The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance

Turn your back for a minute down here on the coast and you’re under attack. I’m not talking about the real estate developers, though you’ve got to keep an eye on them because they certainly have the wherewithal to trash the town. I’m talking about some other pests.

You see, I spent too much time this summer tending my roses – John F. Kennedy, Michelangelo, Yves St. Laurent, Queen Elizabeth, Rouge Royale, and a show-stopping creamy pink and yellow Peace rose. I achieved a stunning display, but at what cost?

While I was clipping and dusting and tea-bathing, I was under assault. While I scoured every drug and dollar store in the area for Epsom salts – a gardening tip gleaned from Miss Vicky, a downstate octogenarian with a penchant for roses and dumpster diving – they were amassing behind my back. I’m talking about wood bores and pokeweeds.

I was oblivious until I started hearing this crunching sound that I could only liken to celery chomping at a Bloody Mary brunch gone awry. Nothing was visible, but I could hear insects devouring one of my favorite trees from the inside out. Soon afterwards, wood shavings began to appear. You could actually see the little bastards pushing very fine shavings out of almost microscopic holes. Craziest thing I’ve ever seen.

The tree doctor’s diagnosis said “wood bores” and that the columnar White Pine could not be saved. The city issued a permit and said cut it down quick so the pests wouldn’t spread. Aye, aye: it took five queens with a twenty inch Log Master chain saw a mere twenty minutes to fell the twenty foot tree, cut it up, and dispose of it. I understand now how these developers clear-cut a lot in the blink of an eye.

The tree doctor never told me exactly what kind of boring beetle it was — long horned, round head, or flat head. All I know is that they hit the tree hard and fast. The doctor said boring beetles target trees under stress and last year’s drought might have been the trigger.

As if this wasn’t enough, pokeweeds threatened to take over my garden.

Phytolacca americana (aka the American Pokeweed) is a perennial plant native to eastern North America. It can grow up to ten feet, and is rather nondescript until this time of year when its thick stalk turns pink and dramatic hanging clusters of dark purple berries catch your eye. There’s a particularly nice specimen just off Poodle Beach on Prospect Street growing among the Bayberry bushes and the Goldenrod.

Pokeweed is both vilified as a nuisance with poisonous leaves and berries and celebrated as a native plant whose berries serve as an important food source for the American Robin, Eastern Bluebird, and Northern Cardinal. Most people don’t cultivate pokeweed in their gardens because once they get established they’re difficult to control. It has a thick white taproot that goes deep into the ground and then sends up new shoots. A single plant can produce thousands of seeds.

Personally, I enjoy a big pokeweed in my garden. It adds some drama and the berries look great in my fall flower arrangements. Beyond my fondness for the name, I like the folklore associated with it. For instance, the Algonquin Indians used the berries as a dye and the root to ease headaches. Many say the Declaration of Independence was written with ink made from pokeberries. Enthusiastic supporters of James K. Polk reportedly wore poke leaves during his 1845 presidential campaign.

Down South, young poke shoots and leaves are boiled and eaten as greens referred to as “poke sallet.” Some old timers swear its good for arthritis. It must be cooked properly to avoid gastrointestinal distress. It’s said to taste like asparagus or spinach and it pairs well with a homemade hollandaise sauce.

The problem with pokeweeds is that they decide where and when they’re going to colonize your yard and just when you think you’re free from the invaders, here come the reinforcements. Yes, the developer, I mean, the pokeweed requires a watchful eye, not a lazy eye, so it isn’t allowed to spread out of control.

Thomas Jefferson said the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. It applies as much to gardening as to politics. And from the look of things here, I’ll be hand writing my stories for quite awhile with pokeberry ink.


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