Plant Native Ground Covers & Make America Green Again

Here we see common violets, Virginia creeper and white wood asters all functioning as ground covers and so much more.

Common violets, Virginia creeper and white wood asters (in distance) all function as ground covers and so much more.

When I think about making America green again, I dream of filling in all those stark areas of unnatural red mulch. I fantasize about less lawn, too. But what my eco-tinted goggles really see is a decrease in the commonly planted ground covers like English ivy, Pachysandra and periwinkle. For although these ground-huggers are undeniably popular, we know that doesn’t mean they’re good choices for our gardens.

Excessively planted because of their uniformity, state of perpetual greenness, and alleged low maintenance, English ivy and its cronies have wreaked havoc across North America. They are not beneficial to wildlife—unless their propensity to harbor rats and help breed mosquitoes counts as critter friendly. These introduced plants are also designated as invasive in the Mid-Atlantic and in other parts of our country. Yes, invasive! That means they have absolutely no respect for us and our great American land. They easily escape into natural areas and outcompete our essential native plants for resources and, as in the case of English ivy, can climb and smother trees. But there’s a bright side. You don’t have to settle on these narcissistic garden center plants because there are many better, more benevolent options: native alternatives that help instead of harm our planet.

Why do we plant ground covers?

These are some common reasons why we choose ground covers:IMG_6390_x300

  aesthetics
  erosion control
  lower maintenance
  weed suppression
  wildlife habitat

You’ll find that the following native plants can satisfy most, if not all, of your ground-covering gardening objectives. Read on to learn what would work best for you. Continue reading

Death by Urban Landscaping: How popular landscape plants are destroying local forests

by Beverley Rivera.

As the weather warms, Northern Virginia appears to come alive almost overnight, trees leaf out and unique wildflowers blossom beneath the awakening canopy; but this greening of everything around us actually belies a chilling outlook: much of the striking new foliage is not supposed to be here. Plants that are not native to America are rapidly outcompeting local forest growth for resources: growing space, sunlight, water. In many areas, not only are the invasive plants winning the battle for these resources, they are annihilating the local competition.

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can displace native vegetation and kill trees and shrubs by girdling them. Photo by Matt jones/NatureServe/cc.

Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) can displace native vegetation and kill trees and shrubs by girdling them. Photo by Matt Jones/NatureServe/cc.

And it’s a problem without a solution because many of the plants that are steadily destroying Virginia’s forests are spreading from people’s gardens and from landscaping at shopping centers and businesses. There are breathtaking areas in Northern Virginia where invasive vines so thick that they require a saw to hack through are suffocating native trees that withstood Civil War battles. Homeowners and landscapers plant these vines in urban settings, the seeds get into the forest via birds, and the non-native plants quickly take over, entangling, suffocating, stunting and displacing everything natural. Invasives such as Chinese wisteria send out vast networks of thick vines that spread above and beneath the ground, quickly engulfing massive areas of natural forest.

Another frightening prospect is that in the normal cycle of things, young trees which are just now getting established would, hundreds of years from now, replace the massive canopy trees as they end their life cycles. If left untainted, the forest rejuvenates itself as it has for thousands of years. But with invasive plants taking over, the young growth that is destined to be our forest of the future is being entangled, smothered and displaced by invasive plants. Adding to the problem is overbrowsing by deer. Deer won’t eat many of the invasive plants, and the natural predators that once kept deer numbers in check are no longer roaming the east.

In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.

Equally destructive to our new forest growth are Japanese honeysuckle and English ivy. But these plants are ubiquitous in local landscaping, meaning that even if an army of volunteers managed to remove all the invasives from an area, the seeds from urban landscaping would quickly reinfest the forest. Invasive butterfly bush is another staple in Northern Virginian landscaping, as are Japanese barberry, Pachysandra, Miscanthus, Bradford pear, privet, Norway maple, burning bush; the lists of plants that become invasive once they leave the suburban landscape is ongoing. In fact, the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Invasive ID and Control booklet looks more like a guide to urban landscaping in Northern Virginia.

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English ivy before and after: for sale at a local garden center and its escape into the wild.

