Please don’t hum along
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
In the ninth grade I was in chorus for a few months until the instructor offered me an “A” for the rest of the year if I dropped her class. True story. You would think a guy who likes music but can’t sing would at least enjoy humming, but that depends. Research has shown that humming can cause anxiety, depression, insomnia, and in some cases, ghosts. Also true—though of course I left out a few details there.
Humming to a song because you don’t know (or can’t sing) the words is harmless, unless maybe it is incessant and happens to irritate your co-workers. But many industrial processes like blast furnaces, cooling towers, and giant compressors and vacuum pumps can emit low-frequency or infrasound hums able to travel tens of miles. Because human-caused hums have unusually long wavelengths—in some cases more than a mile—the hum can travel easily over mountains and through buildings.
Nature can produce these types of sound waves during events like avalanches, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions. Wind of a particular speed and direction blowing through a canyon can make infrasound. And certain animals, most notably whales and elephants, communicate long distances in this way. Fortunately, natural hums are more transient and less disruptive to us than those of mechanical origin.
Infrasound is sound consisting of waves less than 20 cycles per second or Hertz (Hz), which might also be the standard unit of payment for car rentals, I think. It is estimated that only about 2% to 3% of the population can hear sound at this level. Most humans are able to hear in the range of 20 to 20,000 Hz. Above that is ultrasound, like the kind of waves used in medical scans.
Besides the fact that infrasound can invade our homes on a 24-7 basis, one of the big problems is that we tend to feel it more than hear it. By definition, sound is a series of pressure waves that make subtle changes in the air pressure at our eardrum. The eardrum vibrates in response to pressure fluctuations, which the brain then interprets as sound. The thing is, waves which alter air pressure will vibrate our eardrum even if the movement is too slow to be recognized as sound. This is why infrasound can cause dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and sleep disturbance.
But our eardrum is not the only part of us which vibrates to low-frequency sound waves. All human organs have what is called a “mechanical resonant frequency,” which is the wavelength that will cause tissue to slightly wobble on its own. Human experiments found that cardiac effects occur at 17 Hz; subjects reported feelings of terror, impending doom, and anxiety. And in a 1976 study, NASA determined that the human eyeball resonates at a wavelength of 18 Hertz.
Which is where ghosts come in. Or at least a discussion thereof. In 1998, a British researcher named Vic Tandy published a paper called “Ghosts in the Machine" in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research. At some point he began to feel a sense of dread, and then to occasionally see gray, blob-like apparitions, while working alone in his medical-equipment lab. One day he clamped a fencing foil in a vise at the lab to work on it, and the foil began to vibrate wildly. He found that a recently installed vent fan was vibrating at exactly 18.98 Hz. When it was switched off, the foil stopped vibrating, and he felt better and stopped seeing objects in his peripheral vision. Since then, repeated experiments have produced the same visual anomalies.
One of the best-known cases of infrasound in the environment is the so-called “Windsor Hum” in the Windsor, Ontario region, which the Canadian government has traced to a US Steel facility on an island in the Detroit River. This low-frequency, 35-Hertz hum is said to be louder than ever since resuming in late 2017 after a brief hiatus. Since the hum began in 2011, there have been reports of some residents moving away to escape its debilitating effects, which include insomnia and nausea. In 2012, more than 20,000 city residents joined a live teleconference to complain about the situation. Sadly, US Steel has rebuffed all attempts by Canadian authorities to meet with them to try and fix the problem.
Knowingly causing such large numbers of people to suffer that long for personal financial gain constitutes an especially heinous crime. Unlike the case with war crimes and genocide, the concept of Crimes Against Humanity does not have to be connected to armed conflict, although its definition varies by country. The UN began the process of codifying it in 2014. One current statute defines it as any “…inhumane acts intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.” No person or corporation should be allowed to hold people’s wellbeing hostage.
In northern NY State, I have perceived a similar hum over the past 15 or so years. Although it varies in its intensity, I have heard it equally loud from Gouverneur to Canton to Massena. My road has no electric service, so I have no home appliances to potentially cause it. More noticeable at night, it does sometimes shut off. In late November 2018 it began again after a break, and is particularly strong at the moment.
Feel free to share your experience with infrasound hum at [email protected]. If you feel such a thing is having a negative impact on your health, I encourage you to contact your elected officials.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Last year my neighbor, who grows and sells mushrooms—legal ones—for a living, suggested I do an article on a Christmas fungus that could account for some of the magical features of that holiday tradition. Initially I brushed off his idea, thinking maybe he had consumed some bad stock that day, but since then I have come across a fair bit of evidence to support his idea.
Distributed across North America, Europe, and Asia from temperate zones into the far north, Amanita muscaria is a mushroom which grows among pine, birch and oak trees. It is in fact a symbiont of the roots of those trees, using a small amount of sugar from their roots but vastly increasing the trees' ability to absorb nutrients and water. It is unable to grow outside of a forest setting.
Sometimes called the fly agaric or fly amanita because it has been used to kill flies, A. muscaria is a big, beautiful reddish (sometimes yellow) mushroom. Its domed cap, which flattens as it matures, is dotted with large white spots, making it one of the most recognizable toadstools or free-standing mushrooms in the world. It is the big polka-dotted mushroom of Alice in Wonderland, coloring books, and garden statuary. Even the caps of gnomes are often painted to look like the fly agaric mushroom.
Amanita muscaria also has psychoactive properties, and has been consumed for thousands of years by winter-weary Laplanders as a pick-me-up; by Siberian shaman and other practitioners in healing rituals; and by wild reindeer for—well we're not sure. Possibly to fly, but more on that later. Certainly there are many accounts of reindeer acting “drunk” after browsing that 'shroom.
If the name Amanita rings a bell, it might be due to the fact that the so-called death-cap, maybe the most poisonous mushroom in the world, is a close relative, Amanita phalloides. The death-cap is native to Europe and Asia, but has been accidentally introduced with imported trees to a few locations in North America. Unlike the case with many fungi, its toxin is not neutralized by heat, and a half of a cap is enough to destroy the liver and kidneys of an adult human, making the only “antidote” an organ transplant.
In addition to being psychoactive, our cheerful fly agaric is also toxic, though less so. And it seems it can be rendered “safer” (reports say it may still cause vomiting) by gentle heat or dehydration. Apparently, too much heat takes all the fun out of the fly agaric, as it has been used as a culinary mushroom once it was pre-boiled and the initial water discarded. Reportedly, in Siberia and other regions, A. muscaria was placed in stockings and hung near the fire. This way the moderate heat would render them (mushrooms, not stockings) safe to use ceremonially or otherwise.
Stockings full of red-and-white mushrooms hung by the chimney with care sounds uncomfortably familiar. And yes, Father Christmas may wear a red and white outfit and may or may not surround himself with short, squat, mushroom-esque elves, but I was skeptical about any fungal connection with winter holiday traditions. However, a simple a web-image search for “mushroom decoration Christmas” turned up a bazillion (well, 30,800,000) pictures of Amanita muscaria tree ornaments and made me a believer.
In Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong's hilarious 1971 skit “Santa and His Old Lady,” Cheech explains Santa Claus, “the guy with the hairy jaws,” to his friend. Santa's flying sleigh, according to Cheech, is fueled by “magic dust,” with “a little for the reindeer, a little for Santa, a little more for Santa, a little more for Santa...” Maybe in addition to the stuff they liked to smoke, they also knew about fly agaric.
In the interest of public health, I want to caution against trying this fungus. For one thing, references indicate fly agaric mushrooms picked in spring and summer can be 10 times more potent than those gathered in fall. And that a miscalculation could leave you sick for a week or more. And no, I have not tried A. muscaria and have no plans to do so.
I am no scholar, but I do find it interesting that the more secular trappings of our modern Christmas have a connection to ancient winter traditions in Siberia. Amanita muscaria may help explain Santa's unnatural jolliness, his magical flight, not to mention the choice of colors for his suit, and the millions of Christmas mushroom ornaments are overtly connected.
My advice would be to avoid toxic fungi as well as retail toxicity, and to aim for some old-fashioned cheer not driven by stuff of one kind or other. The reindeer, of course, will make their own choices.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Unless gene editing really gets out of hand, the old saying about money not growing on trees will remain accurate. I suppose if bartering ever becomes the norm, however, fruit and nut growers will be awash in tree-grown currency. Figuring exchange rates could be quite a headache, I imagine. Our eastern white pine, Pinus strobus, is not considered a crop-bearing tree and doesn’t appear to sprout cash, at least in this area, but it has borne priceless fruit for humanity all the same.
The tallest trees this side of the Rockies, white pines up to 230 feet were recorded by early loggers. The current US champion stands at 188 feet, and in the Adirondacks we have several old-growth white pines over 150 feet. In terms of identification, white pine makes it simple, being the only native pine out East that bears needles in bundles of five, one for each letter in W-H-I-T-E. To be clear, the letters are not actually written on the needles, just saying.
As tall and impressive as it is, over the past few years the white pine is being sickened and felled by microscopic pathogens. Called Canavirgella needlecast and Mycosphaerella brown spot, these two fungi have been around for ages, but they have never before been a problem. Symptoms of infection are needles which turn completely yellow and drop off over the course of one or more years. Many biologists believe that our changed weather patterns in the Northeast, especially the long unbroken periods of wet weather, are to blame for this change in behavior. In between wet years, the droughts of 2012, 2016, 2018 caused extreme low soil moisture, weakening trees so they are more susceptible to disease and insects.
White pine produces attractive cones, six to nine inches long, having resin-tipped scales, perfect for fire-starting and for adding to wreaths and other holiday decorations (might want to keep those away from open flames). The species is renowned for its exceptionally wide and clear, light-colored lumber used for flooring, paneling and sheathing as well as for structural members. New England was built on white pine, and in some old homes, original pine floorboards of exceptional width can still be found. Impressive as its lumber is, white pine’s most precious gift is invisible. And hopefully indivisible.
Between a thousand and twelve-hundred years ago here in the northeast, five indigenous nation-states decided they spent too much energy disputing borders and resources. With the help of a visionary leader, they devised a federal system of governance to resolve inter-state issues, leaving each nation-state otherwise autonomous.
White pine, with its five needles joined at the base, helped inspire the new federal structure. It remains an apt symbol for this Confederacy, the Iroquois, or Haudenosaune as they call themselves. The tree was, and is, depicted with a bald eagle, five arrows clenched in its talons to symbolize strength in unity, perched at its top.
The Confederacy comprises fifty elected chiefs who sit in two legislative bodies, with a single elected head of state. Historically, only women could vote. Women also had the sole power to impeach leaders not acting in the public’s best interest, and could quash any legislation they deemed rash or short-sighted. Every chief was expected to be able to recite the Iroquois constitution from memory, a feat which is still practiced today on some reserves, and takes nine full days to complete.
Benjamin Franklin and James Monroe wrote extensively about the Iroquois confederacy, and Franklin in particular urged the thirteen colonies to adopt a similar union. When the Continental Congress met to draft the Constitution, Iroquois leaders attended, by invitation, for the duration as advisers.
Among the earliest Revolutionary flags was a series of Pine Tree Flags, and the white pine remains on Vermont’s state flag. The eagle, though removed from its pine perch, has always sat on US currency, a bundle of thirteen arrows in its talons. I suppose in a metaphoric sense, our money did grow on a tree.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
Dreaming of a local Christmas
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Even Santa Claus himself cannot grant a wish for a white Christmas—it is a coin toss whether the holiday will be snow-covered or green this year. A verdant landscape is not our Christmas ideal, but we can keep more greenbacks in the North Country, and keep our Christmas trees and other accents fresh and green for longer, when we buy local trees and wreaths.
Not only are Christmas trees a renewable resource, they boost the local economy. Even if you don’t have the time to cut your own at a tree farm, do yourself a favor this year and purchase a natural tree from a local vendor. She or he can help you choose the best kind for your preference, and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets are cut weeks, if not months, before they show up at stores.
There is an additional reason to buy local in 2018: The NYS Department of Agriculture and Markets has announced a quarantine on out-of-state Christmas trees to prevent the spread of a devastating new insect pest. The spotted lanternfly (SLF) is a major pest of many tree species, as well as grapes and various other crops, but it is especially fond of sugar maples. First discovered in Pennsylvania in 2014, this tree-killing Asian bug has since spread into New Jersey, Delaware, and Virginia. SLF females lay their camouflaged eggs on almost anything, and in 2017, egg masses were found on Christmas trees grown in New Jersey, prompting the quarantine.
Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit quite like the smell of a fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir tree, wreath or garland. Although the majority of American households where Christmas is observed have switched to artificial trees, about ten million families still bring home a real tree.
Every type of conifer has its own blend of sweet-smelling terpenols and esters that account for their “piney woods” perfume. Some people prefer the fragrance of a particular tree species, possibly one they had as a child. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a plastic tree smell like fresh pine, fir or spruce.
The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but evergreen trees, wreaths, and boughs were used by a number of ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, to symbolize eternal life. In sixteenth-century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of the indoor Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries afterward, Christmas trees were always brought into homes on 24 December, and not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on 6 January.
In terms of crowd favorites, the firs—Douglas, balsam, and Fraser—are very popular, very aromatic evergreens. Grand and concolor fir smell great too. When kept in water, firs all have excellent needle retention. Pines also keep their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots (not Scotch; that’s for Santa) pine, the latter far outsells the former, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping. Not only do spruces have stout branches, they tend to have a strongly pyramidal shape. Spruces may not be quite as fragrant as firs or pines, but they’re great options for those who like short-needle trees.
The annual pilgrimage to choose a real tree together has been for many families, mine included, a cherished holiday tradition, a time to bond. You know, the customary thermos of hot chocolate; the ritual of the kids losing at least one mitten, and the time-honored squabble—I mean discussion—about which tree to cut. Good smells, and good memories.
For the best fragrance and needle retention, cut a one- to 2-inch “cookie” from the base before placing your tree in the stand, and fill the reservoir every two days. Research indicates products claiming to extend needle life don’t really work, so save your money. LED lights don’t dry out needles as much as the old style did, and are easier on your electric bill too.
Visit www.christmastreesny.org/SearchFarm.php to find a nearby tree farm, and quarantine details can be found at www.agriculture.ny.gov/AD/release.asp?ReleaseID=3821 Information on the spotted lanternfly is posted at https://www.dec.ny.gov/animals/113303.html
Whatever your traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of long-lasting memories this holiday season.
Run, Dorothy—Emerald City is falling
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Watertown is poised to become an Emerald City, but that’s not good news. Jefferson and Lewis will soon be Emerald Counties, and St. Lawrence County began the process of change two years ago. Unfortunately, this kind of transformation does not involve happy endings.
When the emerald ash borer (EAB) kills an ash, something happens never before seen—the tree becomes brittle and hazardous very quickly, beyond anything in our experience in North America prior to this. Municipal leaders, DOT officials, woodlot owners, loggers, farmers and other land managers need to be well-informed in order to stay safe and avoid liability.
Call it an infection or an epidemic, but soon even the most pleasant tree-lined street and well-managed woodlot will seem like something out of Tolkein’s menacing Fangorn Forest in his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Our ash trees won’t turn vengeful, but they will be dangerous for other reasons.
In August 2017, citizen volunteers trained by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) discovered emerald ash borer in an EAB trap in the St. Lawrence County township of Hammond, and later the same year, a large infestation was found near Massena. Foresters from the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Environment Division also confirmed several EAB in Franklin County in 2017.
Early this summer, volunteers trapped EAB in other northern NY locations, including on the southern Jefferson County border. The NYSDEC has not yet released final data from 2018’s trap program, but we do expect confirmations in more areas. Understandably, we may be tired of hearing about this invasive wood-boring beetle and how it will wipe out ash trees. After all, chestnuts and elms died and the world didn’t end. The difference is in the degree of hazard posed.
Usually when a healthy tree is killed by a pest, disease or flood, it stands there 5, 10 or more years. If you don’t show up within 15 years, it shrugs, mumbles something about your lack of work ethic, and topples over. Think of all the dead trees in beaver ponds that stand for a decade or more as herons nest in their bleached crowns. After the chestnut blight wiped out that species, there were reports of the dead snags remaining upright for 30 or more years.
But the emerald ash borer has a peculiar effect on the ash trees it kills. Ash that succumb to EAB become dangerous in as little as one year, and after only two years, they start leaping onto cars, trucks and busloads of schoolkids. That is taking it a little too far, but many people have been injured, and many homes and vehicles damaged in the wake of EAB infestations. In Ohio, a school bus was hit by a large EAB-killed ash tree, injuring 5 students and the driver, and pretty well totaling the bus.
