Thursday, November 16, 2017

Winter Storage of Tender Bulbs

Michele K. Koskinen

There are bulbs you leave in the ground to multiply and there are bulbs that must be stored for the winter. Those fanciful bulbs that grow in our spring and summer gardens like caladiums, elephant ears, gladiolus, canna and others are considered "tender bulbs". They are mostly tropical or warm growing plants that will not survive the cold northern winters.

Although they are not technically a "bulb" they are called that for convenience in many growing markets and this blog. Tender plants usually are from corms, tubers, roots, and rhizomes and must be stored for the winter as they are not winter hardy. Many, like a recent elephant ear purchase, are expensive so it is worth the effort to store them for the winter. Some will grow as houseplants if you have the right light and humidity in your home, it is worth considering.

Using my garden as a giant experiment from year to year, I am going to attempt to lift and save the tender bulbs in my containers. Canna, begonia and caladium are favorites on my deck. This year I also purchased a beautiful elephant ear. So time to research the how. The why is curiosity and getting started a little early and for those that have many tender bulbs, the cost of repurchasing every year also can become a reason to lift and store these bulbs.

Tender Bulbs should ideally be dug after the foliage has dried or a light frost has killed the foliage. 
The bulbs should not be allowed to freeze. They should then be "cured" before storing in the medium of choice. This year the foliage is just beginning to dry in my garden and a light frost is expected. I will be removing the bulbs and hope for the best in the curing process. Late November is upon us     

A few thing to remember:

          1. Storing these "bulbs" require two major requirements with other guidelines for specific plants. Cold and Dry is the name of the game and additionally lifting them right before or after the first frost is best for survival.

          2. Locate the bulb, and then using a fork inserted a few inches away gently pry the plant from the ground. Shake off the excess soil and allow the foliage and bulb to completey dry "cure" in a sheltered warm space.When digging up the bulb from the garden, dig gently so as not to damage the plant. Cuts on the bulbs before storage can bring in disease. 

          3. Make sure your bulbs are free of disease and fungus. Some resources recommend sprinkling an insecticide-fungicide on the bulbs.


To make your efforts more successful be mindful of temperature and storage materials. I only grow caladiums, canna and begonia so my information will only cover those plants. Follow the direction for storage for each individual plant cultivar, and use the links below to gain additional information for your project.

I have compiled and combined storing instructions for my specific plants.

    • Tuberous Begonia: Allow a frost to kill the tops, but do not allow the tubers to freeze. Lift and let tubers dry for one week, with about 5 inches of the foliage still in tact. Remove excess soil and foliage and store in peat moss or sawdust at 50 degrees F. Repot in early spring and keep warm, 68 - 75 degrees F. Move to a sunny spot when shoots appear. Keep evenly moist, but not wet. Plant outside after all danger of frost.
    • Caladium: Lift caladium plants before frost and allow them to dry in a warm spot. Cut back the foliage after it dies. Caldium bulbs don't like to be stored in cold temperatures. Keep at 50-60 degrees F. Pack loosely in peat moss. Repot up in early Spring, about 2 inches deep, knobby side up. Keep the soil moist and warm - 75 - 80 degres F. Move outdoors after all danger of frost.
    • Canna: Allow frost to kill the tops, but do not allow the rhizomes to freeze. Carefully lift the plants and cut off the dead tops . Hose off excess soil and allow to dry. Rhizomes can be wrapped in newspaper and stored in paper bags or cardboard boxes, at 45 to 50 degrees F. Very easy to overwinter. Cannas can be divided by hand. Break apart, insuring there are at least 3 eyes per division. Repot in early spring or plant directly in the garden once the temperatures remain above 70 

Videos that are helpful

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Questions from the Master Gardener Hort Line: Soil Testing, How Do You Get One and What Does It Mean?

by Pat Vance

Volunteers for the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line have researched and answered some interesting questions. From time to time, we'd like to share some of those questions with you.

If you have a question about gardening, call us at 215 314 8711 or send an email to

There are more questions about soil testing than any other topic on the Hort Line. We get questions about how to have testing done as well as how to interpret the results.

Soil Test Kits

Getting a soil test is simple. Stop by any Penn State Extension office to pick up a kit. The address for the Philadelphia office is 675 Sansom Street, Philadelphia, PA and the phone number is (215) 471-2200. Call ahead to make sure someone will be there. The cost for a basic soil fertility test is $10. The kit consists of a sample bag, envelope, and form to be completed for your garden.