This prevalence of invasive plants in our gardens invites the question: if invasive plants are destroying Virginia’s natural areas, why are many of these plants still widely available for sale? To some extent the blame for the degraded state of our natural areas must lie with the stores that are supplying invasive plants. But I also think that at some point, we as homeowners must take our share of the responsibility. We need to think about the consequences of our actions on the future of Virginia’s forests, or else our forests are just not going to be around for future generations.

Introduced and invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry adorn many residential properties.

Introduced and invasive plants like butterfly bush and Japanese barberry adorn many residential properties.

There’s a native plant for every gardening situation

Virginia has such an abundance of plant diversity that there is no excuse for planting invasives. For every invasive plant there is an equally attractive native alternative. And the added benefit of planting local plants is that once established in the right conditions, they become very low maintenance; native plants have been here much longer than watering cans and fertilizers have. Gorgeous alternatives, for example, to the invasive butterfly bush are our fall-blooming goldenrods (Solidago spp.) and asters (Symphyotrichum spp.) which are even more fabulous when planted together. They attract more pollinators than the much-loved non-native. For an attractive evergreen ground cover alternative to English ivy, there’s golden ragwort (Packera aurea). For every plant that you think you can’t live without, there is a selection of native alternatives; there’s even a native wisteria, American wisteria (Wisteria frutescens).

Golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a wonderful alternative to English ivy. And it doesn't kill trees.

Sunny golden ragwort (Packera aurea) is a wonderful alternative to English ivy.

But don’t expect the large local garden centers, or the plant sales that crop up in shopping center parking lots to stock an abundance of native plants – because they don’t. They might stock a few cultivars, which are plants that have been bred to enhance particular traits such as vibrant color or hardiness, so they may be labelled “native” but they contain modifications. Another caveat about native plants is obtaining plants that belong in this region, they’re referred to as “local ecotypes.” Just because a plant is “native” to Northern America – which is vast in its geography and hence its plant diversity – doesn’t mean that it belongs in Virginia, or that it couldn’t potentially become invasive if introduced to this region. Our local ecotypes also have evolved to form special relationships with our indigenous animals. Some native bees, for example, pollinate only one species of plants, which required millions of years of evolution.

Northern Virginia resources abound!

Fortunately, there are some excellent resources available for planting what is local. The Plant NoVA Natives website has recommendations of what to plant specific to Northern Virginia, and their online guide even covers recommendations for problem planting areas. The Virginia Native Plant Society also has a wealth of resources including a list of alternatives for English ivy. One excellent source for buying local ecotypes is Earth Sangha’s Wild Plant Nursery.

One last word of caution when buying plants at big box stores or mainstream garden supply shops is that there is much talk about whether the presence of certain pesticides known as neonicotinoids are contributing to the alarming decline of pollinators. Shop wisely and with an eye to the future.

Virginia has a wealth of gorgeous natural areas that are being devastated by the invasive plants that we are cultivating in our own backyard. Help to preserve the fascinating diversity of this region’s native plants by growing what belongs here.

 

Nectar Sources for Large-Winged Butterflies of the Mid-Atlantic 

Ooooo, a monarch! It takes an erratic path across the garden, bright orange wings gliding and flapping, drifting and fluttering. It floats down and lights on a stalk of common milkweed and after a momentary pause, the dark abdomen curls and a single egg is precisely laid underneath a small, tender leaf. She repeats the process twice more. The mother butterfly discovers another stand of young shoots on the opposite side of the garden and continues her delicate dance. An egg here. Flutter flutter. Another egg gently placed there. Three years have quickly passed since I planted tiny milkweed plants and they now command ample portions of this wildlife habitat, creating a welcoming haven for monarchs—adults and larvae alike. It’s mid-summer, with clear skies and still air; the perfect conditions for butterfly spying.

A monarch caterpillar munches common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). Plant this if you want to make more monarch butterflies.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) and monarch caterpillars go hand-in-hand.

