Through the Keyhole

It takes patience to walk a beagle.  It is not an exercise for the terminally rushed, nor is it for those who want to cover a lot of ground and work up a sweat.  Beagles have other agendas.

It doesn’t take long being out with a beagle before you recognize that they perceive a very different world than we do.  They walk constantly back-and-forth, one side of the path to the other, backtracking, wandering off to explore hidden paths beyond our perception.  If the beagle is on a leash, its human will be stopping every few feet to let it smell some message on a running bulletin board we would otherwise have no clue about.  Twigs, blades of grass, mailboxes, curbs, shrubs—-all have their notes from others who have passed before.  All must be read. Then, of course, the beagle will add a few drops of its own gossip and scrape a little dirt and grass over it before the walk can continue.  A few feet later, the scenario repeats.


Bonita and Her Nose in our Backyard

Our beagle, Bonita, likes to be outside with us, but her backyard is not our backyard.  I don’t know what she sees, hears, and smells out here, but she must have an entirely different picture of the world than we do, her own tiny snapshot that differs greatly from our own.

We—all of us—beagles, people, all living things, experience so little of the vast whole.  For example, we humans see only a very limited range of the “light” that is there, a piddling band of frequencies between infrared and ultra-violet, missing out completely on most of the vast range of energies, like radio waves or microwaves (although we do a little better than dogs in this regard).  Our hearing isn’t so great, either—it’s common knowledge that dogs can hear much higher pitched sounds than we can, up to three times higher, not to mention sounds that are just too faint for human ears to pick up.  And let’s not even get into to smells, the beagle’s forte.  In that regard, we are beneath canine contempt, hopelessly handicapped, and must be lead around by, well, the nose, for our own safety.

Here’s the thing. When I sit in our backyard it feels like a sensory deluge—-the wind in the trees, the sounds of the insects and birds, a nearby lawnmower, colors, motion everywhere, a few smells I can actually detect (rain coming!), the textures I feel.  It’s too much to take in completely.  Yet, for all of that, reason tells me that I really perceive almost nothing of what is really there.  I can’t follow the invisible pheromone trails that pull insects along through the air.  The network of mycorrhizae, carrying chemical pulses through the soil between plants like a inter-species World Wide Web, is out of range to me.  The butterfly world of polarized light and ultraviolet flowers must be eerily beautiful, but I just have to try to imagine it.  I can’t see the radio or gamma waves the universe is sending through me constantly or hear the drumming of insects to get word to each other about important matters.  I can’t trace the paths of migrating species by tracing the unseen lines of the earth’s magnetic field.  The equipment just isn’t there.

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail on Sunflower

Leafhoppers on PawPaw

Leafhoppers on PawPaw. Chatting?








I’m looking at an infinite world through the tiniest of keyholes, trying to reconstruct an ocean in all its complexity from a drop of spray.

But that’s probably the only way it could be, since I can’t even pay attention to more than a fraction of what I actually detect, anyway.  When we humans get really curious about what is out there beyond our ken, we can always use instruments to help, like beagles, compasses, or special microphones and cameras, but we would probably lose our minds if we were long exposed to the raw torrents of information and events that are beyond our senses.  Maybe our filters are here so we can attest to the world as we alone see it, our part of the puzzle—the world according to butterfly, beagle and me, all different, all correct.

As it is, I can sit and look at our backyard and, if I don’t think too much about it, pretend that it really is as peaceful as it seems.  Bonita is snoozing in a patch of sun.  A swallowtail is feeding on a flower.  Nice and quiet.


Posted in Insects, Musings, Pets | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

A Fair Trade

We may not have any more parsley in our yard, but we should soon have a
bumper crop of Black Swallowtails.

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars, Parsley

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars on Parsley Plants

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A Lotta Damn Gall(s)


(NOTE: Full confession—I goofed!  The following article is partially incorrect. The apple-like galls are NOT caused by one of the generations of a cynipid wasp, but rather by Polystepha pilulae, a midge, a mere dipteran, not a noble hymenopteran.  The wasp does indeed cause the the horned oak galls found on twigs, but the juicy version found on leaves is an elongated gall running along the leaf veins.  This is discussed in a later post.)

