Snow Hike

Steps closed for winter by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

Shakes head at news. Closes computer in disgust. Puts on many layers, then snowpants, snowboots and parka. Goes for a hike in the snow. It is 25 deg F in Ann Arbor, MI.

A short time later, hiking around trails at Matthaei Botanical Garden:

Winter Stream Running by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

Me: “This feels much better!”

Hears strange chittering in the woods. Is it a bird?  No. Is it a frozen tree trunk squeaking in the wind? No.

There!  Three squirrels (maybe Fox Squirrels?) chasing each other around the branches of a very large tree.  Attempts to focus with cell phone camera prove futile.  Oh wait, there are now just two squirrels chasing each other.   Now they’ve stopped. … Oh, that is what is happening. I’ve turned into a squirrel voyeur!

Continues galumphing through snow for another hour. Am happy and cold and sort of tired.

Spots alien-like skunk cabbage sprouting at edge of stream.

Skunk Cabbage crop (2017) by PPJ CC BY-SA 2.0

Enters Conservatory lobby. Removes parka & several layers, which are temporarily stowed on coat rack. Opens door to Conservatory, the smell of tropical plants and damp soil predominates.

Admires orchids.

Goes home. Opens computer. Starts to upload photos from walk and conservatory to social media. Starts to look at news again

Me: “Wait…”

Edit 2.9.17: Edited for formatting (replacing asterisks with italics) and correction of typographical errors.

Visit to the Conservatory

When I imagined what Michigan looked like in the winter, it was something like this:

Icy Marsh at Crosswinds by Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0, on Flickr

Turns out, as long as you put on long underwear, snow pants, sweaters, parka, hat, mittens and boots, it’s pretty fun to romp around outdoors in the snow on a sunny day. Even when temperatures are well below freezing.

But sometimes, the interminable stretches of cloudy days, intense (and not-so-intense) cold, snow and ice just start to *get* to me. Even though I put snow tires on my car, put a happy light in my living room and increased my dietary intake of Vitamin D, I begin to wonder if winter is my punishment.

To deal with the bleakness, I have been longingly poring over photos of gardens in high summer or ogling observations of tropical flora and fauna posted on iNaturalist.

After a rough few weeks, I think I have found another method of coping with Michigan winter: The Conservatory at the Matthei Botanical Gardens.

Pink flower pop by PPJ (2017) CC BY-SA 2.0

I had a meeting early on Friday morning in Ann Arbor, but decided to check out the Conservatory directly afterwards. The temperature on the thermometer on my car dashboard read 13 deg F (-11 deg C). I entered into the main lobby of the Conservatory and gradually unbundled from my coat and other insulating layers. (They provide a handy coat room to stash winter accoutrements.)

As I opened to the door to the conservatory itself, I was greeted with a blast of warm humid air and the smell of green growing things. Towering green palms and bright color pops came into focus. It felt like entry into another world.

cacao pod closeup by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My body (and my soul, too) soaked in the surrounding warmth, humidity and lushness of the tropical biome section. However, I couldn’t resist long before taking out my cell phone to record images to tell the story.

Fluffy pink flowers by PPJ (2017) CC By-SA 2.0

My amateur smartphone photography expedition made it through the temperate and desert biomes before I finally ran out of battery.

For more images of my brief escape from winter (and the strange organisms that live there!), you can check out Protopian Pickle Jar’s Flickr Album Conservatory at Matthei Botanical Gardens.

Git along, little dogies

On our walk on Monday at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, we noticed the milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) along the edges of the prairie were looking a little ragged. The leaves were chewed up with caterpillar-munched holes, and there were also hordes of little orange yellow aphids having a party drinking the milkweed sap.

Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0
Ants and aphids on milkweed. Protopian Pickle Jar (2016) CC-BY-SA 2.0

We tentatively identified the aphids as Aphis nerii, the oleander aphid. A scatter of ants inspected the lines of aphids clustered along the leaf veins, which reminded me of tiny cowboys surveying a herd of grazing cattle. Presumably, the ant ranchers were milking the aphids for their honeydew, a sticky sweet substance that aphids secrete from their butts.

However, something troubled me about this bucolic scenario. These aphids from the Mediterranean feed on poisonous plants such as milkweed (Asclepias spp.) and other members of the dogbane Family (Apocynaceae), so they can store the toxic cardenolides (aka cardiac glycosides) that deter predators.