No one seems to have an adequate explanation for this rapid and profound loss of wood strength, but I’ll pass along what we do know. According to the Davey Resource Group, the consulting and research branch of Davey Tree, the shear-strength of ash wood undergoes a five-fold decrease after the tree is infested by EAB. Trees become dangerous so quickly that Davey Tree will not allow its climbers into any infested ash that shows a 20% decline or more.
In the words of Mike Chenail, an International Society of Arboriculture Certified Arborist from Pennsylvania, “Two realities make an ash tree killed by EAB especially dangerous. EAB cuts off the flow of water and nutrients through the tree. Additionally, the fatal pest creates thousands of exit wounds. Both conspire to dry out the tree and make it brittle.”
One of the issues is that the sapwood, the outermost layer of wood, dries very rapidly. Since sapwood may only be a few inches thick, having it suddenly dry out may not seem like much. Jerry Bond, a Consulting Urban Forester and former Cornell Extension Educator, explained it to me this way: “Ninety percent of the structural strength of a tree resides in the outermost ten percent of the trunk.” In other words, when sapwood is weakened, there’s not much strength left in the tree.
There may be yet another facet to the picture. Anecdotes from arborists and other tree workers point to the surprisingly advanced decay in some ash wood that had only been infested one season. How widespread or significant this may be is not yet known.
But none of that is really the point. The point is that those who work or spend much time in the woods, and anyone responsible for the safety of others need to be aware that when EAB kills ash trees, they behave differently.
Woodlot owners, Town and Village Supervisors, Town Board members, NNY County Legislators, arborists, farmers and others who want to learn how to prepare for EAB are urged to attend an upcoming EAB informational session at the Adams Municipal Building, 3 South Main Street, Adams, NY on Wednesday, November 14, 2018 from 8:30 AM to 12:00 PM. Presenters include representatives from NYSDEC, National Grid and others. The session is free, but please RSVP to Mike Giocondo in the NYSDEC Lowville sub-office at (315) 376-3521 or [email protected]
Thanks for giving
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
If the Pilgrims had known what a big deal Thanksgiving was going to become in America they would undoubtedly have taken some pictures. Even the menu has been lost to us, although Wampanoag oral history, plus a few Pilgrim grocery receipts found by archeologists, suggest there was corn, beans and squash as well as fowl and venison. Beyond that there may have been chestnuts, sun chokes (“Jerusalem” artichokes), cranberries and a variety of seafood.
Many historians believe the Pilgrims would have all perished during the winter of 1620 if not for food provided by the Wampanoags, whose land they appropriated. In the spring of 1621, Wampanoags gave the Pilgrims crop seeds, as well as a tutorial (possibly an App; we can’t be sure) on the production, storage and preservation of food crops including corn, beans, and squash.
That fall—we’re not even certain if it was October or November—Pilgrims gave thanks for Native American agriculture, and feasted upon its bounty for three days straight. The Wampanoags probably gave thanks that there weren’t more ships full of Pilgrims on the horizon just then.
Barley was the only European-sourced crop that the Pilgrims managed to raise in 1621. Unfortunately, they seemed unaware it could be eaten. The upside, however, was that there was plenty of beer at Thanksgiving dinner.
While corn, beans and squash, “The Three Sisters,” were, and are, grown by many native peoples in the Americas, other indigenous crops will grace American Thanksgiving tables this year. Maybe you’ll have appetizers out for company before dinner. Mixed nuts, anyone? Peanuts are a big-time Native American crop. Pecans and sunflower seeds, too. And everyone likes corn chips with dip, right? Those hot (and sweet) peppers and tomatoes in the salsa are Native American foods. Prefer dip made with avocado? Yep, another native food. And the same for popcorn.
Turkeys, which had been domesticated by native peoples long before European contact, are of course indigenous to the New World. Modern turkey breeds have been selected for heavier bodies, but they are the exact same species as our wild turkey, whose range extends from southern Mexico north to southern Canada.
But a lot of the “fixings” used in today’s Thanksgivings also come from the New World. Cranberry sauce is a good example (a related Vaccinium species occurs in northern Europe, but its berries are much smaller than the cranberry species found here, which have now been domesticated worldwide).
And it wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes to soak up the gravy. White (“Irish”) potatoes are a New World crop, as are sweet potatoes. We can thank Native American agronomists for green beans and Lima beans. Don’t forget the squash—Native peoples developed many varieties, including Hubbard and butternut squash, and pumpkins, which are technically a winter squash.
Which brings us to the iconic Thanksgiving pumpkin pie—I think just about everyone is thankful for that treat. Nothing goes with pie like ice cream, which is not from the New World, but some great flavorings are. Maple-walnut is one of the earliest ice cream varieties in New England, two indigenous flavors that go together famously. While not from the Northeast, vanilla is from the Americas, and so is chocolate. If you add some toppings like strawberry or blueberry (even pineapple) sauce, you’ll be having more Native American foods for dessert.
Wishing you all a happy and healthy Thanksgiving, filled with family and gratitude. Among other things, we can be grateful to Native peoples and their crops. But please, don’t blame First-Nations agronomists if you need to loosen your belt a notch or two afterward.
Faster than a speeding plant
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
When he first appeared eighty years ago, Superman was said to be “faster than a speeding bullet.” Of course some bullets fly faster than others, but in 1938, common average speeds ranged from about 400 mph for a .38 special to around 580 mph for a .45 automatic. At the risk of getting on Superman’s bad side, I question whether he could outpace today’s AR-15 .223 round zipping along at 2,045 miles per hour. Plus he’s a lot older now. In fact, I wonder if he’s peppy enough to catch a speeding plant.
A quick look outside assures us that plants do not appear mobile, or if they are, they move too slowly to measure their progress. Good thing, considering the way we uproot weeds, cut grass, and chop limbs off trees. Were plants able to skulk about seeking revenge, no one would sleep well at night. The fact is, plants tend to stay put. Any gardener can tell you that even slugs can catch plants. So it seems unduly harsh to suggest the Man of Steel is slower than that.
There is a difference between moving fast and moving around. Plants may be rooted, but not all of them sit still. Most kids are mildly entertained when they encounter the mimosa, or sensitive plant. When touched, its leaf folds up within seconds in an orderly, if unhurried fashion. Mimosa plants learn from experience, though, and if you poke a leaf repeatedly, it eventually takes a break from reacting for several hours.
People of all ages are usually enthralled by the Venus flytrap, a carnivorous plant which snaps closed on insects, then creates an airtight pouch and dissolves its victims in an acid-filled external vegi-stomach. Despite its name, the flytrap dines mostly on ants and spiders, some beetles and grasshoppers, but very few flies. With faster reflexes than the mimosa, it can shut its trap in 100 milliseconds.
It can also count. When one of its trigger hairs is touched, the trap remains open, but when a second hair is stimulated within 20 seconds, the trap closes. Not satisfied with that performance, the meat-eating bog plant next counts to five. That is, it takes five more hair-triggers from a wriggling spider before it seals the airlock and pumps in the hydrochloric acid. If you ever get trapped in the jaws of a giant flesh-eating plant, remember this lesson: Don’t struggle. Remain still for 12 hours, and the jaws will open again. You’re welcome.
Venus flytraps are found in temperate wetlands to our south, but we have a plant that is much more fly than the flytrap. Dwarf dogwood or bunchberry is a common native wildflower which prefers cool moist soils. Sometimes found in mat-like groups, it has clusters of bright red berries, and blossoms that put NASA to shame. The bunchberry flower opens in 0.5 milliseconds, reportedly ejecting its pollen at 2,000 to 3,000 times the force of gravity (G), which would shred an astronaut, who normally feels no more than 3G during launch. No one knows why bunchberry does this, other than to show off, since it is pollinated by dozens of native bee species.
But the plant kingdom’s rapid-movement pièce de résistance is the white mulberry tree. Native to China, it has been spread around much the world because it is necessary for the rearing of silkworms, which for the past 4,000 years have been producing the world’s silk (not the same silkworms; they don’t live that long). When the mulberry tree’s staminate (male) catkins are good and ready, they open in 25 microseconds or 0.025 milliseconds, propelling their pollen at approximately 350 mph, just over half the speed of sound. Unlike bunchberry, mulberries are wind-pollinated, and may benefit from its pollen-bomb strategy.
As impressive as these feats are, no one really understands the exact processes by which plants move so fast that the most advanced high-speed photography cannot adequately photograph the events. What we need is someone faster than a speeding plant to examine this further. I wonder if an aging superhero could maybe be coaxed into such an endeavor.
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
Even if its precise definition isn’t at the tip of your tongue, most everyone gets the general drift of what is meant by the term biogas—there’s biology involved, and the result is gas. One might guess it’s the funk in the air aboard the bus carrying the sauerkraut-eating team home after a weekend competition. Others would say biogas is cow belches, or the rotten-egg stink-bubbles that swarm to the surface when your foot sinks into swamp ooze.
Those are all examples of biogas, which is composed primarily of methane, CH4, at concentrations ranging from 50% to 60 %. Methane is highly combustible, and can be used in place of natural gas for heat or to run internal-combustion engines for the generation of electricity and other applications. Formed by microbes under anaerobic conditions, it is a greenhouse gas twenty-eight times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere. The fact that it can be useful if harnessed but dangerous if released is why we need to trap biogas given off by landfills, manure pits, and someday, maybe even cow burps.
By itself, methane is colorless and odorless, but it often hangs out with unsavory friends like hydrogen sulfide, H2S, which is responsible for the rotten-egg smell we associate with farts and swamp gas. Not all biogas is equal—the stuff given off by landfills is contaminated with siloxane from lubricants and detergents, and manure-sourced biogas may contain nitrous oxide, N2O. Siloxane, nitrous oxide, and hydrogen sulfide gases are toxic at high concentrations, and are very corrosive. They usually burn off harmlessly when used for heat, but must be removed if biogas is to be used to fuel an engine.
As mentioned, methane occurs when organic matter decomposes in oxygen-deprived conditions. This led to numerous biogas explosions in landfills across the US and Europe, mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, although a series of such incidents in England in the 1980s spurred tighter regulations in that country on collecting biogas. The frequency of explosions at dumps is much reduced in recent times, but it does still happen. A dump at Walt Disney World in Orlando caught fire in 1998. In 2006, the US Army (which is exempt from many environmental laws) evacuated twelve households near one of its old landfills at Fort Meade, Maryland due to high methane levels.
Even though it provides benefits like electricity generation, extracting landfill biogas is necessary for health and safety. But biogas is also produced intentionally in something called a methane digester, which I thought was another word for a cow. Despite the name, these things do not digest methane. Rather they use animal manure, municipal sewage, household garbage, and other organic matter to produce methane, much of which would otherwise have been released to the atmosphere.
The basic process is this: an airtight reactor is filled with animal manure or whatever your favorite filling is, and after a 4-part bacterial process and some amount of time you end up with a “digested” slurry that can be used for fertilizer, and biogas. Digester technology can work from a massive industrial scale to a very small backyard unit which runs on household waste.
At about 60% methane, digester biogas is a better fuel than landfill biogas, which tends to be about 50% CH4. Gas from a digester can be used directly for cooking or heating, but must be processed before it can be put to other uses. In addition to being used to run internal-combustion engines, “scrubbed” biogas, which is nearly pure methane, can be injected into the natural-gas grid, or compressed and sold to distant markets.
These days, livestock farmers are being encouraged to install methane digesters as an additional source of income or to offset heating costs. Digesters reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and manure processed in a digester retains more nitrogen than manure stored in open-air lagoons. It’s not brain surgery, but there is a learning curve, as well as labor inputs. The idea is being promoted now, but it is far from new.
The Chinese have been involved with methane digestion since about 1960, and in the 1970s disseminated something like six million home digesters to farmers. Currently, home digesters are common in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and parts of Africa. On the larger scale, Germany is Europe’s foremost biogas producer, with around 6,000 biogas electric generating plants. Germany also has incentives and subsidies for farmers and others to adopt digester technology.
Cryo Pur, a French company based in Palaiseau, outside Paris, has recently developed a one-step method to remove CO2 and other impurities from biogas using cryogenics. Due to the extreme low temperatures, biogas is liquefied in the process, which allows it to be shipped much more safely.
Cornell Cooperative Extension will host an in-depth small-farm biogas workshop this winter. The class will be repeated on three different dates at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm, 2043 State Highway 68, Canton. While it is geared toward small-scale dairy farms, livestock & horticulture producers, and those with an interest in alternative energy production are welcome. Participants can choose one of these three dates: Wednesday, December 5, 2018 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM, Thursday, February 7, 2019 , 10:00 AM - 2:00 PM, or Wednesday, March 6, 2019, 6:00 PM - 9:00 PM.
Classes are free and include a small stipend as well as a meal. Registration is required. To register or for more information, call Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County at (315) 379-9192.
You can learn all about small-scale methane digesters, but to my knowledge there are none for strictly personal use. If you’ve eaten too much sauerkraut you’ll just have to let digestion run its course. Away from others, please.
Ducking my French lesson
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
My francophone wife is often amused as I commence à apprendre la langue, like the time I said connard when I meant canard. For the monolingual English-speakers out there, canard means duck, while the rough equivalent of connard is a word that rhymes with “spithead,” and that you don't want your kids to say. But where mallards and other puddle-ducks are concerned, the two are related. The drake (male) can be an absolute connard sometimes.
The Darwinian principle “survival of the fittest” is not always about who wins the antler fight or arm-wresting contest. Fitness means being well-suited to one’s environment so as to live long enough to reproduce and thus pass on one’s DNA. Above all else, it means being adaptable.
The mallard, perhaps the most recognizable duck in North America with the drake having a glossy green head, bright orange bill and prim white collar, may be the fittest species ever. In fact, University of Alberta biologist Lee Foote has called them “the Chevy Impala of ducks.” For those under 30, the once-ubiquitous Impala was an all-purpose, nearly bullet-proof sedan.
Native to North and Central America, Eurasia and North Africa, the mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) has been introduced to South America, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. It might be more serviceable even than the Impala. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, a group dedicated to the sustainability of natural resources, lists it (the duck, not the car) as a “species of least concern.” This designation sounds apathetic, but there is concern in places such as South Africa and New Zealand, where mallards have become invasive.
Unlike with automobiles, where hybrids are good but rarely free, mallard hybrids are so common that other ducks may soon disappear as distinct species. Typically, a defining feature of a species is the fact it is unable to cross with other species to produce offspring, or at least not fertile ones. Mallards, evidently, have not read the literature. I hate it when nature does that.
Mallard hyper-hybridization is due to the fact that they evolved in the late Pleistocene, recent in evolutionary terms. Mallards and their kin “only” date back a few hundred thousand years. Animals originating millions of years ago have had time to spread out and develop unique adaptations, often including physical and behavioural changes that render them incompatible with once-related species.
Mallards frequently mate with American black ducks, but also breed with at least a dozen other kinds, in some cases resulting in the loss or near extinction of species. According to the Global Invasive Species Database (GISD), “As a consequence [of mallard interbreeding], Mexican duck is no longer considered a species and less than 5% of pure non-hybridized New Zealand grey ducks remain.”
Mallards are a type of puddle or dabbling duck, tipping their heads under water to feed on mollusks, insect larvae and worms, as opposed to diving after prey. They also eat seeds, grasses and aquatic plants. Well-adapted to humans, they seem just as pleased to snap up day-old bread in city parks.
Their mating strategy, while not responsible for their success, may be emblematic of it. In about 97% of the planet’s bird species, mating is a brief, external event in which the male’s stuff gets passed to the female by the two touching their back ends together in what is called (by humans at least) a “cloacal kiss.” The cloaca is a bird’s all-purpose opening used to pass eggs, feces and whatever, as needed. This PG-13 performance sounds anything but romantic.
Certain ducks went to the other extreme, dabbling in X-rated, violent sex. Puddle-duck males can have members longer than their bodies, which certainly puts things in perspective for us guys. Also, a number of mallard drakes copulate with each hen, sometimes at once, occasionally resulting in injury or (rarely) death of a female.
This seems like a bad way to run a species, with drakes killing hens. But there is some sense to it. Females have been observed rounding up guy ducks who seem to have nothing better to do. The reason a mallard hen might barnstorm drake hangouts to get them to follow her has to do with lifespan. In contrast to the Canada goose, known to live 10 to 25 years in nature, wild mallards have an average lifespan of 3-5 years. This means a high percentage of females, which begin breeding at age 2, will mate only once in their life. Multiple copulations will ensure the hen’s eggs will be fertile.
