Ethnobotany: the power of plants and people background image woven baskets with native fruits and nuts including walnuts

Plants have played a major role in human development for as long as people have inhabited the earth. Human interaction with plants has been and continues to be a complex relationship. Many species have provided critical resources for sustaining life, while others threaten human harm if encountered or used without caution. The scientific field of ethnobotany studies how plants have influenced cultures around the world.

corded electric chainsaw

This article is set to be posted on Black Friday, or soon thereafter. For many Americans, we will be nursing indigestion from the copious amounts of food we have just eaten or dealing with the madness of Black Friday. As the demolition derby of shopping carts commences, you may be seeing all types of Black Friday deals on outdoor power tools of both gas and electric versions. 

Why are there bugs in my firewood? Identifying and managing firewood insects. A stack of firewood on the ground covered in a dusting of snow.

With the arrival of winter-like weather, many of us will be firing up the fireplace. When bringing wood inside for the fire, we can sometimes bring some unexpected hitchhikers. Many insects and other critters will use firewood (or wood in general) as a food source or a place to overwinter. Fortunately, for the most part, they pose little to no threat to us or our homes.

Massive fruit, myths, and mastodons: the Osage orange fruit of Osage orange in metal bucket

While traveling through the Midwest on leaf peeping adventures, modern day explorers may find a rather nondescript tree with unique, distinct fruit. A medium-sized tree adorned with large, round, chartreuse colored fruit can be easily identified as Maclura pomifera, or Osage orange. Although ordinary in appearance for most of the year, and not often planted today, this species has an extraordinary tale to tell.

Tea leaves spilling out of a tea cup

Grow your own tea

Did you know, you can grow the most popular drink in the world right here in Illinois? If you’re wondering how to harvest Pepsi or Coke from a tree, I’m sorry, you have the wrong drink. Second to water, tea reigns supreme as the world's favorite drink, and it has been for centuries.

What praying mantid have I found? Identifying praying mantids in Illinois. Closeup photo of a female Carolina mantid on a tree

Most people are familiar with praying mantids. These large predatory insects are a common site in the fall, and we often encounter their egg cases (ootheca) this time of year too. But did you know that three different species of praying mantids, the native Carolina mantid and the introduced Chinese and European mantids, can be found in Illinois?

While praying mantids are a welcome sight to some, others are concerned about the presence of the non-native species.

Autumn allergies: don’t blame goldenrod bee on yellow goldenrod bloom

As the growing season draws to an end, temperatures cool, woody plants prepare for dormancy, and we enjoy the last blooms of the season. For many of us, autumn also means sniffles and sneezes caused by seasonal allergies.

a thirteen-lined ground squirrel eating a seed

Gnawing Rodents and Landscape Shrubs

This past spring, I found myself at a friend’s house enjoying some barbeque on the back deck. He remarked on the issue they had with ground squirrels, burrowing all over their yard and landscape beds. Later in the year, a phone call came into the office of a landscaper confounded at what was happening to the trees and shrubs of a client’s yard. With an address that sounded familiar, I headed over to see if we could unravel this mystery.

Wheel bugs: good bugs with a painful bite. Adult wheel bug climbing from a yellow flower to a brown flower.

As we transition from summer to fall and the temperatures start cooling off, many of us will be spending more time outdoors. While enjoying our time outdoors, we often encounter various insets we may not have seen or noticed earlier in the growing season. One such insect is the unusual, and to some scary, looking wheel bug.

tiller

Growing up and working in my parent’s garden, I often remember the early spring when the tree buds are opening, the grass is greening up, and birds are singing. Suddenly, the roar of our massive Honda tiller broke through the serene spring day as it chewed and turned the earth and spewed exhaust into my parents' faces. At my young age, I didn’t have the mass to maneuver the behemoth machine. My mother assured me that turning the soil was better for the plants and kept the weeds down.

Insects on the move: dragonfly migration. An adult male common green darner flying.

As we approach fall, the days are getting shorter, and the temperatures are starting to cool off. As this happens, we can start seeing changes in the landscape. Many of our landscape plants are beginning to look a little ragged this time of year. While others, like goldenrod and asters, are in their full glory, and before we know it, trees and shrubs will start displaying their fall colors. While our plants are preparing themselves for winter, so are insects.

blackcapped chickadee with a caterpillar in it's mouth

Invite nature into your backyard

A parent fed up with their child’s persistent use of technology (internet, video games, tablet, you name it!) has decided to pull the plug on their sedentary habits. They strip the devices from their child’s hands and throw them outside and say “Go play!” The child looks around. Before them lays their entire suburban property comprised of lawn. Looking left and right they see their neighbor’s yard, more lawn.

