Garden Word of the Day
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It’s a wonder I haven’t written about aloe vera before. It’s such a useful and easy plant to have around. It took the gift of an aloe plant from a dear friend that sparked this post. [Thank you, Sandy!]
Aloe vera (Aloe barbadensis miller) is the cousin of over 500 flowering succulent plants. It has been used medicinally for countless centuries. Cuts and burns heal much faster when gel from the aloe vera plant is applied, making it an excellent plant to have around the kitchen. Native to Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, and Madagascar, aloe vera thrives in hot, dry climates and on window sills.
Aloe vera description
Aloe vera plants have triangular, fleshy, often spiked leaves that grow from a central rosette. They vary in color from bright green to nearly gray and can be mottled or striped. The flowers are yellow to orangish-red and tubular. Oblong fruits contain many seeds. These perennial evergreens can hold their own in hot, dry landscapes without any help from homeowners.
Aloe vera as medicine
There are more claims about the medicinal uses for aloe vera than I have room to list. As is usually the case, most of those claims are false. While we would all love simple answers to common problems, life rarely works that way. Claims that sound too good to be true generally end up being false.
The compounds found in aloe vera provide conflicting results. For example, one compound found in aloe vera, alprogen, reduces inflammation and allergic responses, while another component, acemannan, does the opposite. In 2002 aloe vera sap was banned as an OTC laxative by the US FDA. However, reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services tell us that topical applications of aloe vera do provide the following benefits:
As for all the other claims, research is still ongoing. We will have to wait. While we wait, there’s no reason we can’t grow and enjoy these lovely burn treatments.
How to grow aloe vera
Aloe vera plants are easily grown from leaves taken from parent plants. Just pull off a leaf and stick it in moist soil. These plants take well to containers. Just be sure to allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Overwatering can kill an aloe vera. It can also attract fungus gnats. If you start seeing gnats, sprinkle crumbled mosquito dunk on top of the soil and water it in. The Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria found in these dunks kill fungus gnat larvae, along with mosquitoes.
Aside from the numerous false claims about what aloe vera can do, overwatering and poor drainage can result in several diseases, including aloe rust, anthracnose, bacterial soft rot, basal stem rot, fungal stem rot, leaf rot, and root rot. As always, aphids can turn up in your aloe plants.
Even though aloe vera can’t do all the things claimed in popular media, they are still attractive, useful, and easy plants. Every home should have one. And once you do, you can start taking leaves off and creating gifts for family and friends.
Papaya trees are some odd critters. Besides being delicious, they have three genders.
In a complex reproductive arrangement similar to avocados, papaya flowers can be male, female, or hermaphroditic. Male flowers only produce pollen. Female flowers always produce fruit, but it’s only edible if the flower was pollinated. Most commercially grown papayas are from hermaphroditic trees.
What’s in a name?
Also known as pawpaws, there’s more to papaya than the fruits seen in grocery stores. Those are tropical papayas. There are also mountain papayas and Eastern North American pawpaws. Each of these plants comes from a completely different family. Tropical and mountain papayas are distantly related to Brussels sprouts and they grow best in USDA Hardiness Zones 9–11. North American pawpaws are cousins to the cherimoya.
Let’s see what each has to offer the home gardener.
Tropical papayas (Carica papaya) originated in Mesoamerica and southern Florida. India now produces nearly half of the world’s papaya supply. These trees are tall (15 to 30 feet) and narrow, with the fruit growing in clusters just under the canopy. Fruits are initially green and then turn yellow or red, depending on the cultivar.
Mountain papayas (Vasconcellea pubescens, aka Carica pubescens) are native to the Andes. They love higher elevations. These evergreen shrubs rarely grow more than 15 feet tall, though they can reach twice that height. These shrubs grow so quickly that they are considered invasive in some areas. Fall armyworms can be a problem for mountain papayas.
Eastern North American papayas
Eastern North American pawpaws (Asimina triloba), also known as wild bananas, tolerate colder temperatures than their fruity cousins. They occur naturally in USDA Hardiness Zones 5–9. But you don’t see them in stores because they start to ferment as soon as they ripen.
