Maryland Grows

Holly is entwined in holiday traditions

Holly berries

The holly and the ivy,
When they are both full grown,
Of all the trees that are in the wood,
The holly bears the crown.

This traditional British Christmas carol highlights the prominence of holly in our holiday celebrations.   But where did that tradition begin?

Because holly retains its green leaves all year long, many ancient cultures believed it had magical powers.  The ancient Druids were the first to give it supernatural significance, bringing in boughs to attract woodland spirits.  

Other cultures followed suit.  Holly was hung in homes to ward off evil spirits, worn by warriors for courage, eaten to purge impurities, drunk as tea for strength, and put under pillows to inspire prophetic dreams.

Romans hung holly in their temples and homes during Saturnalia, the midwinter festival honoring Saturn, god of agriculture.  Holly’s evergreen boughs celebrated the return of longer days and the hope for productive farms in the coming year.

The Roman naturalist Pliny added to holly’s lore.  He believed that a wild animal could be subdued by throwing a stick of holly at it and that holly trees planted near a home would protect its owners from both bad weather and witchcraft. 

Early churches adopted pagan rituals as their own.  Christmas Eve was designated as the time to decorate churches and it was forbidden to bring any greens into a home before then.   

Those bans on early decorating inspired the belief that bringing in holly too soon would cause misfortune.  I wonder what the ancients would think of modern day stores’ policies of putting up Christmas merchandise the day after Halloween?

Holly also spoke of love and relationships. Henry VIII wrote a love song, “Green groweth the holly” which extolled being ever true.  And one tradition dictated that the first one – husband or wife – to bring holly into the home at Christmas would rule the roost in the coming year. 

Grab that holly, girls!

Sex and the single holly gets complicated.  Most hollies are dioecious, having separate male and female trees.  You need both for the female to get berries. 

Oh, and those berries aren’t really berries.  They are drupes, a fleshy fruit with pit that contains a seed. There, you’ve had your botany word of the day.   

Ilex is the scientific name for the over 500 species of holly trees and shrubs. Most are evergreen, but a few are deciduous, losing their leaves in fall.  And their berries can be red, white, yellow or black. 

Holly’s berries feed a multitude of birds from mockingbirds and thrushes to robins and bluebirds.  They’re an important food source for other wildlife as well. 

But don’t try snacking on holly berries yourself.  They can make you ill or worse.  In medieval times physicians touted holly berries as a cure for colic.  The results were sometimes fatal.  Whether you display it for love, protection, good fortune or beauty, let holly grace your holiday home to honor traditions that have been handed down through the ages.  

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Growing and Working for Food Justice in Baltimore

Corn field

COVID-19 has been devastating for poor people and people of color. Systemic racism and economic inequality have resulted in higher death rates for Black and Hispanic people. Food insecurity is twice as likely to affect Black and Hispanic households as White households and the Maryland Food Bank estimates that one in seven of our state’s children suffers from food insecurity.

As individuals we can volunteer for community kitchens and food banks, donate produce from our gardens, support local farmers, and learn about the root causes of these problems and disparities. We can also support the awesome groups that are educating, organizing, and growing food to address food apartheid and food insecurity. Here are a few outstanding examples with Baltimore roots:

Black Church Food Security Network

Black Church Food Security Network logo

Our mission: The Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN) utilizes an asset-based approach in organizing and linking the vast resources of historically African American congregations in rural and urban communities to advance food and land sovereignty.

The Black Farmer Directory was created by BCFSN to connect Black Farmers to African American churches, other faith-based institutions, and all who wish to support them.

Articles, blog posts & interviews

YouTube gardening & food preservation tutorials

Donate Link

Black Farmers’ Resilience

The Black Church Food Security Network (BCFSN) Logo

This fund is a special project of the Farm Alliance of Baltimore and supports 10 Black-owned farms and Black-led food and farming organizations in Baltimore.

Denzel Mitchell, Deputy Director for the Alliance, says “2020 has been stressful but work has ramped up. On top of organizing and assisting farmers we’re dealing with racial tensions and pandemic issues. How do we help farms succeed and how do we move as an organization in this current climate of fear and anxiety?”

He noted that the City has provided support for the Alliance and donors helped get the Resilience Fund started mid-year. Farmers in need receive cash assistance, tools, and equipment.

Donate Link

Great Kids

Friends Logo

Great Kids Farm is a 33-acre educational farm operated by Baltimore City Public Schools’ Office of Food and Nutrition Services. The farm is home to goats, chickens, turkeys, sheep and a lot of veggies and fruit.