You can also print a pdf of the form, collect samples in your own plastic bag, and mail it in your own envelope. This is the ink to instructions on submitting samples:
To print the form, go to this url:
Open and print the pdf for “Individual Submission Form for Turf, Home Garden, Noncommercial Fruit, Flower, Woodlot, Christmas Trees and Landscape Plants.”
Include a check payable to “The Pennsylvania State University” along with your sample and completed form.

Complete the entire form as instructed.

Different plants have different nutritional requirements. Read the list on the second page of the form and choose the one that most closely describes your garden. Include the serial number from the bag if using a kit from the office. You can leave that space blank if you are using your own bag.

Any clean garden trowel will work to collect samples. Collect soil from the top 6 to 12 inches from 5 to 10 different spots in the garden to get a good representative sample. Remove plant debris and stones. Dry the soil on clean newspaper and then place it in your sample bag.

Be sure to label the bag with your name! And mail it to the address on the form.

If you have multiple beds, each with a different use, you may want to submit more than one sample, with a completed form and fee for each one.

Test Results

Your report will arrive in about 2 weeks. There will be a text box labeled “Soil Nutrient Levels” that will list pH as well as phosphorous, potassium, magnesium, and calcium levels. Look at the bar graph to see whether those levels are below optimum, optimum or above optimum. The lab will adjust this for your stated garden use. The actual values are listed in a box at the bottom of the page. If any item is not within the optimum range, there will be suggestions in the text box below.

Choosing a Fertilizer

To address nutrient levels, there will be a recommendation for fertilizer. Fertilizers available in garden centers will have an N-P-K value consisting of 3 numbers.  The first number is the total percentage of nitrogen (chemical symbol N), the second for phosphate (chemical formula P205), and the third for potassium (chemical formula K2O), usually in the form of potash.

For example, a fertilizer with an N-P-K value of 5-10-50 would consist of 5% nitrogen, 10% phosphate and 50% potassium. Fertilizers come in a variety of compositions of these chemicals. Typical combinations include: 5-10-50, 5-10-10, 10-10-10, 8-0-24, and 6-6-18. You can see that these fertilizers would give very different results in the garden. Your soil test will help you decide which of these would be best for your garden.

Keep in mind, though, that chemical fertilizers must be applied correctly. Too little will have minimal effect, and too much can harm rather than help. Follow directions on the package carefully.

Also, chemical fertilizers don’t have a long-term effect on the soil. The addition of compost and/or composted manure can make more permanent improvements. You can add bone meal to increase phosphates and kelp to increase potassium. These are available at garden centers. Compost will take longer to improve your soil than chemical fertilizers, so you may want to add fertilizer for a year or two while the compost does it’s magic.

pH Analysis

Another important part of your soil test is the pH analysis. The lists on the back of the submission form shows that plants vary widely in their optimum pH level. pH also affects how well your plants take up nutrients.

pH is a measure from 1 to 14 that indicates acidity or alkalinity. Low pH is acidic and high pH is alkaline or basic. Neutral pH is 7.0, where a substance is neither acid nor basic. pH units change by an order of 10, so a pH measurement of 6.0 is 10 times more acidic than a pH of 7.0.

Generally, vegetable gardens should be about pH 6.5, or a little lower than neutral. But some plants, such as blueberries like to grow in acidic soil, while clematis, for example, thrives in slightly alkaline soil. You will need to do a little research on your plants to be sure you are working toward the correct pH.

As with nutrients, there are actions you can take to change pH. Your soil report will recommend an amount of lime to increase the pH of your garden. The addition of sulfur will decrease pH but this has the same short-term effect as chemical fertilizers. Compost and other organic matter will decrease the pH of soil more gradually, but will be a more long-term fix.

More Information

For more information on building healthy soil, go to these links:

If you have any other questions and are not sure where to turn, ask the Hort Line! If we don't know the answer, we know someone who does!

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Lead Contamination: Is my Garden Soil Safe?

Questions from the Master Gardener Hort Line

Volunteers for the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hot Line have researched and answered some interesting questions.
From time to time, we'd like to share some of those questions with you.

If you have a question about gardening, call us at 215 314 8711 or send an email to

Lead Contamination: Is My Garden Soil Safe?