Scrutinizing the plants that make up this front yard garden, I stand in the warming sun and consider whether there’ll be sufficient nectar for any new monarchs when nearly a month from now the miraculous four stage metamorphosis, from egg to larva to pupa to butterfly, is complete. The smaller butterflies such as skippers and fritillaries frequent a wide variety of flowers but the large-winged beauties, I’ve noticed, are slightly more discerning. What flowers do they want? This question sent me on the most colorful of journeys…

Are you gonna eat that?

Butterflies are the magical creatures gracefully flitting through princess tales and are undeniably the most beloved of all our insects. Although not the most efficient pollinators when compared to native bees and flies, butterflies nonetheless play an important ecological role.

A monarch collecting nectar on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with proboscis extended.

A monarch collecting nectar on butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) with proboscis extended.

Most butterflies live on nectar from flowers and some also receive nourishment from pollen, tree sap, rotting fruit, carrion, dung, aphid honeydew and minerals found in wet sand or dirt. They have a proboscis, a long complex food canal that is straw-like and coiled when not in use. Proboscises come in different lengths and can dictate which flower a butterfly may drink from.

What else might make one flower more alluring to a particular butterfly than the next? Scent and color can be enticing components. Some researchers also identified butterfly morphology as a factor; they found that species with a “high wing load” generally preferred clustered or nectar-rich flowers. This would explain all the swallowtails on Joe Pye Weed!

You may be tempted to plant butterfly bush (Buddleja spp. and cultivars) because you notice your neighbor’s attracts butterflies late in the growing season. Please resist the urge to do so! Butterfly bush is an introduced plant from Asia that does not support local food webs. It’s also an invasive shrub that outcompetes native flora for resources and negatively impacts all our wildlife. Some prudent states have taken steps to ban the sale of butterfly bush.

FROM EGG TO ADULT: Support a butterfly’s full life cycle

While wildflower nectar is a necessary habitat component for butterflies, other plant life such as native grasses, vines, shrubs and trees are equally crucial for food and shelter. A landscape with tons of plant diversity will help not only butterflies but also our other wild critters— great and small and every life in between.

The spicebush swallowtail caterpillar relaxing on one of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

A spicebush swallowtail caterpillar lounging on one of its host plants, spicebush (Lindera benzoin).

Let’s grow butterflies! It’s easy to do: just add the plant that their larvae will eat. These specific plants that caterpillars need for food are called host plants. Monarchs, as we know, require milkweed or Asclepias species to reproduce. Host plants are not optional for caterpillars and some, like those of the zebra swallowtail, the pipevine swallowtail and the monarch, have only one genus of plant that they can eat. What Do Caterpillars Eat by the Washington Area Butterfly Club lists some common butterflies and their typical host plants.

Did you know that butterflies need water, too? You can provide essential moisture and minerals by filling a shallow dish with damp sand or mud. It’s a bit of maintenance but well worth it if you spy even a tiny skipper taking a drink, as I have. And don’t forget to leave the leaf litter! There are butterfly and moth species that overwinter as egg, larva or pupa in the blanket of fallen leaves and debris. Let’s not be tossing out the butterflies we’re trying to encourage.

FLOWER POWER!

Here the spotlight is thrown on a handful of sun-loving native herbaceous plants that large–winged butterflies such as the monarch and swallowtails have been observed to frequent. The bloom times are varied, beginning in early summer and ending in fall, when late-season nectar is crucial for migrating butterflies. These lovely plants will naturally support smaller butterflies, native bees and insects, as well as other animals throughout the food web. If the plant is a known Lepidoptera (butterfly and moth) caterpillar host, that information from Doug Tallamy’s research is included as well. Remember to choose native plant species that occur naturally in your area to keep wild areas functioning. Happy butterfly watching! Continue reading

Rat Poison Kills A Hell of a Lot More Than Just Rodents

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The dead mouse.

I inspected the tiny creature closely. It must have died recently, its brown and white furred body still soft and supple. Was it an outdoor cat that killed it? It certainly could have been. Free roaming cats have left quite a number of birds and small mammals for me over the years. But there didn’t appear to be any signs of trauma; no puncture wound and no blood. Hmmm. I dismissed the thought that this animal was poisoned—surely my immediate neighbors know that rat bait is a wretched solution? I left the mouse where it was, figuring it could be food for some other critter. Unfortunately, this was a mistake.