Tips for moving houseplants indoors and overwinter care. A group of houseplants in pots sitting on a windowsill next to a window.

As we draw nearer to fall, it's time to start thinking about bringing houseplants back indoors for the winter. Many houseplants are native to tropical and subtropical climates and, while they may do great outdoors during the summer, cannot tolerate our cold temperatures. When the thermometer starts to get below 55 °F consistently, it's time to start bringing houseplants back indoors.

multiple monarch butterflies on a flower

A tale of two articles

Have you read some of the headlines lately concerning monarch butterflies? “Monarch Butterflies are Thriving!” “Monarch Butterflies are Endangered!” Both these headlines (or something similar) recently saturated newsfeeds for Americans. Considering these stories came out about two weeks apart, what is a person to think? Are monarch butterflies okay? Or are they in peril? As you may have gathered with headlines like this, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Managing spider mites in the garden and at home. Dahlia leaves covered in white webbing and red-orange spider mites.

Spider mites are a common pest on many types of plants. The most commonly encountered species is the twospotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae). While we often think of them attacking houseplants, particularly during the winter months, they can also be a problem on fruits, vegetables, and landscape plants, particularly during hot, dry weather.

A half-mowed lawn

The Big Three Mowing Tips

Each year I try to write a couple of articles about lawns. Each time I’ve written one of these, I have assumed you, the reader, care about your lawn. Turns out, there are a lot of people who have lawns, that don’t care about having a perfectly manicured turf. You just want to know enough to get by. After all, if it’s green then it’s good! This article is for you. Please note: this information is for cool-season lawns in Illinois.

Managing brown rot of peaches and other stone fruit in the garden. Peach fruit infected with brown rot. Fruit is covered in brown fuzzy mass.

Have you ever gone out to pick a peach only to find they have a large brown, mushy spot? Or perhaps you've brought some peaches home from the farmers' market only to have developed these same spots a few days later. The likely culprit is brown rot.

Flooded road

A local problem with widespread implications

What is a watershed? No matter where you live, you are in a watershed. All of Illinois, minus that sliver of land bordering Lake Michigan, is in the Mississippi River Watershed. But we can break down this massive watershed into more local streams and rivers. For instance, I grew up in Adams County, Illinois in the Mill Creek watershed. But watersheds can go even smaller. Perhaps one of the most local watersheds is the one over your head – the roof!

garden hose hanging on a spigot

A tale as old as time

I’ve been there. It is late fall and there is a hard freeze about to hit. A wise gardener once warned leaving a hose connected to a spigot during a hard freeze could lead to disaster! As water freezes it expands and any water trapped in the nozzle or spigot could expand to the point it bursts the solid metal or plastic construction of our treasured watering devices. Or worse! Freezing water could creep back into the house and burst a pipe indoors. Now we’re in big trouble!

truck hauling firewood

Many years ago, when emerald ash borer (EAB), had just arrived in northern Illinois, a colleague came across a flatbed trailer loaded with cut ash trees at a gas station. At that time Illinois counties confirmed with EAB had a quarantine that restricted moving ash wood outside of the county.

Managing squash vine borer in the garden. Colorful adult vine borer moth laying egg on squash stem

There are a variety of insects that will feed on squash. One of the more troublesome, and potentially devastating, is the squash vine borer. If you've grown squash and had a runner or two start wilting, there's a good chance you've had an encounter with squash vine borer.

a wilted tree branch

The summer of 2012 saw my first year as an Extension horticulture educator; it also was one of the driest years on record. Illinois saw massive shortages of rainfall that year- complete with water restrictions, loss of crops, and the demise of many ornamental landscapes. It was a summer that will be remembered. So, what are the best practices for getting your landscape plants through a drought?

Add some fireworks to your garden this Fourth of July. Pink flowers of nodding onion.

The Fourth of July holiday often includes parades, barbeques, and fireworks. Fireworks often fill the night sky with their colorful, albeit fleeting displays. The fireworks don’t have to be restricted to the Fourth, though. Whether it be their color, flower shape, or name, a number of plants can add some “fireworks” to your landscape to enjoy throughout the growing season.

a stand of trees forming a windbreak

Picking a tree for a windbreak is a big decision. A windbreak protects a home from the constant Illinois wind and blowing snow. With this important job, you want the trees that make up your windbreak to be strong and healthy for as long as possible.

