Digginí In: A tour of Groundsel tree and grasshoppers

November 9, 2015

Itís hard to miss the silky white tufts that appear on the groundsel tree, each one almost floating against the backdrop of fallís clear blue skies.

"In late October, the female plant produces these fruits and their coverings," says Helen Hamilton, a Williamsburg, Va., resident who taught biology, chemistry and earth science for 30 years. She is co-author of "Wildflowers and Grasses of Virginiaís Coastal Plain."

"As the fall flowers fade, the silvery appearance of groundsel tree persists into winter. Earlier in the fall the male flowers were on another nearby plant ó small, yellowish and rounded, they are shriveled by the time the female flowers are forming fruits."

Scientifically known as Baccharis halimifolia, groundsel tree has many common names, "groundsel" referring to the cottony tufts on the female plant, she adds. You see the tree, nicknamed "saltbush" and "sea-myrtle," often growing along saltwater waterfronts and roads with heavy salt applications in winter. Itís also known as "silverling," which describes its small tree-like look.

A plant that thrives along coastal areas from Nova Scotia and along the eastern and southern regions in the United States, groundsel tree likes moist soil, including the edges of ponds, roadside ditches and old fields, making it a good garden plant if you have a wet spot, according to Hamilton.

Tolerant of drought, heat, and salt spray, groundsel tree forms the saltbush zone on the margin of marshes, along with marsh elder (Iva frutescens).

"Before fruiting, these two plants can be distinguished by their leaves," says Hamilton.

"Leaves on groundsel tree are alternate on the stem, wedge-shaped with a few coarse teeth. The leaves of marsh elder are opposite and lance-shaped with finer teeth along the edges. Marsh elder requires more water, and tends to be the first shrub to appear in marshes, while groundsel tree is usually on higher ground, with less moisture in the soil. The leaves of these plants do not change color, and often persist into winter. Both plants are members of the Aster family."

For gardeners with deer problems, groundsel tree can be used to form a barrier against deer ó they donít eat it because the foliage contains toxic substances they avoid, according to Hamilton. The plantís male flowers have rich nectar that attracts bees, wasps, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects looking for food in late summer.

Groundsel tree reproduces mostly by seed production and resprouts when clipped above ground. It likes full sun and is common along the Coastal Plain into Florida and Texas, she adds.

Amazing grasshoppers

Grasshoppers are amazing insects ó "grasshopping" as they move quickly about fields and gardens, using their legs as a catapult or wings, according to Hamilton.

"They can both jump and fly up to eight miles per hour, and eat their weight in food each day," she says.

Even though they are voracious eaters, donít confuse grasshoppers with locusts, advises Hamilton.

Researchers have said: "all locusts are grasshoppers, but not all grasshoppers are locusts." The swarming behavior occurs when food is scarce, and the insects gather around patches of vegetation.

Swarming, crop-damaging grasshoppers in the Americas are usually found in the western states, according to Hamilton. But in Florida, the American bird grasshopper (Schistocerca americana) damaged field crops, vegetables, ornamentals and trees. This species overwinters as an adult, and normally has two generations per year.

"Bird" grasshoppers, Schistocerca spp. are exceptionally strong fliers, which may explain the reference to birds in the common name. They are large, and like most grasshoppers, voracious feeders on all sorts of plant material, including flowers like you see on the native groundsel tree.

Adult grasshoppers feed as long as they can find leaves and grass. As winter nears, adults die after the female lays eggs in soil, leaving them in clusters with a protective covering. In spring, young emerge as nymphs, resembling the adult, but small and wingless, according to Hamilton. Five or six nymphal stages occur over summer until the adult is fully formed.

The insects are nutritional bird food, with high protein and fat content, and make great roasted snacks for people.

"Chocolate-covered, roasted grasshoppers were a favorite snack in high school biology classes," says Hamilton of her earlier teaching days.



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