And girl-ducks have a secret strategy—once a hen gets the attention of the guys, she can pick the duckling-daddy. If a male does not suit her, she will guide the loser-drake’s penis into a vaginal dead-end until he is done, a copulation fake-out. The lucky drake will be allowed to go the whole nine yards. So to speak—I doubt it’s that long.
Obviously, mallards don’t need our help finding food. In most cases it is not a good idea (and local by-laws may prohibit it) to feed waterfowl, which can increase water pollution and diseases, even some that can affect humans. So-called “swimmers’ itch,” a duck parasite that can afflict beachgoers, is the least of them. The GISD states “…mallards are the prime long-distance vector of H5N1 [bird flu] since they excrete significantly higher proportions of the virus than other ducks while seeming immune to its effects…their extreme wide range, large populations, and tolerance to humans provides a link to wild waterfowl, domestic animals, and humans rendering it a perfect vector of the deadly virus.”
The short lifespan of mallards drove the species to develop strategies that include harsh behaviour. We humans have no such excuse. It would be ducky if we could agree never to act like a connard, but that is not realistic in a complex world. Maybe we could at least try to become bilingual.
Head of the class
By PAUL HETZLER
Cornell Cooperative Extension
When the topic of animal smarts comes up, we might argue whether a crow or a parrot is the more clever, or if dolphins are smarter than manatees. Seldom do we ascribe intelligence to life-forms such as insects, plants or fungi. And it is rare indeed that we question our intellectual primacy among animals. It is true that no other species can point to monumental achievements such as the Colosseum, acid rain, nerve gas and atomic bombs. But that does not mean other species are bird-brained. Metaphorically speaking.
It makes sense that elephants and whales are whiz-kids, given the size of their heads. Depending on species, whale brains weigh between 12 and 18 pounds (5.4-8 kg.), and Dumbo's cranium would tip the scale at around 11 lbs. (5.1 kg.). Compared to them, our 3-pound (1.3 kg.) brains are small potatoes. What sets mammal brains apart from other classes of animal is the neocortex, the outermost region of the brain responsible for higher functions such as language and abstract thinking.
But size is not the only thing that counts. Our neocortices, unlike those of most animals, are highly convoluted, which means we make everything way more complicated than necessary. Actually, convolution gives our brains a lot more real estate by volume—as if Texas were a rug and it got scrunched up to the size of Vermont. A lot of acreage would fit in a small space if it were nothing but valleys and mountains. This greater surface area equates to more processing power than a less highly folded brain like a whale's.
The ability to make and use tools, and to carry them for future use, is one of the widely accepted indicators of intelligence. In the past, it was thought that only humans and our close ape relatives used tools. Some gorillas in Borneo use sticks to spear catfish, and western lowland gorillas have been observed using a stick to gauge water depth. In at least one case, a gorilla used a log to fashion a bridge to cross a stream. I suppose if they started charging a toll, we would give them more respect.
Only just recently has the intelligence of cephalopods like cuttlefish, squid and octopodes been documented. Octopodes have been observed foraging for discarded coconut shells and using them to build sea-castles of sorts in which to hide. If their ability with tools progresses, I bet they could knit an awesome sweater in no time.
Birds also use tools—crows, for example, will use a stick to poke at bugs they can't otherwise reach. When the insect bites the stick, the crow pulls the stick out and eats the bug. Humans always assumed birds were not very smart because their brains weigh a few grams, and range from pea-size to maybe the size of a walnut. Well, we've had to eat crow, because bird brains are far more neuron-dense than mammal brains. It's like we were comparing the microchip brain of birds to the big vacuum-tube human brain and sneering, when in fact many birds test on par with primates for intelligence.
We know that honeybees use a sort of interpretive bee-dance to communicate with each other as to the location of flowers and picnickers. Our native bumblebees seem to have one up on them. In 2016, researchers at Queen Mary University of London found that bumblebees learned within minutes how to roll a tiny ball into a little hole to get a sugar-water reward. I assume the researchers are now busy with bumblebee golf tournaments.
Even vegetables can learn new tricks. Experiments have shown Pavlovian responses when light and other stimuli are presented together from various angles. Plants of course will grow in the direction of light. But when the light was switched off, the plants tilted toward the other stimuli, just like the way Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard bells. I imagine the winter holiday season was frustrating for those drool-pooches.
Humans, apes, squids, birds, bugs, and plants—there's nowhere to go but down. Enter the plasmodial slime mold, a slow-moving single-cell organism that can scout the landscape, find the best food, and engulf it, growing ever larger. Coming soon to a theater near you. It sounds like a sci-fi film, and a blob of pink, yellow or white slime mold, possibly a square yard in area, does look pretty alien. They usually live in shaded forest environments, but can show up on your flower bed, and a friend once sent a picture of a slime mold which had engulfed his empty beer can left out overnight.
Researchers discovered that a plasmodial slime mold uses complex algorithms to make decisions—logical ones, it turns out—regarding which direction to proceed as it slimes across the landscape. One of the lead researchers in the 2015 study is Simon Garnier, an Assistant Professor of Biology at New Jersey Institute of Technology. He said that “[studying slime molds] challenges our preconceived notions of the minimum biological hardware required for sophisticated behavior.”
Maybe it's time we paid more attention to our non-human relatives. I bet they have a lot to teach us.
By PAUL HETZLER
A total lunar eclipse is likely more common than the swift removal of a novel invasive plant infestation, but fingers are crossed that such a thing happened in St. Lawrence County this summer. The plant eradication, I mean—we all know about the celestial event this past July, the first central lunar eclipse since June 2011. Thanks to the sharp eyes of Dr. Tony Beane, a Professor of Veterinary Science at SUNY Canton who is also an avid naturalist, an exotic vine capable of smothering fields and forests has been eliminated within weeks of its confirmation in the Ogdensburg area.
Commonly called porcelain berry (Ampelopsis brevipedunculata), there is nothing “brev” about the Latin name, nor the growth habit, of this aggressive woody vine which can quickly blanket vegetation along streams and forest edges, killing native plants and curbing regeneration. It is banned in most states, and is listed as a “Prohibited Species” by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), meaning it “cannot be knowingly possessed with the intent to sell, import, purchase, transport or introduce.” Sadly, web searches still turn up dozens of ads to buy this vine, even when “invasive” is added to the search parameters.
The discovery of porcelain berry in northern NY was relayed to the St. Lawrence-Eastern Lake Ontario Partnership for Regional Invasive Species Management (SLELO PRISM), a group of conservation groups, land trusts, and government agencies at various levels whose goal is to limit the economic and environmental damage done by invasive plants, insects, and aquatic organisms. On the heels of dr. Beane’s report, SLELO PRISM’s Early Detection Team made a site visit, and the plants have since been destroyed. The team plans to make follow-up visits over the next few seasons to scout for re-growth.
Native to Japan and parts of northern China, porcelain berry was first brought to the US around 1870 as an ornamental. It is related to our native wild grape, with which it can be easily confused. Unlike grapevine, which has shaggy, exfoliating bark and a brown pith, the porcelain berry vine has smooth, lenticeled bark (rough when old but not exfoliating), and a white pith. The hard, multicolored berries for which it is named progress from lavender to green to bright blue as they ripen, and do not hang down like grapes, but are held upright. Porcelain berry leaves are often deeply 5-lobed as compared to grape leaves, which are generally 3-lobed and not as deeply incised, but this varies greatly and is a poor diagnostic feature.
Although the possible elimination of an invasive species never before seen in the North Country is heartening, people are urged to keep an eye out for porcelain berry. Its fruits are eaten by birds, and seeds from this one known population could easily have been carried to other locations in northern NYS. If you think you may have found this plant, please report it to your nearest Cornell Cooperative Extension or NYSDEC office. The full list of NYSDEC Regulated and Prohibited Species can be found at dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/isprohibitedplants2.pdf. For more information on controlling invasives in the St. Lawrence-Eastern Lake Ontario region, visit sleloinvasives.org
Plant a tree, don't rent it
By PAUL HETZLER
Planting a tree isn’t rocket science, which is a good thing. If it were that complex, I’d wager we’d have a lot fewer trees lining our streets. It may not take a scientist to plant a tree correctly, but a lot of money is spent each year to buy and plant trees which may as well be leased, because they will only live a fraction of their potential lifespan.
When trees decline and die after 15, 20, or even 30 years, the last thing we probably suspect is shoddy planting. Although landscape trees like mountain-ash and birch have naturally short lives, a sugar maple or red oak should easily last a hundred or more years. Yet all too often, a long-lived species will expire at twenty because it was planted “fast and dirty.” You can find examples of trees declining as an age-class in housing developments, and especially along major routes where contractors replaced trees cut down for road improvements. One may as well consider such trees rentals, not purchases.
Deep planting sets the stage for a sickly tree, one often headed for an untimely end. Every tree comes with a handy “depth gauge” called the trunk flare, which should be just visible above the original soil grade. Planting too deep leads to serious future health problems. For the tree, primarily. Here is an arborist joke: What do you call a 3-foot-deep planting hole for a tree? Its grave.
Given their druthers, tree roots extend 2-3 times the branch length, or drip line, but 90% of them will be the top 10” of soil. To reflect this fact, a planting hole should be saucer-shaped and 2-3 times the diameter of the root system, but no deeper—ever. Otherwise the Planting Police will ticket you. OK that’s fiction, but if an arborist happens to come along, she or he may scowl ominously.
When a tree is dug in the nursery, most of its roots are cut off by the tree spade used to dig it. The term transplant shock refers to this catastrophic loss of roots. Obviously, trees can survive transplanting, but they need to have the right conditions for re-growing roots. It’s essential a transplant’s roots be able to penetrate the surrounding soil, as any slight barrier can induce them to turn aside in search of an opening. Compacted soils—common along streets—as well as heavy clay are examples.
Even burlap around the root ball has been shown to cause roots to circle inside the fabric. Wire cages surrounding the burlap can last decades, and often lead to further problems as roots enlarge. Once a tree is at the right depth in the hole, remove all burlap as well as the wire cage from ball-and-burlap trees. Roots of container-grown trees need to be teased out straight. If necessary, cut them to do this. Over time, circling roots increase in diameter and constrict one another. Some eventually become girdling roots which strangle the trunk, either partially or wholly, below the soil line, and stress symptoms like early fall color and twig dieback appear.
Selection is important. Like kids, trees look cute when you bring them home from the nursery, but they can grow fast and take up more room than you expected. If a site is under wires or has restricted space for branches, you need to pick a species and variety that can grow full-size without causing conflicts. Choose a tree hardy to the area—some stores may carry trees not well-suited to the climate where you live. And not all trees have sunny dispositions. Maples can stand a bit of shade, but a shaded crabapple may get crabby. Finally, trees such as hawthorn, hackberry and Kentucky coffeetree have aesthetic interest in dormancy, a consideration given our long winters.
With very sandy or heavy clay soils, moderate amounts of organic matter can improve the backfill. But more than 30% by volume can cause a “teacup effect,” leading to root suffocation. Fertilizer is stressful on new trees, so wait at least a year on that. In healthy soils, trees may not need commercial fertilizer.
Water as you backfill, prodding the soil with a stick or shovel handle to eliminate large air pockets. Unless a site is very windy it’s best not to stake trees—they need movement for strong trunks to develop. Mulching 2-4 inches deep over the planting area (not touching the trunk) will help conserve moisture and suppress weeds.
With the same amount of cost and effort, it’s possible to plant a specimen our great-grandchildren can point to with pride. Or, we can plant an identical tree which fizzles out before we retire. It’s just a matter of a little homework, and attention to a few details. No rocket science, fortunately.
If you would like to learn how to plant trees that your grandchildren can point to with pride, please join St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District and Cornell Cooperative Extension on Saturday, October 13 from 9 a.m. to noon in Canton’s Bend-In-The-River Park at 90 Lincoln Street for a workshop on tree planting and care. The class is free and open to the public, but pre-registration is requested. To register or for more information, call Aaron Barrigar at the St. Lawrence County Soil and Water Conservation District at (315) 386-3582.
Fifty shades of night
By PAUL HETZLER
Many nightshades are safe and delicious, and go well in sandwiches and sauces. A few are deadly, dished up mainly by criminals, but most occupy a gray area between these two extremes. Worldwide, there are around 2,700 species in the nightshade family, known as solanaceae to Latin geeks. The group comprises tasty crops like tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and tomatillos. It is also composed in part by shady characters such as jimsonweed and deadly nightshade which have wrought mayhem and death, both accidental and intentional, throughout history.
Nightshades are present on every continent except Antarctica, though Australia and South America have the greatest diversity, and overall numbers, of species. Tobacco is one of the most economically important nightshades, while other family members, for example petunias and Chinese lanterns, spice up our yards. The majority of nightshades are wild species, some of which have been used as sources of medicine for millenia.
It seems that the word “sumac” is preceded by “poison” in the minds of many folks, which is sad because all the sumac we see on roadsides and in fencerows are perfectly harmless. Poison sumac, which requires standing water, is a glossy-stemmed shrub with drooping white berries. It can cause a poison ivy-like rash, but is an uncommon species. To an even greater extent, everyone assumes the term “nightshade” always comes after the word “deadly.”
Obviously, part of the problem is one of branding. The “real” deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) is worthy of its name. A single berry can be fatal to a child, and 8-10 berries or just one leaf is enough to kill an adult. Accidental poisonings may occur because the deeply hooded purple berries taste sweet, and may be consumed by kids or adults. The plant has also been used deliberately as a way to kill political foes and unfaithful spouses. In at least one case, a whole garrison of soldiers was wiped out by sweet wine spiked with A. belladonna berry extract (helpful hint: do not accept drinks from enemy kings or other people you do not know well).
However, deadly nightshade prefers temperate or subtropical climates, and is not known to occur in northern NY. What we commonly call “deadly nightshade” is the native bittersweet nightshade, Solanum dulcamara, the seeds of which are very slightly toxic. But we do have a dangerous nightshade, jimsonweed (Datura stramonium) also known as devil-apple or mad-apple. All parts of the plant are toxic, but especially the seeds. Native to Mexico and Central America, this coarse annual weed has very long, white, funnel-shaped flowers and bizarre-looking spiny pods, and can be found infesting pastures and barnyards.
All nightshades contain some amounts of atropine, scopolamine, and other compounds which in minute quantities have medical uses, but are extremely dangerous at larger doses. Within very narrow limits, these chemicals have also be used recreationally. Tragically, some poisonings are a result of people consuming A. belladonna, D. stramonium, and other nightshades with especially high concentrations of such chemicals in the mistaken belief they can get high. A plant in one location may be many times as toxic as the same species growing on a different site, and there is no way outside of lab analysis to tell.
The skin of potatoes which have been exposed to light will turn green, indicating that some toxic principles have accumulated. The danger is small, but to be on the safe side these should be discarded. The chemicals can penetrate into the flesh, and removing the green portions is not enough to completely eliminate the risk to infants or the elderly. Likewise, there is little danger in consuming a small amount of tomato or potato leaf, but where children are concerned, refer all questions to a poison-control center. Enjoy your vegetable nightshades, but steer clear of the shady ones.
New tick species spreading
By PAUL HETZLER
Years ago I read an author interview, and although I don’t recall her name, one of the images she raised has stayed with me. It’s not an exact quote, but she said something to the effect that writing ought to feel to an author as if they were water skiing behind their work, not towing it like a barge. In general, I find this to be the case. The hours or days of research which go into an article are hardly exhilarating, but the wave-jumping that comes after shrinking those pages of facts into 800 words makes it worth the effort.
However, when I tried to water-ski behind a brand-new invasive tick that can reproduce without mating, drain the blood out of livestock, and potentially carry ten or more human diseases, including one similar to Ebola, something changed. A few topics whip across the water at high speed. Most at least pull me at a leisurely pace. This one made me drop the whole water skiing idea and swim for my life. Turns out there is a limit to how many miles you can get out of happy imagery. And to how long a writer should be allowed to spend alone in a room with the same metaphor.
The invasive species, Haemaphysalis longicornis, is commonly called the Asian longhorned tick, or simply the longhorned tick, which is confusing since a number of invasive wood-boring beetles also bear the name “longhorned.” Native to parts of Central and East Asia, as well as to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and other Pacific islands, it was first identified in North America in November 2017 in Hunterdon County, New Jersey. A lone pet Icelandic sheep had been critically weakened from blood loss due to the estimated thousand longhorned ticks which were found attached.
