December 17, 2021
By Robin Kuehn
Creeping Myrtle, Vinca minor
This lovely, low, purple-flowering groundcover is ubiquitous with old farmsteads and historic houses. In fact, anyone who isn’t familiar with creeping myrtle or periwinkle can visit the site of almost any farmhouse around 100+ years old and find large swaths of vinca spreading through flower beds and under trees. This non-native plant is still really popular in new plantings since it doesn’t mind growing in the shade and in stressful conditions, which also makes it really well-suited to taking over and pushing out native species!
In addition to the notable purple, or sometimes white or blue pinwheel-style flowers, this plant is easily spotted at a distance where it looks like the forest has a whole carpet of little round glossy leaves. Some popular varieties are variegated (striped), but the green varieties are the hardiest. They typically spread through their roots so if you have guiltily realized that you’re growing some in your own backyard, you can move it to an isolated flower bed or into a planter and keep it a bit more under control. You might also consider another low-growing plant to suit your needs that doesn’t spread as easily, such as creeping phlox, juniper, or thyme. I also love native partridgeberry and wintergreen, as well as the taller pachysandra, wild geranium and solomon’s seal.
For tips on identifying vinca out in the wild, check out this video by the folks at Lower Hudson PRISM, and if you spot any in your own travels, be sure to post to iNaturalist or iMapInvasives for management by the Invasives Strike Force!
You might be asking, why should we worry about a little creeping plant? Who does it affect? The answer to the first question is simple: by spreading in a thick mat, this plant makes it really difficult for tree and shrub seedlings and pretty much any other plant to grow since they just can’t compete! All that low groundcover doesn’t provide great habitat for the insects, mammals and birds that need shrubs and trees. As for whoooo else it affects, you only need to look up… and up…
Great Horned Owl, Bubo virginianus
If you’re lucky, and spend enough time looking way up into the tallest of the old trees, you might spot this month’s indigenous species, the Great Horned Owl. The second-largest of our local owls (only dwarfed by the very rare Great Gray Owl, Strix nebulosa), this owl stands between 18 and 24 inches tall. They often stand right against the tree they’re perched in, where they blend right into the bark thanks to their gorgeous mottled gray and brown feathers and pointed head feather tufts (which are called “plumicorns”, by far one of my favorite facts about any species!) In addition to their size and feather “horns”, these owls stand out from other local species by their bright yellow eyes, their white throat patch, and their distinctive hooting call.
Listen here for the “hoo h’HOO hoooo hoooo” that you might recognize in your own backyard one winter evening. Their breeding season begins in late winter, so now’s the time to listen for them and other local owls!
These birds depend on big old trees for nests and to rest through the daytime, especially in edge habitat on the border of forests and fields.. They aren’t particularly skilled nest-builders, and usually use abandoned crow or hawk nests, or any suitably large platform or tree fork that they and their few nestlings can fit on. They tend to prefer evergreen trees, since while they’re sleeping they’re vulnerable to being spotted and mobbed by crows and other smaller birds – not unfairly, as they’ll happily eat a sleeping crow if they find one! Since they’re so hard for us to see in their pine or spruce roosting spots, listening to crows is one way to find them. You can also look under suitable trees for tell-tale owl “pellets”, the spit-up, indigestible remains of their last meal.
Owls are fantastic neighbors, since they love to eat rodents and other small mammals. It’s a good idea to keep your cat indoors if you hear one, since they’re brave enough to eat the even larger skunks, opossums and weasels. If you want to see more owls in your neighborhood, consider leaving large sheltering trees standing – including dead and broken ones, where you can – and managing vinca and other aggressive plants that keep young trees from sprouting. You can also build nesting platforms for them, if you can get them high enough in the trees! Finally, avoid using rodent poison and leaving out netting from soccer goals and other purposes overnight to help keep them safe on their nightly hunts.
Native plant alternatives:
All about Great Horned Owls:
Raptors and Rat Poison:
Understanding Owl Pellets:
For the plans to build a nesting platform: