foxes by leaving out bird food or free-range chickens.

It isn’t a surprise that we have red foxes in the neighborhood. I’ve caught them a couple times with the game camera and have seen their tracks in the snow. I can’t really begrudge them my chickens. I was reading a post by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife – How to Prevent or Resolve Conflicts with Foxes – and it is fairly obvious that our fox “problem” is our fault. “Research suggests that humans create the conditions for conflict by deliberately or inadvertently providing animals with food and shelter. Preventing or removing access to these attractants is the first essential step to resolving a wildlife problem. This includes eliminating access to shelter, being smart about garbage, planting native plants to attract birds rather than using bird seed, protecting poultry and livestock, and being a responsible pet owner.”  While I love having my chickens free range (chickens are intelligent, curious birds who love exploring their surroundings), I’m not being a responsible poultry owner by letting them free range into a red foxes’ hungry jaws. It never even occurred to me that foxes might love bird feeders as much as bears. 

Our red foxes are probably not native

The red foxes that live in New England are probably not native. There is a huge amount of debate about this in the research community, but what most agree on is that there were subspecies of European red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) in the northern boreal forests of North America prior to European colonization of these parts. We also have a definite native, the gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), which has a more southern distribution than the red fox, is smaller and more cat-like, and can climb trees. The native North American red fox (now considered a subspecies of the Old World red fox) didn’t do well with the influx of colonists and subsequent habitat disruption, so the gray fox was the one more frequently encountered. Those early colonists liked to fox hunt and didn’t do so well tracking the gray foxes up into the trees, so instead imported red foxes from Europe for recreational fox hunting, and now this red fox has spread throughout the continent. In fact, red foxes are the most widely distributed carnivore in the world and can wreak havoc upon small mammal and bird populations (think about what their introduction to Australia, that lacked this kind of predator all together, must have done to native bird populations!).  

Native or not, red foxes aren’t going anywhere. They can actually be quite beneficial to have in your neighborhood since they do a wonderful job controlling rodent populations (we have a fairly robust rat population – due to all the chickens – so this is great!). 

The Irish word for fox might be the root of the word shenanigans

And, if you think about it, the Old World red foxes  are the type of species expected to do well with a human presence. They are wily animals. Coyotes are one of their main predators around here, so to keep the coyotes at bay, red fox tend to stay close to humans, our presence inadvertently protecting them from coyotes. The Natural Resource Council of Maine has a great post about fox wiliness, with a great fun fact “The Irish word for fox, ‘sionnach’, is believed to be the root of ‘shenanigans,’ to play tricks.”

I have reinforced my chicken pen and acquired some more chickens. I hope to keep these chickens from escaping and getting in harm’s way, but chickens are wily, too. I worry that they’ll figure out how to get out of the somewhat protected chicken run and wander, like the hapless chickens before them, straight back to the hungry local foxes’ jaws.

Nature News: Lambsquarters A Prolific Weed You Can Eat

Published June 12, 2021 The Portsmouth Herald, the York Weekly, Foster’s Daily etc

We recently bought a beautiful load of composted pig and cow manure from a local farm.  I’m still working on building soil in my garden (our native soil is mostly sand–left over from the last glaciers that plowed through this area), so any organic content is great.  Travelling along with the manure was a healthy crop of lambsquarters.  This is a weed that grows almost everywhere–anywhere there are people and soil to grow in.  

Lambsquarters growing in profusion from the composted pig manure -sue pike photo

Lambsquarters are in the beet and spinach family!

Lambsquarters is a member of the goosefoot (Chenopodiaceae) which also includes beets and spinach.   Lambsquarters is not native to North America, but does have an interesting history here.  It is thought to have originated in Europe and Asia and then was spread to Africa, Australia and the Americas by human activity a really, really long time ago. Recent archeological studies have found seeds stored by Native Americans pre-dating the arrival of European colonists(who also most certainly brought lambsquarters with them to the Americas), suggesting that these plants were among the earliest invasive species (perhaps we could call them paleo-invaders along with the humans who brought them) in North America. 

Goose foot-shaped leaves are one distinguishing feature

This fast-growing summer annual typically grows to about three feet tall and, while its leaves can take on a variety of forms depending upon growing conditions, usually has ovate to triangular leaves with toothed or slightly lobed edges with a white coating on the undersides. The scientific name for lambsquarters is “Chenopodium album” which refers to the shape of the leaves. “Chenopodium” comes from the Greek for goose foot – it really does resemble a goose foot. The species name “album” is Latin for white; this refers to that white coating which distinguishes it from other members of this genus.  You can generally guess that a plant has a long history with humans based upon its common names.  

White gritty coating on the underside of this leaf vanishes when you cook it -sue pike photo

One common name for lambsquarters is goosefoot-due to the shape of the leaves.  According to “The Real Food Encyclopedia” (foodprint.org) ““Lamb’s quarters goes by lots of different names, including “white goosefoot,” “pigweed,” “dungweed,” “baconweed” and “wild spinach.” One of its names, “fat hen,” comes from its supposed ability (as a feed) to fatten chickens.” These names speak to its many uses by humans-as a feed for pigs, as a substitute for spinach (it cooks up just like spinach), how great it tastes with bacon.  I love the name “Dungweed”, it  resonates with me and my big pile of pig manure.  

Eat the Weeds!!

There are a couple reasons lambsquarters accompanied humans on our migrations around the world.  It is extremely nutritious-it has even more protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin C, and vitamin A then spinach.  Like spinach it is high in oxalic acid–which interferes with absorption of calcium and iron (among other things), so should be eaten in moderation, or blanched.  Blanching leaches out a good amount of the oxalic acid. Before you panic and decide not to eat lambsquarters, be aware that  rhubarb, tea, beer, almonds, chocolate and bananas are also high in oxalic acid.  

The goose-foot shaped leaf is very distinctive -sue pike photo

Lambsquarters has also spread so far because it has all the traits to make it a highly effective weed.  One plant can produce 70,000 seeds.  These seeds are tough, they can survive most digestive tracts (hence all those cute little lambsquarter plants springing out of my manure pile).  While this is a wind-pollinated species, it most often self-pollinates, ensuring a next generation. It also is resistant to many herbicides–which I think is great since herbicides are poisons that we shouldn’t be using in the first place.   I guess the take-home message here is if you want to control it in your garden, eat it before it goes to seed.  Or, alternatively, you can try letting some go to seed and harvesting the seeds-lambsquarters are in the same family as quinoa and amaranth-wouldn’t it be great to produce our own version of superseeds at home in our backyards? We are in the middle of a heat wave, most likely caused by our huge carbon footprints.  This is one small way to reduce our carbon footprint and create a more sustainable future-eat the weeds!