By Pat Vance

Beginning on June 18 of this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of articles on residential land contaminated with lead. The first piece was titled “Toxic City: Tainted Soil” and written by Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, and Dylan Pudell. Here is the link to the stories: ( These articles prompted a couple of questions to the Hort Line from people who wanted to know if their garden soil was safe.

Philadelphia’s Industrial Past

The Inquirer article points out that Philadelphia was home to many lead smelters in the past. The smelters are gone and there are now homes on many of the sites. The surface lead level in some of these areas is elevated. Additionally, when builders dig out foundations and dump the soil, the contaminated soil and dust can fill the air and settle on neighborhood yards.

The authors focused on Kensington, Fishtown and Port Richmond. They conducted a survey of that area and found that 75% of samples contained lead levels in excess of the EPA recommendation of 400 parts per million (ppm). Some were almost 25 times that level. Differing opinions are strongly held on the health significance of lead in soil, as opposed to the clear threat of paint chips and water, but it’s easy to understand why people are concerned. Lead poisoning is a serious health concern and children are especially vulnerable.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publishes information on the health risks of lead
exposure at this site:

Previous Land Use in Your Area

One of the first steps you can take to calculate your garden’s risk is to review the site history for your property. This may help determine if there was industrial use in the area. Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Resources provides interactive online maps of land use going back to the 17th century in at least some areas. The links for "Industrial Site Surveys" and "Land Use/Zoning/Development" have helpful information. I didn't find a way to search by address, but you can move the maps around and zoom in and out. The link is:

Also, the Inquirer article includes a map showing relative risk of lead contamination in the city. Here is the link:

Don’t Guess: Soil Test!

If you have any concerns, you can have your soil tested through Penn State University (PSU). The Penn State Extension Philadelphia Office is located at 675 Sansom St, Philadelphia, PA 19106, and the phone number is 215-471-2200.

Anna Herman, PSU Extension Master Gardener Coordinator, is collecting soil samples to be tested for free by the EPA. You can drop off a soil sample at the office. Several times a year, Anna will send them to be analyzed. The current estimated schedule is Nov 15, April 15, May 15 and July 15. Results typically return a couple of weeks after Anna delivers the samples.

If you want a test result in under two weeks, PSU Extension Agricultural Analysis Services Lab will test for heavy metals in soil samples if you check off “environmental soil testing” on their form. You can pick up a kit from the office. The cost is $27 for a test for lead. The price is $65 for a heavy metal panel that includes lead, copper, cadmium, nickel, chromium, and zinc. All of these metals plus arsenic, mercury, molybdenum and selenium is $160. (It is $10 if you only want soil fertility information)

It’s best to call ahead for instructions and to be sure someone will be there when you arrive.

The Inquirer article also listed several agencies that test soil. The link to that list is:

Interpreting Test Results

Penn State Extension has a publication that specifically discusses lead in residential soils. Here is the link:

This publication ranks lead levels as follows:

Soil Lead Level
(Total Sorbed Lead Test)
Level of Lead Contamination
mg/kg or ppm
Less than 150
None to very low
From 150 to 400
From 400 to 1,000
From 1,000 to 2,000
Greater than 2,000
Very high

The EPA puts the safe level at 400 ppm, even in areas where children play.

The health effects of lead in soil have not been studied as extensively as the effects of lead in paint and water, and there is some disagreement between agencies and experts.

Handling Lead Contamination in Your Garden

For the following sections, go to these links for more specific advice and information:

Growing Food Plants in Soil with Elevated Lead Levels

As a rule, plants do not take up lead very well. Fruiting plants such as tomatoes are the least likely, and leafy plants such as lettuce are the most likely to take up very small amounts when grown in contaminated soil.

However, the soil itself can be hazardous. Lead is harmful if ingested or inhaled. Lead can cling tightly to soil and produce grown in contaminated soil must be washed very thoroughly before eating, especially root crops. It is recommended to peel all root vegetables.

Gardeners also need to be careful not to bring soil into the home on gloves and clothing. Wash hands and exposed skin thoroughly.

Raised Beds

You can prevent plant contamination by using raised beds filled with uncontaminated soil. Cover the ground with plastic sheeting or some other barrier and then construct and fill the raised beds.

Non-Produce gardens

Covering the contaminated soil with sod will help lower your exposure. In beds for ornamental plants, shrubs, and trees, thick layers of uncontaminated soil and mulch is recommended.  Again, use more caution in areas that children will use.

Removing Lead-Contaminated Soil

It is possible to have the soil removed and replaced, but this is very costly and difficult, and is often prohibitive for the average homeowner.

