Thursday, October 6, 2016

Meadow Mushroom

Meadow Mushroom, Agaricus campestris, Pittsburgh, 2016

This morning I was out for a bit of a walk when I happened upon a clutch of meadow mushrooms.  For years I've spotted these pink-gilled beauties around the neighborhood, and even in my own yard.  I was able to identify them quite easily (the pink, unattached gills are a dead give away), but to make sure, I still did spore prints.  Today I decided to finally sautee some of them in butter and see how they tasted.  Quite delicious!  I wasn't surprised since by all accounts they are choice eating.  I don't know if I'll bother with picking them again because although I'm quite confident in my proper identification of mushrooms, it still caused a panic attack.  

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tale of Two Wasps

TOP:  Giant Ichneumon Wasp
BOTTOM:  Horntail Wasp Larva

A few days ago a neighbor offered us some free wood, most of which needed to be split.  I have never been known to reject free wood, no matter how much work has to be done to get it ready for the fireplace.  So, there I was, pounding a star wedge into a chunk of maple with a sledgehammer, when the wood yielded to the efforts and cleaved in two.  To my amazement, in one of the larva chambers bisecting the pieces, a Giant Ichneumon wasp emerged.  I've seen them in the wild many times, but never encountered one while splitting wood, probably because I usually split wood in the fall as opposed to late spring.  I immediately went in the house to grab a camera to document it. 
After photographing the wasp, I began to more closely examine the wood, and found that there was an intact Horntail wasp larva still in its chamber, feasting on the wood.  The complete developmental cycle of these two very different wasps!  The female horntail uses an ovipositor to bore into the wood to insert her egg within, where the growing larva consumes the wood, creating a trail.  Meanwhile, the ichneumon wasp uses her antenna to listen for the horntail larva chomping and moving, and when she finds one, uses her even longer ovipositor to pierce the exterior of the wood and inject her egg into the horntail larva, which it then consumes.  Clearly the ichneumon is a parasitic wasp, but then so is the horntail.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Baby Mantises

Mantis  Babies, Pittsburgh, 2016

This has been a big week mantises, what with the egg case hatching at my house this morning (outisde, on the porch), but also with The Notorious Ruth Bader Ginsberg having the honor of a new species of mantis being named for her.  You go, RBG!
The mantis young that emerged from the hardened egg case this morning completed a cycle started last fall when their father bravely mated with their mother.  Males typically encounter a 25% mortality rate while or following mating as the female will bite off his head given the opportunity.  Sexual cannibalism is common in the insect kingdom as it gives the mother the added protein she needs for optimizing her eggs.  It seems crazy, but what about procreating doesn't come across as bizarre, particularly to someone outside the species.  Who am I to judge the head eating mantises?  The abies are adorable, miniatures of the adults, smartly avoiding the awkward adolescent stage that most insects are forced to endure.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

17 Years And Hello Again

17 Year Cicada, Pittsburgh, PA 2016

It's been awhile since the constant buzz of millions of cicadas filled the air, while the insects themselves filled every available space.  It's been 17 years to be exact.  If you're familiar with the original Star Trek television show, then you know what a phaser set to overload sounds like.  That's exactly what millions of cicadas sound like.  After their extended stay pupating underground, feasting on the roots of deciduous trees, they emerge en masse to mate, and to be eaten.  Birds go crazy to feed on these protein rich bugs, and to share the bounty with their hatchlings.  I've seen robins so fat they can barely take wing.  I'm just trying to keep the dog away from them because she'll gorge herself until she vomits.  Who needs to clean up that mess?