How the tick arrived in New Jersey remains a mystery, since the sheep had reportedly never been off the manicured, upscale property, but birds sometimes give ticks free air miles. Within a few months, authorities had confirmed it in several other states, and as of September 2018, it is believed to be in nine states total, including New York, where it has been found in Westchester County. While US Customs officials had occasionally found the longhorned tick on quarantined animals as long ago as 1969, this is the first time it has been found in the wild in North America. Given how far it has already spread, experts believe it has been here several years, perhaps as far back as 2013.
It is fairly nondescript, being light to dark brown, and lacking any visible “longhorns,” which can only be seen under magnification. It is also tiny, roughly the same size as the blacklegged or deer tick, and only half as big as a dog or wood tick. It is more rounded in outline than the deer tick, though, and a bit more textured. A Texas A&M University fact sheet offers these helpful details: “H. longicornus has a 5:5 apical hypostomal dentition, and with palp article 3 each possessing an elevated dorso-median spur.” On second thought, a web-image search might be better.
To be fair to the longhorned tick—which is more than it deserves—it is not at this time known to carry human pathogens here on this continent. In its home range it does transmit several species of Borrelia spirochete bacteria known to cause Lyme disease, as well pathogens which cause Babesiosis, spotted-fever rickettsia, Erlichiosis, Anaplasmosis, Khasan virus, Powassan virus and at least two other types of tick-borne encephalitis. A relatively new illness with symptoms like those of Ebola, called “severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome” or SFTS, is also carried by the longhorned tick in its native area.
Another “good” point is that humans to not appear to be one of its primary hosts. In the wild it prefers rodents and other small mammals, in addition to deer, bear, canines and hares. In domestic herds it travels fast, and can overwhelm and kill young livestock, and those weakened by internal parasites or other stresses. Female ticks reproduce without mating, laying about 2,000 eggs each after a blood meal. All the ticks which hatch out are females as well, a reproductive strategy known as parthenogenesis. Apparently, longhorned ticks may even have more than one generation per year.
The fact that female longhorned ticks can churn out young without the fuss of Tinder or Craigslist to find a guy may give them an edge on population growth, but it also makes them vulnerable. The high degree of genetic variation which comes with sexual reproduction is what helps organisms adapt to change. Since longhorned ticks hail from a temperate climate, an extreme cold snap such as February 2013’s “polar vortex” might decimate their numbers without selecting for cold-hardiness in the species.
The public is advised to continue with precautions they already use against deer ticks, especially the use of DEET (20% or stronger) on exposed skin, and the use of permethrin-treated clothes and gear. Since all ticks are ferried by rodents throughout rural, urban and suburban landscapes alike, using tick tubes such as the Damminix brand can be effective in reducing tick populations greatly. Pets should be treated for ticks from April through December, and during unseasonably warm winters too. For help identifying ticks found on humans, contact your nearest Health Department or Extension office.
It is no fun writing about bad news, but there are times when knowing is important. Spend time outdoors often, but keep your eyes peeled, and clothing, exposed skin, and pets treated appropriately. And water ski as much as possible—it remains a tick-free activity.
The first shall not last: What leaf changes say about tree health
By PAUL HETZLER
Seems like competitiveness may be part of human DNA. But it does not always pay to be first.
No prize awaits the fastest car that passes a radar patrol, or the first person to come down with the flu at the office. And for trees, the first ones to turn color in autumn are not envied by their peers. If trees experience envy, which no one knows. The first trees to show orange and red and drop their leaves are telling us to get quotes from a tree-removal company, because they are not going to last.
The reason that some trees turn color ahead of their compatriots has to do with their balance sheets. Trees are meticulous accountants, and tend to be good savers that never live beyond their means. When it’s no longer profitable to operate, they start closing down for the season.
Each spring, deciduous trees take money out of the bank—starches out of trunk and root tissues—and invest in a huge solar-powered sugar factory, known as leaves. After paying for its annual complement of leaves, a tree’s costs for the season are nighttime respiration, in addition to as-needed maintenance such as chemical responses to insect feeding, pathogen incursion, or injury. Its income is the form of sugars it makes from water, carbon dioxide and sunlight via photosynthesis.
As summer wanes, the longer nights drive up costs (respiration), while the shorter days bring down income. Eventually, a tree reaches a point where it only breaks even, and it closes shop for the season. However, trees that are under stress for one reason or another have a hard time procuring the raw materials for their business. If nutrients are missing, if roots are burned by salt, physically damaged or find it hard to breathe properly due to soil compaction, or if uptake and transport of water is reduced, that makes their sugar factory inefficient. They cannot earn as much, and are less profitable overall.
Yard and street trees, for example, experience high soil temperatures, restricted root zones, intense competition from turfgrass, and other conditions that make it tough to get water. If road salt is deposited in the root area, this exacerbates the problem. Trees with waterfront homes have other challenges: fluctuating water levels tax their root systems, and those soils tend to be nutrient-poor. Such trees will reach the break-even point earlier than healthy trees, and they will close their doors early to avoid losing money, thus triggering color change.
We know that orange (carotenes) and yellow (xanthophylls) colors are already present within the leaves, masked by green chlorophyll. Trees begin to make a waxy compound to block off water and nutrients to their leaves, which is the equivalent to winterizing a camp or boat. It avoids winter damage. as the leaves are thus choked off, chlorophyll dies and yellow and orange are revealed. Red (anthocyanins) is a different story. It is manufactured in the fall by some species, maples in particular, at significant cost. Science has yet to come up with a plausible explanation for this. Probably, enjoying the color show is far more important than figuring out why red happens in fall.
Sometimes you’ll see a bright-colored branch on a mainly green tree, which means business is good overall except for that “branch office.” In these cases, it is a particular major root which is in trouble. It’s not always the root directly below the early-color branch, because vascular systems may spiral.
Whenever you see a tree hanging a “See You Next Year” sign earlier than others, you can be sure it’s facing severe stress and is taking the most prudent action. Our prudent response would be to choose a replacement tree, and plan to remove the early bird. And to remember that first is not always best when we are tempted to cut a queue.
Late blight confirmed in Colton
By PAUL HETZLER
COLTON -- Late blight, a disease which ravages tomatoes and potatoes, was confirmed in the Colton area as of Aug. 27, and very likely will soon show up across the region.
“Better late than never” is a common saying, but when it comes to late blight, it should be “Better Never Than Late.” Historically, late blight was rare. But ever since infected tomato plants were shipped from southern greenhouses to stores across the Northeast in May 2009, essentially destroying the tomato crop that year, it has recurred every year.
Gardeners and produce farmers should scout their tomato and potato crops for signs of late blight. The first symptoms are large watery lesions on leaves and stems, especially near the top of the plant. The leaves will have the appearance of having been frozen and then thawed.
In moist and humid conditions, white, fuzzy fungal growth may be seen at the margins of such lesions. Since late blight is airborne, symptoms will show up throughout the plant, not just near the bottom. On the tomatoes themselves, late blight causes brown, greasy-looking patches that are quite firm to the touch.
Home gardeners can use protective fungicides with the active ingredients chlorothalonil or copper on potatoes and tomatoes. Once late blight hits, these fungicides cannot stop the disease. If late blight is already in your garden, you can try to salvage ripe tomatoes, and unripe ones of mature size, by immersing them in a 10% bleach solution and laying them out indoors on a counter top or baking sheet where you can keep an eye on them. Tomatoes with small late blight spots are safe to eat after removing affected areas, but the USDA recommends not using them for canning.
Late blight can spread on the wind from one garden or farm to the next. To protect other growers, diseased plants should be placed in clear plastic bags and left in the sun until no green tissue is left. Once the plants are completely dead, the late blight organism can no longer produce spores and it is safe to compost those plants, bury them, or discard them in the trash.
The only way late blight can overwinter is if potatoes from infected plants are left in the ground. When these infected volunteers sprout in the spring, late blight can work its way up the stem from the tuber, and produce spores which could touch off an epidemic early in the season. It is important that gardeners and farmers destroy all volunteer potato plants next spring.
For more information on late blight, go to usablight.org, or call your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
Monitoring and managing ash training workshop at Nicandri Nature Center
By PAUL HETZLER
The emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle which is lethal to native ash trees, has been confirmed in Franklin and St. Lawrence Counties, as well as very near the southern border of Jefferson County. While the news is generally bad, a program called Monitoring and Managing Ash (MaMA) offers a ray of hope. Developed by the Poughkeepsie-based Ecological Research Institute in cooperation with the US Forest Service, MaMA offers tools to help citizens identify ash that may show some natural resistance to EAB. It is believed that these so-called “lingering ash” may hold a genetic key to finding resistant strains of ash, thus saving them from extinction.
Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County, in cooperation with the Nicandri Nature Center in Massena, is pleased to announce that the Ecological Research Institute will present a MaMA workshop on Thursday, August 2, from 1:00-4:00 PM at the Nicandri Nature Center. Attendees will get hands-on field training in using MaMA’s citizen-science and land-manager tools to identify lingering ash, those trees that remain healthy while others around them succumb to EAB. Propagating these potentially EAB-resistant trees is the best hope for ash conservation.
Jonathan Rosenthal, Director of the Ecological Research Institute, and senior scientist Dr. Radka Wildova, both experts in EAB ecology and management, will teach the workshop. The event is free and open to the the public, but class size is limited, so pre-registration is required. To pre-register or for workshop information, call (315) 379-9192 extension 232 or send an email to Paul Hetzler at [email protected].
Late blight might be early
By PAUL HETZLER
New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets has just issued a warning to gardeners and farmers regarding late blight, which was confirmed on June 15, much earlier than usual, in Onondaga County. State Agriculture Commissioner Richard Ball stated “Late blight is a serious disease that can wreak havoc on the State’s tomato and potato crop. We ask home gardeners, greenhouse growers and vegetable farmers to be vigilant for signs of late blight, and report cases to the Department and a local Cornell Cooperative Extension office so action can be taken to prevent the spread of this extremely harmful disease.”
Although the term “blight” strikes fear into the hearts of those who grow tomatoes and potatoes, it actually has no strict definition. Early blight, also known as Alternaria, is a soil-borne pathogen that kills the lower leaves of tomatoes and progresses up the stem through the season. Every garden has early blight, and while it can be bad in wet years, it’s usually not serious.
Of all the plant maladies, I think the only one that deserves the fearsome moniker ‘blight’ is late blight, Phytophthora infestans. Its Latin name, roughly translated, means “highly contagious plant-destroyer.” This is perhaps the most virulent plant pathogen in the region.
Late blight spores are airborne, so you can’t protect against it through crop rotation and other practices the way you can with early blight and other garden-variety (so to speak) diseases. It affects leaves anywhere on the plant, not just the lower ones. It also infects stems and fruit, and can kill entire stands of tomatoes and potatoes in just a few days.
Weather plays a role in the spread of this disease. Sunlight kills spores in under an hour, but if it’s cloudy, they remain viable for days. Also, late blight is unable to infect a dry leaf, and needs moisture to germinate. Typically, late blight spores get here from the South on storm fronts and does not overwinter here, with the exception of infected potato tubers that remain in the ground. In that case, “volunteer” potato vines sprout and begin spreading blight early in the season.
It is important to rogue out all volunteer potato plants early on. Infected plants become spore factories, hastening the spread of the disease exponentially. This is why it’s important for gardeners and farmers to destroy infected plants as soon as late blight is discovered. Typical symptoms are large dark watery lesions (similar to lettuce that has been frozen and then thawed) on leaves, and dark brown lesions on stems. Brown, very firm lesions with a “greasy” look and feel will appear on tomatoes. In humid conditions, grayish fuzz may grow on these lesions.
To protect tomatoes and potatoes, organic growers can use copper-based sprays to protect their plants, and home gardeners can also use products containing chlorothalonil. Neither of these will cure late blight or even halt its spread, but can protect against initial infection.
For daily updates on late blight, plus photos of symptoms, visit http://www.usablight.org/
PESTICIDE DISCLAIMER: Every effort has been made to provide correct, complete and up-to-date pesticide recommendations. Nevertheless, changes in pesticide regulations occur constantly, human errors are still possible. These recommendations are not a substitute for pesticide labeling. Please read the label before applying any pesticide and follow the directions exactly.
By PAUL HETZLER
There’s pollination, and then there’s Pollen Nation. The first is necessary to produce food, and for the continuation of forests, prairies and other terrestrial ecosystems. The second is what we are this year, beset with more than our usual share of pollen, which has filled sidewalk cracks and coated windshields this spring.
Anything outside winter can be pollen season. Various tree species like willow (a common allergen) and soft maple typically begin to shed pollen before all the snow has melted, and depending on conditions, forage grasses may continue to flower in very late fall. Not everyone is sensitive to the same type of pollen, and of course there are other allergens floating about such as mold spores, but certain types of plants—ragweed comes to mind—seem to trigger symptoms in a high percentage of allergy sufferers.
Pollen of course is the male contribution to a plant seed, many of which come wrapped in tasty coverings as is the case with tomatoes, cukes, apples, melons and the like. Most plant species have male and female reproductive parts conveniently located on the same plant. These are called monoecious. Sometimes everything is in the same flower, like apples, and others have separate male and female flowers, like squash. A few species are dioecious, meaning they have separate male and female plants. Holly and ginkgo are two examples.
Like every other living thing, plants have an innate drive to have babies and carry on the species. To accomplish this, plants have to figure out how to get pollen grains to make friends with the plant ovaries. Generally plants use one of two strategies.
One is to bribe insects or other critters to carry pollen from the male flower part to the female. These plants make flowers that are recognizable as such: colorful, fragrant, affairs with sweet nectar deep within each flower, as payment for pollen delivery. These plants make heavy pollen. Well that’s relative, because bees have to be able to pick it up, but the pollen is too heavy to waft around on the breeze. There is an easy test to tell if a flower causes allergies or not. If you can see it, it is not to blame for your symptoms.
On the other hand, making big, showy, sugar-filled flowers is expensive. It takes a lot of energy. At some point a group of plants decided it was hard work to attract pollinators, but easy to attract the wind, which could deliver their pollen. They have to crank out loads of the stuff (pollen, not wind), but each grain is miniscule. It is so light that ragweed pollen has been collected 400 miles out to sea. Members of the wind-pollinator club have inconspicuous flowers which tend to be drab and green, and just large enough to get the job done; no bigger. Elm trees, ragweed and grasses belong to this group.
We get a break from all that just after a rain, which washes dust and pollen from the air. A spell of dry weather makes allergies worse, as new pollen keeps getting added to that which is hanging around. Because our seasons get a little longer every year, allergy season gets a little worse over time.
Not that you can do a whole lot about it, but you can look up pollen conditions on any number of websites. Some are hosted by makers of allergy medication, and others by universities and government agencies. Pollen reports give not only the severity, but also tell you what kind is most prevalent at the moment. The U.S. Environmental protection Agency reports air quality across the country (airnow.gov), and the American Academy of Asthma, Allergies and Immunology (aaaai.org) has a good pollen calculator, and there are air quality maps at pollen.com.
People who suffer with allergies can get a tiny bit of relief by wearing a broad-brimmed hat to keep your hair from becoming a pollen collector. Sporting close-fitting sunglasses can help keep some of the pollen out of the eyeballs. And even though line-dried clothes smell the best, don’t hang your laundry on high-pollen days because you’ll be wearing your misery.
By PAUL HETZLER
Like a B-grade horror film, they’re back. Writhing en masse, draping cobwebs, and raining tiny “peppercorn” poop onto us, tent caterpillars have returned. Known variously as tent worms, army worms, and a host of other names not suitable to print, there are actually two species of tent caterpillars.
Eastern tent caterpillars (ETC) make a proper tent and prefer trees in the rose family such as cherry, apple and pear. Because of this, ETC females lay eggs almost exclusively on those trees. The ETC is a hairy, brown-ish caterpillar lined with blue, and sporting a single white stripe running down its back. Late last summer, female ETC moths laid light-brown egg masses resembling dabs of spray-foam insulation on twigs. Though they hatched in late April, the tents did not become noticeable until May.
Eastern tent caterpillars hatch about a week earlier than their forest cousins, and get a head start on damaging trees. As mentioned, they prefer fruit trees, but will turn to other host plants if needed. Eastern tent caterpillars are of special concern to horse owners, as they are known to cause pregnant mares to miscarry when the mares accidentally eat caterpillars that are in the pasture grass.
The forest tent caterpillar (FTC), which would like to take credit for building tents, does not in fact make a nest. It is similar to ETC in size and coloration but has a row of keyhole-shaped “footprints” down its back rather than a stripe. Both species are native.
