Thom Smith | Naturewatch: Blame winter for lack of hydrangea blooms


Q: We have several hydrangea plants around our house. They are large and look very healthy. We have always treated them with TLC, but this year there are no blossoms ... not even one. Our neighbors have none either. Is there an explanation for no blossoms?

— Joe and Audrey

A: Although this is a hardy plant, my guess is the flower buds were hit by a late freeze at the wrong time. Some hydrangeas produce flowers off of new growth and almost never fail to delight, while some cultivars, including two that I planted last year, die back to ground if the winter is colder than normal or maybe windier or longer. I am still hoping mine will produce a flower or two.

Q: [A plant with yellow flowers and prickly stems showed up in my yard] It looks to be Buffalo Bur. It doesn't seem to be mentioned around here, but it looks to be one nasty customer! Pretty, but poisonous and invasive. I figure it would be a good idea for folks to be on the lookout, carefully dispose of, before it becomes a problem.

— Donna, Dalton, Mass.

A: One of the exciting things about nature is it never ceases to provide something new to intrigue us. What you found is a plant that I am unfamiliar with, and not finding it listed in Pamela Weatherbee's Flora of Berkshire County Massachusetts (1996) or in my lists of invasive plants in Massachusetts.

"It is not native to Massachusetts or generally anywhere east of the Mississippi, and is not listed as an invasive species in Massachusetts. It is an annual so perhaps easy to control," said Robert Wernerehl, Ph.D., state botanist of Massachusetts.

The plant is a member of the nightshade (potato) family. And at this season many of us relish another member of that family, the lovely plump red tomatoes growing in our gardens and so readily available at farmer's markets and roadside vegetable stands. Just don't eat its leaves.

Q: Can you tell me if using vinegar for weed control presents a risk to small creatures — chipmunks, squirrels, rabbits (some are very young and small), birds, reptiles, etc. If it's safe at all is there an acidity percentage level that we should stay under — some formula's call for a level as high as 20 percent, but that seems very strong? Do you have a formula that you'd recommend?

— Marilyn, North Adams

A: It is certainly safer that most commercial herbicides or weed killers, and when used straight from the bottle at 5 percent acetic acid works better on some weeds than others. I have used a spray bottle with white vinegar to kill unsightly weeds in cracks along our sidewalk and it is fairly effective, with leaves browning within a few days. Its strong odor discourages small mammals, but yes, if it gets into the soil, it will harm or kill earthworms and other soil creatures. Like all chemicals, use care. I wouldn't use vinegars stronger than 5 percent.

Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.


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