New Contamination

As the Inquirer article points out, new construction may throw lead dust into the air, allowing it to settle on neighborhood yards. Roadways can also be sources of toxins that can end up in the soil. Try to reduce contact with soil within several feet of a busy road. Place low-maintenance ornamental plants close together and apply mulch. Plant your food gardens as far away from roads and construction as possible. Planting a windbreak between the road and the garden will help reduce the amount of wind-blown contaminants.

Ending on a positive note

For most of you, your soil is safe. As we always say: don’t guess, soil test! If you do find you have elevated lead levels, there are a number of steps you can take to assure your safety, and the safety of your families.

If you have any other questions and are not sure where to turn, ask the Hort Line! If we don't know the answer, we know someone who does!

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Oodles of Irises

Laddy Lau

Fall is the perfect time to separate irises while the ground is becoming more cool and the growing season nears to an end.  Irises are known for their gorgeous flowers.  However, irises tend to spread and clump together, via rhizomes, leading to reduced blossoms each year.  Therefore, they really benefiIt from periodic separation so beautiful blooms continue to emerge in the spring.

20170930_094135.jpgFor large clumps, use a shovel and dig about 1 foot around the perimeter of the clump to account for the roots.  With a hand trowel, you should be able to gather up the clump and shake off any excess dirt.

Now that we are disturbing the roots, it helps to trim the leaf fan back to allow the plant to direct its growing energy to the roots rather than support the full leaf fan.

You can gradually parse irises by using pruning tools or separate by hand. Select an individual rhizome with a central leaf fan for transplanting.

20170930_094229.jpgOnce you have prepared your soil, place your newly divided irises just below the soil surface.  Iris rhizomes need plenty of air, sunlight and a well-drained soil to establish itself and produce blooms for the following spring!

Thursday, August 17, 2017

What the heck is a ground cherry?

Michele K.  Koskinen

What the heck is a ground cherry? The unique very old fruit, ground cherry  (Physalis pruinosa) was introduced as a new plant at this Spring's Master Gardener Plant Sale. Each year I try at least one new vegetable/fruit to grow. I either buy it or start it from seed, and research it before planting. This year for a variety of reasons I did not have the opportunity to do the research and just plopped it in my garden. And, surprise, surprise it is so much fun and the neighborhood children love it to the astonishment of their mothers.

To grow this plant in your garden it needs to be trained to grow in a tomato cage or other support or it needs a lot of room to roam.
The photo shows one plant and it is about 5ft  long tip to tip. 

Water regularly, fertilize when the flowers first appear, and watch the tiny little lanterns grow.

Everyone passing by my garden look at the little lanterns with curiousity. They are growing on an interesting vine inside paper husks. Light in your hand  it looks similar to a tiny tomatillo.
The flavor is curious a blend of  tomato with another flavor. So far the neighbor children have said cherry. Could it be the name? We adults think citrus.

A small fruit it tends to drop to the ground when ripe. I use salt hay as mulch so it lays gently on the hay until harvested every day. Slightly unripened fruit can be picked and will ripen on your counter in an open airy container.
I have read it can be dried and frozen also.

Ripened fruit ready to eat

So how do you use Ground Cherries besides popping them in your mouth and saying yum? Links for salsa, tomato and Cherry salads, pies, tarts with other fruit and a variety of other recipes can be found online. Below is a salsa recipe gleaned from a blog. Links to other recipes are also noted

From farmgirlsdabble blog


yield: 3 TO 4 CUPS OF SALSA


  • 2 c. quartered cherry tomatoes

  • 1 c. halved ground cherries

  • 1/3 c. finely chopped red onion

  • 1 garlic clove, minced

  • 2 T. minced red chili

  • 1/2 c. finely chopped fresh cilantro

  • 3 T. fresh lime juice

  • 1 T. extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 tsp. cumin

  • 1/8 tsp. kosher salt

  • 1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper


In a medium bowl, fold together cherry tomatoes, ground cherries, onion, garlic, chili, and cilantro. Drizzle the lime juice and olive oil over the top, folding a couple times to incorporate. Then sprinkle with cumin, salt, and pepper. Fold again to bring it all together. Enjoy immediately or refrigerate for an hour or two before serving.
Serve with tortilla chips, or over grilled fish or chicken.

