Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sassafrass Hands

Click to enlarge
The sassafras trees are bright yellow this time of year, making it easier to find their distinctive leaves.  Their most distinctive characteristic are their three leaf shapes.  Most leaves are entire but others are one and two fingered mitten shapes as seen to the right.

I have just figured out how to identify sassafras bark.  The ridges are rounded between the deep grooves.  These ridges resemble my fingers if I hold them together with my palm on the tree pointing up.  Just remember the three fingered leaves to remember the bark.  Another hint is to slice off the top layer of bark, which will expose the red-brown color beneath.

Wikipedia lists the use of sassafras as tea, filé powder for gumbo, and an additive in root beer in the past and microbrew beer.  Sassafras tea or sassafras oil that contain large doses of safrole have been associated with liver cancer in laboratory animals, leading to an FDA ban on sassafras tea.  Sassafras root was one of the earliest new world exports - it was used to perfume soaps and make tea. Native Americans used sassafras trees for dug out canoes.*  White-tailed deer consume the leaves and twigs as do many small mammals.  The fruits are eaten by many bird species.

Most of us think of tea when we hear the word sassafras.  Here is what WebMD has to say about it.
"In beverages and candy, sassafras was used in the past to flavor root beer. It was also used as a tea. But sassafras tea contains a lot of safrole, the chemical in sassafras that makes it poisonous. One cup of tea made with 2.5 grams of sassafras contains about 200 mg of safrole. That equates to a dose of about 3 mg of safrole per 1 kg of body weight.  This is about 4.5 times the dose that researchers think is poisonous. So, in 1976, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that sassafras could no longer be sold as sassafras tea." has a complete set of pictures.

*Vermont EDU 

Friday, October 29, 2010

Carp Fear

From News-Leader
An interesting story on Asian Carp is in today's News Leader.  The U.S. Geological Survey's Columbia Environmental Research Center in Columbia, Missouri is studying a pheromone which causes alarm in carp, hoping to use it in selected places to drive carp away.  This would have potential value in breeding areas or in channels such as the Chicago canal to deter carp from moving up stream.
"The researchers have evaluated the effectiveness of using alarm pheromones or "schreckstoff" to control Asian carp.  In experiments, Calfee has taken a live carp and made incisions with a scalpel to simulate the attack of a predator.  She then lets the fish sit in a tub of water for a short time and then extracts the water to release it into the tank.  She said the response is almost immediate: The carp will exhibit heightened swimming in a school formation and attempt to quickly escape."
This is of interest in Missouri where carp are threatening native river species and have caused injuries during jumps out of the water (see this dramatic video).  This invasive species was introduced from eastern Asia into sewage treatment lagoons and for aquaculture.  They are now living freely in 18 states.  If they also get into our lakes they could have a serious impact on crappie and walleye populations.

You can read more at this Link.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Fall Fungi

Last week we had incredible luck finding edible and delicious mushrooms hanging on dead logs.
Click to enlarge
Oyster Mushroom Plerotus Pulmonarius at the top can be found year round in mild weather after a rain.  They occur on deciduous tree stumps and logs.  They have a sturdy, thick firm stalk.

Chicken of the Woods
Chicken Mushroom, a.k.a. Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus are thick overlapping clusters of bright orange-yellow to orange-red on top with bright yellow pores below.  They are found May through November on the stumps and logs of dead or dying deciduous trees.  While valued as flavorful with the consistency of chicken, they occasionally will cause mild upset stomach or swollen lips, so a small test dose sautéed in butter is advisable before cooking up a full batch.

Of course you should never eat a mushroom unless you are absolutely sure of what it is.  We have been privileged to have a knowledgeable neighbor.  Good books help too and a newly published resource can be found at the Springfield Conservation Nature Center.  It is Missouri's Wild Mushrooms by Maxine Stone.  It covers the most common mushrooms and includes some great recipes.  (The author is a Master Naturalist with the Great Rivers Chapter.) 