Also, by the way, the title is a vague reference to Arlo Guthrie’s “Alice’s Restaurant”.  Those of you who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s will recognize it.  Others may not.  That’s okay.


Nothing’s ever perfect.  Not in our backyard.  Not in yours, I bet.

At least that’s one way of looking at it.  Another way might be just to accept that “perfection” in nature is pretty much just something we try to impose on our world.  Some of us believe that a perfect yard is a uniform green carpet, lush and friendly to bare feet.  Some of us prefer a little more chaos and complexity in our surroundings.

Take our backyard Pin Oak, for instance.  It’s a pretty enough tree in its own right, named for the needle-sharp tips on its leaf lobes.  It grows high and shady and keeps a lot of early sun off our house during the dog days—a much appreciated quality in recent years.  It’s a great climbing tree, something I have explored on many occasions, much to Nadia’s consternation, using the excuse of getting up there and trimming off dead branches.  You can take those conveniently spaced limbs all the way to the top, although I haven’t made it that far.  Yet.  Twenty feet or so up, I generally hear something like “Aiiieeee!!  You’re going to fall and break yourself!”, and I reverse course.  Someday, though.  It’s on my bucket list.

But I digress.

Recently we’ve been seeing a lot of this:

Oak leaf gall

Succulent Leaf Gall on Pin Oak Leaf

These are oak leaf galls, which my limited research is telling me are caused by a tiny cynipid wasp, which won’t sting you or me, but can certainly mess up the complexion of a pin oak.  Not just our oak. All up and down the street we can see leafy twigs full of little apple-like structures, which in turn, I hear are full of little wasp larvae.  These larvae will emerge to search for love and destiny, and if they succeed in at least one of these goals the females will lay their eggs on the woody stems of a tree.  By next spring, these will result in another type of gall, adding insult to injury.

Horned twig gall, pin oak

Horned Twig Gall on a Pin Oak

After a suitable period of time, two years or more, wasps emerge from these spiny warts to lay more eggs on the veins of the leaves, and we’re off to the races again.  In my opinion, the oak tree gets the worst end of this deal, but it doesn’t seem to mind much.  The wasps, on the other hand, get food and shelter and a chance to annoy people who find twig and leaf blemishes to be “imperfections” and eyesores.

Heavy infestations can drain the resources of the host tree, but there doesn’t seem to be much anyone can do about it anyway, since there apparently is no recommended chemical solution.  If you are really serious about wanting your trees looking picture-perfect, you can cut off infected twigs and destroy the galls, but I suspect this is mainly useful as a good excuse to climb an oak tree (Aiiiieee!!!).  You’ll never get ’em all, but it would be good fun trying.

However, I have never come close to achieving perfection and so have become highly tolerant of its lack in other things.  We will live and let live, as far as our gall crop is concerned.  Why be hypocritical, after all?  There are thousands of “galls” in our fair city, blemishes upon a once pristine prairie.  We refinanced ours a couple of years ago and are rather fond of it.  We may never emerge.

Posted in Insect pests, Insects, Landscaping, Native Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Quiet Medicine

Being in our backyard calms—-me—-down.  It is a palpable sensation, beginning within minutes of going out there and just sitting—just watching and listening.  Even though Nadia and I live along a busy street, the traffic noise fades to insignificance in our backyard.  In the front of the house, it can be hard to hold a conversation, but in the backyard you can hear a hummingbird’s wings or the “pips” of the cardinals.

There is always something to see out there, always something happening.  Always.  Today I saw the smallest skink I have ever seen skinking around on the weathered, old deck.  I see tiny wrens slithering through the vegetation looking for insects.  I watch a tiger swallowtail obsessed by one of the few non-native plants we have, Mexican sunflower, which is blooming right through the heat and dryness of this extreme summer.