The Big Lie

It turns out a neighbor did have a rodent bait box on his property. He explained that he had mice entering his house and insects that needed controlling which prompted him to hire a pest control company. When I mentioned the effects of poisoned rodents on our foxes and other wildlife, my neighbor, who equally enjoys our wildlife, insisted the bait used wasn’t poisonous—the exterminator told him so. Hmmm?! Evidently some pesticide companies tell customers only what they want to hear, no matter how big the lie.

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A rodent bait box stationed outside a nearby Chipotle. Little thought is given to the other animals that live in this mixed-use development.

Second-Generation Killers cause Secondary Victims

Today’s most widely used rat poisons are second-generation anticoagulants: highly toxic not only to the rodents that directly consume the bait but also to the non-target animals that eat the contaminated rodents.

Although the EPA has prohibited the sale of products containing brodifacoum, bromadiolone, difenacoum and difethialone directly to consumers, pest control companies and farmers are still allowed to use these second-gen anticoagulant rodenticides.

Like the first-generation of anticoagulants that preceded them, the “superwarfarins” prevent blood from clotting, induce internal bleeding and inflict a prolonged, painful death. However the newer poisons are many times more potent. “Second-generation anticoagulants,” the EPA explains, “are more likely than first-generation anticoagulants to be able to kill after a single night’s feeding. These compounds kill over a similar course of time but tend to remain in animal tissues longer than do first-generation ones.” This means that by the time the rodents die—five to seven days after consuming the bait—they can have up to 30-40 times the lethal dose in their bodies. Meanwhile, they stumble about and are easy prey for predators and pets.

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How many poisoned meals have our resident hawks had?

Collateral poisonings of carnivores and omnivores alike are widespread wherever bait boxes are being deployed. The affected wildlife are more likely to get hit by moving vehicles, crash into structures or be killed by other animals. These non-target animals are also more susceptible to disease and vermin. In California, most coyotes, bobcats and cougars that die from mange—a skin disease caused by parasitic mites—also test positive for rodenticide exposure.

Some Fast Facts:

  • Rodenticides are indiscriminate killers that attract and kill all kinds of animals, not just rats and mice.
  • Second-generation anticoagulants are persistent and bioaccumulative; they remain in the victim’s bloodstream and accumulate in the liver.
  • Non-target predators like foxes, coyotes, owls and hawks, and scavengers such as vultures, raccoons and opossums, suffer lethal and sub-lethal poisoning when they feed on poisoned rodents.
  • Where second-generation anticoagulants are used, entire food webs are contaminated.
  • By killing off the predators that would otherwise control rodents, anticoagulants actually generate rodent infestations.
  • In one Canadian study of dead raptors, nearly 100 percent of owls had at least one anticoagulant rodenticide in their livers.
  • The Centers For Disease Control receive about 15,000 calls per year from parents whose children have eaten rodenticides.

  • Cats and dogs are also harmed from eating poisoned rodents.

Continue reading

Did the Pachysandra Kill the Hickory Tree?

Me and the killer Pachysandra.

Me, my hickory and the Japanese spurge in hand.

by Joan Gottlieb.

In my yard there is a large bed of Japanese spurge (Pachysandra terminalis), a plant widely used in landscaping. This hardy evergreen ground cover spreads by rhizomes to create what some proponents consider a “dependable green carpet.” If allowed to escape, it will cover a large area with a Pachysandra monoculture. Since my bed is contained, I wasn’t worried about the spreading. Although a bed of native plants would surely provide better habitat, the Pachysandra seemed a relatively benign bit of greenery. Its removal was not my priority. Until recently…

Within this bed, surrounded by the Pachysandra, there’s a mature hickory tree that didn’t leaf out fully last summer. Each branch showed signs of stress with small, sparse leaves. Many branches had areas with no leaves at all. I consulted an arborist who had no explanation for the decline but suggested a fertilizer treatment be applied in the spring. Hmmm.