The best way to learn about mushrooms is from experts.  There is currently interest in forming a  Springfield chapter of the Missouri Mycological Society.  If you are interested in being involved, send an email to

By the way, if you don't recognize this frog, Karolyn Holdren suggests you go to the MSNBC web site.  The World Wildlife Fund has documented more than 1,200 new Amazonian species between 1999 and 2009 and some of their pictures are featured there.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fruits of Fall- Part I

Click to enlarge

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) is well known for its showy white flowers in the spring, but it has a dramatic second act in mid-October every year.  The shiny-green leaves turn a dark crimson, easily discernible from a distance.  On closer inspection, clusters of bright red fruit are hiding among the leaves.  The fruit is called a drupe, meaning a seed covered by fleshy pulp.*

The fruit is a preferred food for turkey.  We once looked out our kitchen window at Bull Creek and watched a turkey jumping up and down with its neck extended to grab dogwood berries that were just out of its reach.  Deer and 28 species of birds enjoy these fruits, including quail once the fruit drop to the ground.

Native Americans treated “malaria” with the bark of its roots and European settlers followed their example.  It was even used later as a quinine substitute.  A scarlet dye from its roots was used by Native Americans.  The “dog” in its name may have come from “dag” which means skewer, a purpose its hard splinter-free wood twigs were used for in Europe with other "dagwood" species.  
"Dense and fine-grained, dogwood lumber was highly prized for making loom shuttles, tool handles and other small items that required a very hard and strong wood. Though tough for woodworking, some artisans favor dogwood for small projects such as walking canes, longbows, mountain dulcimers and fine inlays. It was an excellent substitute for persimmon in golf clubheads (“woods”)."  Wikipedia
Flowering dogwood is our state tree.  Fall is a great time to get out into the woods to see it.
Bob Ranney has even sent this evidence that hiking in the woods is good for your health.

* Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri, Kurz, p. 88

Monday, October 25, 2010

European Hornet

Click to enlarge

I received a call from a Bull Creek neighbor who was concerned about a wasp or bee species which appeared to be boring into her big oak tree.  She had taken several good quality pictures (see picture), allowing the identification of European Hornets, Vespa crabro.

According to Wikipedia, they are a threatened or endangered species in parts of Europe and are a protected species in Germany.
"They are not especially aggressive, especially when compared to yellowjackets, but will sting to protect themselves or their nest.  Nests can be approached without provocation (by moving slowly and not breathing towards the nest) to about 50 cm (20 in)."  Breathing into their nest had never entered my mind!
They were first encountered in the United States in 1840 in New York.  Detailed information from Penn State includes the fact that although they are Vespids similar to yellowjackets and baldfaced hornets, they are the only true hornet in the US.
They make paper nests similar to our baldfaced hornets, but rarely in the open, rather selecting cavities in trees or houses.  Their colony may contain 300-800 workers.  They sometimes damage trees and shrubs by girdling branches while collecting bark and sap.  They will also damage apples on the tree.
"Each fall, the colony produces males and females that mate, and the females become next year's queens. Only the overwintering queens survive in protected sites such as under loose bark, in tree cavities, and in wall voids of buildings. All other colony members produced in the current year will perish."
Like most introduced species, these are likely to be permanent fixtures in nature.  Since they are endangered in Germany, I am sure my neighbor would be willing to send them back to Europe if they would pay for it.  Meanwhile, if they come to live in your house, get professional help.  Plugging their hole will simply cause them to chew another one, possibly into the house itself.  And what ever you do, don't breathe into their nest! 

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Is Nitrogen, the New CO2?

An article in Science Daily highlights the possible cause and effects of human associated nitrogen buildup,  and the news isn't good.  Nitrogen is necessary for life, both in animal's protein, DNA and RNA, and in plant's photosynthesis.  Unfortunately, like virtually every other element, too much or too little is bad for us.
Dead zone off La Jolla, CA*

What's so bad about excess nitrogen?  Increased nitrogen entering our watershed promotes algae growth which in turn reduces dissolved oxygen in the water which aquatic animals and fish require, creating dead zones.  Imagine the effect fertilizer run off has on an algae-choked pond and then expand that picture to oceans.  Also, excess nitrogen may contribute to climate change.  Nitrous oxide may be "the single most important ozone-depleting substance (ODS) emission and is expected to remain the largest throughout the 21st century."**

Ordinarily, bacteria in plant roots and soil "fix" atmospheric nitrogen, converting it to usable forms for plants and animals.  A "nitrogen cycle" has occurred with fluctuations for billions of years, first by natural energy such as volcanoes and lightning and later by the introduction of oxygen and life.