In front of a computer, I’m in distraction-land.  Right now I have ten tabs open in my browser, from news sources to other blogs to search engines.  This must be a sign of the lack of self-discipline I already know myself to be guilty of.  When I should be writing or researching, I’m often reading about the latest wranglings in our nation’s benighted capitol or compulsively seeing if any new email has come in or checking prices on that new lens I want, but can’t afford.  I’m convinced our electronic “civilization” is designed to prevent reflection.  I think too much thought is truly threatening to certain vested interests.

The other day I watched a young girl driving a large SUV down our street, ear-buds in her ears, eyes down, texting on her phone with both hands.  She may be part of the next iteration of the human animal that is psychologically, and maybe increasingly genetically, adapted to the constant flow of huge amounts of information, little of which is actually useful, and even less of which is actually absorbed and digested.  Multitasking?


Trees and vegetation are known to provide gentle, but effective physical barriers to actual noise–traffic, in particular.  More and more, I believe that they can work to ameliorate the mental noise that chatters ceaselessly in our oh-so-busy minds, or at least slow it to the point that we can pay attention and derive some benefit from it.  In our backyard, I can sit and drift until, almost magically, connections began to be made with what I see and hear and other things that I have experienced or read about.  A little sense can be discerned, lessons can be drawn, patterns begin to emerge.  It becomes possible, a little, to understand the mind of an Emily Dickinson, a keen observer of nature, who could leap from the mundane to the cosmic in a few, precisely chosen words:

Pin oak

Pin Oak

“Nature is what we know
But have no art to say,
So impotent our wisdom is
To Her simplicity.”

Heart rates drop.  Blood pressure settles.  Worries lift a bit.


(Note: Check out this entry at “Nature is My Therapy”, a wonderful blog run by a friend I have never met.   It gave me the impetus to write this entry, which I have thought about for a while. She links to one of many studies showing that nature can help with what ails us. Malls, not so much.)

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Beans and Butterflies

My Dad stopped and stared at some plants in our yard, then turned to stare at me.  “Did you just forget to pull these things?” he asked.  “Because if you did, I can do it for you now.”

“No”, I said.  “They’re supposed to be there.”

He shook his head in disgust.   “You mean, I spend half my life pulling these out of the beans, and you’re planting them?”

Some things are hard to explain.  He was glaring at a small patch of common milkweeds growing in our yard and thinking back to the almost forgotten ritual of bean-walking, one of the ways farm kids earned spending money in the hot Iowa summers of days gone by.

Common Milkweed

Common Milkweed

It wasn’t hard to see why the sight of an arch-enemy like milkweeds could raise the hackles of a retired farmer.  Bean-walking involved miles and miles of shuffling up and down long rows of soybeans, hand-weeding the fields of anything that didn’t belong there.  That meant everything except soybeans, and it especially meant milkweeds.  Bean-walkers carried a hoe or machete (corn knife) and used them to chop out thistles, volunteer corn and other weeds from the crop.  Some weeds, like cockle-burs, could be pulled up easily, dirt knocked off the roots, then left to wither in the sun on the black soil.  Others, like milkweeds, pulled hard, and a really big one could defeat the efforts of a smaller bean-walker, although it was a point of honor to give it your all.  A big patch of milkweeds took time to work through and left your hands (gloved, if you were smart) coated with sticky sap and your back aching.  The bigger the patch, the longer it took to reach the end of the row where the cold water or kool-aid waited in big thermos jugs.  Some of those rows took awful long.

This was more than just weed control to improve crop yields.  This was agricultural aesthetics, and milkweeds had no place in them.  Farmers could be very opinionated about the state of another farmer’s fields, since a messy looking field, in the mind of the onlooker, often pointed to a messy farming operation in general.  It was just unprofessional, and my Dad farmed professionally.  He could, and often did, spot a lone cockle-bur or milkweed in the middle of one of our fields as he was driving down the road.  If he was lucky enough to have one of us kids in the car with him, well, it saved him some walking.  Most of the time he had to direct us to the offender, shouting directions from the car, sometimes until we were standing right next to it.  It was almost supernatural how he could spot weeds at a gallop.  The result was fields that looked like newly cleaned carpets.  They were beautiful in their own way, and even I took some satisfaction in knowing I helped to make them that way.