In the 2020/2021 school year, we are offering virtual field trips for any Baltimore City Public Schools’ class ( ), a pre-recorded virtual program for 2nd grade students (, and agriculture-based activity kits for students to gain hands on experience in their own homes. Great Kids Farm also offers youth employment to high school students, and we are looking forward to hosting our 2nd annual African American Foodways Summit for high school students this February (a virtual event). For more on our programs, contact:

Do you have gardening supplies and tools to donate or would you like to become a volunteer? Contact

Donate Link

Let’s all pledge to do more in 2021 to learn from one another, feed one another, and work for a more healthy, equitable, and just food system.

Best wishes for a safe and peaceful holiday season!

Jon Traunfeld

Extension Specialist

Hot cocoa, bugs, and forests

Last week my neighborhood hosted the traditional Christmas tree lighting event. Usually this event involves lighting the large Christmas tree across my street, having Santa come visit the kids on the firefighter truck, and sharing a cup of warm chocolate while chatting with the neighbors. This year, things were a bit different, with the lighting being live broadcasted, Santa parading the neighborhood on a truck, and chocolate being picked-up at one of our neighbor’s yard and enjoyed at home.

I have been since thinking a lot about this event, and how important it is to maintain the social ties in our neighborhood. However, I also have been thinking a lot about how the food at this event is almost as important as the event itself; how the chocolate was not left out of this year’s modified event. And this made me realize yet again how foods are central to our social ties, and how losing them would also make us a bit lonelier. So today’s post, the third in our comfort foods series, will be about that food that was so important to my neighborhood this past weekend: chocolate. Join me today in exploring how cacao comes to be, and how partnering with nature helps its (re)production.

cupcakes with chocolate sprinkles

Chocolate – the ultimate winter comfort food. Photo: Kathy Smail

What is cocoa?

The cocoa we find in the chocolate we eat and drink comes from beans of the cacao tree, a small tree in the mallow family. As for the other comfort foods we talked about in my last two posts (spices and vanilla), cacao is also not grown in the USA, and thus has to be imported. (Interestingly, it also has to be 100% imported into the countries we usually associate with chocolate, like Switzerland and Belgium.) Cacao, indeed, can only grow in very humid rainforests and can only be cultivated close to the Equator. Today, the major producers of cacao are in West Africa (e.g., Ivory Coast, Ghana) and the Americas (e.g., Ecuador, Brazil).

cacao tree a the forest

The plant of cacao, Theobroma cacao, is a small tree naturally occurring in South and Central America. The fruits of cacao plants grow directly attached to the trunk. Photo: F. and K. Starr

Even though cultivated in Africa, the cacao plant originates in South and Central America, where the species grows in the wild. Studies demonstrated that the wild plant was domesticated one or two times, first about 5,000 years ago in the Amazon, and about 3,500 years ago in Central America.

Although, as I said before, cacao beans are the central ingredient of chocolate, it is suspected that the first uses of cacao were not based on the consumption of their beans, but rather of their pulp, which is sweet and readily ferments to produce alcoholic beverages. Researchers believe that the use of beans for making the chocolate drinks the first Spaniards saw Aztec emperors drink was indeed a secondary use of the fruit.

How is cacao produced?

Unlike many of the crops we eat, most of cacao production is done by small-scale farmers. Being small trees, cacao fruits are produced in cacao orchards, usually established in areas previously occupied by rain forests. The fruits grow directly on the trunk of the tree, and need to be harvested regularly, since all fruits do not ripen at the same time. Once harvested, the fruits are cut open, and the pulp and beans are separated from the husks. While the husks are discarded, the beans are left to dry out, at which point they become dark and start looking like the little pictures we sometimes see on our chocolate bars.

cacao pod split open

The fruits of cacao are large husks that contain the beans and a sweet pulp. Note the violet/whitish color of the fresh beans, which will eventually turn brown after drying. Photo: Presidencia República Dominicana

As we see, a central part of cocoa production (and us getting the yummy chocolate we like) is the production of fruits, which seems to be defined by many aspects of the production. On the one hand, poor soils lead to yield reductions. Interestingly, cacao trees are adapted to growing in the understory of the rain forest and for this reason had been initially grown under other trees. However, once it was observed that their productivity increased if exposed to full sun, the accompanying trees started to get cut off, further contributing to the deforestation of the rain forests where they are usually grown, and increasing the monoculture of cacao plants.

After some years of higher yield, farmers realized that their trees became less and less productive, and came to understand that the presence of other trees in the orchards maintained the nutrients in the orchard’s soil, what eventually benefited fruit production. Today, in order to maintain yield and sustain the soils, cacao is recommended to be grown in what is called agroforestry systems, meaning that orchards are interplanted with other trees, which enrich the soil with nutrients, and provide a more natural shady environment in which the cacao trees can grow. The little label with a frog that we see on some certified chocolate packages indicates indeed that the farms where the cocoa used in that chocolate was produced following such environmentally friendly practices. Interestingly, as for many environmental practices, it was shown later that using agroforestry methods for cocoa production was not only beneficial to soil fertility; it also indirectly improved fruit pollination, thus improving yield through different paths!

cacao plants

Agroforestry practices allow cacao plants to grow under the canopy of larger trees. This improves the quality of the soil, promotes the presence of pollinators, and leads to higher yield. Photo: J. Rocha, from Rocha et al., 2019

How is cacao pollinated?