To help in making that decision here are some popular trees used in windbreaks, but not all are considered ideal species up for the task of protecting your home from the elements.

Sparks in the night: Fireflies and tips on conserving them. Fireflies flashing at dusk in a field

One of the most exciting times of the year is the first appearance of small flashing yellow lights in the evenings. The arrival of fireflies or lightning bugs, depending on where you’re from, is a sure sign that summer has arrived. Because of their magical displays, fireflies are one of the few insects that people don’t actively try to kill. However, in many places, people are noticing fewer of them than in the past.

pond in wooded area

Having a scenic and healthy pond on your property takes a little bit of strategy and time but does not have to be overwhelming.  Spring is a good time to get ahead of growing vegetation or algae before it becomes a nuisance. Here are five tips to keep your pond healthy for fishing, swimming or other recreational activities:

A windbreak of evergreens

Hold on to your hats! It is windy here in Illinois. Wind can be destructive to our homes and landscapes, plus it can make being outside miserable. This is why many Illinoisians plant windbreaks around their homes to keep that biting wind from causing a drafty house, prevent drifting snow, and make being outside tolerable.

Unfortunately, not all goes as planned with windbreaks. Some of these problems can be avoided with proper planning and choosing plant species suited to your location. Following are some tips for windbreaks.

puddles in lawn

With all the rain we have received this spring, you may have noticed some areas in your lawn or fields where water ponds. The rate at which water moves through the soil profile is influenced by pore size in the soil.  When there are issues with poor drainage, soil has smaller pores and holds water for longer periods of time.

Soil Composition

Barrenwort leaves

Our landscapes are more than flowers and trees. Within a natural landscape, you will find multiple layers starting at the ground level and moving all the way up into the canopy of the trees. Wildlife utilizes these layers depending on their needs like nesting and breeding or gathering food. Plants will intermingle creating communities based on the conditions present such as shade, heavy clay soil, or a steep slope. Many of our home landscapes have unique site conditions.

Caring for spring-blooming bulbs after flowering. Red and yellow tulips with green foliage.

Our days are getting longer and warmer, and many gardens are awash in color from spring-blooming bulbs like daffodils and tulips. Unfortunately, the blooms will eventually fade, leaving many of us wondering what we can do to help make sure that they are ready to go again next year.

hills of soil in lawn

Now that we are spending more time outside, you might be noticing more and more mounds or ridges of soil popping up in your lawn. There are a few different animals that like to make these mounds, but often the main culprit is the mole.

arrows pointing every which way in the lawn

In all walks of life there are do’s and don’ts, but in my world of teaching horticulture a very rare word to use is “should.” I don’t like to use the word should. The word “should” tends to turn people off when receiving advice. When people call the Extension office, I make a conscious effort not to “should” all over them.

However, there are a few rare occasions I do use the term should when it comes to landscaping. Following are a few of those instances.

Helpful tips for creating a successful container garden. Pots with yellow, purple and pink flowers.

Do you have limited space to grow plants outdoors? Or maybe you have an area that could use some color but don’t have anywhere to put plants in the ground. Container gardens may be the solution to your problem.

Almost anything that you can grow in the garden can also be grown in a container. You just need to provide a few basic needs to your plants – a container, growing media, water, nutrients, and light. When growing plants in a container, here are some things to consider:

ruby throat hummingbird feeding from flower

Every year, hummingbirds travel from their winter homes in Central America and Mexico to North America. Hummingbirds are currently making their trip north with an expected arrival to west-central Illinois around April 10 to 20. Knowing when these birds will arrive can help us prepare for their much-awaited arrival.

hand holding lawn seed

Spring has arrived. Signaled by the swooping robins, honking geese, and bustling aisles in the garden centers. A popular spring task is selecting grass seed to help plump up the lawn for the growing season. But what cool-season grass seed should you pick for your yard?

Timing

The garden center shelves are bursting with bags of lawn seed, but is it the right time to sow that seed? It doesn’t hurt to overseed in the spring but there are a few reasons why to wait until late summer to early fall.

How to grow sunflowers at home - A great addition to any garden. Yellow sunflower and blue sky with white clouds.

