Monday, November 5, 2018

Fall Observations

Pansies and Maple Leaves


The weekend was delightful arriving with days of pure outdoor pleasure. The sky was a gorgeous azure with billowing white clouds slowly drifting as the calls of the crows could be heard in the distance. One could hear the call of the Canadian geese, barely seen in the distant sky in the familiar V formation as they began flying South for the winter. It is reassuring us that Nature does indeed have a plan which is known by her own.


The ants, whose activity in the fall is always an indicator of the degree of winter we may expect, are racing about storing tiny pieces of grain. And the squirrels too are hastily assembling a stash of buried walnuts for winter. The weather pattern, the critters, and the Farmer’s Almanac all point toward a relatively harsh winter so relishing these fall days is a must.


The wild violets have sent forth tender new leaves signaling it is time to plant the earliest spring bloomers. As with most plants, there is a colorful mythological history surrounding the violet. According to Greek legend, Zeus who was King of the gods, had taken a fancy to a nymph. Infidelity is certainly nothing new and Zeus was behaving badly in this instance so he attempted to hide his mistress from his wife, Hera, by changing her into a white cow. Needless to say the nymph was unimpressed with this change and complained bitterly over the taste and texture of the coarse grass. As she wept sad cow tears, Zeus changed them into dainty, sweet-smelling violets that only she was permitted to eat.


The Roman myth involves Venus, the goddess of love, who was always cross with mortal women. Apparently she fell into a jealous rage when foolish Cupid judged some mortal ladies more beautiful than she… in revenge she swooped down and beat the poor maidens until they became blue before transforming them into violets. The Church gave meaning to the heart shaped leaves which were said to represent the Virgin Mary’s modesty and loyalty.


Napoleon was a devout fan of the violet and when he married Josephine she wore them in her hair. On every wedding anniversary he sent her a bouquet and before leaving for exile he visited her tomb where he picked woodland violets. Following his death, these violets were found in a locket he wore around his neck.


The precious pansies, a cousin to the violet, are arriving in nurseries and it is time to plant them as they will bloom all winter even through the snow. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England their first noted appearance as a new species was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, crossed a viola species with a viola tricolor in an effort to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. In the late 1830s he found by chance a flower with a broad dark blotch instead of narrow nectar guides; from this singular pansy came the future ‘flowers with a face’. Released to the public in 1839 with the name "Medora" this pansy instantly attained rock star status among gardeners and breeders throughout Europe.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Halloween and Samhain

Sunday was the epitome of Autumn perfection. Basking in the joyous glow of warm sunshine, enjoying the serenity the Fall season offers, one could truly relax after the hurried pace of the summer garden. With the exquisite feel of Sunday, it is not odd that Fall is a favorite season, cherished all the more for its fleeting passage.

As Halloween arrives it is interesting to review the origins of one of our most treasured and anticipated holidays. As with most of our holidays, its origins are deeply rooted within the pagan beliefs of our ancestors, with their celebrations altered to adapt to Christian faith. The Celtics, a once powerful people of central and northern Europe, gathered for their New Year’s celebrations at end of harvest and their beliefs are included in Halloween as we know it. The celebration of their New Year, called Samhain (Irish-Gaelic for 'the Summer's end’) took place on October 31st, which is coincidentally our Halloween.

It was believed border between the worlds of the living and the dead is thinnest on this night, allowing the souls of the deceased to enter the land of the living. So for this one night hearth fires were extinguished so their light could not be seen to either guide or frighten the returning souls. Gathered in celebratory groups, these tribal people lit huge bonfires of sacred oak branches to drive away evil spirits and warm the living. Costumes were worn so the Lord of Death could not recognize and then come claim one in the coming year. Often animals were sacrificed, fortunes were told, and at the end of the night with the safety of dawn, hearth fires were relit from the bonfire to ensure happiness and prosperity as the New Year began.

