Ode to a Sargent Crabapple Weed

Northern Short-tailed Shrew from US NPS
What does a short-tailed shrew have to do with a crabapple? (Image via Wikipedia)

Weeds are everywhere, so they are often overlooked. Most of us would think of dandelions or anything else growing in the grass as a weed, or point to any of the plants along the roadside as weeds. Our definition of a weed here at Wildeherb is:

A weed: any plant that is growing in the “wrong” place.

As our high school horticulture teacher taught us, a rose bush could be considered a weed if it was growing in the wrong place.

When a plant is identified as a weed, someone will pull it out, mow it down, or heaven forbid, spray it with chemicals to kill it. If everyone would spend less energy on all of the above, imagine the time and expense we all could save.

Weeds are kind of like cockroaches. They’ve been on this Green Earth long before humankind ever made the first fire to keep warm, and they’ll be here long after 2012. At least consider other options before polluting the Earth with nasty chemicals because your lawn or flower bed isn’t quite uniform. Being uniform isn’t very natural, and in my humble opinion, it looks pretty fake.

Major Pet Peave: Watching road crews spray chemicals at the base of road signs or seeing the dead brown mass of plants afterward! Isn’t there a better solution? Right away, I’d vote for fewer signs. How about putting down some stone or mulch that wouldn’t interfere with mowing? Why not plant a ground cover that won’t grow as tall as the other weeds that need to be mowed? With millions of miles of roads in the U.S.A. this is a problem of immense proportions looking for a green solution. We need to find better, healthier alternatives to the way we do things! <Rant over…back to my own weed “problems”.>

Just a couple weeks ago I chopped down two trees that I had planted about six years ago. They were pretty Sargent Crabapple trees, but they were in the wrong place. Hence, these weeds were removed.

Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard.
Sargent Crabapple flowering in the backyard. Photo taken 3 May 2011.

We’re surrounded by the forest, so we really didn’t need more trees filling in the most sunny places we have. The little foot tall saplings were planted there until I found the right place to move them. The trees were beautiful this Spring when blooming, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to keep them. They were taking up more sunny real estate than five blueberry bushes!

I thought about digging them up for a friend who admired the sprawling crabapples, but that seemed like waaaay too much work. Besides, she could get her own set of ten trees just by signing up for the Arbor Day Foundation. At $1 per tree it’s a deal that can’t be beat.

The Sargent Crabapple, Malus sargentii, grows wider than it does tall. These “little” trees had most branches less than an inch in diameter, so I used a pair of loppers to tackle the job. Each tree had a spread of 10-12 feet. They took up too much space in the sunny spot, so they had to go. If the root ball had spread out like the limbs did, we could have had a fish pond if I bothered to dig them up instead of cutting them down. Too late!

Today, there are cabbages growing adjacent to where the crabapples stood. Moss roses or portulaca adorn the area, too.

The dog was helping me in this project, so he had to sniff and dig around the area. He was relentless and obviously after something. No matter what I said or did that dog wouldn’t quit, so I knew somebody was hiding in there. He dug out and killed a Shorttail Shrew, Blarina brevicauda, see photo above.

After the tress were cut and I raked the area of sticks and leaf debris, I could smell urine, like that of a mouse nest. If there were other shrews in that place they will probably go elsewhere without the shade of the trees. If not, the cabbage will be ok because these little mammals eat insects and invertebrates, not plants.

A certain visitor might miss the trees though. One day a couple weeks ago I saw what I first thought to be a large stick lodged in the middle of a tree. It had been windy, but I didn’t think it was that windy to have thrown a stick that far from the big oaks at the edge of the woods. When I recognized that the stick was now pointing up instead of down, I realized it was not a stick.

That stick just moved!
That stick just moved! Photo taken 23 May 2011.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal.
It's a black rat snake! Perhaps it was searching for a shrew-meal. Photo taken 23 May 2011.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple.
Tiny yellow flowers at the branch tips of Sargent Crabapple. Photo taken 3 May 2011.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the flowering Sargent Crabapple trees.
A doe and young buck (on right) graze the long grass and weeds behind the Sargent Crabapple trees that were still flowering. Photo taken in the afternoon from the deck on 14 May 2011.

Leaves develop after the crabapple flowers. Its blooming period is about two weeks long. The leaves are small and cute. They occur in triplets with lobed edges and make a beautiful display in the fall.

Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of sargent crabapple trees.
Beautiful reds, oranges and purples in the autumn foliage of Sargent Crabapple trees. Photo taken 15 October 2010.

In a way it’s kind of sad to see the trees gone now, but I am looking forward to our fall cabbage crop. If you are looking for a small tree or a big shrub to fill in an area, you might want to give the Sargent Crabapple a try. It’s a pretty tree of a manageable size that gives rise to dainty flowers in the spring and colorful fall foliage. Join the Arbor Day Foundation for the cheapest way to get TEN flowering trees for only $10.

Northern Ringneck Snake on Rocky Hillside

A Diadophis punctatus edwardsii on Goat Island...
Image via Wikipedia

On a hike along a mountain ridge we were crossing some hilly terrain as the trail followed a little valley between two large hills. It’s wooded and rocky and the valley has a little creek running through it. The day was warm, but windy.

I saw some slate rock and said to myself to turn over that piece. There might be a salamander under there. Earlier in the week I had seen a couple of lead-backed salamanders under tree bark that was on the ground, so it was fresh in my mind to look for others. Then, just before I turned over the rock I thought – Hey, watch out! There might be something under there! I turned over this brick-sized piece of slate and flipped it back pretty quickly. Instead of a salamander there layed a small black snake all coiled up!

It wasn’t coiled up to strike out, but was probably just laying there resting when some huge creature disturbed it by lifting the roof over its head. Ringnecks apparently do most of their hunting at night so that’s when they will be on the prowl. During the day they will hide among and under rocks and tree bark.

The ringneck snake in Pennsylvania is the Northern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus edwardsi. It is the only ringneck snake in the Mid-Atlantic, Appalachian and Northeastern United States. It is a sub-species that is related to the Southern Ringneck Snake, Diadophis punctatus punctatus, that can be found in the Southeastern United States. The southern ringneck has a reddish ring around its neck and its underside is redder than the yellow belly of the northern ringneck.

Ringnecks are plain, dark snakes with a light-colored collar or ring around the neck. They only get 10-15 inches long and you probably have to turn over a rock or log to find one. This one was found under a slate rock in a rocky, wooded hillside near a spring-fed stream. A couple years ago we saw a ringneck that was lying among large pieces of bark that had been stripped off logs for firewood. It made itself visible only when pieces of bark were moved and its hiding place disturbed.

If you’re adventurous enough to turn over logs looking for salamanders, use a stick or a gloved hand. At the very least watch where your fingers and feet are because you could easily uncover a nasty snake instead of a sleepy one.

To find out more aoubt our legless freinds and other reptiles, check out Peterson’s Reptile Field Guide.