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A dense mat of roots.

Unpleasant Surprise

Over the winter, I began the long ignored task of Pachysandra removal, partly to allow inspection of the tree base, but also because it really was the right thing to do. The Japanese spurge was very easy to pull by hand from the soft, humus-rich soil. But what my pulling unveiled was a deep network of tangled roots that had buried the hickory’s root flare and smothered it with layers of moist debris.

Removing the evergreen Japanese spurge revealed rotting bark.

Rotting bark revealed.

Sadly, the entire circumference of the tree’s base was now spongy decaying bark – bark that would otherwise protect the tree itself.

I do not yet know if the tree can be saved. Did my negligence allow the Pachysandra to kill the hickory tree?

Information about the homicide suspect can be found through Pennsylvania DCNR: Invasive Plants in Pennsylvania.

A discussion of its use in landscaping is here, but I do not advise using Pachysandra terminalis at all.

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part II: Flowers & Nectar

This is Part II in a two-part series.

Photo by Jason Means/flickr/CC.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) pollination. Photo by Jason Means/flickr/CC.

Part I of How to Feed a Hummingbird: Insects & Protein revealed that 80 percent of a hummingbird’s diet is comprised of insects and spiders. Eighty percent! Knowing how crucial those often maligned arthropods are to our ruby-throated hummingbirds will hopefully inspire you to embrace the bugs and add a variety of native plants to your garden.

If you are at all curious about hummingbirds you’re probably assuming the missing 20 percent or so of their diet comes from nectar — and you’d be right. Let’s explore the flowering native plants our high-metabolic friends count on for a full-on sugar rush.

THE BIG THREE Wildflower Nectar Sources

Just like bees and butterflies and other pollinators, ruby-throated hummingbirds rely on a constant source of nectar from early spring into fall. Nectar is found in flowers adapted for hummingbirds: long and tubular with a typically pendulous and perchless form. These floral traits are perfect for long beaked, hovering hummers but not convenient for insects that cannot easily reach the hidden nectar. Another evolutionary adaption is the color red. Red is not seen by bees however it quickly signals keen-eyed migrating hummingbirds that a sugary treat awaits.

What combination of plants provides an overlapping progression of blooms? Potowmack Chapter President of the Virginia Native Plant Society, Alan Ford, names the following BIG THREE flowering natives as attracting and supporting our ruby-throats throughout their days in the Mid-Atlantic: Continue reading

How to Feed a Hummingbird Part I: Insects & Protein

Photo by Tibor Nagy, Flickr cc.

A male ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris). Photo by Tibor Nagy/flickr/CC.

This is Part I of a two-part series.

There’s high excitement on this lovely afternoon as a male ruby-throated hummingbird guzzles at our feeder. It’s my first sighting of this wee bird this year. “Oh, have I been waiting for you!” Last spring’s first long distance traveler made his fueling pit stop in our garden around this time so I was prepared for today’s little fella.

Shimmering green with the identifying ruby throat patch flashing in the sun, he perches for a long while, taking in the homemade sugary solution. “Drink up, my friend.” If there’s a repeat of the previous years’ pattern, this particular hummer will continue his journey north to other breeding grounds and a short time later two or sometimes three other hummingbirds will frequent our garden and make this area in Northern Virginia their summer home. Zooming, flitting, hovering and thoroughly delighting, our resident hummingbirds have become very special guests in our wildlife habitat.

So, what’s the secret to supporting these extraordinary creatures during their stay here in the Mid-Atlantic? It’s not simply hanging up a sugar-filled feeder. Continue reading

How to Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators and Other Important Wildlife

Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread viruses like Zika and Dengue.

Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that can spread viruses like Zika and Dengue. Photo courtesy USDA.

by Susan Gitlin.

Warm weather and mosquitoes will be here before you know it, leading many of us to look for ways to enjoy the outdoors without being pestered by those annoying little—and sometimes disease-bearing—biters.

There is a lot of information being disseminated by health organizations about health risks to humans from mosquito bites (see CDC links, below). But besides protecting ourselves from being targets, we need to work at eliminating mosquito habitat and controlling their numbers. There are a number of ways we can do this safely and effectively.