The Roman Church decided to make All Saint’s Day on November 1st to coincide with the Celtic festival. All Saints' Day was instituted as a holiday in the year 609 and it was moved from May to November in 834 after the Church discovered the importance of the Celtic rituals. On All Souls Day poor people went ‘a-souling’ (or begging) for ‘soulcakes’ in exchange for the promise they pray for the dead in purgatory and from this came our custom of ‘trick or treating’.

These beliefs arrived in Mexico directly from the Roman Church and are still celebrated with ‘The Day of the Dead’ as family members welcome deceased relatives home for the night. Their grave is surrounded by welcoming candles and a place at the table is set for them as their favorite foods are prepared. Generations gather and complimentary stories about the deceased are told as they are welcomed home for an evening with loved ones.

Any way it is viewed historically, the customs surrounding the death of summer also honor the dead, complete with the belief that mortal souls return to wander the earth. Autumn leaves, Jack-o-lanterns, bobbing for apples, costumes, black cats, and fortune-telling all evolved from these pagan customs. It is amazing that these ancient Celtic rituals, which have become our Halloween, continue to be embraced and still flourish today.

*Note the appearance of the fruit flies floating about and Daddy Long legs lurching along as well... Fall is their season.
*Photo credit: Midnight Touch

Monday, October 22, 2018

Poisonous Caterpillars

As we all know, the garden is not only full of wonder and beauty, but it is also contains a world of danger. Stinging insects or poisonous plants that may irritate the skin are present but few realize there are a number of caterpillars that are extremely toxic, leading to hospitalization and possibly death from merely touching them. Those that are dangerous all have fuzzy hair-like spikes or bristles so beware of them.

I experienced a severe reaction several weeks ago by picking up a lovely lime green fuzzy caterpillar who had somehow ended up on the wing chair in the den. As I picked it up gently with my thumb and forefinger, I immediately felt a terrible sting on my finger... it was much stronger than a wasp sting. I grabbed a wash rag to move it, tossed it outside, and rushed to wash my hand. Unfortunately, the toxic that had been released through one of the spikes on the caterpillar was already coursing through my finger up my arm into my body… it made me wheeze, itch for over eight hours, and it gave me a nose bleed. It was a cute Io Moth Caterpillar and I never would have imagined it was poisonous.

There is a reason why the Swiss German word for caterpillar (teufelskatz) translates to "devil's cat” for some caterpillars have urticating hairs — hollow bristles that contain toxins from poison-gland cells. When touched, these structures can break and the poison is released. Reactions run the range from mild stinging and itching to intense pain and, in the case of the Giant Silkworm Moth Caterpillar, even death.
Since caterpillars eat foliage, they famously fall from trees on unsuspecting hikers and gardeners so check your outdoor jackets and hoodies carefully when coming inside. Knowledge is the best protection so I will list the most dangerous below: Use this list to view them under ‘Images’ on the computer.

The most poisonous here is the Puss Caterpillar, which resembles a fuzzy brown kitten, thus its name. The venom comes from spines concealed by the fuzzy surface and reaction is immediate… a five year old Texas girl was hospitalized in ICU last week after one fell on her from a tree. Difficulty breathing, throbbing pain and numbness in limbs, stomach and muscle issues may occur from one drop of venom!

Next is the Io Moth from my experience followed by the Fuzzy White Moth Caterpillar which will produce a dreadful case of hives all over the body… they are voracious feeder and enjoy traveling enmass. The brown Hag Moth has eight pairs of legs which may fall off without harming the larvae, but they produce a fierce and spreading skin reaction when encountered. The Pine Processionary Caterpillar has an interesting fuzzy appearance and the ability to ‘shoot’ its harpoon-like hairs, complete with venom. And most dangerous of all is the Giant Silkworm Moth Caterpillar, known as the Assassin Caterpillar who is responsible for over 500 deaths in South America. After a myriad of progressing painful symptoms, the individual will almost always succumb to hemorrhages on the brain and renal failure.

If stung, use scotch tape repeatedly over the area to remove all bristles, apply ice packs to reduce stinging and swelling, and finally apply a paste of baking soda and water. If a history of asthma is present go to the ER as a precaution.

