Our gardens in many lights

lundi 30 septembre 2013

On the vertues of plantain and the cohabitation with wasps

Cet article en français.
Este articulo en Espanol.

Louise :

Most of the time, plantain (Plantago), just like wasps, raises negative reactions. On one side you have an agressive weed that sprouts everywhere and on the other an insect armed with a sting that can be potentially fatal to those who are allergic to it. Of course, this means war : They are both in the way, aren't they?

Broad leaf or Greater plantain (Plantago Major - Plantain Majeur in French, Llantén Mayor in Spanish). In this picture, it's growing through grass and clover. The seed stalks and broad, shiny, spoon-shaped leaves are clearly visible.

Human reality may appear quite clear but when it comes to the true state of affairs, it's not  as black and white. Plantain does have the unfortunate habit - unredeemable for some - of colonizing the manucured lawn with speed and zest. But it also as the precious quality of being there - anywhere - for first aid needs. Its formidable efficiency against stings from wasps, bees and mosquitoes and skin rash due to plants like nettle (Urtica) or poison ivy should make it a keeper.

The stalk is full of green-brown seeds
almost ready for a potential
I experienced it first hand this summer when I unfortunately stepped on an underground wasp nest. I managed to get swiftly far from it, thus limiting the damaged to only one sting on a finger. The next step took me searching for plantain. Since our lawn's got nothing to do with a manucured golf lawn, it was an easy enough task to locate a good plant. 2 leaves out, folded in 3 or 4, I chewed this and spat the crushed leaves on the sting.

The pain instantly diminished, to my relief. I kept the plaster of mashed leaves there for about 30 minutes. After that, the pain that was still there was benign, a simple reminder not to got back in the vicinity of the nest right away.

 Wasps do contribute greatly to the polinisation of plants, just like bees. Moreover, they are also fierce predators of other insects, insects that are considered pests by gardeners. Some species are regular hunters but others are parasitoid - laying their eggs inside the bodies of these pests (if you want all the gory details, check this link, meanwhile just know that the horror movie Alien was based on this type of insect behaviour). Of course, when we just received a sting from them, the only facet we can think of is how bothersome they are - still, this is where plantain comes to our rescue.
Hélène : Plantain is considered a weed  because whatever the kind of
environment - either the country or the urban life, it grows. In the streets
of Montreal, a simple fissure in the pavement (and there's so many) will
soon be host to, more often than not, this plant. See here how it's chummy
with dandelions, daylillies and my son's slide.
I am sometimes ambivalent on either killing a wasps nest or living with it. After all, there is always a risk living with insects that are so good at defending their territory. However, in all my family's history, even the worst encounters with them resulted in no more than 3 stings. Even that time where the human encroaching on the wasps territory had to make a mad dash for the pool, leaving behind the lawnmower at a still, its engine roaring right on top of the underground nest.

 So far, we destroy a nest only if : 
- It's underground in an area where there's lots of foot traffic;
- It's suspended to a structure and the occupants will feel attacked whenever the structure is shocked (like a door closing or someone's making reparations) or if there is a lot of foot traffic - human or animals - close by;
- The site is visited by children or guests; 

 I leave the wasps alone if their nests is in a remote location where not many people walk by.

 Reagarding plantain, its uses doesn't stop there. 
- The young leaves can be eaten in spring, either raw in salads or steamed like spinach.
- The leaves can be dried and rehydrated again for cataplasms, to heal scratches and cuts. The roots can be used in the same fashion.
- The leaves can be used to make an infusion, providing a vitamined herbal tea.
- The seeds can be harvested (althought it is a tedious job) and be ground and added to plain flour. Or you can give the seeds to birds. The seeds have a slightly laxative effect.
-  Finally, just keeping the plant right there in the lawn is a good idea since this plant accumulate hard to reach potash, calcium and sulfur, releasing these nutrients when it dies off, and thus, rendering them available for every neigboring plants. 

Hélène : Wasps have a reputation for being more agressive than bees. One of the reasons for that behavior is that bees, when they sting you, tear off their stinger, ripping up their abdomen, which cause them to die in the process. Not so with wasps ; they can sting you as many times as they like. This makes the bee less enclined to sting. She will only do this if she really feels threatened, it is indeed a last resort act of defense. That's why bees in my garden and me, we live together really well. Indeed, in my 5 years of gardening with them - this includes me leaning on their nests, which are located in the wood of one of my raised bed, to reach some part of my garden - I was never stung. I'm talking about it in this article.

This amazing nest, made out of chewed wood paste, is the residence of white-tailed hornets (or white-faced hornets  - Dolichovespula Maculata). Their heads have white spots and their abdomens are stripes black and white. The nest grew throughout summer, close to our garden. In winter, the only survivors will be the queen and her retinue of young, pregnant females. In spring the nest will be abandonned and each survivor (queen and princesses) will go out on a quest to establish a new nest. 

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