Let’s Address a Christmas Myth

During the Christmas season, many of us will likely purchase a Euphorbia pulcherrima, more commonly called a Poinsettia.  They are a staple in many folks holiday tradition.   Along with that tradition goes the belief that Poinsettia’s are toxic and harmful if consumed.  Now, while  a handful of my mentor’s and professor’s had the strange predilection to taste plants they come across, this is not something I see as common practice.  So, I’m not entirely sure how it came about that people found the plants to be toxic, I can only tell you that (as many of you believe) it is a VERY COMMON belief.  But the real question, IS IT TRUE?

Let’s start with some history shall we?  The Euphorbia pulcherrima plant is native to Mexico and Central America.  It was initially brought to America by Joel Roberts Poinsett, who at the time was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.  Poinsett although an excellent statesman, was also an avid plantsman.  He would regularly wander the countryside in search of new varieties of plants and during one such jaunt in 1828 he found this amazing little red flower growing along the roadside.  He obtained some cuttings of his little discovery and brought them back to his greenhouse in South Carolina where he began to propagate them.  The common name for the new Euphorbia was given by a noted historian and horticulturalist of the era by the name of William Hickling Prescott.  (On a side note, W.H. Prescott was the son of the well-known American Revolutionary War Colonel William Prescott who reportedly coined the phrase, “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”  Though there is some dispute if he was truly the first to say it.)  Prescott had just published a historical piece called “The Conquest of Mexico”   During the time that Poinsett was Ambassador to Mexico the country was involved in a brutal civil war which is the subject of Prescott’s book.  Prescott chronicled Poinsett’s time in Mexico in the book, so as a result he was asked to name the plant.  Thus the Poinsettia was born.

Now, let’s talk about thbrachte plant itself.  Would you believe, those amazing (typically) red flowers that engulf the top of this unique plant aren’t actually parts of the flower at all.  The flower itself is only the small center portion of those red parts so commonly attributed to the flower.  The red leaves are in fact just that, LEAVES.  Technically, they are called BRACHT’s.  Bracht’s are specialized leaf structures; in the poinsettia’s case, designed to attract pollinator’s to the flower due to it’s small and inconspicuous stature.  Ultimately, in my opinion, they are what give the plant it’s appeal.  The Bracht’s grow in many different colors, ranging for the typical red, to oranges, pinks, and even whites.  Now growers are even developing multi-colored, or “splotchy” bracht colors.  Let’s be honest, we’re all always on the look out for the next big thing.

As far as caring for your poinsettia, it’s actually more simple than you think.   Water when the surface soil is dry.  Water it thoroughly and discard any excess from your tray.   Place the plant away from hot or cold drafts.  Keep temperatures around  72 degrees during the day and 60 degrees at night.  As with most of your other house plants this time of year, high humidity is preferable.  Follow these few simple tips and you’ll enjoy your poinettia plants well into January.  If your really adventurous (or just cheap) I can teach you how to maintain your poinsettia’s year round, but that is a post for another day!

Well, let’s go to the point, I guess.  Are these amazing little holiday treasures toxic or not?  According to the Mayo Clinic and research by Ohio State University, the answer is a resounding NO!!!  Although there is no solid way of knowing where the myth came from that these colorful plants were toxic, it is pretty clear that is it 100% false.  The plants have no chemicals in them that are even believed to be toxic to pets, let alone people.  The white milky sap has been known to cause an itchy rash upon contact to some people’s skin but this is in no way fatal, and easily poinsettiatreated (we’re not talking poison ivy type itch here, folks).  Now, that being said, this plant IS NOT EDIBLE either.  That may sound slightly like a contradiction in terms, but let me explain.  While consuming this plant will certainly not kill you OR your dog, it will certainly wreak havoc on your digestive system.  This would likely cause some unpleasant bathroom experiences for you, or possibly living room experiences, if your dog or cat is the one that ate it.   According to PoisIndex (the primary resource for many poison control hotlines across the country) a child who weighed 50pounds would have to eat over 500 poinsettia leaves to reach an even potentially fatal dose of compounds from the poinsettia plant.  So while I don’ t recommend eating it, it’s not time to get your affairs in order if you do.

So now you know,  and as the old saying tells us, “The more you know, the further you go!”  Enjoy your Christmas season, and relax knowing that your home is safe once again!



Should We Be Rockin’ Around A REAL Christmas tree?