Walking beans was as much a part of summer as watermelons and sweet corn, but not as nice, if you want my opinion.  Whole families, young and old, walked their own fields, starting early in the cool mornings and aiming to quit when the sun got to be too much, and I guess today that would be called “quality family time”, but I had other names for it.  Boys and girls able to work hard enough to actually get paid would hire out to other farmers, sometimes teaming up with a friend or two or a bean-walking crew.  Since this was before they told us that the sun was our enemy, we wore as little as possible, turning brown as nuts as the weeks passed, and this could have more immediate hazards than skin cancer.  I still have the scar on my shin from the day when I was working a corn-knife and watching the older girl a couple rows over from me, instead of the plant I was chopping.  She was walking beans in a bikini she had made herself.  It was bright yellow.

I figured it probably wouldn’t do much good to tell my Dad that these milkweeds were natives and belonged here, or that a weed is just a good plant growing in a bad place.  I may have told him about all the Monarchs we raised on them and sent south, but I doubt if he cared awful much about that.  In his mind, these old enemies would soon pop open their pods and send thousands of seeds wafting though the air on little parachutes, heading out on the wind to infect some hard-working farmer’s beans.  And that’s just not right.  So I dodged and told him that these milkweeds were Nadia’s idea.  After all, she grew up in a city and never had to pull them by the hundreds.

Bean-walking has mostly gone the way of corn detassling, square-baling hay, and shelling corn as rites of passage for farm kids.  I’ll leave it to others to decide if this is good or bad.  My take is that I’m awfully glad I did it then, and I’m awfully glad I’m not doing it now.  Most of my callouses are gone now, and I mainly interact with milkweeds by admiring them and photographing the huge number of insects that come to pollinate them, feed on them, or raise their young on them.  These are plants with place and purpose.

But I don’t think my Dad will ever see it that way.

Monarch Chrysalis

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis on Common Milkweed

Posted in Edible Native Plants, Farming, Musings, Native Plants | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Backyard Haute (or at least, Hot) Cuisine

Aficionados of native edibles can get into ruts.  It’s easy to cook down all wild greens like they were spinach, or to make omelets and fritatas with them, or throw them in with a bunch of potatoes to roast or fry.  Not that there’s anything wrong with these things—God knows I’ve fritata’d my way around the block a few times, but sometimes it’s fun to get more adventurous.

One of my culinary addictions happens to be kimchi, the spicy fermented vegetable mixture that is said to be a staple at nearly every meal in Korea. I have been buying it at local oriental markets, but one day, with a refrigerator packed full of Nadia’s foraged native greens, a little light went on in my brain.  How hard could it be to make our own?  On to the internet I went and it turns out, it’s not hard at all.  So, Nadia fixed me up with a mess of lamb’s-quarter and woodland nettle leaves (not stingy) and I went to work, based on this recipe.  A few minor modifications and a couple days of fermenting later and this is what I had to show for it:
Backyard Kimchi

Backyard Kimchi

If I say so myself, it’s delicious!  It’s got a nice crunchy/chewy texture, great flavor and relatively gentle heat.  Next time I might add a little water to add more juice to the final product—this version is drier that the ones I’ve bought.  The nice thing about making your own kimchi is the control you have over things like spiciness and chunkiness.  I like spicy foods, but not if they take the top of my head off, so I was a little leery of adding a 1/2 cup of chili powder at first.  I discovered, however, that the real Korean chili powder (purchased at Chong’s Market in Columbia) adds nice flavor and color, but just a pleasant, glowing heat that lingers a while, but never really bites.  Nadia’s not as much a fan of picante foods as I am, but she loves this stuff.  If you’re really sensitive to spice in foods, use less, but in that case I doubt you would ever eat kimchi anyway.