These clonal understory trees produce fruits with a custard-like flavor said to be something like a tropical milkshake. The beautiful purple flowers are perfect, which means they are both male and female. They are imperfect because they stink. More on that in a minute. And you will need two trees to get a good harvest.
The fruit is a botanical berry and can become heavy enough to break branches, so supporting poles may be needed. The bark, leaves, and twigs of pawpaws contain natural insecticides (acetogenins) that keep most pests away. Fruit flies and whiteflies may still show up. Zebra swallowtail caterpillars love to feed on these trees, but this is generally not a problem for the trees or the caterpillars, and the toxins consumed provide natural protection against predators for the adult butterflies.
Caring for a papaya tree
Common diseases associated with papaya trees include anthracnose, black leafspot, papaya mosaic virus, phytophthora blight, and powdery mildew, along with the dreaded papaya ringspot virus.
Before you start working with a papaya tree, you need to know that the latex from unripe fruits can be extremely irritating. Many people learn the hard way that they are allergic. Sadly for those individuals, this latex is commonly used as a meat tenderizer.
Did you know that you can use papaya seeds as a pepper replacement? Now you know.
Apple proliferation might sound like a bumper crop of Granny Smiths, but it’s far more sinister than that. Sadly, I couldn’t find any images I could use.
Apple proliferation (AP) is a devastating plant disease that can result in crop losses of up to 80%. It is spread by apple proliferation phytoplasmas (Candidatus Phytoplasma mali). There are quarantines for this pest in Canada and the U.S. While AP mainly attacks apple trees, it also occurs on Asian and European pear, hazelnut, and plum trees, along with dahlias, hawthorns, magnolias, and roses.
What are phytoplasmas?
Phytoplasmas are a type of bacteria known as mollicutes. Mollicutes are unique in that they do not have cell walls. Instead, they have a multi-layered membrane. Phytoplasmas were discovered in 1967. Most phytoplasmas contain a single mysterious protein. Studying these 1 μm life forms has been difficult since no one has been able to grow them in a lab to date. For reference, the plastic wrap in your kitchen drawer is probably 10 μm thick.
How the disease spreads
Phloem-feeding insects such as cherry leafhoppers, planthoppers, and psyllids are responsible for spreading apple proliferation. AP can also spread through natural root grafting. Natural root grafting occurs when the roots of different trees end up pressed against each other. Over time, the vascular tissues of both root systems come into contact with each other and begin sharing nutrients. There is debate about whether or not this is a survival mechanism. We may explore that another time. For this discussion, those natural root grafts can spread disease.
Research has also demonstrated that infected trees emit unusually high amounts of a chemical that actively attracts psyllids, increasing the spread of disease to neighboring trees and shrubs.
Apple proliferation symptoms
Symptoms of apple proliferation change with the seasons because the phytoplasmas migrate within the tree. In the winter, they head south into the root system. As temperatures rise and the sap moves upward into twigs and leaves, so do the phytoplasmas.
Symptoms also vary depending on the species infected and how long the infection has been present. This condition may appear in only some branches. It may disappear altogether for a couple of years before returning. No one knows why, but it may be related to the fact that there are more and less virulent strains of this particular phytoplasma.
The most common symptoms of apple proliferation are small tasteless fruits with longer stems, witches’ broom, leaf rosettes, enlarged leaf stipules, shortened petioles, and dwarfism. Other, less common symptoms include increased suckering around the tree base, chlorosis, and downward leaf cupping. Leaves may also be smaller than normal and brittle. In autumn, the leaves of infected apple trees will turn red rather than yellow.
There is no known cure for apple proliferation, so prevention is the only option. Infected trees must be removed and destroyed. Luckily, there are APP-resistant rootstocks, so look for that when tree shopping. And if apple proliferation is occurring in your region, do your best to control those psyllids and leafhoppers.
The adventure never ends.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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