*Remember each of these caterpillars has developed poison to protect itself in the vulnerable stage… each will become a beautiful moth so try to avoid them rather than kill them all.  Photos are of the Io Caterpillar and Moth

Monday, October 1, 2018

Fall is a Favorite Season

Photo Credit: Ramon Gonzales           

We had very unusual weather all summer with occasional cool spells which reminded one of New England. Quite suddenly Fall is upon us ushering in all of the beauty Mother Nature has saved for last.   
This is the season most favored by many gardeners because of the quietude...  for a brief moment in time there is nothing particularly pressing and now is the time to enjoy the migrating butterflies and the multitude of darling dragonflies floating about.

Fall is a marvelous time to leisurely plant a container arrangement and there are many plants that not only survive the cold temperatures, but thrive on it. Among the most colorful is flowering or ornamental Kale and unless one has chickens or Peafowl, it will do well all winter. (*It is a favorite fowl snack.)

Kale is among the oldest of the cultivated edible greens and has been a staple in the garden for centuries. A form of cabbage native to the wilderness of North America as well as all of northern Europe, it added a much welcome green and leafy vegetable to dinner tables and soup pots during the winter. The ornamental Kale is edible but does not form the tight center ball common in cabbage. Exceedingly popular today, it arrives at the nursery sporting a multitude of interesting ruffled leaf combinations, from spires to tight rosettes.

Kale is round, dense and slow growing, making it a easy to contain. One of its most impressive attributes is the fact that the colors deepen as the temperature dips, meaning the bright white, vivid greens, purple, burgundy, blues and variegated colors become more lovely as the winter deepens.

It should be noted that the most intense color is located at the center of the plant where the outer leaves obstruct them unless they are viewed from directly overhead. With this fact in mind, they may be planted at an angle in the container or on a slight slope in the landscape so they may be appreciated from a distance.

The precious pansies have begun arriving in the nurseries and it is a wonderful time to plant them. Originally a common viola growing in fields and hedgerows in England they were cultivated by William Richardson, gardener to Lady Mary Elizabeth Bennett in the early 1800’s. Despite his efforts, their first noted appearance was on the estate of James, Lord Gambier. His gardener, William Thompson, began to cross various viola species with a viola tricolor in an effort to achieve a round flower of overlapping petals. In the late 1830s he found by chance a flower that no longer had narrow nectar guides of dark color on the petals but a broad dark blotch instead. From this pansy came the future ‘flowers with a face'; his hybrid was released to the public in 1839 with the name "Medora". This pansy and its progeny, including "Victoria" became wildly popular with gardeners and breeders throughout all of Europe.

If planted now, they will survive nicely over the winter and will have a head start in the spring. Such a cheerful, adorable little flower is always a welcome guest at the garden party and the color options are positively stunning, their faces delightful!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Ragweed Season Reaching a Zenith


With the rains, our country side has once again greened and in spite of extremely hot and humid afternoons, the morning has contributed balmy conditions.  Everyone has emerged from summer heat-hibernation and gardening, walking, and morning coffee or tea on the patio are once again pleasurable. Unfortunately the rains have allowed production of unprecedented pollen... as though the trees and grasses are determined to make up for the former drought years by ensuring their reproductive place on the planet. I noted an overlooked plant near my chicken house... it is 8 feet tall with a 14 foot circumference!

Most flowers have heavy pollen, thus the necessity for pollination by bees or birds. The pollen of most trees, shrubs, and grasses is lighter than the pollen of flowers so it may be carried by the wind. Since our winds may go from a gentle breeze to a driving force in seconds this light pollen may travel hundreds of miles.

Over half of all allergy symptoms may be traced to ragweed and this year it is in disproportionate cultivation, appearing everywhere and ranging up to ten feet tall. It is supposedly a member of the aster family, although it is hard to believe such an illustrious family produced such an unlikable child. In the opinion of many scientists ragweed is the most infamous weed on Earth, producing some of the lightest pollen of all plants. A single plant may produce about a billion grains of pollen per season which may remain airborne for days and travel great distances. It has been noted up to 300 miles high and 400 to 500 miles out to sea.

