Miss Floribunda: Creeped out on Crittenden Street

Those old ladies wandering the alleys are doing Hyattsvillians a favor.

Dear Miss Floribunda,

Maybe it’s because Halloween is near, but as I walk my dog in the alleyways, I am unsettled by the sight of a couple of older ladies pulling out various plants and putting them in bags. They seem pleasant enough but I can’t help wondering if they might be witches who are using these plants to make elixirs, philters, potions, notions, nostrums, brews, embrujos, aphrodisiacs, sortileges, possets, cossets, charms, amulets, and who knows what else? Probably none of this is illegal, but once when I happened upon the two pillagers whispering together, I felt there was something conspiratorial going on. Even if not, is it legal for them to despoil our alleyways? Is there anything the city can do about it?

Dear Creeped Out,

If the city does do anything, the appropriate thing would be to give the ladies medals. They are trying to prevent the squirrels, birds and breezes from turning our alleys back into forestland. The squirrels do not find all the acorns they bury each fall. Acorns become seedlings that grow into mighty oaks capable of overturning fences and cracking roadways. The birds eliminate the seeds they eat from mulberry trees, bush honeysuckles, English ivy, poison ivy and — Public Enemy No. 1 — the beautiful but invasive porcelain berry vine.  In addition, birds’ fluttering in trees breaks open pods, such as those of the mimosa, causing the seeds to disperse far and wide. Worse, the wind blows the helicopter-like samaras of maples, catalpas, American elms and ash trees all over creation. These seeds sprout where they land, and before you know it, they become large trees. As an example, the spring seedlings of the rose of Sharon shrub and the redbud, also propagated by windborne seeds, can grow to 8 inches by fall and almost 2 feet by the next summer!

The ladies you observed have made it their mission to pull up invasive seedlings when they are still young and easy to dig out. Both Dr. Arnica Tugwell and Granny Gripweed are good friends of mine, and I can assure you they do not concoct any of the arcane things you name. Dr. Tugwell, a botanist with knowledge of herbal medicine, has no interest in what she terms “the so-called sciences of the occult,” and Granny is a staunch churchgoer who would never dream of dabbling in the dark arts. She has two ginger kitties named Hansel and Gretel, but they are in no danger of being baked into gingerbread.

Both ladies are avid gardeners dedicated to responsible ecology. They are limited by laws against trespassing, of course, so they work only in the alleys. They have asked me to communicate their concern that so many tree seedlings and invasive vines they see in Hyattsville gardens are allowed to thrive. Even the most conscientious householders — those who keep their lawns mowed and their hedges trimmed — are not knowledgeable about the comparative perniciousness of weeds. There are those who work tirelessly to keep charming and soil-enhancing clover and dandelions out of their lawns while ignoring the potentially destructive tree seedlings developing at the foundations of their homes and property lines. They would be wise to look online or in a reference book for photographs of the vines and seedlings that truly menace their gardens and that require backbreaking labor to eradicate once they cause readily apparent problems.   

If some of these seedlings seem like gifts from Mother Nature because you actually like the trees, you can dig them up and replant them in places far away from fences, hedges and foundations. If you have extra seedlings, please bring them to the next plant exchange of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, Saturday, Oct. 20, at the home of Kimberly Schmidt, 5011 42nd Avenue. There will be a brief meeting at 10 a.m, after which lots will be drawn for a choice of donations. You can make new friends with gardeners grateful to get a free oak, Japanese maple or redbud, and, in exchange for what you offer them, you might acquire other plants you’d like to introduce to your own garden. At noon, Dr. Schmidt will lead a one-hour garden walk past the most interesting neighborhood gardens.

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