It is the forest tent caterpillar which poses the bigger threat to woodlot owners, and especially maple producers. The FTC prefers sugar maples and avoids red (soft) maples. As with all tent caterpillars, anything is fair game once its favorite food is gone. A single defoliation will weaken a tree, and in maples can significantly lower sap-sugar content for a year or more. A repeat defoliation will further damage trees, making them more susceptible to other stressors such as lecanium scale insects (which, aside from hurting trees, leave sticky droplets on your windshield if you park under a maple). Timber managers as well are watching how the caterpillar outbreak progresses.
It may seem like needless worry over a phenomenon that has been recurring for a few thousand years. Indeed, under good conditions only 15-20 percent of overstory trees die as a result of consecutive defoliations, according to my forester friends. But trees have never experienced water stress like they have in the past two decades, especially in 2012 and 2016. It may take two to three years of ideal conditions for a tree to recover from such prolonged dry spells. Secondary pests like scale only add to the stress. As if that wasn’t enough, a researcher at the University of Alberta discovered that outbreaks within fragmented forests last much longer than those in large unbroken tracts of forest.
In the past, some maple producers have had their sugar bushes aerially sprayed to control tent caterpillars. The best product for killing them is a called Bt (for Bacillus thurengiensis, the organism that makes the toxin) and is available under various trade names. The “kurstaki” variant of Bt is effective against tent worms but safe for humans, wildlife, and most other insects.
In cases of severe tent caterpillar outbreaks, timber managers may want to consider delaying thinning operations in the most heavily infested stands, as harvesting operations can further stress trees. Horse owners with a pregnant mare should try to limit ETC around pastures. Such controls might include removing host trees.
Homeowners can use Bt on their yard trees, but will have to hurry, as eastern tent caterpillars are getting past the stage that is easy to control. Once they exceed about 8 cm. (1.5 inches). they do not succumb to Bt as much. Since tent worms congregate in their nests during mid-day, their nests can be thrown to the ground and squashed where they’re reachable. Forest tent caterpillars are still small enough that there may be time to spray Bt. As these pests eat up favored food sources they travel to seek less-desirable ones. Oddly enough, they seem to hate our native red (soft) maples.
Using adhesive products like “Tanglefoot” and other brands on the trunks can help protect small yard trees from getting invaded by hungry hordes on the march. Watering yard trees during dry periods will help them recover from defoliation.
There are many natural controls for tent caterpillars such as viruses and fungi, but it can take a few years for these to reach a point where they bring down the caterpillar population. The biggest threat to tent caterpillars is cool weather, because they are unable to digest food below about 15C (59F) degrees. In a cool spring, they can starve to death with full bellies. Infestations typically last from two to four years in large tracts of forest, and up to six years in small blocks.
One reason fragmented forests have longer infestation times is that sunlight inhibits caterpillar- killing viruses. A species of non- biting fly parasitizes the caterpillars, and though these flies can be somewhat of a nuisance themselves, remember what they’re doing. Unfortunately, no birds native to the area are known to eat the tent worms.
For more information on tent caterpillars, contact your nearest Cornell Cooperative Extension or New York State Department of Environmental Conservation office.
What's good for your lawn
By PAUL HETZLER
The Memorial Day long weekend is often a time to put in the garden, spruce up the yard, and of course, mow the lawn. After the snow from our prolonged winter melted away, many homeowners were disappointed at the condition of their lawn. Areas of dead grass are sometimes, but by no means always, due to heavy feeding by last fall’s grub crop. Grubs, of course, are beetle babies. Not like Ringo Junior, but the larval stage of European and rose chafers, and Japanese, Asiatic-garden, and Oriental beetles.
Unfortunately, you will have to wait until late summer to exact revenge, because short of becoming a skunk-herder and letting your flock dig up all the grubs, absolutely nothing you do to right now will kill the grubs responsible for vandalizing your lawn. Or kill any grubs for that matter. They are done feeding and are in the pupal stage, essentially impervious to poisons.
How do you know if grubs are the problem, or if it’s something else? At this time of year it is hard to tell. One fairly reliable sign of grubs are pockmarks in the yard from crows and skunks grubbing around for snacks. The best time to scout for grubs is in mid-August. Measure out a square-foot patch of lawn and cut the edges with a flat-bottom shovel. The turf will peel back like a carpet, or maybe a sticky carpet, and you’ll be able to look under the hood of your lawn. If there are more than ten grubs in your sample, it may be worth treating the yard.
Assuming treatment is in order, you’ll have to pick your poison, literally. A very important fact to consider is that pesticides available at garden centers are not less toxic than ones restricted to licensed applicators. There are other reasons for restrictions, such as the need to understand how to mix different products together depending on site conditions or weather. The active ingredients in so-called “24-hour” grub treatments are breathtakingly toxic. Take trichlorfon, a popular ingredient in such formulations, for example. Here is an excerpt from a fact sheet from the Extension Toxicology Network, a pesticide information project of Cooperative Extension Offices of Cornell University, Michigan State University, Oregon State University, and University of California at Davis:
“As with all organophosphates, trichlorfon is readily absorbed through the skin. The organophosphate insecticides are cholinesterase inhibitors. They are highly toxic by all routes of exposure. Some organophosphates, including trichlorfon, may cause delayed symptoms beginning 1 to 4 weeks after an exposure which may or may not have produced immediate symptoms. …effects reported include impaired memory and concentration, disorientation, severe depressions, irritability, confusion, headache, speech difficulties, delayed reaction times, nightmares, sleepwalking and drowsiness or insomnia. An influenza-like condition with headache, nausea, weakness, loss of appetite, and malaise has also been reported.”
Maybe it’s just me, but this seems like a rather high price to pay for a greener lawn. Other formulations are not as dangerous as trichlorfon, but caution is still in order. A very popular active ingredient in grub-killers is imidacloprid, one of the neonicinoids which were just banned throughout Europe because of the risk they pose to bees and other pollinators. I’m not allowed to say our bees are at risk, however. It’s possible they are different from those European bees. Imidacloprid needs to be applied about 30 days before the onslaught of grubs in late July and August.
Names can be deceiving. Chlorantraniliprole is a recent addition to the anti-grub arsenal, and in spite of its intimidating name, it is one of the least toxic chemicals. The issue is that it must be applied about 60 days prior to grubageddon. Then there are worms. Beneficial nematodes to be exact. These microscopic roundworms invade a grub’s body, reproducing inside and finally bursting from the hollow grub carcass. Yum. Nematodes work very well, but are more expensive than most chemicals. Since they are live, they must be direct-shipped and handled with care.
Above all else, the best defense against grubs is to mow high, between 3.5 and 4 inches, no shorter, and to leave the clippings on the lawn. This makes the grass strong enough to withstand some grub feeding without dying off in the spring. After the second year, higher mowing greatly reduces and often eliminates most weeds from the lawn, as well as drastically reduce the need for fertilizer. Try it.
If anyone is successful at skunk farming, please let me know.
More Asian worm species found
By PAUL HETZLER
Mud season is upon us, which means gardeners will soon be sifting through lush topsoil, and worms. Here in the Northeast where glaciers scrubbed the earth bare a few years back, we have no native earthworms. Yet we’ve lived mostly in peace with our European earthworms for centuries.
Unfortunately, some more recent invasive worms from East Asia pose a real threat to northern forest ecosystems, as well as gardens, nurseries, and forage-crop fields. Known variously as Asian jumping worm, Alabama (or Georgia) jumper, snake worm or crazy worm, these live mostly on top of the soil, or within the first inch or two, where they consume duff and leaf litter at a frightening pace. They leave behind loose, granular, nutrient-poor topsoil bereft of organic matter and beneficial fungi.
The first known instance of crazy worm up north was Amynthas agrestis, found in Wisconsin in 2013, but researchers have since identified more species in that genus, as well as species from other genera. In fairness, we should call them a name other than Amynthas. (But I’ll only print the decent ones.)
Crazy worms reproduce twice as fast as European earthworms, which have one generation per season. These new worms complete two, potentially even three if autumn is longer than usual. Other earthworms are hermaphroditic, that is, they possess both male and female organs but they still need to go out on a date with another of the same kind. Crazy worms, however, are parthenogenic, meaning they’re all females who spew out cocoons teeming with baby female worms, and never need to mate. All it takes is one to start an infestation. Below USDA Zone 5, they die off every winter, but their cocoons are hardy to roughly a gazillion below zero. (That may be an exaggeration—I think the actual figure is minus-100 degrees Celsius.)
At maturity, the new pests are super-size—around 20 cm (8”) long. Their name comes from the fact that they move rapidly on top of the soil, similar to a snake. Lively and strong, they can flip out of your hand, or shed a tail as a defense. Assuming you want to touch one.
Crazy worms constitute a huge biomass by fall, consuming nearly all organic matter on-site. In forests they strip organic matter from the forest floor, and within the first few inches of topsoil. This includes eating living roots of many trees, shrubs, and wildflower.
Trilliums, bloodroot, Jack-in-the-pulpit, ladyslipper and other understory plants vanish. Ground-nesting songbirds like oven birds and hermit thrush disappear as plant cover dwindles. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources invasive species specialist Bernie Williams states that “Their introduction into our state poses a huge threat to the future of our forests.”
Many species of Asian worms also exude a toxin which kills off European worms and soil mycorrhizae. It also discourages predators from consuming them. The new worms be distinguished from others by the band near their middle called a clitellum. In most worms it’s thicker than the rest of their body. In crazy worms it is flush with the body, and is milky-gray to white.
Crazy worms are often spread through the horticulture trade. Whether in a potted plant from a garden center or a gift from a friend’s garden, these monsters move long distances as transplants. They also get shipped around in compost and mulch.
As of September 2014, it is illegal to possess Asian worms in NYS, but they are still occasionally sold as bait because their acrobatics make them attractive to fish. Anglers should securely cover bait containers, and destroy unused live bait by placing it on concrete and crushing it. If you have a household worm bin, only use European red wigglers, Eisenia fetida, which won’t overwinter outside.
Let Them Eat Wood
By PAUL HETZLER
Nearly all historians agree Marie Antoinette probably never coined the phrase “Let them eat cake,” a saying already in popular culture before her time. The phrase was ascribed to her by opponents to bolster her reputation as callous and arrogant. She would have seemed far more benevolent if she had said “Let them eat wood.”
From remote villages to five-star urban restaurants, people around the world consume all manner of delectable dishes featuring second-hand wood. Although that is not generally how it is featured on the menu. Mushrooms such as inky cap, oyster and shiitake have a voracious appetite for wood, a substance that very few organisms eat because it is so hard to digest. Anyone who has tried to dine on lumber can attest to that.
Wood is made primarily of cellulose along with varying amounts of lignin. This latter compound is to cellulose what steel reinforcing rod is to concrete. There is far less of it but it imparts a great deal of strength and resilience. Even professional wood-eating bacteria in the gut of a termite cannot digest lignin. Only certain fungi have that superpower.
There are three basic groups of wood-decaying fungi: soft-rot, brown-rot and white-rot. In scientific terms these coteries are not closely related even though they have the same last name. Apparently for fungi, “rot” is like our “Smith” in that respect.
Soft-rot fungi are very common, causing garden-variety decay in tomato stakes and fence posts. Wooden ones, at least. Brown rot is less common. At some time or other you’ve probably seen its handiwork. This fungus results in a blocky pattern, turning wood into miniature, spongy brown bricks. While brown rot needs moisture to do its dirty work, it is sometimes called dry rot because it readily dries out and is often seen in that condition. Both soft-rot and brown-rot fungi consume only cellulose, eating around lignin like a kid who avoids the Lima beans lurking among the tasty food on their plate.
White-rot fungi, on the other hand, belong to the clean-plate club, digesting every component of wood. This category of fungi can cause serious decay in hardwood trees, although a few species attack conifers. Foresters hate it, but foodies love it. It is the group that gives us Armillaria mellea, a virulent and devastating pathogen that produces tasty honey mushrooms.
Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are white-rot fungi, although they are saprophytes, akin to scavengers like turkey vultures, not predator-like pathogens. So we don’t have to feel guilty about eating them. Regionally, shiitake farming has, um, mushroomed over the past decade. It is a source of supplemental income for farmers and a source of fun and good food for anyone who wants to try it.
Shiitake prefer oak, beech, maple and ironwood, more or less in that order. To cultivate shiitake, bolts (logs) made of one of these hardwoods are needed. Bolts are typically about four feet long and range from three to eight inches in diameter. Such logs will bear mushrooms for roughly one year per diameter inch. A series of holes are drilled in the logs, and these are filled with mushroom “seeds” called spawn.
As of September 2015, NY State has recognized “actively managed log-grown woodland mushrooms” as a proper—and significant—farm crop. This allows farmers to designate land they use for growing mushrooms as agricultural, making them eligible for tax breaks. (Thanks to Senator Patty Ritchie for helping this come about.) However, the 2015 law does not extend to wild-harvested mushrooms.
Cornell University has been quite proactive in promoting mushroom farming as a source of income for rural residents. In a 3-year study that wrapped up in 2012, Cornell and its research partner institutions determined that that farmers could turn a profit in just 2 years. They found that a 500-log shiitake farm could potentially earn $9,000 per year.
Steve Gabriel, Cornell's mushroom-farming expert, points out that raising log-grown mushrooms is sustainable and environmentally friendly, in addition to being a viable income source. You can find a great deal more information on the website Professor Gabriel administers: www.cornellmushrooms.org
Fortunately, Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County is hosting a regional hands-on shiitake workshop at the Extension Learning Farm in Canton. Participants can choose from one of two dates: Saturday April 14, or Saturday April 28, from 9:00 AM to 1:00 PM. Everyone who attends will take home their own shiitake mushroom log which they have prepared and inoculated. The log will continue to bear mushrooms for 3 to 4 years. Registration is online through the CCE website: www.st.lawrence.cornell.edu. You may also call the office at (315) 379-9192.
By PAUL HETZLER
Pest management used to be a lot simpler, and more effective. For those bothersome vampire problems you had your basic wooden stakes, cheap and readily available. The well-to-do could afford silver bullets, an elegant and tidier solution. And of course, garlic was the solution to prevent repeat infestations. These days many people are asking where to find teeny silver bullets for Asian multicolor lady-beetles, because they are a real problem this winter.
On sunny fall days, the Asian multicolored lady-beetle, Harmonia axyridis, often hangs out with its pals on west or south-facing walls. The insect may be beneficial for gardens and harmless to us, but as winter approaches, these insects quit swarming to seek shelter in outbuildings, wall cavities, firewood piles, and other nooks and crannies. Eventually, some of them find their way inside our homes. I don’t know what the sanctioned collective noun is for a gathering of Harmonia axyridis, but it should be a drove, since they can be enough to drive you out of the house.
From what I can tell, the orange-and-black lady bug, darling of small children everywhere, first arrived in the US—at our invitation—in about 1916, as a control for aphids on pecan trees and other crops. Adorable lady-beetles didn’t turn into ogres until the mid-1990s. There is evidence to suggest the current population might be a strain accidentally released at the Port of New Orleans in the late 1980s or early 1990s. Whatever their origin, these new lady-beetles are here to stay.
Asian multicolored lady-beetles don’t carry disease, damage structures, suck blood, or sting, and they eat harmful agricultural pests. More importantly, they do not breed indoors. However, they stain, give off a foul odor when disturbed, and will even pinch one’s skin on occasion. It’s their sheer numbers, though, amassing in corners of garages and porches, coating the insides of picture windows, which unnerves and bugs us.
Managing lady bugs, it turns out, can cut your heating bill. They looking for someplace rent-free and cozy to spend the winter, and as warm air leaks out here and there from your house, they follow it to its source and let themselves in. Caulking around windows, vents and where cable or other utilities come through the wall, and between the foundation and sill, will help immensely with lady-beetle control, and somewhat with reducing drafts. It is also helpful to ensure that door sweeps/ thresholds are tight, and check for cracked seals around garage doors. Installing screens on attic vents and inspecting all window screens is in order as well.
It’s best to avoid swatting or crushing them because they will release a smelly, staining yellow defense fluid. For a variety of reasons including the lady bugs’ habit of seeking inaccessible areas, indoor pesticides are practically useless against them, spraying inside is strongly discouraged. Instead, use a broom and dustpan to knock them down and then Hoover them up with a vacuum cleaner or shop-vac.
You can make a reusable “mini-bag” out of a knee-high nylon stocking inserted into the hose of a canister-type vacuum. Secure it on the outside with a rubber band and hang onto it as you clean up the bugs. Just remember to quickly empty it into a pail of soapy water (gas or kero is hazardous and unnecessary).