The deliberation begins early around my store, because we are faced with the rush to get ready for Christmas before Thanksgiving even rolls around.  So many people want to turn their lights on on Thanksgiving that we have to make sure we’re ready with all the options.  Tree’s, garland, wreath’s, new lights, anything your little hearts desire.  So as a result, the debate begins as well as to which is a better choice, REAL or ARTIFICIAL Christmas trees.  I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that there are solid pro’s and con’s to both options.  Beyond that, I will leave it up to you fair reader to come to terms with whatever choice you decide to make.

ImageLet’s start with a little history.  Artificial trees seem to have first come into existence in the late 1800’s in Germany.  As a response to the continued deforestation of the country, German folks began to create fake tree’s by sticking down feathers in a large stick to create a tree appearance.  This practice eventually made its way to the United States but in 1930’s A toilet brush company decided that the bristles from their toilet brushes would make great tree branches.  This became the grandfather of our current artificial tree’s.  Although fake tree’s have endured a myriad of construction materials the most common current material is PVC plastic.  Although they have never looked more real, the choice of material begs the question, are they REALLY better for the environment than a real tree.  Consider that PVC is a NON-BIODEGRADABLE material.  So even though an artificial tree may have an expected life span of 10 years on average, I would suggest that most only last four to five years before being replaced.  Now once that fake tree gets disposed of, it sits in a landfill and takes up space, because it can not be recycled.  Next, a good portion of fake tree’s are produced in China and for quite some time lead was used as a stabilizer during production.  China has reportedly banned this practice and is now using tin as a stabilizer.   However, tests were conducted as recently as 2005 which showed that many fake tree’s dropped substantial amounts of lead dust on the ground under them in just one week of being installed.  That being said, there are certainly lead free tree’s (mostly produced here in the United States) but that is still a concern to be discussed.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to scare you out of an artificial tree.  As I said, both have several pro’s and con’s.  Fake tree’s can be a lower cost option (but not always).  There are no stubborn needles to pick out of the carpet at season’s end.  And many now even come prelit and are very realistic looking with many options and sizes.  On top of the fact that most artificial tree’s utilize fire retardant materials and a “live” tree can be a fire hazard if not properly maintained.  But you mister and missus consumer must decide what outweighs what.

Now, Lets talk about the artificial tree’s competition, the once growing, now waiting to be landscape mulch, evergreen’s we like to call “live” tree’s.  Obviously, that would be con Numero Uno.  In essence, we’re talking about cutting down a perfectly good tree to stick presents under, ONE NIGHT OF THE YEAR.  Some would say this lends credence to the belief that we are insane as a species. However, I would suggest to you that evergreens’ grown specifically of the purpose of becoming Christmas tree’s are grown in the exact same manner as any other cash crop we currently produce.  Sustainable tree farms are the norm and most live tree’s come from one of these many farms.  For every tree cut at least one new tree is planted. If not the grower would be out of business pretty darn quick.  However, if you don’t like the idea of cattle chutes, this theory probably doesn’t appeal to you either.  Consider this, for every acre of evergreens currently growing, enough oxygen for 18 people is produced.  I know that doesn’t sound like much but what does a PVC tree produce?  Also, in comparison to artificial tree’s that will be around till the end of time, most “live” tree’s get recycled after the holiday season.  They become either landscape mulch or a variety of other things.  So one could say, in that respect they are actually better for the environment than artificial tree’s.  The fact still remains that “live” tree’s can be quite the chore at the end of the season, and even considering sustainable tree farms, “live” tree can still seem like quite a waste.  On top of the fact that you have to get it home and to the recycling sites at the beginning and end of the season.   However, Let’s not forget how amazing “live” tree’s smell on Christmas morning and throughout the entire season.  So again I would say you are the one who most decide which factors are more important to you.


You dear reader, can now consider yourself a well informed member of society making a decision based in knowledge of the topic and having climbed the fence to look on both sides.  Doesn’t it feel good to know you made the right choice, whatever that may be.  A multitude of choices is never a bad thing when you know what your getting into.  Enjoy your Christmas Tree no matter what you and your family decide to pick, and of course, please don’t forget the true reason for the season, Jesus Christ.  And for crying out loud, we’re not even going to get into flocked tree’s because that is just a whole other ballgame!



How about some houseplant tips!!