A big change occurred in the last 100 years with the increase in nitrogen fertilizers.  From 1960 to 2000 the use of nitrogen fertilizer has increased 800 percent!  The addition of excess phosphorus in fertilizer increases algae growth even further.  Needless to say, the need for fertilizer use is expected to continue  growing with the world's expanding population's need for more food.  Like turning a battleship, any change in this pattern will take lots of time while the nitrogen load continues to increase.

What else can we do?  Just as we encourage proper fertilizer use to maintain stream health, the answers lie in intelligent use of fertilizers.  By increased use of crop rotation and modifying the over use and badly time application of nitrogen fertilizer, we may eventually reduce the nitrogen burden on our planet.  Also, new strains of crops can be developed to better utilize the microbial community in the soil.

A continued challenge will be the global increase in meat consumption by traditionally less prosperous societies.  Meat requires much more plant production per calorie than traditional vegetarian predominate diets and therefore more fertilizer.  Also the growth of bio fuels such as corn that require heavy fertilization adds to the burden.  I am not quite ready to give up beef, but I would be willing to pump a load of switchgrass fuel into my tank if the opportunity arises.  More to come in the next decade.

*   The picture above and more on dead zones are at Wikipedia.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Strongest Silk Yet

From LiveScience
The island of Madagascar has a creature that would put Spiderman's web spinner to shame.  Darwin's bark spider  (Caerostris darwini) constructs a web up to 9 feet in diameter, usually situated above rivers and streams.  Its anchor threads may extend 75 feet.  Knowing this, you would predict that their thread must be exceptionally strong.
According to Wikipedia,
Researchers reporting in PLoS came to the same conclusion and selected their silk for study.  With 41,000 types of spiders producing over 200,000 types of silk, they have a lot to chose from
"Dragline silk from both Caerostris webs and forcibly pulled silk, exhibits an extraordinary combination of high tensile strength and elasticity previously unknown for spider silk. The toughness of forcibly silked fibers averages 350 MJ/m3, with some samples reaching 520 MJ/m3. Thus, C. darwini silk is more than twice tougher than any previously described silk, and over 10 times better than Kevlar®. Caerostris capture spiral silk is similarly exceptionally tough."
We don't know what makes this silk so much stronger than others.  The discussion in LiveScience suggests that it could be a novel protein or the spider may have a special way of weaving the material.  Certainly, unlocking the secret would have a lot of commercial potential. And Spiderman will first in line to buy some.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Frost Flowers Coming Soon

Frost Flowers- click to enlarge
Last year I posted this article on frost flowers after they appeared.  This year I am giving you advanced warning.  Frost flowers (aka ice ribbons) occur on the morning after the first hard frost or two.  It pays to keep an eye on the forecast and get out early as the delicate frost flowers disappear soon after the sun hits them.
White Crownbeard
White Crownbeard, aka Frostweed, (Verbesina virginica) is the most common plant to produce frost flowers along Bull Creek, and we have had a bumper crop this year, growing to over 6 feet tall along the fence lines and road.  Verbesina species have distinctive winged stalks and large alternate leaves.  Most have yellow flowers except virginica whose petals are white.

Another common plant producing them is Yellow Ironweed, (Verbesina alternifolia) which can grow to higher than 9 feet tall.  It also has distinctive wings along its stalk, making it easy to identify.  For you botanists, there are other plants producing frost flowers include Dittany (Cunila origanoides), Hoary Frostweed (Helianthemum bickmellii), Helianthemum canadense, Pluchea odorata, P. foetida,  and P. camphorata.

Verbesina - winged stem

Frost flowers* are ribbons of ice which split the winged stems of these wildflowers as the sap freezes.  The spirals may extend more than eight inches up the stem or curl around the base in complex rosettes up to 8" in diameter.  The individual ribbons are so thin that you can see your fingerprint through them.  They sometimes recur as small basal collections after a third or fourth frost, so keep looking.         