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to combat multicolored Asian lady-beetles once they are inside—we have to persevere, and vacuum and sweep them out for now. Home improvements this summer will help prevent repeat bug visits. I have no doubt that it must be more satisfying to dispatch vampires in one easy step than to fight endless lady-beetles, but I would bet it is a lot more dangerous, too.
By PAUL HETZLER
Some foods give you gas, but this is the time of year when gas gives you food. Maple syrup, nutritious enough to be considered a food, is gas-powered. If it wasn’t for a bunch of little CO2 bubbles in the xylem tissue, maple sap would not flow. Who knew that wood was carbonated.
A mere dozen years ago, science was at a loss to explain how maple sap runs. We know that freezing nights and warm days trigger sap flow, but the mechanism behind it was found only recently.
Maple production has been economically important since Native peoples first taught European settlers how to gather maple sap to make sugar. Back then it involved placing red-hot stones into containers of sap to boil it down. We’re thankful that technology has improved. Today’s maple producers have reverse-osmosis units, vacuum pumps and efficient, high-capacity evaporators.
Aside from maples, few trees have a spring sap run. Birch and butternut do, but their roots generate pressure to force sap up; not the case in maples. Evidently, maple sap flow is due to how its wood interacts with freeze-thaw cycles. In biology we learned that wood, or xylem, is responsible for upward transport of water, and sugars move down through the phloem, the outermost layer of cells. Turns out xylem misbehaves during the spring, ferrying sugars up before later returning to the textbook model.
Xylem comprises different types of cells, including vessels to transport liquid, and fiber cells to provide strength. Unlike most trees, maple has gas-filled fiber cells. Carbon dioxide and other gases in fibers are critical to generating flow because they dissolve into the sap. The geyser that results from opening a warm seltzer bottle is a reminder that plenty of CO2 can dissolve in water. If that bottle is icy cold, the risk of a gusher is low because cold water holds more gas.
At night, gases in fibers shrink as they cool, eventually dissolving into sap in the vessels. Gas contraction causes a tree’s internal pressure to drop, creating suction that draws sap from the roots to the crown. As it warms the next day, gases bubble out of solution and expand, increasing the tree’s internal pressure and forcing sap out the tap hole.
Rather than flowing upward and then out the tap during the day as we once thought, sap flows down, in addition to laterally, toward the tap. During a run, sap may flow for up to several days, depending on the tree, and factors like barometric pressure change. Vacuum changes this picture because it reduces a tree’s internal pressure, yielding maple producers twice as much sap.
All maples, even the much-maligned boxelder, yield sweet sap. In sugar maples it usually has 2% - 3% sucrose, but it can range from less than 1% to 10% or more. In addition to sugar, sap contains organic and amino acids and minerals. Some of these contribute to maple’s flavor, and others form an insoluble calcium maleate sediment called sugar sand or niter that must be filtered out.
The dissolved-gas, pressure-differential hypothesis does have some holes. While it should work with plain water, sap only runs if it has a minimum level of sucrose. Flow should also occur in all xylem tissue, not just sapwood, but that’s not the case either. So the mystery of sap flow continues.
Beech gone wild
By PAUL HETZLER
The sturdy, long-lived and stately American beech, Fagus grandifolia, has been slowly dying out since 1920, when a tiny European insect pest was accidentally released on our shores. Because of this lethal but unhurried tragedy, many forest tracts across the Northeast are being choked out by too many beech trees.
That’s right, beech decline has led to a proliferation of beech so extreme that in some places it is a threat to the health of future forests. With apologies to all the bovine readers out there, this qualifies as an oxymoron, I’m pretty sure. The ultimate cause of this weird situation is the aforementioned pest, but the proximate cause is a bad case of hormones being out of whack.
Before making sense of all that, some background is in order. Beech is in the oak family, or you could say oaks (chestnuts, too) are in the beech family, Fagaceae. Historically, it was a dominant species in many climax, or long-term stable, forest communities in eastern North America. From mice to black bears, a host of wildlife used to depend—and to an extent still do—on the seeds of beech, a protein-rich, a three-angled nut enclosed in a prickly case.
The long road to hormone imbalances and oxymorons began nearly a hundred years ago in Nova Scotia with the introduction of beech scale insects from Europe. These soft-bodied pests range in size from 0.5 to 1 mm, or in non-metric terms, crazy-small to wicked-small. It is impressive and horrifying how a microbe billions of times smaller than we are can lay us low in a hurry, or even kill us. Similarly, a tiny pest like hemlock adelgid or beech scale can bring down a tree a million times bigger just by inviting some family over.
The beech scale insect cannot fly, or even walk much, and is not much to look at. But when the wind or a bird brings it in contact with a beech trunk, it inserts its sharp, thin stylet into the phloem tissue, and takes a wee sip of tree juice. This does not sound like a big problem. And it might not be, were it not for certain fungi in the genus Nectria.
Decay fungi are critical to the formation of healthy soils, and they typically behave themselves. But when Nectria finds a bevy of beech scale insects drilling tiny holes everywhere, the temptation is too great. It takes advantage of the myriad wounds to invade the phloem, the juicy part of a tree, resulting in a small dead spot called a canker. As these cankers spread over large portions of the trunk, the tree declines and dies.
For protection, beech scale insects cover themselves with a white, woolly substance. The presence of white fuzz and/ or rough, slightly sunken cankers on a trunk are signs of the beech-busting epidemic, often called beech bark disease (BBD). Fortunately, about 1% of beech trees are naturally resistant to BBD.
The reason for beech’s “boom” has to do with how it makes babies. Seedlings can sprout from its nuts, of course, but it can also clone itself by sending up root-sprout saplings. Trees which hold a dominant place in the canopy constantly put out growth inhibitor hormones to put the brakes on mass-production of beech babies. It does not want too much competition while it is in charge.
But when a mature tree bites the dust, whether cut by loggers or killed by Nectria-Canker-Beech-Scale-Yuck Complex, there is no longer any hormone control, and you have Beech Gone Wild. Given that a tree’s root zone is 3x its branch length, every mature beech that dies results in a broad and populous mini-forest.
Dense beech thickets inhibit regeneration of other tree species. Yes, those sprouts are doomed eventually, but not before they shade out everything else. To foresters, anything that interferes with natural tree regeneration is a big concern. Hunters hate beech thickets because they obstruct view, especially when beech hold their leaves through the winter. And they make it hard for maple producers to run tubing, or even just get through the woods.
There are ways to manage excess beech, though. Peter Smallidge, NYS Extension Forester and Director of Cornell’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest, has researched and written extensively on the topic. His articles can be found at http://cornellforestconnect.ning.com or you can contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office for information.
By PAUL HETZLER
Ever since a tiny Asian fly called the spotted-wing drosophila (SWD) “discovered” us in 2012, growers of cherries, raspberries, blueberries, and other small fruits have battled this fruit-wrecking pest. Though it’s “just” a fruit fly, SWD are not your grandparents’ fruit flies. Wait, that sounded awkward. Old-school, respectable fruit flies gently push their eggs into rotten fruit. SWD, which come equipped with sharp saws and bad attitudes, don’t wait for fruit to go soft.
The female has a saber-like ovipositor with sharp, sclerotized (hardened) teeth. She uses this formidable tool to break the skin on unripe berries—strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries are favorites—and insert eggs. As the berry starts to turn color, tiny maggots are maturing inside. Other fruit flies need mushy fruit to lay eggs; SWD makes fruit mushy.
Signs of SWD in raspberries include fruit which are darker and squishier than normal, have poor flavor, fall to the ground prematurely, or “deflate” and dry out. Once picked, infested fruit spoils very faster, even overnight. Juice droplets on the fruit, or on the plant after the berry is plucked, are other clues. At dusk or early morning you may even see adult flies checking out the fruit.
With one spot on each wing, the male SWD stands out from other species. Females have no wing spots, but can be identified, under magnification, by their spike-tooth ovipositors. Spotted-wing drosophila larvae are white, and about 1/32” to 3/16” long.
SWD breed in loads of wild fruit such as elderberry, dogwood, buckthorn, honeysuckle, and even nightshade. In warm weather they can have about one generation per week, with eggs hatching in as few as 12 hours. Cool weather, of course, slows them down. Eggs and larva become inactive at about 35F, and at 33F some may even be killed.
Initially it was believed SWD were not cold-hardy, but that is now in question. No one is sure if they simply emerge later than other fruit flies, blow in from the south, or if their major route of infestation here is via produce shipments. Early-season berries shipped from warmer locales come with a free supply of SWD eggs and larvae. It’s unavoidable. Although commercial berries are now sprayed more frequently than ever, SWD cannot be entirely controlled.
We can’t eradicate SWD, but we can reduce their impact. Pick berries less ripe than you’d normally select, and refrigerate right away. Stomp on berries that fall to the ground so they dry out and don’t continue to breed flies. For homeowners, there are few pesticide options. Some common products like carbaryl can remain toxic for 7-10 days, and shouldn’t be used on berries.
Fortunately, innovative 2017 research on attract-and-kill methods, and a new SWD-exclusion netting system, may hold the key to SWD control. You can learn more about field-proven control options at an upcoming Cornell Cooperative Extension class featuring Dr. Juliet Carroll from the NY Integrated Pest Management program, Peter Jentsch from Cornell’s Hudson Valley Jentsch Lab, and Dale Ila Riggs, berry farmer and president of the NY Berry Growers’ Association.
The class will be held on Thursday, March 15, 2018 from 8:30 AM to 3:00 PM in canton. The cost is $20. 00 which includes lunch and materials. You can register at stlawrence.cce.cornell.edu/events or call (315) 379-9192. For more information, email [email protected].
The lonely die young
By PAUL HETZLER
Excessive tinder is a major contributor to forest fires, but a shortage of Tinder can lead to an early death. For social animals like canines, deer, dolphins, elephants, primates such as bonobos and humans, and even bees and ants, contact with others is as essential to well-being as food and water. A 2015 study done at Brigham Young University which garnered much news coverage in 2017 and early this year found that loneliness may be a greater health risk than smoking and obesity.
In a December 2017 New York Times article, Dr. Dhruv Khullar of the Weill Cornell Medical School in NY City tells author Jane Brody there is good evidence that loneliness and social isolation cause “...disrupted sleep, abnormal immune responses, and accelerated cognitive decline among socially isolated individuals.” Dr. Khullar calls the accelerated and untimely physical and mental decline due to loneliness “a growing epidemic.”
Brody points out that not everyone responds equally to isolation, with a small percentage of people preferring long-term solitude. And on the flip side, one can be surrounded by people and still feel isolated if they are not able to create emotionally fulfilling relationships. Brody refers to studies showing that although isolation is a real issue for older people, young adults report the greatest sense of distress owing to social isolation. This decreases toward middle age, staying fairly low through about age 65, and climbs again in old age.
While recent research has strengthened the notion that isolation causes ill health, the idea is not exactly new. People across all social strata, including health-care professionals, have long noted the correlation between loneliness, and illness and early death. Author Sadie F. Dingfelder, writing in the American Psychiatric Association Journal in November 2006, bluntly states “Loneliness kills, according to research dating back to the 1970s.” Dingfelder goes on to cite animal research that show a lower immune response in both female and male rats isolated from their peers. However, the same research clearly indicates that when responding to acute stress, females were more resilient than males, regardless of whether they were isolated.
Obviously, humans are not the only social animal that suffers when separated from others. The renowned animal researcher Dr. Temple Grandin contends that “All domestic animals need companionship. It is as much a core requirement as food and water.” When dogs do not get enough social bonding and companionship they become distresses as well. Signs of isolation stress in dogs include destructive behavior, refusing to eat, and excessive vocalizing, pacing, and chewing or licking.
Cattle need companionship as well. A 1997 study by Boissy and Le Neindre published in the journal Physiology & Behavior demonstrated that when isolated, a cow responds with increased heart rate and blood cortisol levels, and begin to struggle and low. But in the presence of other cattle, a previously isolated cow calms, with behavior and blood markers for stress quickly changing toward normal.
Writing for the website thedodo.com in February 2015, Mark Bekoff reviews a 2014 study of social animals-ants to be exact-published in the journal Behavioural Ecology & Sociobiology. Researchers Akiko Koto, Danielle Mersch, Brian Hollis, & Laurent Keller concluded that “Social isolation causes mortality by disrupting energy homeostasis in ants,” or in plain English, lonely ants die young. In fact, ants allowed to socialize lived more than ten times longer than isolated ants. The researchers do not know exactly why, other than the fact that isolated ants pace around more than their peers, and do not seem to digest food well. One hypothesis is that social interactions affect ants' digestion.
And if you think ants are too small to get lonely, studies suggest that even cells prefer company, with isolated ones petering out sooner than cells grouped together. I have no idea how to keep random cells company, but owners of pets might consider the meaning of that word, and pet their dogs, cats, fish, and other domestic animals more often.
The larger point is that we need to reach out more, both for our own health and that of our family, friends and neighbors. There is no substitute for face-to-face visits, but contact through social media in between visits is great too. Even “Tinder” might help prevent isolation. If it's your ant, though, swipe left.
Invasive Species Awareness Week
By PAUL HETZLER
In Grade 3, a brilliant joke made the rounds. We’d hold up a sheet of blank white paper and announce it was a polar bear in a snowstorm. Genius is relative for kids. But the first time I drove into a whiteout made me realize how accurate that “art” project was. Anything can hide behind a veneer of snow.
This leads me to ask why February 26-March 3 was chosen as “National Invasive Species Awareness Week.” By this time of year, our awareness has been blunted by a critical shortage of landscape: down is white, up is gray. Right now we’re aware it’s cold, and that the ground has been white for a long while. Seems like Microsoft or Elon Musk or whoever runs the “Special of the Week” calendar could find a better time for drawing folks’ attention to harmful invaders.
However, while invasive plants like garlic mustard and swallow-wort are nowhere to be seen, this is a perfect time to scout for certain invasive forest pests. The emerald ash borer (EAB), a glitzy, deadly beetle from China, was found at two locations in St. Lawrence County in 2017. Last August, volunteers from the St. Lawrence EAB Task Force discovered it in Hammond, and in December, foresters from the St. Regis Mohawk Environment Office found high numbers of EAB larvae near Massena.
The emerald ash borer kills green, black, and white ash, our native ash species, together about 10% of all North Country trees, by boring them to death. In the literal sense. Additionally, EAB pose a threat to public safety. Trees normally stand a few years after dying, but those killed by EAB become hazardous in 12 to 18 months, often collapsing under their own weight with no visible cause. This makes it important to identify ash trees, and to look for signs of EAB infestation.
In late winter and early spring, EAB larvae are active under the bark when sunshine hits the south and SW face of ash trunks. Woodpeckers sense this movement, and shave ash bark thin as they hunt the larvae. This causes “blonding,” conspicuous patches on ash trunks where bark is much lighter. These “blond” patches, a sign of EAB infestation, are easy to spot on sunny late-winter afternoons.
Another scary pest is the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA), a tiny, aphid-like insect from Asia. Despite its small size, HWA are killing hemlock fir in NY State, moving northward faster than expected. In 2017 they were found near Lake George. Anyone who has hiked much, or enjoyed a cool shady ravine on a hot day, knows how prevalent and important hemlocks are. This tree is key to filtering and cooling waters in streams and rivers. Without hemlocks, many fish species would suffer huge losses or possibly even disappear from affected areas.
We expect aphids in summer, but their cousin the HWA is most active during the cold months. As they feed in winter, HWA secrete a white, waxy substance that covers and protects them. With good binoculars, their white “wool” can be seen in hemlock crowns. A sunny day in late winter is a good time to scout for HWA. If you ski or snowshoe, consider incorporating a few “HWA stops” to take out the thermos, trail mix and binoculars.
Another HWA scouting method involves a giant slingshot and a few tennis or squash balls decorated with adhesive Velcro strips. In a dense hemlock stand, the ball is fired straight up into the canopy, and if HWA are present, the Velcro is perfect for nabbing some of them. You need several balls, as there may be one or two that do not come down. Giant slingshots intended for tree (arborist) work, or for launching balls for dogs to retrieve, can send an object as high as 100 feet.
For more information on EAB, visit emeraldashborer.info, and to learn more about both HWA and EAB, go to adkinvasives.com or sleloinvasives.com. Please report any suspected invasive forest pests you find to your local New York State Department of Environmental Conservation or Cornell Cooperative Extension office. If you discover any polar bears in the snow, probably best to run.
