Q: In the interest of the holidays revolving around the afterlife this week, do you have suggestions for aesthetically interesting or functionally useful dead plants or plant parts? That is, dried or cut seed heads, spent flowers, or cut wood?
A: It’s intriguing that what we look forward to in autumn — the landscape painted in foliage color changes — signifies dying plant tissue. Late-season seed heads also indicate the time is nigh for seasonal dieback or outright plant death. Even amid all that decline, there are lots of seed pods and dead stems that can be attractive both left standing in the garden and in a vase or other arrangement. Harvesting some — particularly the nonnative species less utilized by wildlife — and using them for arts and crafts can be fun.
Wreaths made from pine cones and other seed pods come to mind — try augmenting with sweetgum balls, beech nut husks, acorns, and split halves of trumpet vine pods. If you have an Osage-orange tree nearby, a bowl of their huge, textured fruits certainly would make for a conversation piece.
I enjoy the rattling seed pods of false Indigo and the quirkily squared-off pods of the aptly-named Sseedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia). Spent ornamental onion heads can be pretty durable, and you can even experiment with painting them and leaving them adorning the garden for some whimsy. Coneflower cones and poppy pods are classics as-is; mountain-mints and yarrow are showy too, especially with a light dusting of snow. Grasses are a pretty versatile group, and river oats in particular have cute earring-like, flat, dangling clusters.
Some fresh flowers dry well and can be preserved in this way for decor or art projects, though color fading may occur after a time. A few essentially dry themselves while still on the plant, such as strawflowers.
If you lost a Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick shrub to blight, use its contorted twigs as indoor decor, or just paint it in place as an art object for the duration until you remove it. Birch twigs that seem to be perpetually shedding can be collected and used as container accents, either natural or painted for use in a wintergreens porch pot. If you’re really ambitious, you can weave a branch fence as edging out of any pliable branches and use it to outline a bed or make a vine support for rambling vegetables or annual climbers.
Q: I was mildly alarmed by a sighting of a black widow spider recently, and then was surprised to learn they routinely live among us here in Maryland. I’m amazed I haven’t heard about these encounters before, since pop culture certainly tells us they’re dangerous, right?
A: I always found it dismaying that spiders are embraced for Halloween decor but shunned the rest of the year. Then again, I happen to appreciate many of our oft-eschewed animals — bats, snakes, “bugs,” etc. — so I’m biased. Plus, on occasion I’ve kept the odd stumbled-upon widow female — ironically often found near Halloween — as a desktop pet of sorts to help educate my colleagues and dispel fears. This is not to casually dismiss widow spiders as completely harmless, but rather to say that calmly navigating an encounter with one should keep both parties safe.
Black widow spiders are indeed native to Maryland, and in fact we live with three species (two native, one not). While their bites can contain medically-significant venom, getting one to bite a person would take persistence or very bad luck. They’re shy spiders and would much rather hide or escape than attempt to bite unless they have no other choice.
Mature females, giving the widow group their name (and not very accurately at that), are the only individuals of concern, particularly if they are guarding egg sacs. Even so, she won’t be able to see you very well, and will just be reacting to your vibrations or disturbance of her web, the sensations from which she uses to “see.” Whether indoors or outdoors, widows prefer sites for webs that are dark, sheltered, and relatively undisturbed. Should one windup in your house or yard, she should be relatively easy to relocate away from kids or pets. Species in the spider-hunter wasp family actually prey on widows, and other natural factors help keep their numbers in balance.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.