Ragweed was originally native only to our hemisphere however they were introduced to Europe during World War II, traveling discreetly on the clothing of our soldiers. Since then it has spread rapidly and now Europeans suffer as we do with seasonal allergies. Ragweed is truly a nuisance this time of year as it is the source of itchy eyes, scratchy throats, runny noses, sneezing, headaches, dizziness, and the ensuing confusion that arrives with these symptoms.

It should be noted the ‘Pollen Report’ on the daily news channels is not an exact science, rather it is pitifully antiquated. Particles of pollen are collected in a box on the roof of the Oklahoma Allergy Clinic and counted… that is how the daily information is obtained. It is impossible to imagine how much pollen is traveling about outside the confines of the City, however it is an easy guess that it is considerably more than what is produced in a concrete jungle!

Since it is impossible to avoid pollen, we can simply take an allergy pill, press on, and enjoy this lovely season… Kleenex in hand just in case. And remember to change your pillowcase daily.
Photo is of the Ragweed tree outside my chicken house!

Wasp World

For most of the summer we have indulged in candid observation of the paper wasps who decided to make colonies on the underside of the awnings. They are called paper wasps for the paper-like construction of their nests which consists of small cubicles (or nursery rooms) wherein the infant wasp grows into an adult. A Queen will lay the eggs in the open cells while other females help build future nests. Once a queen dies, a new egg-laying female will take her place while the ladies in waiting care for her.

In our observations, the young wasp slowly emerges from a cubicle and then gently dries its body with a leg or two until all has expanded and fluffed out. Once dry it will fly away for a meal or take its place among the others who gather over the nest, guarding the growing infants.

The Paper wasps usually build their comb nests to hang from objects like twigs or tree branches, shrubs, porch ceilings, the tops of doorframes, eaves, or attic rafters…  imagine our luck in discovering three nests under the awnings where could easily view their antics from behind the safety of glass.

There are about 22 known paper wasp species in North America, and hundreds in the world. Similar relatives to paper wasps include the dreadful yellow jackets and hornets… both of which need little provocation to attack.  Paper wasps generally have a thin “waist,” with six long legs and an almost triangular side view as well as two wings and antennae. They are mostly brown or black with possibly some yellow coloration. The known paper wasp species share these colorations, but may also have different bands of colors and markings that separate them from one another. Some species of paper wasp may even have hints of bolder colors like red, or even brighter colored lines compared to others.

In early summer wasps, like bees, pollinate plants and flowers as they feed on nectar thus if we were to eradicate all wasps it could cause a substantial problem in the global ecology… with this purpose alone wasps prove they are a very beneficial insect. When you add other items to their menu which includes flies, garden pests, and destructive web worms, their value increases.

In the autumn, future queens will seek places to spend the winter and find their way indoors, possibly to a shed or garage where they will spend the winter.  In springtime they will emerge to build their signature umbrella-shaped nests and others will gather to them and begin the project of raising progeny.

To avoid being noticed by Wasps keep food covered when dining outdoors and since all wasps are exceedingly thirsty make sure children stay away from fountains and small bodies of water. Since flowers nectar is a favorite food source, avoid wearing strong flowery fragrances and when hiking opt for shoes that cover and protect feet from rogue wasps lurking in the grasses. From a safe distance, observing wasps is a perfect summer time pastime.  

Of Trivial Interest: During my research I discovered a little known tropical species, the Jewel Wasp, who is a true hero since her prey is cockroaches. With her special venom she renders the roaches mindless and fearless taking away their will to escape as she feeds the living roach to her babies Hannibal Lecter style.  (*Good for her…Never feel sorry for roaches!)
Photo is outside my west window!