Because mosquitoes have no trouble flying from yard to yard, the best way to combat them is to work with our neighbors to collectively identify and implement opportunities to reduce mosquito populations. Below is a set of approaches that are suggested by entomologists, public health organizations, and agricultural extension programs.

1. Eliminate potential mosquito-breeding grounds. Mosquitoes can breed in any water that stagnates for just 2 or 3 days. Actions to remove potential mosquito habitat include:  

  • Unclogging gutters
  • Covering, turning over, or moving indoors any equipment, containers, or toys that might collect water
  • Straightening sagging tarps or other covers
  • Filling in areas under outdoor faucets or air conditioning drains
  • Repairing damaged screens on rain barrels
  • Removing English Ivy (The dense nature of ivy allows it to hold in pooled water where mosquitoes can breed, provides a humid area that mosquitoes like, and protects mosquitoes from pesticide sprays.)

2. For areas of uncovered water, like ponds or bird baths, consider these approaches: 

  • Changing the water regularly
  • Using Mosquito Dunks ® (deadly to mosquito, blackfly, and fungus gnat larvae, but harmless to other living things), or
  • Keeping the water moving (e.g., with a fountain)
Our bees need to be protected from pesticide spraying.

Our bees need to be protected from pesticide spraying.

3. Treat mosquitoes like foes, but treat bees and other beneficial insects like the friends they are! The pesticides used to kill mosquitoes also kill other invertebrates, including pollinators and other insects—insects on which birds feed and insects that eat mosquitoes. Mosquito-spraying companies typically use pesticides of a group of chemicals called pyrethroids, many of which are highly toxic to honeybees, fish, and small aquatic organisms.

4. If you spray pesticides or hire a company that provides such services, please consider taking the following precautions and/or asking the pesticide spraying company to do the same:  

  • Spray only in the early morning or early evening. Most pollinators are not out and about during these time periods.
  • Do not spray flowering plants. (One company that provides pesticide spraying services says that before spraying flowers they “shoo” away bees with bursts of air. It is doubtful that this truly protects bees, as the majority of native bees are less than ¼” long and therefore difficult to spot. Moreover, bees will return immediately to those flowers, either into the path of the spray or to the flowers, where there may be pesticide residue.)
  • Make sure that no spray enters your neighbors’ yards, and notify your neighbors before you spray so that they can take any desired or necessary precautions to protect any bees or other insects that they have in their yards.
  • Consider using nontoxic repellants in lieu of the toxic pesticides. Some mosquito-spraying companies offer such alternatives.
Many mosquito-spraying companies use Bifenthrin which is highly toxic to bees, fish and aquatic organisms. It is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

Many mosquito-spraying companies use Bifenthrin which is highly toxic to bees, fish and aquatic organisms. It is also considered a possible human carcinogen by the EPA.

5. If you use sprays, do so only when needed, and not on a preemptive basis. (Spraying on a predetermined schedule can waste pesticide product, and therefore money, and may also contribute to the development of pesticide-resistant mosquitoes.)

By taking these steps, we can work together as a community to fight this annoying pest while protecting our other precious environmental resources.

Useful websites:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
Westnile Prevention & Control
Avoid Mosquito Bites 

Help Control Mosquitoes that Spread Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika Viruses Fact Sheet

Mosquito Control—Environmental Protection Agency

Avoid Asian Tiger Mosquitoes—Maryland Department of Agriculture

Backyard Mosquito Management—Beyond Pesticides

Honeybee Love: Keeping Honeybees Safe While Using Pesticides

Mosquito Dunks ® Fact Sheet

Much thanks to Susan Gitlin for allowing me to post her article. How to Control Mosquitoes Without Killing Pollinators and Other Important Wildlife originally appeared on the Arlington Regional Master Naturalist site. Susan is a Virginia Master Naturalist and enthusiastic pollinator advocate.

Zika Virus Threat: Don’t Double Down on Trouble

Editorial by Miles Benson.

