I have an interesting small tree on the wooded edge of my landscape. It is about 8 feet tall with fans of 2- to 3-inch oval leaves and has large sprays of small, off-white flowers above each cane. The spiny canes have concentrations of odd rings of sharp thorns where the leaf branches are attached – or were attached, because the lower branches seem to die away. Last year, I remember this plant had clusters of small purple berries after the flowers. Would you know what it is?
You gave me just enough pieces of the puzzle to take a pretty confident guess: Aralia spinosa. Its common name, Devil’s Walking Stick, might seem nefarious, but this tag simply draws attention to its abundance of nasty thorns all along the branches. For me, there is nothing evil about this shrub, which is actually native to the eastern United States. The clusters of flowers you mentioned are very popular with both bees and butterflies in the late summer, and the dark purple berries that follow are some of the best bird bait I have in my fall garden. It is deciduous, so after the leaves drop, the sharp spines on the gray wood radiate in the low winter sun, creating a beauty that, depending on your tastes, ranges from cool Goth to horticulturally haunting.
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Devil’s Walking Stick can stretch up over 20 feet, but I keep mine closer to earth by cutting the older, taller canes off at the ground and then giving them to friends as weird souvenirs from my garden. This shrub can easily spread from seed and root suckers, so you have to be vigilant to let such a prickly plant grow only where you want it to be, meaning away from busy garden areas frequented by exposed skin, expensive Polo shirts and panty hose.
Overun by slugs
You seem like the perfect guy to ask this question. This year, because it has been so wet, I have never seen so many slugs in my garden! I pick as many as I can find, and more keep coming. Have you tried saucers of beer to control slugs? If so, how well did it work?
By referring to me as the “perfect guy,” I’m assuming this means you think I am a gardener who might – just might, mind you – have occasional interactions with the bubbly beverage known as beer. Well, without going into any details, I will plead guilty. Besides using beer for what it is obviously intended, I have also tried shallow dishes of it in the garden to dispatch slugs (and snails). I have only had moderate success with it.
What I have been impressed with, however, is the new generation of slug baits that have been developed recently. Instead of the hazardous metaldehyde that was common in formulations years ago, many of today’s slug baits use iron phosphate as the active ingredient. While toxic to slugs, iron phosphate is much safer to use around children and pets, and it naturally breaks down to become nothing more than a mild fertilizer for plants.
A walk in the woods
I moved here from California last March, and this will be my first fall in North Carolina. I was wondering whether you ever take gardeners on organized tree identification trips in the forests.
You might check the events calendar on the Chapel Hill-based North Carolina Botanical Garden’s website: ncbg.unc.edu. I know they do walks centered around observations of William Bartram, the famous American naturalist who explored and wrote about the Southeast wilds in the late 1700s.
If you want to try a self-guided tour through local woods this autumn, think about picking up a copy of “Fall Color and Woodland Harvests” by Anne H. Lindsey and the late, great C. Ritchie Bell (UNC Press, 2007). It is an excellent reference for identifying plants in the beautiful autumn outback of the Southeast.
L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener Magazine. Send your garden questions, including the city where you garden, to: firstname.lastname@example.org.