By PAUL HETZLER
The good news is that Imperial Forces are losing the battle for planetary dominance. The bad news is that we still play for their team. The British Imperial System of measurement, born in 1824 to help streamline a host of odd units inherited from various cultures, was at the time an improvement. But in 1965, the UK adopted the decimal-based metric system, despite the fact it was invented by the French. Today, metric is universal in science and medicine, and of the 195 nations on Planet Earth, only 2 have yet to abandon the former British system for general commerce: Myanmar and the U.S.
Being obsessed with the levy and collection of taxes, the British monarchy was never a slouch at taking stock of things. Other people’s, mostly. Tenth-century Saxon King Edgar the Peaceable supposedly had a royal bushel made for the kingdom. Who knows how it was established, but I guess being a ruler entitles you to measure anything. Even the Magna Carta mandated a “...standard width of russet and haberject, namely two ells within the selvedges.” (Please don’t ask me what that means.) In the Middle Ages, a rod, equal to 5.5 yards, was calibrated to “the length of the left feet of 16 men lined up heel to toe as they emerged from church.” I assume feet fresh from church ensured an honest measure.
Along the way, someone must have noticed feet came in different sizes, and that having four different-size gallons which varied by what they were intended to hold, was confusing. Enter the British Imperial System. It designated a single gallon measure, but spared the 12-ounce or Troy pound to remain beside the 16-ounce (avoirdupoid) pound we use in the U.S. for everything not a precious metal.
Although the U.S. Customary system of weights and measures is based on old British units, it was not revised when the Brits enacted the Imperial System in 1824. Consequently we wound up with a “Queen Anne wine gallon” (231 cubic inches), 17% smaller than the British gallon. Our bushel (2,150.42 cubic inches) is 3% smaller than theirs, and our ton came up short as well. I chalk it up to unresolved motherland-issues from when we were a colony.
For those of us not endowed with a math mind, the U.S. Customary system is an imperial pain in the brain. If 16 ounces or oz. (of anything but gold or silver) make a lb. or pound, how many oz. in say, 3.71 lbs? I get stuck on how “oz.” and “lb.” should sound in my head, and why we don’t get better abbreviations, never mind how to do the math without a calculator.
Then there’s the metric system. Adopted into French law in 1795, it uses decimals with 10 as the base, rather than 12, 16, 5,280, or whatever else a given Imperial unit is based upon. I get it that 31,000 meters make 31 kilometers, but ask me to multiply 31 miles by 5,280 feet, and I’ll get back to you in a day or so. The main problem is that while I understand 16 inches—a piece of firewood—it is hard to picture 40 centimeters, the same length. Admittedly, switching would take some getting used to.
The metric system is governed by an international conference which maintains standards for the meter, kilogram, ampere, degree Kelvin, and other base units in the Système international d’unités or SI. According to the heart surgeon who sliced me open ten years ago, there is a round piece of plastic inside my heart, marked “Edwards Life Sciences 32mm. USA” It sounds a lot more professional than “15/16 of a barleycorn,” three of which once equaled an inch.
I would really like to see a push toward modernity and away from a feudal measurement system rejected by every other culture, including the one that created it. NASA, which has used metric units since 1990, lost a $125 million Mars Orbiter in 1999 because one of its contractors used English units to set engine firing parameters. As it stands, some U.S. products are measured in drams, minims, grains, furlongs, short tons and long tons. Americans make up only 4.4% of the world’s population. It would seem prudent, not to mention economically advantageous, to measure our goods in a way the rest of the world can more easily understand.
However, if I ever score a Troy ounce of gold or silver, I will not complain about units.
The tree of love: Better living through chemistry
By PAUL HETZLER
It is not possible for a parent to choose a favorite child—or at least that’s what I tell my kids—and it’s almost as hard for an arborist to pick a single best-liked tree. For different reasons, I have many pet species. One of the apples of my eye is a species I’ve never actually laid eyes on, but even so, it is one I have appreciated since early childhood.
Native to Central America, the cacao tree, Theobroma cacao to arborists, grows almost exclusively within twenty degrees latitude either side of the equator (in other words, where most of us wish we were in mid-February). The seeds of the cacao tree have been ground and made into a drink known by its Native American (probably Nahuatl) name, chocolate, for as many as 4,000 years.
The cacao is a small tree, about 15-20 feet tall, bearing 6- to 12-inch-long seed pods. Packed around the 30 to 40 cacao beans in each pod is a sweet gooey pulp, which historically was also consumed. After harvest, cacao beans go through a fermentation process before being dried and milled into powder.
Prior to European contact, chocolate was a frothy, bitter drink often mixed with chilies and cornmeal. Mayans and Aztecs drank it mainly for its medicinal properties—more on that later. In the late 1500s, a Spanish Jesuit who had been to Mexico described chocolate as being “Loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant [to] taste.” It’s understandable, then, that it was initially slow to take off in Europe.
Chocolate became wildly popular, though, after brilliant innovations such as adding sugar and omitting chili peppers. Another reason for its meteoric rise in demand is that people noticed it had pleasant effects. One of these is similar to that of tea or coffee. There isn’t much caffeine in chocolate, but it has nearly 400 known constituents, and many of these compounds are uppers.
Chief among them is theobromine, which has no bromine—go figure. It’s a chemical sibling to caffeine, and its name supposedly derives from the Greek for “food of the gods.” Even if people knew that it more closely translates to “stink of the gods,” it is unlikely that would put a damper on chocolate sales.
These days, chocolate is recognized as a potent antioxidant, but throughout the ages it has had a reputation for being an aphrodisiac. I assume this explains the tradition of giving chocolate to one’s lover on Valentine’s Day. Chocolate may not always live up to its rumored powers, but another stimulant it contains, phenylethylamine (PEA), may account for its repute.
Closely related to amphetamine, PEA facilitates the release of dopamine, the “feel good” chemical in the brain’s reward center. Turns out that when you fall in love, your brain is practically dripping with dopamine. Furthermore, at least three compounds in chocolate mimic the effects of marijuana. They bind to the same receptors in our brains as THC, the active ingredient in pot, releasing more dopamine and also serotonin, another brain chemical associated with happiness.
Don’t be alarmed at this news—these dopamine-enhancing effects are quite minimal compared to what hard drugs can do, and it is OK to get behind the wheel after a cup of hot cocoa. Ingesting chocolate has never impaired my ability to operate heavy machinery, at least not the way my lack of training and experience have.
Most people would agree that chocolates are no substitute for love, but their natural chemical effects may be why romance and chocolate are so intertwined. Well, that and marketing, I suppose.
Dogs cannot metabolize theobromine well, and even a modest amount of chocolate, especially dark, can be toxic to them. This is why you shouldn’t get your dog a box of chocolates on Valentine’s Day, no matter how much you love them. And assuming it is spayed or neutered, your pooch won’t benefit from any of chocolate’s other potential effects anyway.
Meeting to give advice to maple producers
on many topics, including forest tent caterpillar problems
By PAUL HETZLER
Winter is not a season when many people think about tents, except maybe to be glad they do not live in one. I do have some friends who love winter camping, and the fact they have never extended an invitation is evidence of how much they value our friendship.
Oddly enough, winter is a crucial time to look for signs of forest-tent caterpillars (FTC). In spite of their name, FTC do not weave a silken tent-like nest like the eastern-tent caterpillar and other species of tent caterpillars. The tent-less lifestyle of forest-tent caterpillars makes it harder to spot outbreaks in spring.
Records indicate the population of this native pest tends to spike at irregular intervals, generally between 8 and 20 years apart, at which time they can cause 100% defoliation within a few weeks in late May and early June. Trees typically grow a new set of leaves by mid-July, but at great cost in terms of lost starch reserves, and afterward they are more vulnerable to other pests and diseases. The problem is compounded by the fact FTC outbreaks tend to last several years. Successive defoliations are more likely to lead to tree mortality.
Foresters and woodlot owners may want to learn more about tents this winter, but maple producers should pay special attention to the situation, as sugar maples are the preferred food for the FTC. And since the female FTC moth lays eggs exclusively in maples, outbreaks begin in maple stands. This past year in parts of northern NY from the Vermont border west to Jefferson and Lewis Counties, severe but localized outbreaks of forest-tent caterpillars stripped more than 200,000 acres, primarily sugar maples. Early indications are that the infestation will be more widespread in 2018.
One of the most troubling things about the 2017 FTC defoliation is that the vast majority of defoliated maples did not grow a new set of leaves, although in a few cases they refoliated to a very small degree. There does not appear to be any recorded precedent for this. Most foresters agree that the phenomenon is a result of the 2016 drought, which stressed trees to such an extent that they were not strong enough to push out a new set of leaves. In an even more bizarre twist, some maples on south-facing slopes did refoliate, but in mid- to late October. As soon as the new flush of leaves appeared, they froze and were killed.
Maple producers in FTC-affected areas should expect sap-sugar concentrations to be a fraction of a percent, in contrast to normal concentrations between 2 and 3 percent. According to Cornell Extension Forester Peter Smallidge, operators with reverse-osmosis capability may still get a substantial crop in 2018. Many small producers with FTC damage, however, are opting not to harvest sap this season, partly for financial reasons, but also to spare their maples further stress.
Whether or not a woodlot owner or maple producer had FTC damage in 2017, the St. Lawrence County Maple Expo held from 8AM to 3PM on Saturday, January 27, 2018 at the Gouverneur High School can help answer questions about FTC projections, treatment thresholds, and other considerations. The Expo will also cover numerous other topics including Cornell Maple Research Update, Maple Tubing Systems, Regenerating a Sugarbush, Marketing, and more.
For more information on the 2018 Expo, go to http://stlawrence.cce.cornell.edu/events/2018/01/27/maple-expo To learn more about forest-tent caterpillars, contact your local Cornell Cooperative Extension office.
By PAUL HETZLER
The 1993 film “Groundhog Day,” starring Bill Murray, was very entertaining. In fact I watched it numerous times. Or at least that’s how it seemed…
Like the movie, Groundhog Day 2018 is unlikely to be much different than previous iterations. Really, it’s a perfect observance for early February as we struggle to resist our own urge to hibernate. At this time of year, each morning holds the same ritual: we stumble out, shivering under an unchanging gray sky, and wonder what the heck day of the week it is. We probably couldn’t handle an exciting holiday at this time of year.
The notion that sunshine on the second of February indicates a late spring began in ancient Europe. That date marks the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and spring equinox. In the Celtic world, Imbolc was, and for some, still is, a celebration of the goddess Brigid or Brigit, traditional patroness of healing, poetry, hearth and home, agriculture and fertility. She was also a fierce combatant who slayed adversaries like a champ.
As Christianity spread, Imbolc was supplanted by Candlemas Day, dedicated to—no surprise—Saint Brigid, who presumably was less prone to violence than warrior-goddess Brigid. But both traditions reference the “sunny equals more winter, and cloudy means impending spring” theme.
Mostly because Europe lacked groundhogs, Groundhog Day was invented in the New World, first popping up among Pennsylvania Germans, who were steeped in the Candlemas tradition, in the early to mid-1800s. Though Punxsutawney Phil was the original prognosticating marmot, others soon followed.
The community of Wiarton in the Town of South Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, has celebrated Groundhog Day since 1954 with its own Wiarton Willie, who is honored with a statue in Bluewater Park there. Last September, the renowned Wiarton Willie passed away at age 13, possibly the oldest known albino groundhog. Fortunately, his young replacement is already on the job and ready to look for its shadow this year.
Groundhogs are also known as woodchucks, which can cause a bit of confusion. The children’s rhyme “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood” suggests that woodchucks feed on trees, but this is not the case. Like the words skunk, squash, hickory, moose, and many other terms, woodchuck (wojak) is of Native American origin, Algonquin in this case. I don’t know its literal translation, but I suspect it means “fat fur-ball that can inhale your garden faster than you can say Punxsutawney Phil,” or something like that.
It’s unfortunate that the name woodchuck implies the critters are somehow employed in the forest-products industry. They haven’t the teeth for chewing wood, nor do they have any use for wood in their burrows. (Exhaustive studies have concluded woodchuck dens aren’t paneled.)
Much as I respect the origin of “woodchuck,” I’m in favor of sticking to the name groundhog, which is more descriptive. Not only do these rotund herbivores reside underground, they’re such gluttons that I’m pretty sure even swine call them hogs. Tellingly, another moniker is “whistle-pig,” referring both to groundhogs’ warning call and their voracious appetites.
Native to most of Eastern North America except for far southern US and far northern Ontario and Quebec, groundhogs may be gluttons, but they’re not lazy. Groundhogs dig extensive burrows up to 1.5 meters deep and 12 meters long, each having two to five entrances. Supposedly, the average groundhog moves 100 cubic meters of soil excavating its burrow, which equates to more than 1360 kg of material. I’d like to know who measures these things.
Mature groundhogs in wilderness areas typically measure 38 to 58 cm long and weigh between 2.3 and 4 kg. Given access to lush gardens or tasty alfalfa, though, they can reach 70 cm long and weigh as much as 13.6 kg. Now that’s a ground hog. Needless to say, their habit of vacuuming up fields and gardens has given them a bad name in some circles.
Leaf rustling is bad enough, but this hole-digging hobby really riles farmers. Groundhog holes and soil piles can injure livestock, weaken foundations and damage equipment. Many a farmer trying to mow hay has cursed the groundhog when the haybine “finds” a soil pile. Hard to appreciate their cuteness while you replace cutterbar knives for the third time in a day.
True hibernators, groundhogs usually den up in October, their winter body temperature dropping to 10 degrees C and their heart slowing to a few beats per minute. Groundhogs might emerge in February down in Pennsylvania, but up north you won’t find one blearily sniffing around for a mate that early. In late March I once saw a burrow entrance with a halo of dirt scattered on the snow from where the critter had recently burst out, a squint-eyed dust mop looking for love. Who knows if it went back in for a nap after seeing winter had not fully departed.
We may not know how much wood a woodchuck can chuck, but we do know how much ground a groundhog can hog: a lot, especially if beans and peas are growing on said ground. I say we pull researchers off the Woodchuck-Chucking Quantification question and have them find a way to ensure that Groundhog Day is overcast so we can get an early dismissal from winter.
Happy Groundhog Day!
Winter is a good time to scout
weaknesses in trees near structures, cables
By PAUL HETZLER
We are a clever lot when it comes to helping our kids settle into bed at night. Apparently, the story of how Jack broke his head fetching a pail of water, with Jill falling down the well after him, or the charming bubonic plague ditty “Ring Around the Rosie,” is supposed to calm small children. The veiled threat about abandoning an infant in a tree on a windy night always made my kids hush up. “Rock-a-bye baby, in the treetop; when the wind blows, the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and down will come baby, cradle and all.”
When the wind blows, any cradle left in a treetop will definitely rock, which sounds like a job for Child Protective Services. Predicting whether a bough is going to break, however, is a job for an arborist. One critical factor that predisposes a tree to wind damage is inherent weakness between major unions, also called forks or crotches. Failure of a large branch-to-trunk or trunk-to-trunk union can be catastrophic, both for the tree as well as for people or structures beneath it. Luckily, most weak unions can be remedied once they have been identified.
Winter is a good time to evaluate mature hardwoods for all kinds of defects, including weak unions. It’s fortunate that unions provide clues as to their strength. The first is the angle of attachment. Branch unions close to ninety degrees tend to be strongest, while narrower ones are weaker.
A tree with two or more trunks of similar size is said to have codominant stems or trunks. Codominant trunks nearly always develop narrow forks which pose some level of risk of splitting. Such a risk increases with the age and size of a tree.
Another indicator of weakness is the presence of seams—look for cracks running down the trunk from the union. A crack on both sides of the trunk implies a far worse situation than does a seam on one side only. Decay is an important clue, but the problem is that it may not always be evident. Conks (shelf fungi) and woodpecker activity indicate serious rot, and it should go without saying that having a little “garden” of brambles and saplings growing in the fork also means extensive decay.
One of the clearest signs of weakness is a pair of ears on a fork. I should probably explain. Trees are self-optimizing; that is, they respond to stress by adding tissue in ways appropriate to the problem. The weaker a union, the more a tree compensates by adding wood, in this case outward from the trunk in a sort of ear or “clam shell” shape.
Finding one of these clues is enough to warrant hiring a professional to assess the tree, and if you identify more than one sign, make it soon. So long as a tree is in generally good condition, even the weakest union can often be stabilized with a cable brace. Because a mature shade tree is irreplaceable in one lifetime, and because it’s more than a slight inconvenience to have a large portion of one “drop in” on you suddenly, cabling is worth the investment.