I would imagine that lots of native edibles would be tasty in kimchi, such as goldenglow, cup plant greens, young mildweed pods, or stinging nettles (might want to blanch these first a little to neutralize the sting).  Experiment!  Forage!  If you come up with something great and would be willing to share, send it to me and we’ll post your recipe.  In the meantime, here’s how to make ours:

What You Need

Several cups of washed wild greens.  If you like more protein, skip the washing step..
1 head of garlic, peeled and finely minced (we got ours from local farmer, musician and all-around iconoclast, Paul Weber).
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1/4 cup fish sauce (available at oriental groceries)
1/3 cup chili paste or 1/2 cup Korean chili powder
1 bunch green onions, cut into 1-inch lengths (use the dark green part, too, except for the tough ends)
1 medium Asian radish (daikon), peeled and grated
1 teaspoon sugar or honey

How You Do It

1. If you want a finer kimchi, lightly chop greens into smaller pieces, or leave whole if you want a chunkier mix.

2. Mix the other ingredients in a very large metal or glass bowl.

3. Now combine everything and mix thoroughly.  You might want to wear rubber gloves if mixing with your hands, to avoid chili burn and being dyed red.

4. Pack the kimchi in a clean glass jar large enough to hold it all and cover it tightly. Let stand for one to two days in a cool place, around room temperature.

5. Check the kimchi after 1-2 days. If it’s bubbling a bit, it’s ready and should be refrigerated. If not, let it stand another day.  You should be able to eat it by itself for three weeks or so, and if it gets too fermented after that, it can be used in cooking things like Korean vegetable pancakes, stir-fried rice, or soups.

Lamb's Quarter

Lamb's Quarter (Kimchi wannabe...)

Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Foraging, Native Plants, Recipes | Leave a comment

Beneath the Surface

Daydreaming in our backyard one afternoon, I heard something hit the side of our house, just a few feet away. Startled, I looked up to see a struggling sparrow, looking newly-fledged and adolescent-clumsy, fluttering off our deck and again hitting the siding. It seemed panicked, desperate, and only then did I see the cause. A blue jay dove at it and knocked it down onto the deck again, and again the little bird flew up, struggling across our backyard and over the chain-link fence into our neighbor’s lawn. It never had a chance after that—there was only mowed grass there, no shrubs, no tall forbs, no cover. The jay was like a heat-seeking missile, slamming into the small body of the sparrow and knocking it into the grass. The predator landed next to the prey and its head reared back and speared down, twice, three times. It was over.

Only a few seconds had passed. I was still in the grip of surprise and, truth be told, a little shock.  I was witnessing something unexpected, lightening quick, something primal.


We are determined optimists, we humans.  Especially those of us born into, if not wealth, at least a measure of security and loving care, taking for granted that there will be food on the table tonight, that doctors are there for us when we are sick, that we have a level of protection from the predators of the world, human and not.  We see the placid surface of existence and dream about the future, aware at some level, but not dwelling on the fact, that sometimes things can change very quickly.  Death is understandable—-just not ours.

Not everyone is as complacent as I grew up.  I did my Peace Corps time, many moons ago, in the little East African country of Malawi.  I got to know many of my neighbors as friends, and I observed things that left deep impressions on me.

In Malawi, it was normal and polite to ask new acquaintances about their families—Is everyone well?  How are your parents?  How many children are in your family? That last question was one that changed my view of existence.  Very often the reply was something like, “We had nine children in our house, and there are five living now.”  When I was fresh out of training and new on my site and heard this, I was caught unprepared.  My first reaction was to express my sympathy, but I soon noticed that my new friends didn’t say this with obvious sorrow.  Their faces didn’t take on a look of grief.  They were simply stating a fact of their life.  There were nine and now there are five.  Five beautiful children live in our house and four have gone to God.  God is good to us.

They saw the placid surface of life and lived there with great joy, but knew the murkier depths on an intimate level.  They had no illusions, no self-deceptions, about how fragile it all is.  They were too close to it, much closer than my kind was.  Or so my kind pretends.