Other recipe inks to explore:

Friday, August 11, 2017

Mad Hatter: A Hybrid Pepper

by Michelle L. Dauberman

Check out this fun 2017 AAS National winner called the mad hatter pepper (Capsicum baccatum).  First you'll notice its distinctive shape and then you'll be wowed and rewarded by its taste.  The consensus being that it's altogether sweet, citrusy and floral though there will be some mild heat as you nibble near the seeds.  This sounds perfectly divine to me if and when you are ready to take a break from the palate scorchers like the Bhut jolokia (aka, the ghost pepper).

These charming peppers were bred for varied North American conditions and the yields are high.  The habit of the plant itself is on the larger side and it is a vigorous grower.  You can expect a mounding, upright habit with a height of 36 – 48” and a width of 36 – 48.”  Like most other vegetables it likes to be exposed to full sun.

You can pick the peppers when they are a mature green or you can wait a bit and let them ripen to red.  If you wait you’ll be rewarded with a sweeter and richer flavor.  Generally speaking it takes 65  70 day to reach its mature green state and 85  90 days to reach its ripe red state.

Given this peppers unique shape and sweeter disposition it would be a fun addition to a children’s vegetable garden!

For more information on peppers check out these PSU Extension links:

Container Grown Peppers

Penn State Extension – Growing Peppers

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Bees & Germander

by Michelle L. Dauberman

The plight of the bee is getting more and more serious if you ask me.  I’ve been doing my best to support them in the vegetable garden and in the landscape by providing the plants, shrubs and trees that they love to visit but here’s a small shrubby plant/herb that I’ve overlooked:  Germander (Teucrium).

Germander is quite hardy and can handle a variety of garden/landscape situations including poor soils and drought like conditions.  It can tolerate part-sun but prefers full-sun.  The lavender flowers that the bees find so appealing form on spikes, July through September.  A bonus of this plant is that there are evergreen varieties so, if you’d rather use it in your landscape as a low laying hedge rather than in the herb or vegetable garden, have at it.  You’ll have something green to look at while everything else is dormant. 

These are tense days for the bees so think about using this non-native (yes, I said not native) small sub-shrub as a compliment to your other native pollinator friendly plants, shrubs and trees and bring on the bees!

If you’d like to take a look at this plant in action visit the PSU Edible Demonstration Garden at the Horticultural Center, in the beautiful Fairmont Park, right here in Philadelphia.  I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Harlequin Bug

By Stephanie Rukowicz

The harlequin bug is a type of stink bug, much more colorful than the brown ones you might find around your house. An invasive species, it is a common insect pest of crucifers in the southern part of the U.S. but in recent years has been reported in PA as well.

2016 brought my first encounter with harlequin bugs. First eggs were sighted on kale around the same time I was noticing leaf miner damage to spinach and beet leaves (early May). At the time, I wasn’t sure what had laid the eggs, but noted their distinguished geometrical grouping and pattern.
 Uncapped (already hatched) eggs.

Side view of eggs, note black striping along side.
As the season progressed,the harlequin bugs made themselves known. Mostly laying on and inhabiting my kale plants, I attempted hand control by picking eggs and both adult and baby bugs, which helped but did not eliminate the population. I noticed as I pulled and destroyed severely infested plants that bugs and eggs could also be found on closely neighboring tomato plants. The warmer winter of 2015/2016 may have played a role in my new familiarity with this insect pest. Also, two plots in our garden use a radish cover crop, possibly providing a nice winter home for adult bugs.
Harlequin bugs on the underside of a collard leaf. Adult top left, youth middle right.
Later this season, I also spotted Harlequin bugs in the Parks and Rec vegetable garden at Columbus Square Park. Is this a new issue for South Philly? I wonder what next year’s gardening season will be like and if we need a more concentrated effort to control this pest population.

Collard leaf with damage from harlequin bugs,
browning and spotting. Also showing
concurrent damage from cabbage lopers
(holes and munching around leaf margins).
“Early in the season populations and damage are often low and you may be tempted to ignore them. But, with two to three generations in a season, by the time fall crops begin to mature their numbers may be one hundred times as high, causing serious damage. Harlequin bugs reproduce quickly, developing from an egg to an adult in about 48 days. Adult males may live up to 25 days and females up to 41 days. During their adulthood they can mate repeatedly laying multiple egg masses of 12 eggs every 3 days. That means a single female can produce 164 eggs. My advice – don’t ignore harlequins bugs; put together a plan to keep their numbers low.”