Sunflowers (Helianthus annus) are a great addition to the home garden. Not only do they provide colorful flowers, but they can also be a potential food source for people and wildlife. With various shapes, sizes, and bloom colors, sunflowers are an easy plant to incorporate into your landscape.

pruners cutting dried hydrangeas

When pruning species that bloom on new wood such as panicle and smooth hydrangeas, you can remove as much as one-third to one-half of the total mass of the shrub. Hydrangeas are a popular blooming woody shrub that add attractive foliage and large, striking blossoms to landscapes. An important part to keeping those large blossoms is pruning. If hydrangeas don’t bloom for a season, it is likely due to not enough sun, an early frost, or incorrect pruning.

blue jay bird holding an acorn in its beak

Winter is a time for reflection. We often spend more time inside looking outside during the Illinois winter. Perhaps one of the most popular past times for many of us is watching the birds, which often stand in stark contrast to the still winter landscape. It is through this, that I learned something fascinating about the relationship between blue jays and oak trees.

What’s wrong with my seedlings? Troubleshooting seed starting problems. Leggy plants reaching for light.

For many of us, the desire to start gardening gets stronger and stronger as we near spring. Seed starting is a popular way to kick off the gardening season. Despite the advantages and relative ease, there are a few things that can go wrong when you start your own seeds.

people doing work in woods

Whether you are a lover of science, nature, data, or all the above; citizen science is a great way for people just like you to participate in scientific processes by collecting data through programs such as  the tracking of native butterfly populations, identifying native plant species and wildlife, monitoring your local streams and rivers, and so much more. Citizen science is a great opportunity to get outside to collect information from your local environment and share it with the scientific community.

baldfaced hornets entering and leaving their nest

Winter may be an odd time to write about an insect that we only see during the warmer months of the year. Yet, I can’t help but marvel at the architecture of the baldfaced hornet’s nest, which has been revealed in the canopy of trees after leaf drop. This winter I have seen several baldfaced hornet nests in trees. The nest itself is a beautiful oblong structure, that is papery and grayish but if inspected closely it has waves of dark and light colors washing over its surface.

Four things to consider when deciding what vegetables to grow. raised beds with lettuce and beets growing in them.

Garden and seed catalogs have been arriving for a while now. When flipping through catalogs, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with all the choices. Unfortunately, you probably don’t have room (or time) to grow everything you see, no matter how amazing it seems. So how should you go about choosing what vegetables to grow this year? 

seedlings

Have you ever planted seeds, and nothing sprouted? This could be the result of many different things such as soil moisture, seed viability, soil temperature, planting depth, and many other factors; however, not all seeds are ready to sprout as soon as they are planted in soil. Some seeds require a temperature change to trigger the end of a dormancy (or sleep) period; this process is called stratification.

Houseplant pests and how to manage them. Grouping of green houseplants in pots in a home

We often don’t think much about insect pests outside of the occasional pantry pest or accidental invader during the winter months. Despite it being the middle of winter, that doesn’t mean our plants won’t have insect problems. This is particularly true for houseplants, where insect pests often seem to arrive out of nowhere.

garden center plants

A new year provides the opportunity to try new plants in the garden. With all the plant and seed magazines coming in, it can be difficult to decide on what varieties to pick of your favorite vegetables and flowers. Fortunately, the All American Selections (AAS) is an independent non-profit organization that tests new varieties of plants and awards top performers for their superior performance. Below is some information about this year’s national award-winning varieties that might be of some assistance for your 2022 decisions.

Winter scene

“Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.”

This quote, which has likely made it onto posters in classrooms and by the coffee pot in the breakroom, is from philosopher William James.

A new year is often heralded with a renewed sense of hope. A restart! However, the older I get, I am seeing it more like an “I made it!” moment. Followed quickly by a “Now what?”

wheelbarrow of mulch with raised garden bed in background

When determining what mulch is best for your vegetable garden, you may encounter all manner of solutions online and suggestions from fellow gardeners. But what mulch works the best for growing big tasty veggies while keeping the weeds down. Following are some of the most common mulches used in the vegetable garden listing their pros, cons, and where they are best suited for use in the landscape.

young corn stalks in row

Depending on your soil test results; nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium are nutrients we supply year after year to our corn crop; however, there is a nutrient we might be overlooking when making fertilizer applications. Sulfur is considered the fourth most important nutrient needed by plants. With a reduction in sulfur emissions from industrial and transportation sources, atmospheric sulfur depositions are much lower which has led to an increase in sulfur deficient corn. It is important to adequately supply crops with sulfur to maintain a high yielding crop.