Digging In - Advice on Joseph's Coat and Bud-Eating Squirrels

By Scott Aker
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, May 21, 2009

Q For the past three summers, a mysterious and colorful plant has grown in my yard. It is an upright annual with layers of arrow-shaped leaves, which are green and brown, topped with petals that are bright red and yellow. Can you identify it?

A Somehow, Joseph's coat, Amaranthus tricolor, has found its way to your garden. The "petals" are just colorful leaves that appear at the top of the plant. The actual flowers are tiny and grow in the axils of the leaves. Like most amaranths, it has the ability to produce prodigious amounts of seed, and it can grow very rapidly in warm weather. The leaves are edible, and they are sometimes eaten cooked or in salads. For this reason, it is also called Chinese spinach.

Five squirrels inhabit our garden and have eaten the buds on our old dogwood tree. This is the first time they have done this, but I worry about the effect on the tree. Do you think this will harm it? The rodents also raid the bird feeder constantly and appear fat and happy, so I don't understand their need to eat the dogwood buds.

Squirrels often target a specific tree and chew on the small twigs, pruning it mercilessly. They need to chew on twigs to wear down their incisors. Fortunately, their interest in a single tree seems to be for a limited time. Although this spring's flowers may be scarce on your dogwood, the squirrels are unlikely to have a significant long-term impact.

Squirrels may also feed on buds of trees for nourishment. While the birdseed may supply much of their dietary requirement, it probably doesn't provide them with all the nutrients they need.

Squirrel populations are often artificially high in residential areas because they are given much more food than they would ever find in nature. Bird feeders are not the only source. Some people put out old bread, peanuts and other food for them, or feed pets outdoors, another source of food for squirrels.

These practices are unwise, because the resulting burgeoning squirrel population is likely to dig up plants, get into attics and crawl spaces and even cause power outages while chewing on electrical lines or scampering on transformers. Squirrels are wild animals. We should let nature provide the food they need.

Scott Aker is a horticulturist at the U.S. National Arboretum.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company