Sunday, July 31, 2016

drawn by sweet honey

drawn by sweet honey
scent, honey bees gather nectar
from rattlesnake master

Honey bees, drawn by a strong honey-like scent, are swarming over the prickly pom pom blossom heads of rattlesnake master. Other insects also seek the sweet nectar: black wasps, black horse flies, butterflies, moths, skippers, bugs and beetles.

The whole plant is prickly. Spiky white bracts stick out all over the spherical multi-flower heads that develop in clusters at the top of long stems, and the long sword-shaped leaves are edged with small teeth. The scientific name, Eryngium yuccifolium, pretty much sums up the primary characteristics of this native forb. Eryngium is Greek for "prickly plant" and yuccifolium means "yucca leaves." All those prickles are a good defense against mammalian herbivores, though they may nip the ends of the leaves. The caterpillar of the rare rattlesnake master borer moth will bore into the stem and feed off of the pith.

Rattlesnake master is an odd member of the carrot family that resembles a yucca, a member of the lily family, with globular flower heads that look more like a thistle, a member of the composite family. But it is a true native prairie plant, which propagates by offsets developing at the base of each plant. 

Indigenous tribes used the dried seed heads as rattles. Perhaps because the seed heads rattled like a rattlesnake, pioneers erroneously believed the root of the plant, also known as button snake-root, was an antidote for rattlesnake bite.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

before the thunderstorm

before the thunderstorm
mayapples bow to the ground
weighed down by their fruit

We have a small colony of Mayapple growing around a magnolia tree to the south of our house. In the nearby woods, these colonies can be quite extensive, excluding other wildflowers. They are safe from being eaten by mammals due to the bitter taste and poisonous qualities, but the larva of a sawfly do feed on the leaves.

Today, as I pass our little patch to hang linen sheets on the clothesline stretched between three shagbark hickories, I notice one "apple" lying on the ground under the tree, still attached by a curving stem to the main stalk, now drying up along with the two large umbrella leaves. In late July the berry is the size of a hen egg or small lemon or lime, but with smooth skin. This fruit is not quite ripe, half green, half yellow. A small groove runs from the stem end to the blossom end, now a black shriveled remnant. When I pick up the oval fruit it falls off the stem. Because it's still half green, I bring it inside to ripen on the kitchen windowsill.

The fruit is edible, but you definitely do not want to eat it until it's completely ripe, and then only when the rind and seeds have been removed. The entire plant is highly toxic. Touching the root and then touching the eyes causes severe inflammation, intense pain and loss of vision for two days. Eating the root causes death in a few hours, unless one is given an emetic. Box turtles will eat the ripe fruit, and possibly such mammals as opossums, raccoons and skunks, which then disperse the seeds in their feces.

Mayapple is also known as American mandrake, ground lemon, duck's foot and umbrella plant. The scientific name, Podophyllum pelatum, is derived from the shape of the leaves. A combination of Greek words, podos means "foot," phyllon means "leaf" and pelatum means "shield." So, "foot-shaped leaf shield." The leaves are round with deeply cut lobes, like a duck's foot. In some plants the lobes are narrower, in others, wider.

Only plants with double leaves produce flowers and fruit, and they do effectively act as a shield, hiding the single pendant white blossom and the green fruit until it matures. When the fertile plant first emerges in early spring, it looks like a fantastic creature with a green head, the flower bud, and folded green wings, the double leaves.

Below, an oval green berry is emerging in a cross-pollinated flower. The spring flowers are short-lived but it takes several months for the berry to mature. In late July or early August the leaves turn brown and the stem falls over, bringing the ripe fruit to the ground. 

As with many toxic plants, Podophyllum pelatum has its medicinal uses, for example, as a purgative, a laxative, a vermifuge, and topically for the treatment of warts and some types of skin cancer. Two drugs are made from Mayapple: etoposide, for testicular and small-cell lung cancer, and teniposide for infancy leukemia and brain tumors.

I have read that the ripe fruit is delicious, though as usual with taste, people find it difficult to describe: sweet but sour, like wild grapes, passionfruit, banana. I'll let you know if my windowsill specimen becomes ripe enough to eat.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Bai Jia Market

Bai Jia Market --
looks like strange corn on the cob --
banana flower!

Friday we drive to Iowa City for our regular runs: the comic store to pick up Sallie's grandson's latest order, Artifacts and Decorum to drop off more of my stuff to sell, New Pi for lunch (salmon and tuna nigiri with Kevita blueberry and black cherry kombucha) and a few grocery items (pasture raised eggs and 5 lbs. of Chinese raw pumpkin seeds). As we're driving along the Coralville strip, I mention that I've always wanted to see what's in the Bai Jia Asian Market. Sallie says why not stop now? I pull a hard right and park as close to the entrance as I can get. Heat index over 100 F (38 C), no shade in the parking lot.

Inside, the first thing that bombards our senses is the smell, like dead fish. Sure enough, right by the door, two wooden bushel baskets full of dead crabs. Oops! One of them moves a feeble claw. I feel a wave of pity for the poor crabs, though I don't feel the same remorse for the frozen fish we come across later. Strange how we humans can entertain two opposing feelings/beliefs at the same time. 

