Friday, June 18, 2010

Matted Lignum: A Treat For Big Birds, Children And You

Once there was a very big bird (yellow, I think, or perhaps light brown) that loved sweet treats.  It was huge, about 12' high and weighed maybe 500 lbs.   This bird couldn't fly because it had no wings, but that didn't matter much for it had few enemies.  It lived in a small, sheltered neighborhood.

But bullies moved in and grew in number.  Before long, the big bird existed no more.  They ate it.  Strangely, few remember.  Now they claim the neighborhood as though it had always been theirs, and their children eat the treats.

The bird in mind is not the star of television and movies, but a very large species called the Moa, native to New Zealand.  Perhaps its closest living relative is the emu, or possibly the South American tinamous.  But, to get an image in your mind, think of the ostrich, only much bigger and with a formidable hooked beak.  It browsed on a wide variety of plants including the sweet fruit of Muehlenbeckia axillaris (pronounced mew-len-BEK-ee-ah ax-ILL-ar-iss), also known as Matted Lignum, Creeping Wire Vine, Maidenhair Vine, and Mattress Vine.

Until humans arrived on the scene, the only known enemy of the moa was an enormous raptor called Haast's Eagle.  Haast's eagles weighed up to 33 pounds and attacked moas from above at speeds of over 50 miles per hour.

Then Maori arrived around 1300AD.  They are now considered to be the indigenous people of New Zealand.  As you know, indigenous people are often portrayed as living in harmony with nature.  In fact, the Maori hunted the moa to extinction, perhaps within a hundred years after their arrival.  As the moa disappeared, so did the Haast's eagle.

The pearly, succulent, star-shaped fruit of Matted Lignum is edible and rather sweet.  To be precise, it is not the fruit that is edible; it resembles a black seed.  But the succulent sepals and petals surrounding the fruit are enjoyed, especially by Maori children.  (If your child is not Maori, I suggest you check with your physician before you allow him to eat the fruit.)

Muehlenbeckia, native to New Zealand, Australia and Papua New Guinea, was named in honor of Henri Gustave Muehlenbeck, a 19th century French physician who investigated the flora of Alsace.  In those days, most physicians were botanists, too.  But he got nowhere near New Zealand, as far as I can tell.  "Axillaris" means "in the leaf axils", referring to the position of the flowers and fruit.

Gardeners know Matted Lignum as an effective ground cover.  When prostrate, the plant forms a dense mat, up to 4", of tough, woody vines.  "Lignum" refers to the tough vines, as does the name, Creeping Wire Vine.  The name, Mattress Vine, refers to the density of the mat.  It tolerates foot traffic quite well.  It is also excellent for controlling erosion in your landscape.

I have no idea why it's called Maidenhair Vine, as it doesn't resemble the hair of any maidens I've known.  The small, evergreen leaves are bronze in color from fall to spring.  In addition to its use as a ground cover, it's excellent for container gardens and hanging baskets, topiarys, and cascading over walls.

Matted Lignum is hardy in USDA climate zones 6 through 9.  Soil should be well-drained, with pH ranging from 6.1 to 7.8.  Mature plants are drought tolerant.  It is deer-resistant.

To determine whether soil amendments are necessary, take a soil sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office.  They will provide you with a helpful report for a small fee.

Prepare the planting bed for Matted Lignum by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep. Compost may be incorporated into the soil.  Fertilizer be used.  If you choose to do so, incorporate 5-10-15 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Plant Matted Lignum 24" to 30" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container. Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

The only negative is that it can cover ground, as a good ground cover should, therefore it should be trimmed occasionally to keep it confined.

Matted Lignum is an interesting solution plant.  It's a fine ground cover, controls erosion beautifully and tolerates foot traffic.  It makes lovely topiarys, performs well in container gardens and hanging baskets, and cascades nicely over stone walls.  Not only that, you'll have a fascinating story to tell your guests as you stroll through your garden.  What a treat that will be!

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