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January 16, 2018

Wildlife: Mast is a critical wildlife food

Last week a caller to my radio show (8-10 a.m. Saturdays on WVLY-AM 1370 Wheeling, online at www.wvly.net) asked that I explain the term “mast.” It’s a great question, especially this time of year.

Fruits and nuts of trees and shrubs are collectively referred to as mast. Fleshy fruits and berries are soft mast; nuts are hard mast.

Crab apples, grapes, cherries and even poison ivy berries are sought by a variety of birds including turkeys, grouse and woodpeckers. Sweet, fleshy persimmons began ripening about two weeks ago. Birds take them on the tree while coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks and opossums gobble up those that fall to the ground.

The flat football-shaped seeds that pass through these mammals’ guts are recognizable in their scats. Hard mast including acorns, walnuts, hickory nuts, and beechnuts trigger a competitive feeding frenzy among squirrels, chipmunks, deer, bears, turkeys, mice, jays, woodpeckers and nuthatches.

Acorns, the fruits of oak trees, are the most important mast in Eastern deciduous forests. Where oaks are common, wildlife usually thrives.

Here on the ridge, we’ve had a bumper crop of black walnuts. For weeks my wife and I have been collecting walnuts and crushing them with the car to remove husks.

On cold winter nights we’ll crack the nuts and save the meat for snacks and baking.

To share the wealth, I offer a few walnuts and hickory nuts on a tray for the birds.

Scott Shalaway: www.drshalaway.com, sshalaway@aol.com.

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Wildlife: Mast is a critical wildlife food

Scientists weed out pesky poison ivy with discovery of killer fungus

Much to the chagrin of gardeners, hikers, and virtually anyone enjoying the outdoors, one of the hazards of summer is picking up an itchy poison ivy rash.

But researchers in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences have found an effective way to kill poison ivy using a naturally occurring fungus that grows on the fleshy tissue surrounding the plant’s seed, potentially giving homeowners and forest managers the ability to rid landscapes of the pernicious pest. Their findings could make the maddening itch of the summer season a thing of the past for the untold millions who are allergic to the plant.

The study was published this week in the journal Plant Disease and is a first of its kind on a plant that affects millions but has had surprisingly little research done on it.

John Jelesko, an associate professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science, began studying the plant after experiencing a nasty poison ivy rash himself while doing some yard work. Much to his surprise, there was scant research focused on the plant itself. Most of the work was centered on urushiol, the rash-causing chemical found in the plant’s oils. Urushiol is extremely potent. Only one nanogram is needed to cause a rash, and the oil can remain active on dead plants up to five years.

But rather than focusing on urushiol, Jelesko set about studying ways to kill the plant itself. He worked with Matt Kasson on the project, a senior research associate in the same department.

“This poison ivy research has the potential to affect the untold millions of people who are allergic to poison ivy,” said Jelesko, a Fralin Life Science Institute faculty member. “We have the makings of a nonchemical way to control an invasive plant that can be used by homeowners and others who manage outdoor sites.”

Their work is especially valuable in light of the fact that a 2006 study showed that as the planet warms, poison ivy is predicted to grow faster, bigger, and more allergenic, causing much more serious reactions that could send an increasing number of people to the doctor for prescription medications.

“When poison ivy can’t be treated with over-the-counter treatments and requires an outpatient visit, then we are talking about a public health concern that is very real,” said Kasson.


The research team discovered the killer fungus in their initial attempts to generate microbe-free poison ivy seedlings to use in their studies. Jelesko noticed that not only were some of the seeds failing to germinate, but on the seedlings that did germinate, there was a blight wiping out the young seedlings. Jelesko enlisted the help of Kasson to isolate what he suspected was a fungus causing disease in the plants. The team discovered that the fungus was growing on all the plants that died and the seeds that didn’t germinate.

The fungus caused wilt and chlorophyll loss on the seedlings just by placing it at the junction of the main stem and root collar of the plant at three weeks post-inoculation. At seven weeks post-inoculation, all but one of the plants had died.

Though herbicides are available to kill poison ivy, Jelesko and Kasson said that if this fungus were developed into a commercial application, it would not only be more effective than its chemical counterparts, but also have the benefit of being completely natural.

“We have to keep in mind that the chemicals used to control poison ivy are general herbicides, meaning that they will affect and probably kill many other plant species, so their use in large areas is not always practical,” said Thomas Mitchell, associate professor of fungal biology and molecular genetics at Ohio State University who is familiar with the research but not affiliated with it. “This work shows promise for an alternative approach to the use of chemicals and has great potential as a biological control alternative. This type of approach, using native pathogens to control noxious and invasive plants, is gaining more much deserved recognition.”

Kasson, whose research is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, believes it would be relatively simple to develop a soil granular to spread on top of poison ivy-infested areas in yards and recreational areas such as campgrounds to naturally infect the plants and kill them.