We start our tour at the front of the store where you can find a little bit of everything non-edible: conical rice hats, chopsticks, plastic flyswatters, tiered bamboo steamers, wooden sushi rollers, steel woks, blue and white dragon and phoenix bowls, tea infusers, Mah Jong sets (If only they had a Go set!) Next, a section of tea and coffee: oolong, matcha, lotus root, Vietnamese coffee.

Rice comes in large bags, including sweet rice. Many kinds of noodles, from lomein to ramen to udon. A variety of flours, including plantain and stone ground white corn meal. Everything is in colorful packages.

One whole wing of the store has aisles packed with a huge selection of snacks, including seeds, nuts, dried fruit, shrimp chips, rice cakes, candy with funny names.

Unusual flavored bottled and canned drinks: Malta India (is that a beer or a ginger beer?) and Basil Seed. In Thailand a drink made with basil seed, called nam mangdak, made with sabja seeds and honey is the equivalent of summer lemonade. Wish I'd tried a can!

Many snacks with Asian taste combinations, like Almond Fish, slivered almonds with dried sardines.

Freeze-dried fish you won't find at Hy Vee, like Squid Fin Fillet.

In the produce section I recognize the contents of some of the boxes: lychee, eggplant, bitter melon, Chinese cucumber, giant African yams, plaintain.

Some are familiar with unfamiliar neighbors. Those are bags of peanuts, but what are those coiled black things on the shelf above them? Oh, dried fish!

A box of what looks like giant ears of corn with rainbow-colored husks turns out to be banana flowers. I look this up and find some photos: a flower hanging down from a bunch of green bananas, a cross-section of a flower and the small florets hidden inside. Popular as a culinary dish in India and Thailand, banana flower is said to have medicinal value in the treatment of diabetes and menstrual disorders.

In the refrigerated section, I'm entranced by the packets of dim sum, which literally means "to touch your heart." These small dumplings are traditionally served in the Chinese ceremony called yum cha, "drinking tea."

Just as we're winding up our tour, I discover two charts with pictures and, most importantly, the names in English of the different produce. That's how I learn that the strange corn on the cob is banana flower.

On a white wall next to the frozen food case hangs a large red endless knot. This symbol and the color red are associated with prosperity and good fortune. Through the display of this ancient symbol, the Jade sisters who own the store are making sure that their business does well.

We end our journey at the checkout counter. Sallie buys two boxes of tea and I purchase a small bottle of Hot Pepper Sauce made in Jamaica, for my brother who loves HOT peppers. So we end our "artist's walk" for the week, with a tour de force of colors, shapes, textures, tastes (at least in our imagination) and unforgettable smells.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

a purple heart

a purple heart
in the center of a lace doily --
invitation to alight

My attention gravitates towards anomalies. In a field of clover I will spot one with four leaves (or five or six). On a page of text a typo will pop out like a red flag. So it is that in a large colony of wild carrot blossoms, I stop at the one and only one hosting a large purple heart in the center of the white lace doily that makes up the multiple flower head. Perhaps the red tone acts like a flag to insects -- alight on me!

A few flowers sport a spot of blood red in that center point, but only a drop. The red dot indicates that these plants belong to Daucus carota, "parsnip carrot," an import from Europe, where it is called Queen Anne's Lace. Queen Anne of England was adept at making lace and the red dot is likened to a drop of blood when she pricked her finger with a needle.

These newly opening blossoms have both red hearts and pink flowers around the perimeter. When fully open, each umbel has 20 clusters.

The vast majority of flowers in this area display a completely homogeneous arrangement otiny white blossoms arranged in a radiating pattern of ever-larger clusters within the compound umbel. The lack of a red center identifies them as American Wild Carrot, Daucus pusillus, "parsnip puny." They are smaller than their European cousins, with only 5-12 clusters, and sometimes have pink flowers, but otherwise they look the same. it's interesting that there is a mixture of the two species within the same colony.

Young blossoms reveal the pinwheel stems that end in small bouquets.

A view from the side shows the curved stems, like the ribs of a parasol.

Here we see the spiky undergirders that support this elaborate structure.

It is this basket that protects the emerging blossom.

And then encloses the collapsing flower as it becomes a fist of seeds.

Which turns into a brown rattle, ready for the bristly ribbed seeds to drop to the ground in the spring.

In a colony of Daucus, all stages of growth from bud to seed may be going on at the same time, a good way to ensure the greatest chances for pollination and seed dispersal. No wonder this wildflower is so abundant. The perennial white root of Daucus carota smells like a carrot and is edible, especially in the first year. The long root withstands mowing to send up new shoots in the spring, while the prickly seeds easily propagate. 