Monday, May 23, 2016

On Not Having Read 'Wild'

Four years ago, in the summer of 2012, my wife and I took our mothers along with us on vacation to the Outer Banks in North Carolina.  Caty, my wife, is a planner.  While I spend long, cold winter evenings plotting out the garden for spring, she pours over travel guides to best maximize our vacation experience.  By the time it's time for us to pack up and leave, our route has been carefully mapped, the cooler packed with enough food so that we won't have to go to the grocery store right away, bird watching gear stowed away, clothes chosen for any sort of weather, and books on CD to make the 13 hour drive less hellish and more diversionary.  She'd chosen a Carol Burnett memoir, "This Time Together: Laughter and Reflection" and "Wild" by Cheryl Strayed.  One for the ride down and one for the ride back.  She let me choose which one to start with, and I'd been looking forward to "Wild" for some time, so that went in the CD player in the Subaru when we drove out of range WESA, the NPR station in Pittsburgh.
Everything seemed to be fine, which is that foolproof harbinger of impending doom on any road trip.  Not far into the book Strayed relates the devastating effect her mother's death had on her.  She recounts the cancer diagnosis, and how not long after her mother died.  My own mother's mother died of cancer when I was 4 years old, and I can tell you right now that she never recovered from that loss.  Never.  Listening to Strayed recount her own torturous pain brought all of that emotional rawness and anguish to the surface for my mother.  The backseat gave rise to a low gutteral howl that slowly gained force and became a shattering tearful scream.
"For the love of God, turn that off!  I can't take it anymore!"  She choked out.
Immediately Caty ejected the CD.  I was driving, and my mother was seated directly behind me, the scream and outburst had unnerved me at 75mph on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.  Old people, because of hearing loss, tend to speak loudly as it is, so, couple that with how someone talks/shouts when they're distressed, and you have some idea what it was like being enclosed in a small space with someone who's nearly hysterical, and who feels the need to unburden themselves as to why they are hysterical.  To my credit, I kept the car on the road without incident, despite the stress of having my mother unable to control the grief she was reliving afresh, as if 46 years hadn't passed since her mother passed.
When mom finally calmed down, Caty slid in the Carol Burnett memoir.  Thank God for Carol Burnett!!!  Shortly we were all laughing, and the mood lightened.  Of course we had no book on CD to listen to then on the way home, and driving through parts of Virginia you can only find religious radio stations spouting hellfire and hate, but I learned a valuable lesson: On road trips with mom, ONLY bring puff pieces, otherwise...
Even though I've seen the movie 'Wild', I never was able to go back to the book.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Drying Herbs

Ajuga reptans, Bugleweed, Pittsburgh, 2016

Like so many medicinal herbs that I gather in the yard, I didn't plant this, it just grows.  Bugleweed resembles the herb, heal-all (Prunella vulgaris) on steriods, a much larger version, but with many of the same medicinal qualities.  It's so damp because of all the rain we've had lately that when I cut bugleweed and bring it in the house, I lay it out on newspaper to wick up some of the moisture before hanging it to dry. 

Saturday, May 14, 2016

The Mighty Dandelion

Gone To Seed, Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale, Pittsburgh, 2016

As a nature lover, I don't have my yard sprayed with toxic chemicals so that all I have is grass.  The consequence of that is a vast proliferation of dandelions, clover, ground ivy, flea bane, etc, which to me is preferable to polluting the air, water, and soil for generations to come just so that the yard appears uniform.  Many of my neighbors do spray, and while I don't harp at them for this practice, sometimes they do needle me about my yard.  I sometimes defend my stance, but other times I don't care enough about the person commenting on the 'weeds' to even respond to them.  I smile and wave, and try to not think less of them.
Over the years I have tried to make use of dandelions, whether in salads, wine, or medicinally, and I find them most useful in the latter of those things.  Dried dandelion root is an excellent liver restorer, perhaps the best in all of herbology.  Meanwhile, as a salad green you have to be careful to pick only the newest of the early leaves or they're too bitter.  You can pick older leaves and blanch them in a couple of changes of water, saute them in olive oil and serve them the same way you would spinach or garlic mustard, but I don't find them to be as pleasing as either spinach or garlic mustard.  As for dandelion wine; it too can be bitter, leaving an unpleasant after taste on the palate, despite how many oranges you add to the vat (most dandelion wine recipes call for oranges to go in the brew to add flavor).