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A: There are those who suspect Wildflower Center volunteers are the culpable and capable culprits. Yet, others think staff members play some, albeit small, role. You can torture us with your plant questions, but we will never reveal the Green Guru's secret identity.

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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Wednesday - December 09, 2009

From: Pikeville, KY
Region: Mid-Atlantic
Topic: Pruning, Seasonal Tasks
Title: Arrows and Hunting Dogs in Kentucky
Answered by: Anne Bossart

QUESTION:

Mr. Smarty Plants--Is it normal for our arrowwood viburnum to give off a musky odour in the late fall? The smell reminds me of a wet hunting dog.

ANSWER:

In fall, as the leaves change color and begin to fall to the ground, the process of decomposition begins.  There are many micro-organisms that participate in this process and molds make up a large part of them. Before a plant sheds its leaves it withdraws nutrients, carbohydrates and water from them, closes off circulation from the plant to them and they fall to the ground and finish drying out.

When there is a hard frost, leaves that have not been through this process suffer from damage as the water in them freezes and bursts the cell walls in the leaves.  That is why very delicate plants like impatiens turn to mush.  Broad leaved evergreens do not suffer the same fate as they have stonger cell walls and have adapted so that as temperatures fall, the concentration of sugars in their sap is increased.  This prevents the formation of the ice crystals that burst the cell walls.

What is likely happening is that you notice the smell when the temperatures rise after a hard frost and the leaves that have frozen are starting to decompose.

Ahh, the smells of autumn: wood smoke, apple cider and rotting leaves!

 

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