There is more than you could ever remember about frost flowers at this comprehensive University of Texas site.
Pictures are from which supplies excellent descriptions.
*  Other names include ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fringes, ice fingers, ice filaments, ice leaves, frost ribbons, frost freaks, frost beards, frost castles (Forrest M. Mims III, and crystallofolia.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Turkey Vultures

Click to enlarge
Driving across our newly cut pasture yesterday afternoon I was greeted by large black birds scattered across the distant field, awkwardly taking flight.  Soon I could count over 20 birds, as others disappeared behind the tree line.  They gained altitude slowly as they intermittently flapped their wings, then glided as they climbed in circles, their wings occasionally dipping to the side like they are a little tipsy.  Their flight* and the white trailing feathers under their wings confirmed that they were Turkey Vultures. 
We commonly see three to six Turkey Vultures circling above our valley.  They greet us in early morning, stretching their wings on a tall dead tree to warm up in the first rays of sun.  Frequently we will come around a corner, startling them into reluctant flight, a premature departure from their tasty treat of a dead raccoon or possum.
We see a dramatic increase in numbers for a few weeks each fall.  According to Peterson, Turkey Vulture migration occurs the last week in September and the first week in October.    They are "Present year-round in much of southern United States, but northern birds migrate long distances, some reaching South America.  Migrates in flocks, and may travel long distances without feeding."
As carrion feeders with a bald red head, they are repulsive to many people.  We need to remember that without them, many carcasses would lie rotting for months.  Vultures are frequently the first step in nature's recycling program, opening up the hide which allows crows and other secondary feeders access to the best parts.  They are particular about what they eat, waiting to land until their meal is medium rare, that is when it is appropriately "ripe" and easy to tear into.
There is a comprehensive discussion of Turkey Vultures at the vulturesociety site.  For a more poetic description of the Turkey Vultures on Bull Creek , go to my neighbor, Cynthia Andre's article in this year's Missouri Conservationist.

* See video of their flight patterns here.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall Color Change

Click to enlarge
This time of year we are all watching for the fashion show that the leaves put on in the Ozarks.  Francis Skalicky wrote an excellent article in last week's News-Leader describing the mechanisms and variations of the change of leave color in the fall.
The common explanation you usually see is that the disappearance of chlorophyll leaves the yellow carotenoids and the red anthocyanins.  Francis goes on to explain the complicating effects of temperature, moisture and pH on color change.
Also, I never fully understood the factors in leaves dropping off the stems.
Just as weather in September and early October is critical to the formation of leaf color, weather in middle and late October helps determine how long we get to enjoy fall color.
That's because part of the autumn leaf-drop process trees go through is the abscission zone development that occurs between a leaf's stem and the branch it's attached to. Basically, this process consists of a hardening of cells in the leaf's stem and a similar cell-hardening that takes place in the branch.
As the two sides of the leaf-branch connection harden, an abscission zone -- also known as a fracture zone -- develops in the middle. The leaf-branch connection continues to get more brittle until the leaf eventually breaks free and falls to the ground.
If we have mild weather during the period when leaves are nearing the breaking-off point, fall color is a drawn-out affair that lasts for several weeks. If we have a heavy rain, strong winds or some other type of stormy event that drops a large amount of leaves, our fall color will be a much shorter experience.
The whole story is in the News-Leader article.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Bear Tracking in the Ozarks

The Springfield News-Leader,  just published several articles on the Missouri Department of Conservation's bear tracking project, with even more pictures on the paper's web site.
Bears were common in Missouri when Henry Schoolcraft traveled through in 1818, and he mentioned them almost daily as he frequently commented on eating bear bacon and sleeping on bear rugs.  William Pettijohn, one of the first settlers in Christian County described the land in 1822 as "the country which flowed with milk and honey, bear's oil and buffalo marrow".
At one time bear were the second most common game and were a valuable commodity of trade, both for their hide and bear fat, while deer were "hardly worth shooting."  One record reports shipping 800 gallons of bear oil to New Orleans.
Bear had disappeared by the turn of the century in response to unlimited hunting and expanding human settlement.  Arkansas stocked bear in their northern counties between 1959 and 1968.  They have slowly been returning across the border into the counties below I-44.  Over the last 15 years, bear encounters have become increasingly reported along Bull and Swan Creeks.
The News-Leader article describes the project's goals of determining the bear population in Missouri.  As the population grows, there comes a time when too many bears force some of them closer to urban areas where they can become a problem.  Much like deer, the main method of control would be hunting, as humans and vehicles are the bears only predators.
There is a set of 35 pictures demonstrating the humane bear trapping process at this site.   The details, such as eye ointment to protect the sedated bear's eyes and traps tested on the arms of trappers are described in another article.  The initial goal is to attach GPS collars to 15 bears, allowing tracking of their movements via satellite.  The next step will be collecting bits of fur from baiting stations to determine by DNA how many different bears are in an area.