Buttercups Are Creating Yellow Landscapes

Buttercups Are Creating Yellow Landscapes

By Steve Roark

Volunteer Interpreter for Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Driving down the road you may enjoy seeing pasture and hay fields full of lovely yellow flowers, which are buttercups.  While I agree they create an attractive scene, they are a wolf in sheep’s clothing in that they are toxic if eaten by livestock and compete with the grass for nutrients, sun and other resources.

Buttercups are easy to identify with their cup shaped, 5-petaled flowers that are lustrous because of a layer of reflective cells that make them look shiny. Their bloom period is mid-April to May, but some may bloom on into summer.  There are many species of buttercup worldwide, but the two most often seen in fields are hairy and bulbous buttercup. They started out along roadsides but their propensity to produce heavy seed crops have allowed them to spread into grass fields and they are particularly widespread this year.

Healthy well managed grass is lush enough that it can generally fend off buttercup Buttercup fieldinfestations by keeping the ground well shaded. But overgrazing and under fertilizing fields can create thin areas where buttercups can get a toe hold and begin to spread. Farmers must often resort to using a broad leaf  herbicide to eradicate the weed.


Cows and other livestock are pretty savvy when it comes to eating and will avoid eating buttercup because it has a bitter taste, and If you look close you will note that cows graze heavily on grass right up to it  but not eat it.  However, if grass is in short supply from drought or overgrazing, livestock may resort to consuming the plant. If they eat a high enough dose, livestock will shortly show digestive distress and drool heavily, and may also have diarrhea and bloody urine. Horses seem to be particularly sensitive to buttercup toxicity.

Some folklore about buttercups include a belief that the rich yellow color of butter originates from cows eating buttercups. And there was a children’s game where a buttercup is held under your chin, and if it reflects a yellow color, then you are fond of butter (I heard this for dandelion as well). While buttercup is also toxic to humans, there is some folk medicine lore purporting it as a treatment for rheumatism.


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When Hand Washing First Became a Big Deal

When Hand Washing First Became a Big Deal

By Steve Roark

Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Hand washing has certainly come to the forefront these days, and rightfully so.  The experts say frequent and thorough hand washing is the most important thing you can do for defense against Covid-19. And it’s been an important health action for many decades, but this hasn’t always been the case.  For thousands of years people were getting sick or dying from contamination spread by unclean hands, but no one knew anything about bacteria or viruses and such. The first glimmer that clean hands were a big deal occurred in 1847 in an unusual manner.

In 1844 a young Hungarian named Ignaz Semmelweis wished to become a medical doctor and wanted the best schooling available at the time, which was a teaching hospital in Vienna, Italy. The professors running it were considered the best in the world on medical lore.  Semmelweis found that he liked obstetrics and became very involved with delivering babies. But it being a teaching hospital all the student doctors were conducting autopsies almost daily to learn more about the body and its internal parts and function. And so a daily routine for Semmelweis was to do autopsies in the morning and deliver babies in the afternoon. But something was going on that disturbed him greatly: a high percentage of mothers, perfectly healthy young women, were dying shortly after giving birth from Puerpera fever, a sickness know for millennia. It’s a nasty way to die, involving a very high fever that leads to convulsions, hallucinations, accumulation of fluids, and ultimately death.

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 It distressed Semmelweis greatly to watch so many women suffer, and so using the scientific method set out to try and figure out why the high death count. He studied hospital records and ran across another disturbing and important fact. There were two delivery wards in the hospital, one handled by the young doctor students, the other by local midwives. The records showed that on average 600 to 800 mothers died each year in the doctor manned ward, while the midwives lost around 60.  This was huge, so Semmelweis focused in on differences between the two wards. At first, he couldn’t find any, but one day a student doing an autopsy on a body accidently cut his overseeing professor, and the professor rapidly came down with the Puerpera fever and died. The lightbulb went off and Semmelweis saw a connection between student doctors having their hands inside a cadaver and then turning around and using those same hands to deliver babies. Those hands were apparently transferring something from the dead body to the mother, which Semmelweis called cadaver particles (this is pre-microbiology remember).