After Kasson successfully isolated the fungus in pure culture from infected , a DNA analysis revealed that the fungus—Colletotrichum fioriniae—is also widely known as an insect pathogen that kills an invasive bug that infests and kills hemlock trees.

In all of the natural world, only humans are allergic to poison ivy and its itch-inducing oil, urushiol.

“Humans appear to be uniquely allergic to urushiol,” said Jelesko. “Goats eat it, deer eat it, and birds eat the seeds, all to no ill effects.”

Jelesko and Kasson have filed for a patent disclosure of their current findings, and say that this research just scratches the surface of possible avenues for the study of poison ivy.


Explore further:

Fungus may help stop invasive spread of tree-of-heaven

More information: “First Report of Seedling Blight of Eastern Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) by Colletotrichum fioriniae in Virginia.” M. T. Kasson, J. R. Pollok, E. B. Benhase, and J. G. Jelesko, Plant Disease 2014 98:7, 995-995. dx.doi.org/10.1094/PDIS-09-13-0946-PDN

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Scientists weed out pesky poison ivy with discovery of killer fungus

Goats to be free landscape labor

SUNDERLAND, MD. — Have you herd? Goats will soon be making their way through Maryland and Northern Virginia, as property owners trade machinery and labor crews for hungry, four-legged landscapers ready to decimate any vegetation in their way.

Mary Bowen, owner of Sunderland-based Green Goats and Prosperity Acres farm, will be putting her herd of more than 70 goats to work from May to October, using them to clear overgrown vegetation in various private and public areas across the state.

Unlike traditional land-clearing methods such as herbicide treatments and excavation services, which can have adverse effects on the environment, goats offer an environmentally-friendly alternative.

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are some of the goats favorite vegetation choices, making the animals perfect for jobs with highly concentrated areas of poisonous plants humans wouldnt dare tackle themselves.

Green Goats

Bowen founded Green Goats three years ago, with the intention of providing a service that would benefit both the environment and the state.

For years, the Bowen family had been showing goats, along with cattle and horses, at local 4-H shows around the state, including the Anne Arundel County Fair in Crownsville and the Maryland State Fair in Timonium.

I wanted to be able to do something with the goats other than showing them. … I actually wanted to utilize them to do what they naturally do, which is forage, Bowen said.

After linking up with Enrique Escobar, a small ruminant specialist and assistant professor at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, Bowen was able to make her plan a reality.

During a workshop in which Escobar recounted past experiences with using goats for land clearing projects in Oklahoma, Bowen saw the potential in bringing the practices to Maryland.

I decided I wanted to be able to develop this business, because I had heard in other states, particularly California, where they use the goats to clear out for firebreaks in the park services … and that was what I really wanted to be able to start doing, Bowen said. Something that is good for our community … good for our state.

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Bowen noted that when using goats, there is no need to dispose of debris, no pollution from machinery, and no need to acquire land clearing permits that might be required for a traditional excavation crew. In addition, the goats provide free fertilizer throughout the course of their stay.

Sometimes you have to use herbicides … theres just no other way to get around it, I understand that, she said, but if we can reduce the amount of herbicides that are used to almost nothing, thats what I prefer and the goats can obliterate any job weve put them on so far.

Brian Knox, owner of Eco-Goats, based in Davidsonville, uses his herd to run a vegetation control and land clearing business much like that of Bowens.

As a natural resource consultant and president of Sustainable Resource Management Inc., Knox first got started with his business after one of his clients mentioned they were looking for a way to put their livestock to use.

Knox said what followed was an experiment that was wildly successful one that would eventually take over his summers as a full-time business, and according to Knox, the popularity of these businesses is on the rise.

Knox said he has consulted goat owners from all over the country, including Indiana, Oregon and Pennsylvania, to aid farmers in their efforts to establish similar businesses.

“Goats are pretty cool”

Goats eat up to 20 percent of their body weight each day, and the length of each project depends on the size of the property and the amount of vegetation both of which also help dictate how many goats Bowen will allot to the job.

Bowen currently runs the business with her two children, Jacqueline, 14, and Jacob, 12, who assist with caring for the goats and setting up each job which is fairly simple, as Bowen only needs to fence in the goats, provide water and leave the animals to take care of the rest.

In the past, the goats have worked on a variety of projects ranging anywhere from historic sites to golf courses, including Mellomar Golf Park in Owings.

In October, nearing the end of last years work season, the Green Goats made news after uncovering what were thought to be eight lost gravesites at St. Ignatius Cemetery in Port Tobacco.

With publicity surrounding goats on the rise, both Bowen and Knox are anticipating a busy summer.

I certainly am seeing a lot of inquires this year from all over the place, Knox said. I usually get some, but right now it seems that there is way more interest than past years.

To most people, goats are pretty cool!

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Goats to be free landscape labor

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