First responders to any Zika virus threat in this country had better be careful. Very careful.

The worst consequences of exposure to the disease itself are scary. But those fighting Zika should avoid tactics that risk piling on collateral damage. Elected officials charged with protecting public health and also those appointed to similar positions in the numerous local, state and federal agencies whose job it is to combat health emergencies on the ground should also recognize and try to limit an additional problem. That concern is whether, and how much, any new chemicals employed widely against Aedes aegypt, the mosquito that carries the virus, will add to the toxic chemical brew that has been building up in the environment over the past 50 years of agricultural and industrial commerce.

1940's nostalgia. A time when we were encouraged to spray neurotoxins indoors.  Actually, I think we still are. Photo: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 - 09/15/1945)

We’ve come a long way, baby? 1940’s nostalgia.
Photo: Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Domestic Operations Branch. Bureau of Special Services. (03/09/1943 – 09/15/1945)

The public currently is exposed to tens of thousands of chemicals deemed “safe” mainly by people making and selling them. A rising chorus of concern is being voiced by environmentalists who question the safety of these chemicals, particularly when they become mixed with other toxins the public encounters daily. Many fear that a half century of exposure to environmental contaminants is associated with neurological defects, including autism, memory loss, mood changes, disorientation, infertility and genetic anomalies throughout our population.

Horror Story

Today, Americans are watching a horror story unfolding across Central and South America where women infected by the Zika virus are giving birth to children with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, that is associated with incomplete brain development. While the public may expect that massive spraying of pesticides would prevent outbreaks here, the New York Times reported that the Aedes aegypti mosquito is “relatively impervious” to outdoor spraying. That might mean more reliable and perhaps more lethal chemical formulas will be deployed by manufacturers if Zika outbreaks here begin to occur and trigger public panic.

We live in a sea of uncertainty. Zika could spread to the continental U.S… or not.

In Florida, the Aedes aegypti mosquito has been around for several years and experts in and outside of government believe existing pesticide spraying practices, including what are called “adulticides,” pose no unreasonable major threat to public health. But a 2009 report by the state’s Coordinating Council on Mosquito Control, funded by the University of Florida, described in cautionary terms the trade-offs we may be facing: “Since it is currently impossible to predict the long-term consequences of human exposure to synthetic compounds, including mosquito control agents, a prudent strategy is for society to reduce all unnecessary chemical applications.”

CDC Zika Virus Prevention

CDC Help Control Mosquitoes that Spread Dengue, Chikungunya, and Zika Viruses Fact Sheet

CDC Mosquito Bite Prevention Fact Sheet

Mosquito Control without Pesticides!

Virginia ‘Rabbit Proof’ Native Plants

Precious pink wiggly nose, slender silken ears, a fuzzy snowball of a tail  — all wrapped up in a cuddly but voracious plant-chomping package. Ahhh, our Eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) are undeniably adorable but they can be destructive in gardens, continually reducing a plant of its foliage until it (the plant) runs out of energy and expires.

An Eastern cottontail nibbles grasses. Photo by Matthew Hunt/flickr/cc.

There aren’t any cottontails foraging in our garden currently — perhaps because we have a fox, a few hawks and a high number of domestic dogs and free-roaming cats in our neighborhood. Rabbits are certainly fair game to all sorts of predators. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries writes, “Cottontails have been referred to as the “protein pill” of the animal kingdom. They are perhaps the most heavily preyed upon game species in Virginia. In most years, 80% or more of adult cottontails are killed.”

I have seen the damage a few marauding cottontails can do so at the request of a client, who reluctantly surrendered his garden to the bunnies, I did some hopping around on the web and found that there’s very little information out there on native plants that rabbits find unpalatable. Our deer receive all the attention.

I then turned to the people who I could count on to garden with native plants: the Virginia Master Naturalists, Arlington Regional Chapter (or ARMN, my alma mater). “What non-woody plants do your bunnies ignore?” I asked. Their comments and observations were crossed referenced with the information I found online and the following document was generated. A checkmark indicates if the rabbit-rejecting plant info was found through the web, ARMN, or both.

Continue reading