Okay, so it’s pretty difficult to come up with topics regarding landscaping and gardening as the leaves are dropping just as fast as the temperatures.  I mentioned house plants in my last Facebook post so let’s talk about that a little more. The biggest thing to remember about your houseplants during the winter months is that even though they may not look dormant, most are not still actively growing.  You really don’t need to fertilize at all during the winter months. Not again until plants start to wake up again in spring.  Also watering can slack off a little as well.  However, your plants do still need a consistent humidity.  Most homes during the winter average somewhere around 30% humidity and most house plants prefer a humidity closer to 60%.  If you can use a humidifier at least in the rooms that your plants are in that will help a lot.  Another trick is to group your houseplants closer together throughout the winter.  As the moisture in the soil evaporates and the plants release moisture as well this will help increase the humidity of a localized space.  The last thing you might try is a humidity tray.  Basically you take those little plastic trays you have under all your house plants anyway and you fill them with  gravel.  Then you fill them with water, but don’t fill over the rocks.  Then set your plants on top of this rock bed.  Again, as the water evaporates, it will increase the humidity around the plant thus giving it great conditions to live. This practice has been used for bonsai forever, and is a great trick.  However, be sure to not fill so much water that your part is sitting in standing water, as this will work against you.


Don’t forget you can check me out on Facebook also at Tony Mascarello Landscape Design for more timely tips and ideas.


To wrap or not to wrap?

Okay, so I discussed caring for your evergreens recently, and I’m sure some of you thought I was just neglecting the deciduous tree’s.  Not true at all, I just wanted to bring up the evergreens’ first because they could potentially perish from winter damage while deciduous tree’s typically do not.  That is not to say that they can not receive winter damage though, so just what are we up against?

Well, first of all let me reiterate that almost all tree’s need to be well watered prior to the ground freezing.  This is especially true for young or newly planted deciduous (LEAFY) tree’s just as evergreens.  The reason being they just don’t have the root structure to search for water when they begin to break dormancy.  Beyond that there are a few other things to consider with regard to your deciduous trees’.  Thin barked and young tree’s are highly susceptible to two major winter damage issues.  While these are not the only things that can affect tree’s during the winter months they are the most common problems.  The first one we will discuss is a problem called WINTER SUN SCALD.

Winter Sun Scald is bark damaging issues.  It is most commonly seen on tree’s such as Maple, Apple, Honeylocust, Ash, and Willow however any young tree with undeveloped, thin bark is susceptible.  What I mean by thin bark is a tree that has yet to achieve that CORKY appearance we commonly attribute to tree bark.  Sun Scald is seen on the south and/or west sides of tree trunks and caused by the temperature variances from day to night hours.  Basically, as the day progresses and the temperatures rise, the previously dormant phloem cells (these are cells in a tree’s vascular system that carry nutrients down to the roots) warm and this triggers a “WAKE UP” reaction.  Those cells mistake the temps as an alarm clock to break dormancy.  Unfortunately they failed to get the memo that Mother Nature has a sense of humor.  So as the night temps drop down again, those cells are caught “with their bark down” and basically freeze to death.  This creates an unsightly wound on the trunk of the tree where the cells essentially stop developing.  While this will typically not kill the tree it does create a myriad of possible problems the worst of which is that it creates a point of entry for disease or damaging pests.  So while a borer insect may ultimately be attributed with the death of a tree, it probably found it’s way in through the sun scald damage.

Image of Sun Scald courtesy of Missouri Botanical Gardens

The second common winter issue for deciduous trees is known as FROST CRACKING.  Unlike Sun Scald which will be permanently visible, frost cracks typically close back upper during summer months.  Frost cracks also generally appear on the south or west side of a trunk.  However, this damage can even affect older corky barked tree’s.  Frost Cracks are also caused by warming cells although, in this case the cells don’t generally die.  Basically, as the daytime temps warm them, the cells begin to expand.  Then when dusk rolls around and temps go back down the cells cool again.  As they cool, they contract.  The outer cells cool faster than the inner cells and as a result, as the outer cells contract faster, they are pulled apart and cause vertical cracks along the bark.  Cracks can easily be several feet long and often will sound like a gunshot when the crack first occurs.  Generally, the cracks will close back up during the summer, although once a crack occurs it will typically reappear during winter months from then on.  Frost Cracks are most common on Maple and Sycamore although any thin barked tree would be susceptible.