In the natural world, life and death are right there together every second.  No creature comes into it with the expectation of living forever, or any expectations at all, but only the instinctive determination to live until life is done.  I don’t know what goes on in the mind of a young sparrow struggling for its life, but I doubt if it’s telling itself that this just isn’t fair, that it can’t go now, because it has so much left to do!  I expect that it’s struggling because that’s what life does, to fight on until the end.  We are the ones, we two-legged, arrogant, products of millenia of this struggle, insulated by layers of “civilization”, who get so bloody offended by it all.  Who dares do this to us?  Don’t they know who we are?

We think we are different.


The bluejay began pulling feathers from the warm body of the young bird, getting ready to feed.  Suddenly, the jay froze and looked to its left, and I glanced over to see a teenaged boy walking through the grass of my neighbor’s lawn, staring intently down at the screen of a cellphone.  The bluejay held its ground until the boy was within about ten feet, then it flew up and away to a far tree.  The boy walked on, never lifting his eyes.  He never even saw the little body that he nearly stepped on.

We swim on the placid, calm surface, but sometimes a fin breaks through to let us know that something powerful and inevitable cruises beneath.  Sometimes we see it.  And sometimes we look elsewhere with great determination.

NOTE: I have found very few accounts of this predatory behavior by bluejays, but there are a few.  Here is one.  Here is another.

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The Golden Invasion

Koganemushi froze, senses alert for danger as it detected motion.  It raised its tiny oars in defense, then tucked and rolled, releasing its devastated leaf in a desperate bid to disappear beyond my sight.  Too late.  Before it could turn its free fall into flight, it hit the soapy water in my jar and floundered.  Maybe it chittered out the coleopteran equivalent of “Uh-oh”, or maybe not, but it would not bother the wild grapes in our backyard again.

Japanese Beetles

Japanese Beetles on Virginia Creeper

It was a handsome creature, beautiful even, and neither Nadia nor I took any pleasure in sending it and its many, many glittering friends to a soapy demise, but we took even less pleasure at the sight of the tattered and shredded leaves the Japanese Beetles were leaving in their wakes.  The grape, pawpaw, and virginia creeper foliage visited by Popilia japonica had been “skeletonized”—about as accurate a descriptor as one could ask for.

Skeletonized grape leaf

Grape leaf "skeletonized by Japanese Beetles

We were determined to defend our domain.

It’s all rather sad, really.  These pretty beetles (Koganemushi means “gold beetle”, I hear) never wanted to be here in the first place, in all likelihood.  They apparently showed up in the early part of the last century in New Jersey, having been trapped in a shipment of iris bulbs, and immediately went about doing what we all do when faced with trying circumstances.  Surviving.  It seems they have done quite well, having tumbled into a land of milk and honey and few predators.

Like us, they appear to be generalists, which is a time-tested strategy for getting by where fussier types would fall by the wayside.  No pawpaw around?  That rose over there looks might tasty.  No roses?  Let’s check out the beans!  Or the irises!  Or the….well, you get the picture.  For all I know, if they went clean through all the greenery, they might take on the squirrels next.

It’s an old, old story, one that has been, and still is, enacted by many species, including one that drifted out of Africa once upon a time, spread and adapted, devoured pretty much everything in its path, and sauntered across a newly-exposed land bridge that led eventually to our backyard.  Many of these odd-gaited creatures met the equivalent of a jar of soapy water along the way, generally wielded most lethally by their own brethren objecting to being pushed around by anyone, regardless of appearance.  But the rule in the natural world, then and now, seems to be: Invading is easier than getting rid of invaders.

But it may be possible to come to an accommodation.  Nadia and I pick the beetles off by hand, but there are other methods available.  One is using Paenibacillus popilliae spores in your yard to give the beetle larvae Milky Spore disease.  We have no experience with it and I hear it takes time, but apparently it can be quite successful.  Let me know.  There are various chemical sprays and powders that are supposedly effective, but we’re just not that riled, yet.