Why am I talking about pollination if I was just talking about planting trees? There’s a relationship, I promise! Let’s back up a bit. Unlike other crops (e.g., pecans) most cacao plants need to be cross-pollinated to produce pods and beans. This means that most cacao varieties need to receive pollen from another plant to produce fruit. In the case of cacao, the pollen cannot be transferred by wind, which makes animal pollinators central to cocoa production. In a surprising turn of events, even though we tend to think about pollinators as bees or butterflies, this wonderful fruit is mainly pollinated by a very unexpected organism: a biting midge! 🤯

cacao flower and pollinator midge

Midges of the genus Forcipomyia are the main pollinators of cocoa flowers. These tiny flies visit cocoa flowers and get covered in pollen, as seen in the picture on the left. Photos; left: S. Forbes; right: C. Quintin

Males and females of a group of midges (genus Forcipomyia) act as the main pollinators of the small cacao flowers. These midges visit the flowers to feed on nectar and pollen, which provides energy to the insects and helps females in egg production. While moving from flower to flower to feed, they transfer pollen between flowers from different trees, and increase fruit production. From this perspective, we need to thank these midges for the delicious chocolate we eat and drink!

And this is where planting trees relates to pollination. These midges prefer to develop on humid and shady environments, using leaf litter as a laying site. Making the soils shadier and increasing their leaf residues, agroforestry practices in cacao plantations directly benefit midges’ populations… and cacao production! Thus, through increasing the diversity of trees in these plantations, farmers can both make the soils provide nutrients for the plants to grow, and maintain large midge populations that ensure the effective pollination of cacao flowers. Isn’t it impressive what we can accomplish when we work with nature? And I mean, isn’t chocolate worth it?

Happy Holidays, everybody!

By Anahí Espíndola, Assistant Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Maryland, College Park. See more posts by Anahí.

Master Gardener Project Makes Discovery Commemorating the Remarkable Life of Jane Gates

building a raised bed garden

John and Julian begin work on a teaching garden at the Jane Gates Heritage House in Cumberland, Maryland

The Jane Gates Heritage House located on Greene Street in Cumberland, Maryland is a non-profit museum and community center started by John and Sukh Gates to honor the spirit of John’s third great-grandmother, Jane Gates (c. 1819 – 1888). Jane lived most of her life enslaved, most likely in or near Cumberland. She obtained freedom when slavery was abolished in Maryland in November 1864.

Jane Gates Heritage House

Jane Gates Heritage House

Jane purchased the house and lot for $1400 in 1871 in the current location of 515, 511, and 509 Greene Street. Jane Gates is listed in the 1870 U.S. Census in the house at 515 Greene Street as a nurse and a laundress, age 51, living with two of her children and two grandchildren. The house at 515 is Jane’s original dwelling. The houses at 511 and 509 were built decades later by one of Jane’s daughters and a granddaughter. Jane Gates is also the second great-grandmother of Dr. Paul Gates and his brother Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a scholar of African American culture at Harvard University and host of the PBS program, “Finding Your Roots.” Jane’s house is featured in his PBS documentary, “African American Lives II.”

The mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House is to empower, enrich, and enhance the lives of all through faith, education, and history. Along with African American history, the President of the board of directors, Sukh Gates, is passionate about teaching elementary-aged children crucial life skills such as healthy living and growing and preparing food. 

To reach this goal, Sukh wanted to transform the backyard of the house into a teaching garden. She asked for help from the Master Gardeners in Allegany County to design and install the garden. I developed a plan based on Sukh’s goals and the available land at the house. The plan called for four raised beds for vegetables, a small bed for fruit along an existing wall, and a pollinator garden along the fence that borders the alley.  

creating a new teaching garden

Construction of raised beds

raised bed gardens

Gardens planted in June

The Jane Gates Heritage House received a grant from the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture to renovate the house but not the grounds. Sukh and I applied for a grant from the Allegany Work Group of the Western Maryland Food Council to build the raised beds. In March 2020, the Food Council awarded $600 to cover the cost of materials and soil. Josh Frick, my husband, constructed the raised beds on site. Our families then worked together to install the raised beds and fill them with soil. In June, Master Gardeners donated and planted fruit, vegetables, herbs, and flowers in the gardens. The local wildlife posed quite a challenge, prompting the Gates family to erect a fence to protect their fledgling garden. By mid-July, Sukh excitedly picked the first zucchini.  