With all due respect to the capable Do-It-Yourself crowd out there, the wrong cable is worse than no cable. Every component in a cable system must be load-rated, rust-proof, and sized correctly based on the situation. Cabling should only be done by someone familiar with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) published standards for cable bracing. This is an important point, because not all tree care professionals are up to snuff on ANSI standards, which specify cable diameter, type of eye termination, and the size and type of bolts to use.
It’s critical that the cable is installed at the right height, which is two-thirds to three-quarters of the way from the weak fork to the top of the tree. Of course, the cable is never wrapped around the trunk, since that damages the trunk and weakens or kills the tree above that point. Usually, drop-forged eye bolts are used to secure the cable ends to the tree, but for small trees with no sign of internal decay, J-shaped lag screws are acceptable. The correct sized hole is drilled through the tree (for bolts), or into the tree (for lags). Bolts are much stronger, and are used for larger wood and for any case where decay inside the trunk is suspected. An arborist might also recommend a synthetic cable, rather than steel, to allow for more natural limb or trunk movement.
Lest you fear you will end up with a Frankentree in the yard, don’t worry. A properly installed cable system is inconspicuous, even to the point where you may have to squint through binoculars to find it. For a fraction of the cost of a removal, and a tiny fraction of the cost of emergency removal plus roof repair, most trees can get an extended lease on life through cabling.
While under extreme conditions even a perfect system may break, I have never seen a properly installed cable system fail, and some were more than 50 years old. I have, on the other hand, seen many homemade or substandard systems where cables have snapped, and lags ripped out of trunks.
For information on cabling, contact your local International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborist or other tree care professional. Start with a company or individual belonging to trade organizations like the ISA or Tree Care Industry of America (TCIA). Ask them to show you their copy of the ANSI cabling standards, and insist on proof of insurance directly from their carrier.
Incidentally, there was a reason that cradle was rocking in a tree. In many indigenous cultures such as the Haudenosaune (Iroquois), mothers would secure an infant’s cradle board—the original baby backpack—to a tree while they tended crops or did other work. The child thus got a pleasant, shaded, adult’s-eye view of the world, and was always taken down if the wind became too brisk.
I hope that you and your trees “keep it together” through all sorts of weather for many years to come.
North Country wild plants: What’s in a name?
By PAUL HETZLER
Encouraging people to make friends with wild plants can be a challenge. Sometimes there are genuine concerns. Nettles, as an example, make an early-spring cooked green par excellence, even though its fresh leaves and stems have stinging hairs that can cause an uncomfortable, if temporary, rash if care is not taken when harvesting it.
Other times, it is a matter of perception. Critical to the survival of monarch butterflies, milkweed is delicious when prepared correctly. Jewelweed, native to wetlands, contains a sap which counteracts poison ivy, and its orange or yellow orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds and butterflies. Yet both plants suffer from having names which define them as undesirable.
Even plants more worthy of the title “weed” often have redeeming qualities. Japanese knotweed, the bane of many landscapers, makes a passable rhubarb substitute when young, and its roots show real promise as a treatment for certain cancers, and possibly for Lyme disease as well. Redroot pigweed can be a nuisance weed in vegetable gardens and pastures, but its leaves and seeds are nutritious and tasty.
But there are a few names which are intensely hard to swallow. Gagroot, for instance, also called vomitwort or pukeweed, is a tough sell. Its botanical name is Lobelia inflata, and some know it as blue lobelia or Indian tobacco. This native wildflower is a close relative of the shockingly red cardinal flower, Lobelia cardinalis, which bursts into bloom along stream and pond banks in late summer.
Blue lobelia is not as showy as its crimson cousin, but it is an attractive plant in its own right. Though it can reach a height of more than two feet, it is typically between 8 and 12 inches tall. Its pale blue-violet blossoms give way to inflated seed capsules which remain on the stem. Flowers begin appearing in mid-summer, and continue to bloom until the first freeze. A self-seeding annual, sometimes acting as a biennial, it is easy to grow from seed.
At the time of European contact, Indian tobacco was in widespread medicinal use over the extent of its range, which is basically eastern North America except for northern Ontario and Quebec, and the far southern parts of the US. As its less-flattering nicknames suggest, this plant does induce vomiting. It was championed as the preferred cure for nearly all ailments by American herbalist Samuel Thompson (1769-1843), who managed to remain popular a long while before people finally got sick of his treatments. Over the centuries, Lobelia inflata has also been used to promote sweating, as an antispasmodic, as an aid in smoking cessation, and especially to relieve the symptoms of asthma.
This is the part of the program where I am required to say “It is essential to consult your health-care provider before using lobelia, and to only use it under the supervision of an experienced herbalist.” Except this time I mean it. This is not to say no one should use Lobelia inflata. It is a potent and effective medicine, but like many important drugs such as insulin and digitalis, it is toxic in moderate to large amounts. Misjudging the dosage could lead to convulsions, coma or death.
One of Indian tobacco’s key constituents, lobeline, apparently accounts for the herb’s ability to relax bronchial tubes, open airways, and stimulate breathing. It has been traditionally smoked in small amounts, although today it is also available as a tincture or in capsule form. Occasionally it is combined with other herbs and used as a chest or sinus rub.
Structurally, lobeline does not resemble nicotine, but it does affect the body in similar ways, which might account for its history in helping people kick the tobacco habit. Lobeline may in fact turn out to be a treatment for stimulant abuse. Articles in the medical journals Biochemical Pharmacology (Jan. 2002) and Neurochemical Research (Nov. 2006) indicate that lobeline alters the way stimulants act on the brain’s “reward center.” In the words of the authors, lobeline disrupts “...the fundamental mechanisms of dopamine storage and release.”
In this season of extra-dry indoor air, frigid outdoor air, wood smoke, and irritating coughs, Indian tobacco could be especially helpful. Even though it does come from a common native herb, a strong medicine demands strong respect, so check with a medical professional before investigating pukeweed treatment. That is, if you can get past the name.
Pining for a better memory
By PAUL HETZLER
During the Christmas holiday season, new memories will likely be made, and recollections of past seasons may be recounted as well. But the holiday season itself can aid in remembering events of long ago.
Speaking as a guy who can hide his own Easter eggs and still not find them all, I marvel how Father Christmas, who is a few years older than I am, manages to keep track of so many kids and presents. Lucky for us that the most enduring memories are those with an associated smell. If it was not for fragrant evergreen trees, wreaths and garlands, Santa might have long ago fumbled in carrying out his holiday duties.
Of all the memorable aromas of the holiday season, nothing evokes its spirit quite like the smell of a fresh-cut pine, spruce or fir tree. Although the majority of American households which observe Christmas have switched to artificial trees, the National Christmas Tree Association reports that 27.4 million real trees were sold in the U.S. last year, up from 22.6 million in 2015.
Every type of conifer has its own blend of sweet-smelling terpenols and esters that account for their “piney woods” perfume. Some people prefer the fragrance of a particular tree, possibly one they had as a child. A natural Christmas tree is, among other things, a giant holiday potpourri. No chemistry lab can make a plastic tree smell like fresh pine, fir or spruce.
The origins of the Christmas tree are unclear, but evergreen trees, wreaths, and boughs were used by a number of ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, to symbolize eternal life. In sixteenth-century Germany, Martin Luther apparently helped kindle (so to speak) the custom of the indoor home Christmas tree by bringing an evergreen into his house and decorating it with candles. For centuries after that, Christmas trees were always brought into homes on December 24th and were not removed until after the Christian feast of Epiphany on January 6th.
In terms of crowd-pleasers, the firs—Douglas, balsam, and Fraser—are very popular, aromatic evergreens. Grand and concolor fir smell great too. When kept in water, firs all have excellent needle retention.
Pines also keep their needles well. While our native white pine is more fragrant than Scots (not Scotch; that’s for Santa) pine, the latter far outsells the former, possibly because the sturdy Scots can bear quite a load of decorations without its branches drooping.
Not only do spruces have stout branches, they tend to have a strongly pyramidal shape. Spruces may not be quite as fragrant as firs or pines, though, but they’re great options for those who like short-needle trees.
The annual pilgrimage to choose a real tree together is for many families, mine included, a cherished holiday tradition, a time to bond. You know, the customary thermos of hot chocolate; the ritual of the kids losing at least one mitten; the time-honored squabble—I mean discussion—regarding which tree is best—good smells and good memories.
Not only are Christmas trees a renewable resource, they boost the local economy. Even if you don’t have the time to cut your own from a Christmas tree grower, do yourself a favor this year and purchase a natural tree from a local vendor, who can help you select the best kind for your preferences and also let you know how fresh they are. Some trees at large retail outlets were cut weeks, if not months, before they show up at stores. The Christmas Tree Association of New York (www.christmastreesny.org/ ) can help you find a tree farm close to you.
For the best fragrance and needle retention, cut a one- to two-inch “cookie” from the base before placing your tree in the stand, and fill the reservoir every two days. Research indicates products claiming to extend needle life don’t work, so save your money. Tree lights with LED bulbs don’t dry out the needles like the old style did, and are easier on your electric bill too.
Whatever your traditions, may your family, friends, and evergreens all be well-hydrated, sweet-scented and a source of long-lasting memories this holiday season.
Magic mushrooms and red noses
By PAUL HETZLER
As a kid I was enthralled by TV nonfiction shows. Nova and Frontline had great stuff, but my favorites were Christmas documentaries like Frosty the Snowman. Over the years I’ve been disappointed that no further work seems to have been done on the many questions left hanging by the original researchers.
Take the whole glowing-nose thing. First documented back in 1939 by Robert L. May in his book Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the story surrounding the phenomenon is well-known. Since no one has come up with a scientific explanation, I have decided to tackle the issue. Bioluminescence is a natural process wherein fungi, microbes, insects or marine animals emit light as a result of chemical reactions which they control, and there are a number of ways a reindeer may have naturally developed a lighted nose.
Luminous life-forms, not to be confused with luminary life-forms such as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, generally fall into two camps: those that make their own light, and those that hijack it from others. Anglerfish are an example of the latter. To attract prey, they convince a pile of bioluminescent bacteria to live on the end of the fishing-pole-thing (ecsa) that sprouts from anglerfish heads, and to light up on command. No one seems clear on how this works, but to be fair it’s tough to study anything that deep.
Most deep-sea living light bulbs are only available in blue-green. That color has a shorter, more industrious wavelength as compared to red, which is too lazy to make it all the way from the sunny surface. Because the ocean bottom is a red-free zone, most deep-sea animals have lost the ability to see red. But a few predators, e.g. the northern stoplight loosejaw, have figured out how to both detect and produce red light. When it flips the switch, it can see any prey within the red-light district created by its bio-light, but the prey notice nothing; it’s like having night-vision glasses.
I could imagine a scenario where Santa lands on a beach to adjust the freight or defrost his iPad, and Rudolph gets infected by the bacteria from one of these red-light fish that had washed ashore. It’s entirely plausible.
Up on dry land, the best-known bioluminescent organism may be fireflies. Either them or Tinkerbell, who still sparks fights among taxonomists as to what category she belongs (I’m guessing a mutant damselfly). Fireflies are honest about making their own light without enslaving microbes, but dishonest in the way they use it to signal mates. We can’t tell if they lie about their age, but some fireflies have learned the signal codes used by rival species. They pretend to advertise for mates of that species, and then eat anyone who shows up for a date, regardless of whether it brings flowers.
I’m sure Santa has to wipe a few smeared fireflies off his windshield on some part of his trip, but I doubt Rudolph’s glow came from a firefly encounter.
Certain fungi also shine under their own power. Depending which authority you use, there are either 71, 76, or 80 bioluminescent fungi species on the planet. We have 17 in North America, though our magic mushrooms are dimmer than those in Australia. Not only do the mushrooms, or fruiting structures, light up, the fungal mycelium or main body inside the wood it’s consuming also glow. I first noticed glow-in-the-dark fungi while camping. As I split some punky firewood at night (not exactly a bright idea), I was surprised to see a green glow inside each chunk of wood.
As yet there is no agreement on why fungi glow. It could be to attract insects to spread spores, or to repel fungi-eating insects by attracting predator insects. Or it is just a chemical byproduct of digesting lignin, which is to wood what steel reinforcing bars are to concrete, imparting strength and resiliency. Very few fungi can break down lignin, and the ones which do are the same ones that light up.
Fireflies and fungi both make light by mixing two chemicals, luciferin and luciferase, which admittedly sounds a bit ominous. I don’t want to suggest Rudolph made a deal with luciferin and luciferase, but if he ate some high-wattage glowing mushrooms in Australia, something might have rubbed off on him.
I hate to think that Santa’s workshop ever involved gene transfer, but it would be remiss to gloss over transgenic animals. As far as I know, genetically modified critters were developed in the early 1980s, with glowing animals first appearing around 2002. Certainly it would be possible today to insert jellyfish genes into a reindeer nose, but probably not back in 1939. Plus, I think Santa would understand the importance of steering clear of anything that could be misunderstood by kids. No doubt Mrs. Claus would have had a word with him about it.
I contend Rudolph was either exposed to deep-sea red-emitting bacteria, or he got his nose into some bright mushrooms Down Under, and I expect follow-on research to come to light shortly. The next order of business, obviously, is to explain flying reindeer, which may also involve mushrooms. If I didn’t have to further study a documentary entitled A Christmas Carol, I would get right on it.
Weather or not
By PAUL HETZLER
Weather modeling has become quite a big deal in recent years, with meteorologists falling all over themselves to report what the latest models say. It sounds like a fun job, and I am trying to find out how to apply for a position. No doubt I could model categories like “large stationary front” or “high pressure system” pretty well. If it involves appearing in a swimsuit, though, forget it.
I love it when a radio announcer chirps “clear and sunny” during a storm because they did not look out before reading the outlook. Funny how reality can boost the accuracy of weather reports. So when you can’t even bank on today’s forecast, it’s normal to view long-range projections with a skeptical eye. However, seasonal models are very good at foreseeing key trends such as droughts or severe hurricane seasons. You can depend on models if they call for above-average precipitation this winter. But if you want to know if it will snow on a given day, you’ll have to listen to the radio. Or flip a coin.
On its website, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) explains that seasonal modeling “...provides information about the expected state of regional climate, based on long-term trends, shorter-term persistence in the climate system, and the current and anticipated state of tropical sea surface temperatures (i.e., El Niño). Seasonal forecasts for upcoming months use sophisticated computer models, statistical models, and/or expert judgments.” El Niño and La Niña, respectively, are the warm and cool phases of the 2- to 7-year “Southern Oscillation,” a tropical ocean current system that has a huge effect on our weather. That’s a drawback to living on a planet—heat doesn’t stay on its own part of the map.
Meteorology dates back to Aristotle; in fact he’s the guy who came up with the name. I suspect that in its early days, the science was hampered by a noticeable lack of meteors. Honestly, you have to wonder what Aristotle was expecting. Things picked up when meteorology began looking at other stuff that fell out of the sky, rain for example. I had always equated the science with forecasting, since the person on TV giving the weather was called a meteorologist. But the discipline includes studying the chemistry and physics of the atmosphere, and tracking changes and trends in its composition and behavior.
Austria opened the first-ever national weather bureau in 1851, followed by the UK in 1854, and the US in 1890. While virtually every country now has its own weather forecasting service, some of the top research facilities are in China, Japan, France, and the UK. Long-range modeling is an international effort, as getting accurate forecasts is important for all nations. NOAA is a free, user-friendly resource, and I encourage people to visit http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/products/predictions/long_range to see its outlook for the upcoming winter. In a nutshell, it’s above-normal precipitation, with temperatures at or slightly below normal on average, but characterized by frequent mood swings.
Some climate centers charge fees to release modeling charts and graphs. Highly accurate systems such as the European Seasonal to Inter-annual Prediction (EUROSIP) may run 20 or more models at once, each using different processes, and with origins in perhaps a dozen countries. EUROSIP reports are for professionals, with language like “The set of dynamical and statistical models predict weak La Niña conditions with an SST anomaly in the Nino3.4 region of -1.1 C...” I’ll stick with NOAA.
Model accuracy is checked by “hindcasting,” or predicting past weather. This sounds like another job I could handle, provided the past was not older than about a week. In hindcasting, climate inputs from a given time period are entered into each model, and researchers compare the modeled forecasts with known historical conditions. Models are constantly adjusted to further “train” them. In one exercise, ocean surface temperature readings were used to “forecast” El Niño and La Niña events from 1857 to 2003. Not only did the model correctly identify every event, it predicted each one up to two years out.
Results like that make me wonder why the three-day forecast is often not much better than a guess. Maybe I really should get into weather modeling. I hope you’re not required to wax.