The aphids’ bright orange-yellow aposematic color serves as “Don’t Eat Me or You’ll be Sorry” warning. (One famous example of this is the notoriously noxious-tasting Monarch Butterfly.) The aphids can also secrete the cardenolides from their cornicles (organs on their butts)to get predators to back off.

So why the heck would ants be cultivating these toxic little critters as a honeydew source?

I did some research.

Ant/aphid relationships can get complicated. The aphid species A. nerii and A. asclepiadis both coexist and feed on milkweed, but according to Smith et al. 2008, only A. asclepiadis establish a mutualism with ant caretakers.

In contrast, other studies have observed the Argentine Ant (Linepithema humile) tending A. nerii aphids under field conditions in California (Bristow 1991, cited in Pringle et al. 2014.)

So what’s going on in my photo?

A few possibilities:

1) The ants aren’t actually herding the aphids for honeydew production, but are there for some other reason.

2)The aphids that I identified as A. nerii are really another species, such as A. asclepiadis. Here is a good photo showing the color contrast between the two species. Fun fact: A. nerii orange aposematic coloring is an ancient gene transfer from a fungus!

3) I haven’t identified the ant species. They could be Argentine ants (or another ant species that herds A. nerii for honeydew. However, as far as I can tell, L. humile doesn’t live in Michigan (it’s too cold!)

4) I also haven’t identified the milkweed species of the leaf. Aphids feeding on different species of milkweed metabolize the cardenolides differently. Pringle’s experiment suggested that ants may be prefer aphid colonies that produce honeydew with lower cardenolide content.
Maybe this particular milkweed produces a mellow-flavored honeydew?

At any rate, I still don’t know what these ants are doing. But this little project has provided me with hours of entertainment and a new appreciation for tritrophic interactions!

More about the Oleander Aphid from the University of Florida.
Some nice pictures of aphids from Living with Insects .

Gone to Seed

Milkweed pods gone to seed
Gone to Seed by Johnathan Nightingale (2014) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

As the summer ends, I have been thinking a lot about the phrase, “gone to seed.” Literally, it refers to the plants in a garden. They are taking all their energy from growth and greenery activities and putting it instead into developing their seeds. Because of the energy diversion into seed production, the plant and flowers become tattered, shabby, and worn-looking. The plant/fruits may become bitter, hard and inedible. To humans, the plant looks ready for the compost heap.

The figurative meaning of “gone to seed” captures this negative connotation, “to decline in looks, status, or utility due to lack of care.” (Idioms by the Free Dictionary). Or even more starkly, not just to be “shabby,” but to be synonymous with “dissipated” or “corrupt.” (

These past few weeks, I felt as if I had gone to seed. The intense heat and humidity sapped my strength and enthusiasm from my work at the Children’s garden. I came home every day, shucked my garden clothes and collapsed into a long nap. When I realized that we still had an intense week of summer camp organized for the last week before school, I didn’t know where I would find the energy to do more than show up. I felt like a desiccated flower head, crunchy and brown, ready to blow away in the breeze.

However, as camp grew closer, I mustered some more enthusiasm as I reviewed schedules, supplies and activity plans. When the kids arrived, my training and excitement kicked in to help me don my larger-than-life Garden Educator persona. My kindergarteners (“The Basil Buddies”) and I (“BasilBot”) had a fantastic time exploring the garden. While I was certainly exhausted by the end of the week, I also managed to tap into my kids’ excitement and curiosity to help keep myself going.

I also began to think about the positive aspects of the phrase, “gone to seed.” Lola Gayle over at Hush, Lola! has a gorgeous post about saving the seeds from balloon flowers in her garden. Making seeds (on the plants’ part) and saving seeds (on the humans’) is a major investment of resources. It is also a way of continuing a legacy, creating intention for next year’s garden, and as in Lola’s caption, making “a promise for tomorrow.”