This project fostered a growing friendship between Sukh and me and our respective organizations. I regularly consulted with Sukh over the summer and into the fall. Sukh, new to gardening, was amazed by the beauty, the challenges, and the serenity afforded by the garden.

In the course of inspecting the pollinator garden for weeds, I noticed a plant that I hadn’t paid much attention to before. This plant looked familiar, like a flower of some kind, but it had not been planted by Master Gardeners. It was a volunteer that had re-seeded and spread itself from times past. It grew along the alley behind the house. I pondered this a while, and it finally came to me. This plant is soapwort! 

Soapwort, whose botanical name is Saponaria officinalis, may be more familiar to you as bouncing Bet or wild sweet William. European colonists brought soapwort to America because it had several essential uses. Sap from the roots and stems can be combined with water to create a lathery soap solution traditionally used to clean delicate textiles and woolen fabrics. This plant naturalized throughout North America. Further inquiry reveals that bouncing Bet (Bet is short for Bess) is an old English nickname that means washerwoman. The hook was set; Sukh and I wanted to learn more.


Herb garden

This discovery prompted Sukh and me to learn more about 19th Century laundering techniques. In the 1800s, the boiling of textiles in a large kettle was part of the laundering regimen. An archeological dig in 2019 led by Oxbow Cultural Research principal Suzanne Trussell found remnants of burned wood behind the house, near to where the soapwort grows. The wood was in the ground at an angle, which may indicate Jane used a tripod to hold a large kettle over a fire. Could this have been the spot where Jane spent long hours laboring? Could Jane have planted the soapwort nearby because she used it as part of her cleaning process? We can’t know for sure, but it’s fascinating to consider.  

Finding soapwort created a lead-in to explore Jane’s life as a laundress and to search for further relevant connections. The more we delved into history, the more Jane Gates came alive. Jane’s probable daily routines, methods, and challenges became clearer. Suddenly the life of Jane Gates became tangible. This is the mission of the Jane Gates Heritage House, after all, to learn from Jane by connecting the past to the present. The providential discovery of this inconspicuous plant shed light on the life of this remarkable woman, Jane Gates, and for that we are grateful.

If you would like to learn more about the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their Facebook page and if you would like to donate to the Jane Gates Heritage House, please visit their GoFundMe page. 

By Sherry Frick, Master Gardener Coordinator, University of Maryland Extension, Allegany County.

Why is my oak tree dying? Featured Video

Older oak trees have been plagued with health problems and are dying in large numbers throughout Maryland. Why? Both researchers and homeowners are asking the same question. The tree diagnostic laboratories have identified an assortment of diseases and pests on the dying trees. Yet no single, conclusive problem is killing them all. It remains a mystery. A few facts that everyone agrees on are these: We have never had so many mature oaks in our forests, so maybe this is the way they naturally decline. We experienced unusually wet summer weather in 2018 and 2019. Researchers believe this could have compromised the relationship between the mature oak roots and the fungus on which they depend for water absorption. As a homeowner, you can try to alleviate oak drought stress. If we experience a July/August drought, watering the area around the drip line of a tree can reduce stress. The objective would not be to stimulate growth with volumes of water, but instead to sustain the tree during the drought period. If your oak is in a lawn and you feed the turf once a year, that will suffice. Visit the Home and Garden Information Center website for a summary article.

Joyce Browning Horticulturist, Master Gardener Coordinator Video credit: Bethany Evans Longwood Gardens Professional Gardener Program Alumni; CPH

Spring crops for your consideration

As the seed catalogs slide into your mailbox and you begin to think about next year’s garden, here are a few vegetables to keep in mind. These are fairly common crops that for various reasons may not be the first ones chosen by beginning gardeners, or that more experienced gardeners might have tried and given up on. But I think they’re worth a chance!

Read More

December Tips and Tasks

Not sure what to get your garden lover this holiday season? The Master Gardener Handbook makes a nice gift. 

Master Gardener Handbook
  • Check to make sure the Christmas tree you purchase is fresh. Gently grasp a branch with your fingers and pull towards you. Very few needles should come off in your hand. The individual needles should be pliable when bent in half. Then raise the tree off the ground a few inches and hit the cut end of the trunk on the ground or pavement. If many needles shatter from the tree, it is a sign of dryness.
  • Keep the Christmas tree stand filled with water and check the level in the reservoir daily. There is no need to add preservatives to the water. 
  • To keep poinsettias healthy keep them away from dry, drafty locations. Do not place near heat vents, doorways or drafty windows. Remove the decorative pot cover or make holes in the bottom of it to make sure the water drains from the container when you water.