Semmelweis then set out figuring out how to stop the movement of his cadaver particles to the birth ward and settled on a simple mixture of bleach and water. He convinced all the doctors to scrub their hands with the bleach solution before going in to deliver babies. As a result, deaths of new mothers from went to almost zero. Unfortunately Semmelweis, a young upstart doctor, was not able to convince the highly learned and respected professors running the hospital on the importance of hand washing, and so the practice was not really taken up until Louie Pasteur came along a few years later and enlightened the world on microscopic pathogens and the germ theory of disease spread.

So here we are 175 years later still benefiting from these early science pioneers. Your hands are big time transporters of pathogens, so the simple act of thorough hand washing with plenty of soap breaks this transportation cycle. And think about this: good hand washing with soap doesn’t just rub off the coronavirus. It has protective oily membrane that soap breaks down, so you are literally bursting them open and they can no longer harm to you or anyone else.  In warfare the objective is to kill the enemy, so pick up your soapy firearm and get to it.  This article is based on a radio program called Every Day is Ignaz Semmelweis Day, produced by Radiolab. If you’re into podcasts check it out.

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Utility Lines Versus Trees

Utility Lines Versus Trees

By Steve Roark

Utility Services are what makes our homes comfortable, providing electricity, water, sewage disposal, etc.  It’s easy to forget that these services are provided through wires and pipes that are overhead or below ground.  When trees are planted near these lines there could be trouble in the future, so think before you plant.  Here are some things to consider.

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Overhead lines:  Trees look so small when you buy them that you can’t imagine them growing really big.  But if you plant tall growing trees under or near overhead lines, they will ultimately have to be pruned regularly to provide clearance for the wires. This often causes the tree to have an unnatural appearance, plus continual pruning puts a lot of stress and wounding on the tree that can lead to decay, insect, or disease problems.  Even worse, most utility and tree trimming companies simply top the tree because it’s a fast and simple limb removal technique. Tree topping is one of the worse things you can do to a tree, creating a lot of stress and ultimately shortening the tree’s life.  So research the growing habits of your tree before you buy and select one that will fit the space it is planted in.

Underground lines:  These are easily overlooked and need to be located before you plant.   Accidentally digging into a utility line could cause personal injury or a costly service interruption.  Believe me, I’ve done this twice.  Never assume the lines are deeper than you’re digging.  Also tree roots extend far beyond the branch spread above ground.  Tree roots and underground lines can often coexist, but if the tree is near a line that must be dug up for repair, its roots could be badly damaged.  Sewerage drain fields and tree roots are a bad combination; so don’t plant trees within 25’ of them.

Things to look for when selecting trees is average height and crown spread at maturity, which is normally found on the nursery label.  If not, a little internet research will help you figure it out.   This will give you something to measure out to see if it will fit the site you have in mind.  There are lots of choices, so you should be able to find a tree that will work.  A little research now can save a lot of aggravation later, so take the time.

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Transplanting Trees Requires a Game Plan

Transplanting Trees Requires a Game Plan

By: Steve Roark

There are occasions when you need to move a tree or shrub from one place to another, or perhaps you want to try your hand at moving a tree from the wild to your landscape. Successful transplanting requires planning, patience, and work.

The challenge in transplanting trees and shrubs is to preserve as much of the root system as possible.  Small plants and seedlings can usually be moved with descent success.  Larger specimens with wide spreading root systems requires more planning.  For these you need to force the plant to grow more roots closer to the tree trunk so they can be included when you dug it up.  Root pruning does this.

Root pruning is done while the tree is dormant, from late Fall to early spring.  The simplest way to root prune is to sharpen a flat bladed shovel and make cuts into the soil around the tree. An especially good shovel for this project is a long narrow one called a transplanting spade. Root pruning should be done at the same distance from the plant as you intend to dig up the root ball a year later.

