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.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
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.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
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.
Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.
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.