Roots and Shoots: Last Plant Standing

Last year I wrote about my painful experience with New York’s native cactus, a prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa). To recap: Wear gloves, use tongs and apply duct tape to remove the invisible needles that may get in your skin. 

As the drought deepens, I’ve been watching to see which plants are holding up better than others. The cactus is fine. Everything else, not so much. 

This tenacious cactus has survived in a box with no soil or care for more than a year. Photo by P. Doan

This tenacious cactus has survived in a box with no soil or care for more than a year. (Photo by P. Doan)

I’ll confess here that the cactus is living under a bench on the patio in the box it came in from the online nursery. I never planted it because I couldn’t decide where it should go without being a hazard to a family member or pet. I also couldn’t compost it or bring myself to throw it away. It’s growing away, though — not thriving but surviving, even without soil, just cardboard and whatever rain makes it under the bench. 

That’s your answer about a plant that can handle drought, heat, neglect and indecision. In the shifting weather of climate change in the Hudson Valley, my bets are on prickly pear cactus. Just handle it carefully. 

Gardeners, meanwhile, are depressed. It’s tough to see a landscape you care about and care for in distress, and to feel helpless to save it. With conservation measures in place for reservoir users, and well users feeling nervous or panicked, landscapes and wildlife are left to the elements. 

I spoke with Francis Groeters, an insect ecologist and the founder of the Catskill Native Nursery, which opened in 1997 in Kerhonkson. The biggest fear for gardeners now is that their plants won’t make it through the season. It’s one thing to watch your landscape turn brown and wither, but will we all be replacing plants in the spring, too? 

Groeters said no — or maybe. “Plants are going dormant right now, packing it in. Depending on what happens the rest of the fall, we don’t know. This is new ground. We don’t have experience with this climate and research hasn’t been done that I know of.” 

While our part of the Hudson Valley is expected to get more rainfall in the long term because of climate change, it’s going to come in bigger events. That’s been the trend for decades. Longer periods of hot, dry weather will become more common, too. 

Even plants that are drought-tolerant are stressed. While converting to “xeriscaping” (requiring little or no irrigation) may not be necessary or desirable, it could help our landscapes and peace of mind to mix in plants that are better able to withstand a lack of rain. 

Groeters mentioned butterflyweed, prairie grasses, Baptisia’s, native alliums and pea family plants like wild senna as possibilities. 

My wild indigo (Baptisia australis) does look normal, as does the butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). Prairie grasses are deep-rooted and could include little bluestem, sideoats grama, prairie dropseed and big bluestem. They won’t have the 10-foot roots they are capable of in our rocky region but will still access deeper water resources than most plants. 

There’s a cascading effect to our plants’ distress that I’ve noticed as the number of bees and butterflies I saw in mid-July has dropped significantly. When the plants are stressed by extreme heat and drought, they don’t bloom, or have smaller blooms. Berry and seed production is affected, too. 

Insects, especially pollinators that depend on these plants for food and habitat, are suffering, as well. Moving up the food chain, the wildlife and birds that depend on the plants and insects are impacted. I’ve seen deer browsing on woodland plants that haven’t been touched in years past. 

That’s why I’m using the last drops from my rain barrel and limited hose-watering to prioritize seedling trees, plants that provide food, and late-season pollinator plants like asters, Chelone and goldenrods. 

If you can water, use mulch to help retain the moisture in the soil. Building up organic matter is helpful, so consider adding shredded leaf mulch to beds in the fall. For next season, think about ways to build sustainability and resilience into the landscape. 

Hopefully, the lessons we can take away from this season as gardeners will make our landscapes better for extremes. And in other mixed news, The New York Times recently reported that meteorologists still expect a severe hurricane season ahead. So rain may be coming, just not in exactly the ideal way. 

One thought on “Roots and Shoots: Last Plant Standing

  1. Yes, Pamela Doan, most of us gardeners feel like your prickly pear looks — depressed. I’ve been trying to water veggies and pollinator plants with well water; the rain barrels have been dry for weeks; we’re losing established evergreen trees and shrubs. But thanks for commiserating! [via Facebook]