The good, the bad and the ugly in the plant world

The good:

Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is one of the first trees to flower in the spring, producing a very beautiful white bloom usually during the first or second week of April. This small to medium sized tree is often found in upland forests that are dominated by the oaks and hickories.

There are numerous species of serviceberry, but the Downey Serviceberry is the species native to Frederick County. There are a number of cultivars present as well; serviceberry is a very common ornamental, appropriate for planting in small areas. The leaves of the two are somewhat similar also, but the veins are much more prominent on the beech compared to serviceberry. This tree produces a reddish berry in June that is edible, somewhat tart and can be used in pies — if you can collect them before the birds do. Serviceberry has many names and is steeped in folklore. The blooming of the “service” berry signaled an end to winter so that traveling ministers could reach remote communities to perform weddings or funerals. Another possible reason for the name was that the blooming of the tree corresponded to the thawing of the earth so that those who died over winter could be buried.

Amelanchier is also known as shadbush, because the tree’s bloom corresponds with shad fish runs up the river. Another common name of this young tree is June berry since the fruit ripens on the tree in June. For such a small tree the serviceberry sure has generated a lot of stories.

The bad:

Poison Hemlock. This is a plant with a rap sheet.

An invasive plant found in Frederick County is poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). Many of these plants are now in bloom along roadsides and streams. Dark green with leaves looking something like ragweed, it has clusters of white flowers and grows 5 to 8 feet tall. Poison hemlock is not to be confused with native hemlock.

Native to the European, West Asian, North African areas, its reputation is established in history for the hemlock tea that poisoned Socrates in ancient Greece. In ancient Greece, hemlock tea was commonly used to put to death condemned prisoners.

Socrates was arrested for political reasons and condemned to death by a tyrant in power in Athens in 399 BC. Plato documented the death of his teacher, describing loss of sensation and paralysis as the poison took hold. The plant contains a toxic alkaloid called coniine, a neurotoxin that affects the central nervous system. The leaves and seeds are poisonous to humans and mammals, including livestock. It is a good idea to remove the plant where it can be foraged by animals.

The ugly:

Multiflora rose overtaking an evergreen.

This plant is in bloom now in our area. Multiflora rose was brought to the U.S. from Japan in 1866 to serve as rootstock for ornamental roses. It was promoted in the 1930s as a living fence for livestock and has also been planted on highway medians. It can grow to 15 feet with long arching canes that root when in contact with the ground.

In time one rose develops into a dense thicket. Now it is recognized primarily for its invasive properties: it spreads along streams, in open pastures and open woods, taking over native species. Multiflora rose seeds are also spread by the birds and mammals that eat them; the seed can remain viable in the soil for 20 years. The distinguishing feature of this rose is the fringed stipule at the base of each leaf; ornamental roses do not have these.

Article by Ginny Brace, FCFCDB member

Nature Notes for 6/7/2015