Sidewalk Nature: Earth Day

Our kid is sick, I’m stuck at home, and it’s too cold and wet to sit in the yard. But, I have been able to get out for two neighborhood walks.
Here is my report for Earth Day:

Saw confirmation the Osage Orange tree we drive past every day is a boy. I’m still learning the gender spectrum of tree species: some are male, some are female, some are both. Some have “perfect” flowers with male and female bits, and some trees can surprise you with twigs that morph into one or the other. Osage Orange trees are dioecious: either male or female (usually), and now I know not to expect fruit from this particular specimen. These flowers are male:

Osage Orange (Maclura pomifera), male flowers

Hackberries are still in various staging of leafing. Look at the new, clean green and the zig-zag twig pattern. And see the smooth margins toward the stem? They look like Southern hackerry (Celtis laevigata).


And on another hackberry, we have nipple galls in the making. These are thanks to a hackberry psyllid who laid her eggs on the leaf. When teeny larvae nibble, leaf tissues respond with these hardened doughnuts: an “inny” shape. The “outy” shape is on the other side, not pictured here. Basically, the leaf builds a house for the psyllids. Inside, psyllids eat and grow and molt and then emerge as adults. It’s a sweet deal for the psyllids, and not harmful for the tree. (Here’s a quick description of the insect and lifecycle.)

fresh nipple galls

Rain on spider webs reminds me I’ve only been seeing spider webs since early April. This one is a cup-and-saucer web on a yew hedge. The yew is sending out fresh growth, but it already hogs a third of the width of the sidewalk, as it has done for the last two decades.


With all this rain, the lower corner of our Vacant Lot is a wetland. It drains toward the storm sewer no one realizes is also a stream: a bona fide tributary to Richland Creek. This lovely volunteer butterweed (Packera glabella) doesn’t mind wet feet at all. I see a bit of Canada goldenrod emerging, but the rest of the plants are all “disturbed area” exotics, like mouse’s ear chickweed, prickly lettuce, field madder, ground ivy, turf grass.


After the butterweed, I walked to an office building to see a fancy crossvine cultivar I remembered from last year. But on the way, I saw something better: a straight-species crossvine literally going wild on the property line. It has garlanded itself through at least five trash trees (privet, bush honeysuckle), but is situated so no one can really see it except the office workers who take cigarette breaks on the crappy concrete benches. Decor for the Smoke Pit!
I am thrilled no one’s cut it down so far. All vines are evil to people with weed-eaters, have you noticed? But crossvine is native, hummingbirds love it, the tendrils don’t damage mortar, and the leaves are evergreen.

Crossvine (Bignonia capreolata)

I was wrong when I said the cedar apples were at their peak a couple weeks ago. This one is bigger and juicier than ever, and there are dozens and dozens of smaller oddities on the same, small tree. Can’t help but love the pumpkin color and tentacular weirdness of these fruiting bodies. (Here’s my cedar apple post about the what and why.)

cedar apple in full “bloom”

And I was reminded today that Black Locust trees flower before dogwoods are done. I wish they’d take turns. One white tree at a time would pace the spring better, slow it a bit, offer consolation for when one white tree ends. But here they are: the extravagant, drooping clusters of Black Locust flowers. All the more extravagant because Black Locust is considered a trash tree here. Un-mowable interstate banks are full of them.
But, the blooms are beautiful and truly one of the best smells of all time. If the rain ever stops, the perfume will waft warm and sweet—especially at dusk—from our neighbor’s yard to ours.

Black Locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

I just said all weeds are evil to people with weed-eaters, and my next encounter shows why: poison ivy. “If it’s a vine, it might be poison ivy.” Well, this one really is.

Poison ivy (Rhus toxicodendron)

Poison ivy is native, insects use it, and birds eat the berries, but this particular poison ivy cannot stay on this hackberry tree on a busy sidewalk. The leaflets—still emerging from winter’s rusty buds—wave directly onto pedestrian traffic.
It’s not my tree, not my problem.
Or is it? My problem, I mean.
I don’t know the homeowners, but I doubt they’ve laid eyes on the tree in years. They’d have little reason to inspect the public side of their own privacy fence, and maybe they never take walks down the sidewalk?
So, I’m scheming a way to sever the vine and pull it free, without touching it . .

All winter I’ve been peeling strips of (invasive) English ivy off this tree, never realizing I was one mitten away from disaster.


I met many other plants and animals on my neighborhood Earth Day walks, but I leave you with the most ironic encounter: a truck with a tank of poison.
A truck labelled “Plant Health Care.”

“Plant Health Care?”

Why do we think we need chemicals on our yards, our gardens, our driveways, our houses? Whether this was herbicide or pesticide or fertilizer, it was wrong. On Earth Day or any day.

Please just say no to chemicals. They kill us.

If average homeowners can do just ONE thing to help wildlife (and ourselves), it is this:
“First, Do No Harm.”

If the idea of adding native plants is daunting, or the idea of converting a lawn to a more sustainable mosaic sounds impossible, then save those ideas for later.
For now, just stop adding to our problem.
Stop adding chemicals.

I watched from my window as the tank sprayed two yards for about an hour. But every day I see these trucks through the neighborhood. Every day I see homeowners with portable pump sprays aimed at porches, driveways, cracks, curbs. And every day I see more “lawn care” yard signs (“Do not walk while wet”), which mean more chemicals are rolling into our shared stormwater and soil and air, and more creatures are dying.

For more info:
Xerces Society (for Invertebrate Conservation) fact sheets
Four Principles to Help Bees and Butterflies
Habitat and Gardening info from Pollinator Friendly Alliance