Clover isn’t a weed

White Dutch clover
White clover on my lawn

You know spring has arrived when the aisles of big-box stores are filled with sacks of grass seed, lawn fertilizers, and garden poisons. The suburban obsession with green lawns is not ancient; probably inspired by the manicured landscapes of grand estates in Britain and Europe. It fills the coffers of lawn-care companies. I read we have more acreage under lawns in America than farming.

The public is coming around very slowly to see the harm. Lawns are barren deserts for wildlife above and below ground. A lush sward requires pouring pollutants into the soil and hence runoff, as well as the air (from motor mowers). Nothing breaks a peaceful weekend in the garden more than a booming mower except a blasting leaf blower. And yet, homeowners are still in love with a green curbside view of their property. Moreover, local ordinances and home-owner associations sometimes impose penalties on those who neglect to give their lawns a regular short-back and sides. This is happening in the Land of the Free where people otherwise have a castle mentality toward their property.

I won’t preach the conversion of lawns to shrubbery and native plants because many “radicals” have already made the case. Besides, I still have beautiful green lawns, although they are undergoing a succession from grass to clover. Call clover shamrock if a glamorous Celtic name is more appealing.

Fescue browns under the hot summer sun, warm season grasses yellow in winter, and Zoysia enter hibernation. But white clover has the virtues of a perfect mantle. It is green all year-round and drought resistant. Fertilizers are redundant for a plant that improves soil fertility. Clover competes with weeds, resists plant diseases, and can be mowed or grown ankle-deep to make flowers that feed pollinators. Did you know clover is edible in a pinch? And it is a lucky plant that keeps children busy on their knees searching for a four-leafed clover. Lawns shouldn’t be defined by grass. Clover isn’t a weed since weeds are plants in the wrong place.

Urushiol Pain and Products

Chinese ancestor chair
After more than a century, lacquer has cured on this Chinese ancestor chair

A week after nightly creaming my face and arms with hydrocortisone I’m still itching. Each exposure makes the reaction worse next time. A few people, including our gardener, are lucky they don’t react to poison ivy, nor wildlife or pets protected by hair or feathers. Even after cautiously walking on a woodland path or weeding, the unwary can become victims simply by cuddling a canine companion who brushed against a vine.

Poison ivy is not strictly a poisonous plant although the allegation is rooted in the scientific literature as it belongs to the genus Toxicodendron, along with poison sumac and poison oak. The allergic irritant in its leaves, stem and root is urushiol, which presumably evolved to deter to grazing animals (and gardeners). I read that trace amounts exist in mango skins. Eek!

So potent is the oil that when microscopic droplets penetrate the skin, Langerhans cells recruit ‘armed’ T-lymphocytes to fight the invader. The process kills cells as collateral damage and causes blistering, swelling and a blazing red rash. As a slight consolation, my palms and soles never react because they have thicker layers of keratin.

Wakened at night by the urge to scratch, it’s hard to find a polite word for the irritant, but urushiol has a larger story. Once used in herbal remedies when plants were the basis of the pharmacopeia, it still finds a place in traditional Chinese medicine. Its anti-tumor properties encourage researchers to overcome insolubility in water to create a medication for testing in the body. I doubt they will find volunteers for a clinical trial !

Urushiol research is mostly based in Asia where it has long been used as a lacquer for furniture and other wood products. It is collected from lacquer trees, like tapping maple trees or rubber trees. The name of the tree in Japanese gave urushiol its name. Painted in thin layers, it oxidizes and polymerizes to a hard, stable coating.

If your arms become inflamed after resting on a table made in China, it wasn’t your mom’s scold that came back to haunt you from breaking domestic etiquette. The lacquer may not have cured completely.

Next Post: Wood Stork

Happy and Grubby in the Garden

Allotment in the Wirral, UK
Drone view of allotment in the Wirral, UK (Phil Kiel: Unsplash)

I suspect former neighbors laughed from behind half-drawn curtains: “There’s a weird gardener next door who toils in the midday sun.” But I didn’t care, wearing my green hat with pride and careless if anyone thinks I’m a throwback to rustic ancestors.

Most people had a vegetable plot before the Industrial Revolution sucked them into grey cities. In medieval times, the manor divvied out strips of land for serfs to cultivate. It wasn’t gardening for recreation. Each acre provided crops to feed a family member, mostly in grains and legumes, and no space for daffs and mums in hunger times.

After the collapse of feudalism and expansion of urban living, people lost their country gardens. The prosperity that later nourished expansion of suburbs provided smaller plots, mostly for recreation and never intended for subsistence. Victory Gardens were a brief exception, but after World War 2 the loam mostly returned to lawns and flower beds. Developers earned more profit from larger houses on smaller lots. Gardens mostly served as curbside appeal.

The retreat from gardening in the 1950s and 60s was like the withdrawal from music-making around the family piano in the parlor. People had more options than grubbing in the yard on weekends or after work, while TV and record-players replaced the playing of instruments at home. Although both accomplished amateurs, our parents never made music when we were growing up. We had no pressure to learn, and our fine piano formerly played by professionals at the BBC was given away. No one thought it odd because that was the fashion and ‘progressive.’

So many pianos became redundant that piano smashing contests were held at English village fetes. Instead of fingers playing melodies of Liszt and Chopin, sledgehammers rang down on busted springs and shattered keyboards. Years later, I noticed more children having music lessons and heard it was hard to find a cheap second-hand piano. Something counted as redundant in one era may become appreciated again in another, like antique chamber pots that also went under the hammer and now prized as dainty flowerpots or for fragrant pot-pourri.

Gardening has also become resurgent, driven by appetites to grow-your-own organic food and maybe encouraged during lockdown in the pandemic. But the smaller gardens boast timid ambitions that end at the neighbor’s fence, and people in city blocks have no green space to call their own. That’s a pity when the benefits of gardening for physical and mental health are appreciated more than ever.

Some people enjoy community gardens that exist in many countries, although the distribution is spotty and only benefits the neighborhood. In Britain they are called allotments. Each lot is rented from the council by a local resident in a relationship you might call an update on lord of the manor versus serf!

Unfortunately, 80% of allotments disappeared in the past century by turning green space into concrete and asphalt. The recent upsurge in demand for them is unsatisfied. Waiting lists crawl as occupiers cling to their space until death or a job move parts them.

Turf wars spring up when councils want to sell the land for a pet project or to developers. The ranks of protesters who proclaim rights to the bounty of open land and take the moral high ground for a locavore diet are (maybe) the first signs of a peasants rebellion since 1381.

Councils look to their supporters. Some citizens regard ragged rows of crops in allotments as eyesores and don’t understand gardeners passionately gossiping about their brassicas over cups of tea in tumbledown sheds. But society’s divisions can be healed and suspicions overcome through peace offerings. My neighbors never gave a strange look again after I offered fresh, home-grown vegetables and honey.

Next Post: Eastern Bluebird