You could also try strategy, like convincing your neighbors that those nifty pheromone traps are the greatest thing since bipedalism helped us get here.  This should pull most of the beetles out of your yard and into theirs.  Remember to keep congratulating the neighbors on all the dead beetles in their bags so you can string this out as long as you can.  I did run into one neighbor who used the traps to decoy the critters away from her roses into another part of her yard, and she claimed it worked.  Along these lines you might also experiment with planting beetle fodder that you don’t care about to draw the insects away from plants you really are partial to.  Seems in our backyard that they prefer grapes to almost everything else.  This also helps concentrate them and make them easier to grab.  Watch what they go for in your yard and if you’re lucky enough that their favorite is not your favorite, use that to keep ’em distracted.

At least one attempt seems to have been made to bring in the mercenaries—old enemies from Japan in the form of parasitoid Tachinid flies that are host-specific.  This is a risky road to walk.  Specificity is a good trait in imported biological controls, even if it’s not so good for their survival in a strange land.  You want these things to go away when their work is done, but nature sometimes has ways of doing end runs around a sure thing.  Personally, I wouldn’t have brought them in, but nobody asked me at the time and they’re here now.

There is lots of information out there, and where there is knowledge, there is hope.  Let us flail away, but in the process it really is okay to sneak an admiring glance or two at how handsome these beetles actually are.

And remember—defend your turf with a kind heart.  After all, these little golden samurai aren’t doing anything we haven’t done.



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Courtship and Cookies: A Dubious Guide

There are cookies, and then then there are cookies.  These were cookies.  Handsome, dark, subtly sweet, not overpowering, but able to make you want another, and then maybe another after that.  Bad for diets.  Good for indulgence.

Nadia's Persimmon Cookies

Nadia's Persimmon Cookies

So, of course, when Nadia served them to a group of native plant aficionados and informed them that they were persimmon cookies, made from the fruits of our very own backyard persimmon tree, they raved about them and went for seconds.

“I don’t know why I didn’t use persimmons before,” Nadia said.  “There are persimmons all over the place around here, but I didn’t try them for years.  It might be because right after I came to the U.S., somebody gave me a persimmon that wasn’t ripe, and I was scared to try them after that.”

There was a slight, but audible, gasp among the onlookers.  “Oh, no!”, someone said.  “That’s awful!  No wonder you didn’t want to try them again!  Who would do that?”

I moved slightly back into the shadows…


Anyone who hangs around outdoors in persimmon country will eventually try an unripe persimmon.  It might be a mistake or perverse curiosity, it might be on a dare, or you could be the victim of a prank–ahem–, but whatever the cause, it will be an unforgettable experience.  Your mouth will pucker, indescribable tastes and sensations will flood your taste buds, your teeth will feel like they were just coated with…..well, green persimmon.  You will want that stuff out of your mouth RIGHT NOW!

To get a rough idea, take a little alum, wet your finger, dip it in the powder, and put finger in mouth.  It’s in the ballpark, but cannot compare to the onslaught of a green persimmon.

So how do we get from this existential shock therapy to the delicate treats on the plate before us?  Well, you wait.  You bloody well cannot rush a persimmon and remain unscathed.  Just wait.  Wait until they are soft and smooshy and sort of orangy-purple.  Even better, wait until they are on the ground or until there has been a frost.  You can then pick them up or pluck them, brush off any other living creatures with similar ideas, pop them in your mouth and savor the sweetness.  After you suck the pulp off them, the large seeds are good for spitting at targets, if you like that sort of thing.  Beagles work well.

Safe Persimmons

These persimmons are safe.


Ripe Persimmon

This is what it's all about.






It is those seeds that make persimmons less popular than they might be otherwise, since there are a lot of them relative to the amount of pulp, and they make processing the fruits a bit more difficult.  Nadia uses one of those conical colanders with a wooden pestle that some folks use to process tomatoes for pulp and juice.  It works pretty well and the proof was right before us, diminishing rapidly.


“I don’t remember who gave me that persimmon,” Nadia replied, “But it must have had an effect, because I avoided  them for years.”

It was time to face the music, I suppose.  The Father of Our Country had his cherry tree.  I had my persimmons.  “It was me,” I confessed. “I guess you blocked that part out.”