Monday, August 20, 2018

The Field Cricket

The lovely song of the field cricket is heralded this month and its melodic symphony can be heard each evening. Fall is the time for cricket mating and the male, who is the only voice of the cricket, is singing to potential sweethearts. Although the female can not sing, she can hear the song through her ears which are located on her front legs just below her knees.

A shy and reclusive little insect, the cricket rarely makes a public evening appearance until the urgency of mating begins. Following fertilization cricket eggs are deposited in the soil in the autumn soon after the rains begin. They will rest there until time to hatch in the spring; once they are born baby crickets hide during the day. They emerge to eat in the evenings and enjoy grasses, pieces of grain, wool and their favorite snack... book bindings. Apparently the darling cricket will sing, mate, then come inside to eat a good pair of wool pants and a book or two before its life cycle ends.

Photo: An Outdoor Asian Market Selling Cricket Cages

 In China singing crickets are kept as pets in special cages and it is believed they bring a household good fortune... prized specimens fetch amazing prices. In fact the cricket culture in China dates back to the Tang Dynasty from 500 BC to 618 AD. It was during this time the crickets first became respected for their powerful ability to “sing” and a cult formed to capture and cage them. Naturally the obsession escalated and in the Song Dynasty from 960 to 1278 AD the sport “cricket fighting” became popular.

The sport became so popular that China actually produced a Cricket Minister, Jia Shi-Dao who reigned from 1213 to 1275 before being deposed for irresponsibility. Then from 1427 to 1464, a Cricket Emperor, Ming Xuan-Zhong ruled in favor of cricket fighting, making his palace a major tribute to this important insect. Racketeering, gambling, and even suicides were reported over Chinese cricket mania. *This 'mania' was described as a national obsession.

Luckily, the Asian fabric of choice is silk which is unappetizing to crickets for had it been wool the cricket's popularity would have suffered greatly. Years ago I pulled my 'good' white wool, Katherine Hepburn style, very expensive pleated slacks from my closet only to discover one leg was totally destroyed with cricket holes. Now whenever I hear them in the house I track them and gently place them outside to play!  

Monday, August 13, 2018

Grilling Fresh Vegetables

August arrived with traditional heat, making it the most enjoyable month for cookouts and lake side activities. The vegetable gardens are at their zenith so now is the time to eat all the fresh produce available... your body will be grateful for the cleansing. Since most vegetables are 70% to 90% water, they are also a perfect way to lose unwanted pounds.
If you do not have your own garden, there are many Farmers Markets where you can purchase home-grown produce. Supporting local vegetable growers should be a civic duty lest they stop planting and harvesting for us.

This is the time of year that the back yard grill is the best place to cook dinner. Squash, corn, and tomatoes are making their appearance in the garden. Since squash is such an over achiever, it is always a challenge to find new ways to prepare it so this year we’ve grilled it after dipping it in butter. Once it becomes slightly crisp, remove it from the fire and sprinkle it with Parmesan cheese. In fact corn is also easily grilled if wrapped in foil first.

Remember the shish-kebobs that were popular in the 1970’s? They still sell the little wooden skewers at the grocery store quite inexpensively. A collection from the garden can be arranged and grilled with the addition of your choice of meat. Onions, peppers, little new potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and squash, with a little pineapple added for additional flavor, make a wonderful dinner and will not heat up the kitchen.

My parent’s favorite marinade makes any meat choice tasty. They mixed ½ cup red wine, 1 tsp. Worcestershire Sauce, 1 clove garlic (pressed), ½ cup salad oil, ½ tsp. salt, 2 tbs. Ketchup, 1 tbs. sugar, 1 tbs. Vinegar, and ½ tsp cut Rosemary. Then they added any meat cut into squares and let it marinate for several hours. Even inexpensive cuts of beef become tender and delicious when allowed to soak up this combination of flavors.

Alternate the meat with the vegetables on the skewer, broil while turning frequently and basting with the leftover marinade. Not only is this a delicious and complete outdoor meal, but it is also fun if you allow individuals to assemble their own skewer in the combinations of their choice. Plus cleanup is easy; toss the skewers!