Frost Crack Image courtesy NC State University Webpage

There is no perfect way to prevent frost cracks on large tree’s but fortunately there is something you can do to help prevent it and Sun Scald on younger tree’s.  While many orchard growers actually whitewash their tree’s during the winter months to help protect them, this is not commonly used in residential settings as it dramatically changes the appearance of the landscape.  The most common practice in a typical landscape is to use a crepe paper like material known as tree wrap.  Basically to apply the wrap, you begin at the bottom and work your way up, overlapping as you go to completely wrap the trunk all the way up to the first branch knuckle.  I don’t recommend using the plastic trunk protectors as they will leave a gap where you install them and that reduces their efficacy in my opinion.  Now, remember this important point; you need to remove the tree wrap as soon as the weather begins to warm.  Leaving this wrap on the tree will hold moisture against the trunk during the wet spring months and also creates a nice warm home for insects and pests during summer months.  So what was originally intended to help could cause even more damage if not maintained.

I’ve got one more recommendation for you, although this one doesn’t really have anything to do with bark damage.  It really is a good idea to remove at least a couple feet of sod from the base of your tree’s and install mulch instead.   The reason for this is the mulch acts as a blanket in the winter to help keep roots warm, but then will help retain moisture during spring and summer.  It will also help keep weeds down and will prevent the need to try to mow or weed whip around the base of the tree and potentially damage the trunk or exposed surface roots.  However, only mulch to within an inch or two of the trunk so that (like the wrap) the mulch doesn’t hold moisture against the trunk of the tree and create rot.  I like to create a little moat around the trunk of the tree.  Then if I am hand watering I can set the end of the hose in the moat and set it to a slow flow and the moat helps to keep the water from running off.

I hope this gives you an idea on how to maintain your young tree’s so that you get years of enjoyment from them.  Properly placed large shade trees can help decrease utility costs as well as increase the value of your property.  They provide homes for wildlife and shade on a sunny afternoon.  Trust me when I say, they are worth taking a few minutes to protect.


Read the rest of this entry

Caring for your Evergreens during the winter months.

Even these young Columnar White Pines will need some "lovin" during the winter months.

Even these young Columnar White Pines will need some “lovin” during the winter months.

Well, according to Weather.com our days of 60 degree temps are coming to a close here in the Omaha area.  It appears the average daily high for the month of November will be just under 48 degrees (F).  This means its high time you prepare your evergreens for winter. You should make sure to give all your evergreens a good deep watering prior to the ground freezing.  As a general rule plants need about 10 gallons of water for every inch of caliper (so a 2 inch caliper tree would need about 20 gallons of water) Caliper is the width of the tree trunk about 12″ from the ground (unless it’s a large, established tree, then it is done at chest height).  If your hand watering with just a hose a good rule of thumb is about 5 minutes at medium pressure equals about 10 gallons of water.  Thus if we water our 2″ tree for 20 minutes at medium pressure it should be getting a good drink. Plants “sweat” just like humans do.  This primarily occurs through the leaf structure.  With evergreens this would be the needles, which they don’t lose like your other plants.  This opens the door to a problem known as Winter Burn.  They are “sweating” but the ground is frozen so they aren’t able to take up water through the roots.  Don’t think that just because there is snow on the ground that the plant is getting water.  If the ground is frozen so is the moisture.  To counter this we us a chemical called an ANTI DESICCANT.  The best way to describe this is that it acts as a wax to coat the evergreens needles or leaves to help slow the “sweating” during periods when little or no water is available (although it is not actually a wax).   The best time to apply anti desiccant is when the temps are starting to stay below 50 degrees during mid-day.  However you want to make sure there is no threat of rain or frost within 24 hours (the chemical may not fully adhere).  The other thing to keep in mind is that warm temps can “melt” the chemical off as well, so you may need to re-apply later in the season to maintain protection.  It’s not difficult, you simply spray onto the plant to the point of runoff.  This should help keep your plant from losing water when none is available to replenish it. Keep in mind that even if it is “winter” if we don’t have temps below freezing and still aren’t getting any moisture, you’re going to NEED TO GIVE YOUR PLANTS A DRINK!  Don’t just forget about them because your sprinkler system is off and you don’t feel like dragging a hose.  This could be a costly decision.  Also, DON’T FORGET YOUR BROADLEAF EVERGREENS!  Not all evergreens have needles (and not all needle tree’s are evergreens for that matter).  Plants like Boxwood, Yew, Rhododendron and Holly are especially susceptible to winter burn and should be treated as well. An added bonus of your anti desiccant is that you can even use it on your Holiday Cut Greens such as live wreaths or table center pieces to help them last longer as well.  Even your “live” Christmas tree would benefit greatly from a good coating.  Although I would hope that the folks you purchase the tree from took care of this for you.  Might be a good thing to ask when deciding who to purchase your tree from. GOOD LUCK AND KEEP GROWING!!