Multiple pairs of surprised eyes swung in my direction, including Nadia’s.

“And what did she do?”, someone asked, squinting in contempt.

“Well,” I said, taking a deep breath.  “She married me.”

Now, I do not—-repeat, do not—-recommend green persimmons as a standard courting technique.  Frankly, I doubt if it contributed to the final outcome one way or another, maybe because of the Nadia’s mental block as to who the culprit was.  I escaped retribution by reason of traumatic amnesia, I suppose, but I expect that persimmon cookies might just aid the cause of romance.  They are just that good.

And so, in the interest of romance, here is a recipe.  Feel free to experiment or substitute at will. May it serve you well.

Persimmon cookies with wild plum  or elderberry jam

1 cup Greek-style yogurt
1 tsp butter
1 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups persimmon pulp
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
½ cup native pecans or peanuts minced
¼ minced crystallized ginger-optional

Preheat oven to 350 F and grease cookie sheets with canola or other oil.

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. In a separate bowl, mix sugar, butter, yogurt, eggs, and persimmon pulp.  Add dry ingredients to this mix. Fold in nuts and ginger (if using).

Drop dough by teaspoonfuls onto cookie sheets and add a dab of wild plum or elderberry jam on top of each cookie.

Bake for 10 to 15 minutes. This recipe makes 8 dozen cookies.

And here’s a bonus recipe, for all you cake lovers:

Persimmon cake with rice flour

3/4 cup raisins
Apple juice (or brandy)
2 cups rice flour (or replace with 2 cups wheat flour)
1/2 tsp baking power (skip baking power if using wheat flour)
2 tsp baking soda
1½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground nutmeg
½ tsp salt
1½ cups sugar
¾ cup melted butter (or replace with Greek-style yogurt)
3 eggs
1¼  cup persimmon pulp
2 tsp vanilla
1½ cups Missouri pecans (or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 350 F

In small saucepan over medium heat, bring the raisins and apple juice to a boil.  Remove from heat and let cool.

In a medium bowl, mix melted butter,  persimmon pulp, eggs, and vanilla. Set aside.

In a large bowl, mix dry ingredients.  Add persimmon blend and gently stir.  Fold in raisins with apple juice and nuts.

Add the batter in a greased 10 cup bake pan, bake for 40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the cake comes out clean.

Remove from the oven, let cool and invert into a plate. This recipe serves 12 or more.

Posted in Cooking, Edible Native Plants, Native Plants, Recipes | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We Hardly Knew Ye……

So long, Cicadas.

Brood 19 is Passing into History

The Great Southern Brood has flung its fling, sung its songs, flown its flights, sowed its seeds. A few lonely latecomers still flit around, looking a little lost, wondering where the big party is, but the waves of red-eyed revelers of past weeks have mostly passed on.

I expect that not everyone is sorry to see them go, but I’ll miss them. Some things about them, at least.. Not necessarily the startle of having them land on my face or scrabble down inside my shirt. Not the certainty of getting a car full of cooked arthropods if I leave the windows down on a sultry day. But I’ll miss the exuberance, the silvery explosion of sound when I open the backyard gate and startle them at rest, the sight of hordes of them stirring around in the trees, looking like bees buzzing around a hive. I’ll even miss their music and trying to unravel its complicated rhythms and waves.

Some determined grumps see them only as pests, screeching too loud and littering the ground. They leave their messy exoskeletons clinging to our neat fences and manicured plants. They are graspy and noisy and alien and, well, just so untidy.

But me, I see them as part of the grand, sacred rhythm of the world. A bit less majestic, maybe, but no less fascinating than the great wildebeest migrations in Africa
or the mysterious simultaneous blooming and death of some bamboos. This is spectacle and a manifestation of the grand pulse of life. Our objections are petty and trivial.

Maybe in thirteen years, we will see their children in our backyard. Maybe they will perch on our shoulders to ask about the ancestors. And maybe we’ll take the time to tell them that we knew them, marveled at them, and, some of us at least, loved having them here.

Posted in Insects, Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments