Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Nature Notes: Pretty Poison

Variegated Pokeweed

The Nature Notes challenge at Michelle's blog asks us to take a walk around and see what's going on outside, to pay attention to things we might not have noticed before. Actually, I noticed this five-foot-tall shrubby thing weeks ago, but had never trekked out through the tall grass for a closer look. I figured it was a diseased milkweed. But no. This is a real rarity, a variegated pokeweed.

We have plenty of pokeweed around here, but this is the only plant I have ever seen with variegated leaves. It took some quality time with Google to be sure, but that's what it is all right. A variegated pokeweed.

What I also discovered is that poke is seriously poisonous. Only the earliest leaves can be eaten, and those have to be boiled a couple of times to reduce the toxins. Once the stems are red, it's too late. The leaves, flowers and berries are all bad news, and the roots are even worse. The plants are poisonous to turkeys, horses, pigs, sheep, cattle and humans, but are apparently an important food for mourning doves. (Go figure.)

Now, when I was a kid in the south, spring was poke salad season. We never ate it ourselves, but when the weed cropped up around my grandmother's garden we literally put it in a paper poke and took to Mrs. Smith down the block. She loved the stuff. I hear it is available at farmers markets now, and that there are festivals dedicated to poke. It's supposed to be a lot like cooked spinach, so I can't fathom its popularity. To each his own, I suppose.

The more I explore around here, the more wild things I find that are edible. The morel mushroom is a standout. Black walnuts are awesome. And I love stopping the car at the end of the driveway to hop out and pick a handful of blackberries on my way in from work. But I think I'll pass on the pokeweed.

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Blue Skies and Butterflies

Two monarchs were darting and dancing around the milkweeds today, which I took as an invitation to come out and play. (I believe this is the aerial half of their mating dance.)

This is as close as I got to capturing them on camera, but the chase through the field was good fun. You'll have to click the picture to enlarge it to see them, I'm afraid.

I left all the milkweeds around the property for the monarchs, but these are the first ones I've seen. I'll keep an eye out for eggs and caterpillars.

As you probably know, monarchs head north from Mexico in spring and spread all the way up to Canada by summer, then migrate back to Mexico in the fall.

What you may not realize is that the migration north consists of several generations of individuals that live only a few weeks. The final generation is a "Methuselah generation" that will survive for months -- and will fly all the way back to Mexico, though they have never been there.

Miraculous, is it not?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Nature Notes: Deer Wars

Cute, huh? We haven't seen herds of twelve to twenty deer in the yard since hunting season, but the remaining does are busy making up for the losses. Now that they're bigger, the babies are coming out into the open, bouncing around and nibbling things. In fact, they're all over the place.

Click the photo to enlarge it and you'll see three fawns in the pasture, but only one doe. We found a small dead fawn in the corner of the pasture a couple of weeks later, and I suspect it was one of these, probably one that had lost its mother.

Time was, I didn't buy the argument that hunting was necessary to control the number of deer in parks and farm areas. I get it now. They are beautiful and gentle creatures. And no, I couldn't personally shoot them. But having seen firsthand how big the population is and how destructive they are to the woods and farm fields, I understand that somebody has to.

Knowing that deer would be a major problem, the hubby constructed what is essentially a cage around the vegetable garden. The fencing is about seven feet high, and it's electrified along the top and bottom edges. We call it The Corn Fort.

Deer come up to the fence every day and gaze longingly at the lettuce, but none to date have mounted an assault on the battlements. The fawns peek out from behind the barn, watching us weed and hoe, apparently curious about the whole thing. Or maybe they're casing the place for a Mission Impossible operation.

I've been making notes for future gardening projects on what deer eat and what they don't. They didn't touch daffodils or iris this spring. They did eat the new leaves of wild day lilies, but not the flower stalks once they appeared. However, a bed of hybrid day lilies was completely demolished; only a few flowers that leaned into a patch of brambles were spared.

There was a bed of purple coneflowers just under the bay window in the front of the house. Only stubble remains. Deer apparently stood within inches of the windows to browse there. Interestingly enough, they did not touch the hostas next to them, though those are supposed to be one of their favorite foods. Peonies were not eaten, either. They stripped some bark off the pussy willow in late winter, and they nipped off all the new shoots on our gnarly little apple tree.

Deer tend not to eat non-native species of wild plants, which makes sense I suppose. Unfortunately, that just helps the foreign invaders take over in wild areas. They contribute to the almost total lack of acorns in the woods, and I'll be out there burying as many of those as I can find, to help renew the stands of oak.

I love the deer. It lifts my heart to see them, and it saddens me to think of any of them dying. But I understand now that their numbers must be contained, for their own good and for the health of the environment.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Failure to Launch

Hallelujah, I'm back online! For two weeks now I've been unable to upload a photo because my Internet service can't handle the strain. I swear you could almost hear the gears grinding every time it tried. It's like dial-up. Only slower.

So what to post first? I've been saving up all kinds of stuff, but I thought maybe you'd like an update on the Phoebe nest.

For the longest time, I thought maybe it was empty. There wasn't any of the usual peeping or pooping that accompanies an active nesting site, but the mama bird still came and went. Eventually, she and the papa bird starting arriving with mangled bug 'n worm goo in their beaks, so it was clear they were feeding something up there.

The kiddies finally emerged today -- and would you look at the size of them? They're as big as the parents, and I'm not sure all of them even fit in the nest anymore, and yet they haven't made the big leap. (Look closely at the downspout and you'll see a third one there.) It's like the birdie equivalent of having your 24-year-old living in the basement.

They are so big, in fact, that I thought maybe they were cowbirds. I did see a brown-headed cowbird in the yard for a while, and I worried that it might move in on the phoebe nest. (Cowbirds are parasites that lay their eggs in other birds' nests.)

We never saw any broken eggs or dead babies under the nest though, and after looking at photos online of young cowbirds and phoebes I'm pretty sure these are phoebes. Great, hulking, lazy, teenage phoebes. Bless their gawky, adolescent little hearts.

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