The rule of thumb is to go out from the trunk one foot for each inch of trunk diameter (smaller plants are definitely easier).  The severed outside roots will die, and the shortened inner roots will start new roots closer to the tree.  The tree can be dug up one year after root pruning. Before digging the tree, prune back the top growth by at least one third.  This will help reduce the workload of the reduced root system.  Be ruthless but try to keep the plant attractive looking.tree transplant.jpg

Digging up the tree is also done during the dormant season when the ground is not overly wet or frozen.  Start well out from where you want to form the root ball and work your way in carefully.  Leave as much soil on the roots and possible.  At the bottom of the tree you may run into a large taproot.  Its function is mostly support, so don’t be afraid to cut it, just take as much of it as you can.

Once the root ball is dug, wrap it in burlap to keep it together.  Move the plant to its new site and plant it as soon as possible, keeping the root ball moist. Dig a hole large enough so that the root ball fits comfortably.  When planting, the shrub should be placed at the same level it was before it was moved.  Fill the hole with dry soil and water well when finished.

If the tree is tall you should support it with some form of staking.  It takes a full growing season for the plant to become reasonably settled. During that time it should watered often, and mulching will help keep the soil moist.  Don’t fertilize the tree the first year.


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Looking at Lichens

Looking at Lichens

By: Steve Roark

The above high rainfall we’ve had past couple of years seems to have caused a boost in lichens. Lichens are those flat light green blotches or hair-like tufts you see growing on tree bark and rocks.  Like all life on Earth, lichens have found a niche where they can grow without much competition. Most older trees in our area have at least a small colony growing somewhere.

There are several lichen species in our area, the most common type being Parmelia.  This is the one that looks like flat, crinkled splotches of green or pale blue.  Another common one is Old-Mans’ Beard, which hangs down in small tufts of branching, pale green fibers.  There may be small discs present that are fruiting bodies which produce spores.  A more colorful Lichen variety at least in the Spring is British Soldiers, which grows on the ground or dead wood.  It has a crusted base with small, erect hollow tubes that are capped with bright red knobs that are the fruiting bodies, which look like the red caps that British soldiers wore during the Revolutionary War.  A lichen found in the mountains on bluffs and large boulders is Rock Tripe.  When moist, this one grows in large brown sheets that are leathery and attached by a stout cord.  When dry it curls up and turns black.  There are other rock lichen species that come in a wide variety of bright colors.

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Lichens are a biological oddity in that they are both plant (algae) and animal (fungus).  The relationship is called “mutualism” and each partner benefits from working together.  The algae produce food for itself and the fungus, and in return the fungus provides protection from adverse conditions such as drought.  Some botanists disagree and think the relationship is more a host-parasite relationship in which the fungus is a weak parasite of its algal host.  Either way, it makes lichen a unique life form.

Lichens have an important role of converting lifeless rock into soil that can then support other life.  They can literally grow on a rock, and have acidic properties that slowly break down stone and converting it over the eons to soil sized particles.  Humans have used lichens for food, medicine, and dyes.  They are a crucial food source for caribou in the extreme north, where conditions on the tundra are so harsh that only lichens can grow there.

I get asked now and then if lichen growing on the bark is harmful to the tree.  Most tree experts say the lichen does not harm the tree and merely using the trunk as a high-rise apartment to get away from the more highly populated ground. I have wondered if a high population of lichen that completely covers the bark might cause moisture retention that would soften the bark and perhaps cause mold, mildew, or bacteria issues. I haven’t found any scientific references to support this however, so my short answer is that unless you find them visually unappealing, just let them be.