“Host-free periods without brassicas can help limit the population. Remember brassica cover crops, like forage radish, are known hosts. Harlequin can also feed and reproduce on wild weedy mustards (Shepherd’s purse, wild mustard, pepperweed), pigweed (Amaranthus spp.), lambsquarter (Chenopodium spp.). Keeping these weeds under control in fields and on field edges will limit habitat. Leftover crop residue in the field provides a protected host area for over-wintering adult harlequins. Remove or disk in residue to destroy overwintering sites. Trap crops have been recommended, but I would suggest that you need to rapidly kill the bugs in the trap crop, or destroy the trap crop and follow it with a host-free period, for this to work well. Plant an early crop of horseradish, mustard or kale and try to kill the harlequin bugs concentrated on this favorite host. One grower has successfully controlled harlequin by frequent vacuuming.”

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Window Box Idea: Succulents!

By Stephanie Rukowicz

Unlike some other Master Gardeners, I have not yet developed a knack for ornamental containers. Philadelphia's hot summers, long dry periods, and our home's south facing location add up to annual die-off of most of my window box plantings. The shallow, narrow boxes just don't retain enough water to cope with the elements. Short of an auto-drip watering system, I was running out of ideas until I stumbled past this window box on one of my walks. 

Succulents! The perfect plant to withstand the urban summer elements. Now I just need to decide which varieties to try, as there are so many to choose from. 

This article from Penn State Extension is helpful in narrowing down the options. An excerpt:
"Besides their eye-catching appeal, succulents are relatively pest and maintenance free. They are easy to grow if their cultural needs are met. Their large, fleshy leaves store moisture, making them relatively drought tolerant. The larger the leaves on the plants the longer they can go without water. The most critical aspect of success with succulents is to plant them in a container mix that drains freely...Variegated and light green leaves can scorch in full sun. Darker green and burgundy leaves can generally tolerate more sun."

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Questions from the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line/Ergot or not

Those of us who volunteer for the Philadelphia Master Gardener Hort Line have researched and answered some interesting questions. We have learned about plants, pests, disease, and general gardening along the way. From time to time, we'd like to share some of the more unusual and interesting of those questions with you.

Ergot or Not?

Last summer, a woman sent an email inquiry to the Hort Line that included photos of a dark growth on ornamental grass. The grass was planted in the Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust in Huntingdon Valley. She noticed the growth as she walked the acres of trails and saw that the growth was widespread. She was concerned that it was ergot, which could pose a serious public health threat.

What is ergot? Ergot is the name given to a group of fungi of the genus Claviceps. Its most common host is rye, although it can grow on many other types of grasses, including wheat. Because we consume so much wheat flour, contamination of wheat has the most serious and wide-spread implications for human health.

Ergot causes constriction of blood vessels and has been used medically to slow blood flow from wounds and childbirth.  Unfortunately, it can also have devastating effects if ingested in excess. Ergot can cause severe pain in arms and legs, a syndrome called St Anthony's Fire.

In high levels, ergot can cause hallucinations. LSD is derived from ergot and some historians think ergot poisoning may have played a role in the Salem witch trials or other significant outbreaks of hysteria.
And it's not only humans who are affected by ergot. Livestock can become ill, as well as wildlife and pets.

So it makes sense that there are strict regulations for the presence and levels of ergot in cereal grasses. Ergot-contaminated wheat can be cleaned, but it is costly and not always successful. In some cases the wheat must be destroyed.

The grasses in Pennypack Ecological Restoration Trust were not meant for consumption, but if this was ergot, we needed to alert the folks in charge of the meadow to be sure the infection didn't spread.

My first step was to look at the submitted photos and compare them to online photos of ergot posted by the USDA and various US university extension services.

First, take a look at the submitted photos:

Now check out photos of ergot:

The good news: They don't look like the same growth, do they? The Pennypack growth is round and covered with ripples and convolutions, while the ergot is elongated and horn-shaped.

I wrote back to our questioner to say I thought it wasn't ergot, but that I wanted to be sure, I forwarded the question to Dr. Gary Bergstrom, a wheat pathologist at Cornell, who told us it was definitely a smut fungus and not ergot. I was happy to be able to report to our questioner that the growth was not a health threat. 

Another successful Hort Line investigation comes to an end!

If YOU have any questions and are not sure where to turn, ask the Hort Line! If we don't know the answer, we know someone who does!