Farmers consider it a noxious weed because it out competes native grasses for resources, it may be slightly toxic to livestock, making them "nervous," and it may taint the milk of dairy cows that ingest it. Some indigenous tribes ate the root, so this might be a good way to cull out unwanted plants. After all, they are probably the ancestors of cultivated carrots.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

border between wild

border between wild
and tame, honeybee harvesting
wild carrot nectar

On today's walk, as I pass a colony of wild carrot I spot a honeybee crawling over one of the large white "lace doilies." She's probably a worker from one of my neighbor's hives. Even though she looks like a wild insect, she goes home to a box, so she's slightly domesticated. The Queen Anne's lace, on the other hand, is thoroughly wild. Although beautiful, it doesn't make a good cut flower and its invasive habits make it less desirable as a cultivator. But here the two are, happily coexisting, the wild and the (slightly) tame. The honeybee will just as willingly pollinate my fruit trees and berry bushes as the wild flowers that abound around here.

I come home to my box, full of windows. The whole south side is an expanse of glass that fills my eyes with green as I sit at the table, enjoying a dish of peaches from last year's harvest. Opening the mail, I leaf through Time magazine, trying to avoid the pictures of suffering.

What's this? Stuck in the middle of the world's craziness, an article on the healing power of nature (Alexandra Sifferlin, Time, July 25, 2016, pp. 24-26). Studies done by Japanese scientists have proved that the practice of shinrin-yoku, "forest bathing," lowered the stress hormone cortisol. The beneficial effects of spending time outdoors are probably due to a number of factors: fresh air, effortless attention, mood elevation, feelings of awe and a natural tree fragrance called phytoncides that lowers blood pressure and increases the number of white blood cells that support the immune system. Even looking out the window at green trees has a healing effect.

Reading this makes me reflect, as I do every day, on how fortunate I am to live in the midst of nature. Our house is surrounded by a little strip of overgrown permaculture garden, a small mowed clearing around the sheds and cars, and then the woods. Even when I walk to the mailbox on the gravel road, I pass along a corridor lined with a generous margin of wildflowers and then the wild woods that stretches for acres, full of trees, bushes, more wildflowers, a wandering creek and lots of wildlife, including deer, fox, wild turkeys. if I go into town, a ten minute drive, the blacktop is bordered by deep ditches filled with wildflowers and copses of trees between the cultivated fields. In town, the streets are lined with trees, each house has a green lawn and parks are interspersed between the houses.  

I grew up in the older suburbs of several big cities, so we always had a yard, a garden, fruit trees, once, a creek at the end of a dead-end street, once, a whole lake across the street. Vacations were always to a location with even more nature -- Big Springs and the Johnson Shut-ins in the Missouri Ozarks, Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, nearly every national park.

I realize not everyone can live in the country. If they did, there would be no country. So I am happy that most people live in cities. My wish for them is more urban green spaces, whether it's a tree-lined avenue, a park on an abandoned rail line or a garden in an empty lot. And I pray that we will always preserve our national parks and wilderness areas, where as many people as possible can come for forest bathing.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

delving into pink

delving into pink
tubular bee balm flowers
fumbling bumble bee

Another thunderstorm approaching. No honeybees in sight near my neighbor's hives. But their fat, furry cousins, the bumble bees, are leisurely working the bee balm along the verge, sometimes two on one blossom. 

Their long tongues, curled up during flight, are able to extend down the tubular flowers that cluster in each pink pom pom, whereas honeybees, with their short tongues, prefer open flowers, like this bowl-shaped blossom.

The two types of bees differ in a number of ways.There is only one species of honeybee, which originated in Europe, while there are dozens of species of bumblebees. 

Honeybees live in large above-ground hives of 50,000 to 60,000 bees, where they store honey in wax combs for food all year long. Honeybees communicate by waggle dancing to show the location of nectar. A honeybees that stings will die, as her barbed stinger sticks in the skin. The queen can live three to four years, over-wintering with many of her worker daughters. An older queen may leave her hive and swarm with over half of the worker bees to start a new hive. Beekeepers try to capture these swarms and place them in a new hive.

Unlike honeybees, bumblebees live in the ground in small nests of 50 to 400 bees, producing only a small amount of a honey-like substance which they eat. They may communicate by passing pollen between workers. They can sting more than once, but only if aggravated. The workers only live a few months, while the queen lives for one year, hibernating in a hole. No wonder the bumblebees are busy!

The different species of bumblebees have different lengths of tongues, so they feed on different shaped flowers. Here one is crawling on the platform under the overhanging "lid" of an iris petal.


This bumblebee, its legs laden with pollen, is plunging into the center of a rose.

A bumblebee in flight sips nectar from a bell-shaped sage blossom.

This buffed fellow is meticulously probing each of the tiny tubes of a coneflower.

The bumblebees delving into the bee balm (Monarda fistulosa, also called wild bergamot, horsemint and Oswego tea), are inadvertently pollinating the plant. This native plant has many medicinal uses, due to the antiseptic compound thymol found in the plant's leaves and buds. It has a minty fragrance and taste, though a bit bitter. Indigenous Americans as well as later settlers used the plant for everything from seasoning meat, to treating wounds, throat infections, headaches and fever. After the Boston Tea Party, the rebellious Colonists substituted Oswego tea for British tea.

Honeybees, mostly domesticated, are threatened by mites, diseases and pesticides. Bumblebees, which are wild, are threatened by loss of habitat and also by pesticides. Fewer pollinators, fewer flowers, fewer food crops, not a fun scenario.