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Arbor Day Tree Wisdom

Arbor Day Tree Wisdom

By: Steve Roark

Arbor Day is approaching for our local states (TN March 6, KY April 3, VA April 24), and it’s a worthy recognition of the importance of trees in our lives. Here in the mountains they are omnipresent, with every scenic vista tree laden. Every home is full of tree stuff, from bananas to the roof trusses, and every breathe we take has some tree air in it. What follows is some quotes and a little poetry spoken by wise people on the importance of trees. Tree sitting under.jpg

For in the true nature of things, if we rightly consider, every green tree is far more glorious than if it were made of gold and silver. MARTIN LUTHER

To the edge of the wood I am drawn, I am drawn.  SIDNEY LANIER

Under the trees!  Who but agrees, that there is magic in words such as these?  CHARLES CLAVERLY

In the country it is as if every tree said to me “Holy!  Holy!” Who can ever express the ecstasy of the woods?  BEETHOVEN

For the forest tree keeps in her heart secrets of days long gone.  MARY WEBB

He that plants trees loves others besides himself.  ENGLISH PROVERB

The forest smiles, and every sense and every heart is joy.   JAMES THOMPSON

One generation plants the trees, and another gets the shade” CHINESE PROVERB

Stand still. The trees ahead and bush beside you are not lost. EINSTEIN

What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?  E.M. FOSTER

I said to the almond tree,” Friend, speak to me of God,” and the almond tree blossomed. NIKOS KAZANTZAKIS

Trees are our lungs turned inside out and inhale our visible chilled breath. Our lungs are trees turned inside out and inhale their clear exhalations. BILL YAKE

The wonder is that we can see these trees and not wonder more. RALPH WALDO EMERSON

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Feel the Wild Side with Barred Owls

Feel the Wild Side with Barred Owls

By Steve Roark

The most common owl that I run across locally is the Barred Owl (Strix varia) but have only seen them a handful of times. But I know they visit my woods regularly by their easy to recognize 8 or 9 note call that is remembered by the phrase “who cooks for you, who cooks for you-all”.  When I hear the Barred or any owl call out, it gives me a shiver of wildness that is very satisfying.

The Barred Owl is easy to identify from other owls of our area.  It’s a chunky bodied brown and white bird that lacks the pointy ear tufts of the horned owl and is the only owl with brown eyes (everybody else has yellow ones). The name barred comes from the brown horizonal streaks on its head and upper chest.  The face is rather pale and flat, with dark rings encircling the eyes.Owl Barred.jpg

The Barred Owls preferred habitat is a mature forest with a clean understory to be able to hunt without dodging brush. Like all owls the Barred is a raptor, with mice and other rodents being a favorite prey.  They also feed on other small mammals like squirrel and voles, as well as birds, frogs, and salamanders. While they most often hunt at night, favoring dawn and dusk, they can be found hunting during daylight hours. Their hunting routine involves waiting on a perch for supper to show up, and then swooping down low for the kill, depending on keen hearing good night vision to locate the target prey. Their feathers are designed for quiet flight and added stealth.

Making more Barred Owls starts with a courtship of bobbing and bowing heads and raising wings at each together. Once the deed is done the female makes a nest in a hollow tree or perhaps an old hawk nest. She lays an average of 3 eggs and incubates them for a month.  The male brings food for her during this time and continues to do so after the young hatch. They grow rapidly and are ready for first flight in about 6 weeks. Prior to flying, the owlets are able to climb around on the tree by gripping the bark with their talons and bill, which is comical to see.

During the spring breeding season male turkeys are hyped up with hormones and edgy. If they aren’t gobbling on their own, hunters can make jakes “shock gobble” by mimicking a barred owl’s call, and thus figure out their location.

Surprisingly, the most serious predatory threat to Barred Owls is the Great Horned Owl, a slightly larger and more aggressive bird.  When the Horned Owls move into an area, the Barred move out. Owls are very effective at keeping rodent populations down, so having them around is cool.  They can be encouraged by setting up nesting boxes and plans for them are easy to find online or through your state wildlife agency.

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