I attended a screening of the documentary “Seeds of Time” a couple of weeks ago. It was hosted by Edible KC, a local food organization, and included a panel about grassroots seed saving efforts. The movie is about international seed banking: Long-term storage of different varieties of food crops to preserve diversity of the genome for breeding and adaptation to changing climate and disease pressures. It was fascinating and could have been pulled entirely from the realm of science fiction (Deep freeze with thousands and thousands of seed varieties inside a Norwegian mountain!) I also really enjoyed learning about the work of different organizations cooperating with indigenous potato farmers in Peru to archive and propagate heirloom/traditional seed varieties.

I had my last day at the Children’s garden this week. The weather was absolutely beautiful – sunny and breezy and cool – a perfect day to spent trimming back plants in the garden. I was a little sad to leave my co-workers and the amazing workplace that has welcomed me (wacky ideas and all!) this summer. However, like the seeds, I’m ready to move on to the next stage. I’m starting a new job next week in another city (more details to come!) and have been ramping up the process of sorting and culling possessions that have accumulated around me at my parents’ house.

To the promise of tomorrow! (And next week and the month after that!)

Tangents for this post:
Books about seeds that I read aloud during camp at the Children’s Garden:

The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle

Rooting for you by Susan Hood

Rotten Tomatoes

Tomato rotting on vine
End of Season by TimLewisNM (2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

One the downsides of an abundant tomato crop is that the tomatoes ripen faster than humans can organize to pick them. This is especially true of a volunteer-run community garden project. Sunday morning, I agreed to come to help harvest ripe vegetables and to arrange logistics of delivery to food pantries. I hadn’t been to the Mitzvah Garden, a project growing food for local pantries, all summer. I discovered that after working all week at the Children’s garden, I couldn’t force myself to get up early on Sunday morning to … work in another garden. Only a special request from our usual organizer (who would be out of town) got me into my garden clothes for a 6th day of the week.

When I arrived Sunday morning, it was great to catch up with other volunteers whom I hadn’t seen all summer. However, it was finally time to get to work. Other headed for the bell peppers and the cucumbers. I grabbed a “slush bucket” and “good tomato bucket” and headed for the tomato forest. We were both blessed and cursed with a bountiful harvest of tomatoes. The tomato plants burgeoned with ripe fruit, but the humans weren’t fast enough to get them before overripe tomatoes became food for various invertebrates and microorganisms.

As the only tomato harvesting volunteer at first, I realized I need to move methodically down the rows, putting mushy tomatoes in the compost bucket, while keeping the solid citizens in a separate container. Then, I would transfer the good tomatoes to the flats I put strategically at the end of each row. Physically, it was pretty challenging, squatting or kneeling between the rows to reach low-hanging tomatoes.

However, I hadn’t taken into account the sheer … gloppiness of the endeavor. As I reached for tomatoes on the plants, it wasn’t always clear which ones were good tomatoes and which ones were rotten. Putting my hand around rotten tomato often resulted in its explosion, coating my gloves and clothing with stinking, rotten tomato juice. I tried to keep the stinky slush off the good tomatoes (which occasional got splattered) by wiping them off on my pants. Soon, I was completely marinated in a coating of fermented, rotten tomato slime, sweat and dirt.

Eventually, other volunteers joined us to help harvest tomatoes (and then some of them snuck away to do other activities.) I let other people deal with the good tomatoes and focused on the slushy ones. I made 4 separate trips to the compost pile to re-empty my bucket of rotten tomato paste. I also hadn’t counted on the sheer volume of tomatoes I was dealing with: Even with perhaps a 3 to 1 ratio of mushy tomatoes to good tomatoes, we still ended up with 8 flats of tomatoes for delivery! Though there was a silver lining to our adventure, I was too miserable and smelly by the end of the harvest to appreciate the mitzvah.

As I walked in to the house, I stripped off my filthy shoes, hat and clothing. Then I made a beeline for the shower. Maybe scientists will some day discover that rotten tomatoes are actually an excellent skin tonic. However, now I think I know why bad comedians are pelted with them: Soaking someone in rotten tomato slime clearly indicates the depth of one’s displeasure with the object. That is all.

Judgment of the Smushed

iridescent beetle on leaf

iridescent beetle on leaf
Japanese Beetle (Popillia japonica) by Kara Jones (2012) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr.

O hai there, bug! You are a very dapper specimen, with your tri-partite antennae and your iridescent copper shell. But I’m going to smush you.

Splat! (Wipes hands on pants.)

I don’t take pleasure in it. In fact, it’s kind of gross.

It’s not even personal. You didn’t bite me (you’re a vegetarian) or crawl into my ear. You just keep doing this:

Japanese Beetle Infestation Leaf by Steven Depolo (2009) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.
Japanese Beetle Infestation Leaf by Steven Depolo (2009) CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Especially to my cannas at the garden. We planted those cannas to look beautiful, and you and your buddies have gone and turned them into swiss cheese! As a children’s garden, we don’t want to spray any pesticides on our plants (that the kids touch and smell and taste.) The Japanese beetle traps are not very effective. Our remaining ecosystem-friendly option: Physical inspection of plants, removal and destruction of beetles. Which is your case means, “smush.”

At home in Japan, you have natural predators that keep your ravenous numbers in check. Here in Missouri, you multiply unhindered and wreak havoc with our (admittedly delicious) plants. It’s not just that I feel bad about killing you (I mean, between you and the cannas, I choose the cannas.) It’s that killing you also makes me feel like a hypocrite.

Here I am in the garden, telling kids about respecting nature and not hurting insects. We respect the ants (“garbage collectors of the garden” dismantling other dead critters), the bees (pollinators!), butterflies wasps, and earthworms. I tell my students, “This is their home, we’re just visitors.” Also, “We have to be careful, because they are small and we are very big.” I refrain from killing you in sight of the kids, but the second they are gone…smush.

I could drop you into a bucket of soapy water (unclear how the soap kills bugs – either by affecting absorption of water into carapace or by disruption of surface tension in water causes bug to drown or by some other mechanism), but I would have to carry one around the garden. It might keep your literal blood (okay, hemolymph) off my hands, but your demise would still be on my head.

Some day, I will be called for judgment. Possibly in front of a large hippo-crocodile-lion and a scale that weighs the sins of my heart against a feather. And I will have to answer for all the bugs I’ve squished. No, I didn’t squish you because I was hungry (and wanted to eat you.) Or because you were eating the plants I needed for food. I squished you because you were eating my cannas. And heaven help me if the being judging me isn’t a gardener.

Tangents for this post:

The Papyrus of Huenfer at the British Museum, London by Ambersea Photography (2008)
On Smushing Bugs by Tim Kreider, in the NYTimes.

Professor Jeffrey Lockwood on “Do Bugs Feel Pain?”

Portulaca Update

Brightly colored moss roses blooming along bricks
Portulaca Color Pop by Protopian Pickle Jar (2015) CC-BY-SA 2.0

Earlier this spring at the Children’s Garden, we instituted “The Portulaca Protection Program.” The PPP rescued baby portulaca (“moss rose”) volunteer seedlings from between the bricks of the path and replanted them along the edges of our raised beds. Unlike other plants, “who like their beds fluffy,” Portulaca grandiflora does well in between rocks and bricks, in poor quality (but well-drained) soil. The goal: Get a bright pop of color at kid-eye-level, but also be hardy enough to take the hot sun and occasionally being stepped upon by children.

The PPP has been so successful in the intervening weeks that we have expanded our mission to include not just transplanting rooted seedlings, but also propagating more portulaca plants from cuttings. Thanks to The GardenWeb message boards, I learned that you can take a piece of portulaca (especially those that are getting pretty leggy), remove some small, succulent leaves from part of the stem and just stick the denuded part in the ground. Given sufficient water (and enough soil to keep it from washing away), I found most cuttings root very quickly and will produce a good-looking baby plant. It will still be a few weeks, I think, until the baby plants bloom, but I’m looking forward to masses of moss roses in technicolor through the fall.

It’s become somewhat of an obsession, going out to the garden to check on the progress of “my” portulacas. However, we have been getting quite a lot of compliments on them, so enjoying the positive response to a project I would have taken on as a holy mission anyway.

I also have become the compulsive transplanter of a related plant species: Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea.) Like its moss rose cousin, purslane grows well between the bricks of the path. We have been transplanting it to a patch in one of the beds that we can use to teach kids about edible weeds. The purslane doesn’t really taste like much, it has kind a mucilaginous texture that tastes vaguely “green.” It might be good with a nice vinaigrette dressing, but I haven’t tried it yet.

Edit: You can see more pictures of the Beanstalk Children’s Garden from Summer 2015 here.