Eating in Your Backyard

Eating in Your Backyard

[Note: This post was started in late July/early August, but as usual, life got in the way.  Consider this a tip of the hat to the end of summer.]

High summer is here.  Most likely there are fewer flashes from fireflies and the visual dearth is replaced by a nearly-incessant daytime buzz-sawing of calling cicadas.  Not to mention the katydids making their crunchy nocturnal songs.

 

Regardless of the insect A/V presentations, I trust you have been outside to observe and enjoy.

 

You’ve probably even experienced a repast or two in your yard.

This is fancier than my backyard meals. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

This is fancier than my backyard meals. (Courtesy Creative Commons)

 

Has any of the food come from your garden?  Even if you don’t raise fruits and vegetables, you’re likely to find fruits and edible plants that you didn’t sow blossoming in your yard or neighborhood.

 

This month’s topic should be obvious at this point: wild (and semi-wild) edibles!

 

Let me start with the easy ones—easy because you are more than likely familiar with them presently.

 

Berries:

Tasty, but not wild.

Tasty, but not wild.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Raspberries – both red and black-capped varieties can be found in backyards, on farms, and in the woods.

(Courtesy wikimedia.org)

 

 

 

(Courtesy wikimedia.org)

  • Blueberries – the wild strain are smaller (and tastier to me). I’ve not found them in yards, but along trails in more northerly latitudes.

    Courtesy Mr. Wooton--CC

    Courtesy Mr. Wooton–CC

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • Blackberries – thornier than raspberries (and too seedy for my tastes) but many people enjoy jam, pies, and alcohol made from these giants.

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

(Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

  • Serviceberries – these grow on trees and some municipalities plant them

    5393665

    (Courtesy Bugwoodcloud.org)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forbs, i.e. herbaceous (a plant that has leaves and stems that die and return to the soil at the end of the growing season) flowering plants:

 

  • Dandelions – I know you have these, in not in your yard, then a neighbor’s or somewhere down the street. There isn’t even a reason to post a photo as they are unmistakable in the U.S. (and Canada).  I’ve seen the greens for sale, labeled as organic at $6 a pound!  They are bitter, but do well in soups and in a mixed salad.  But why would anyone buy them?

Chicory_(Cichorium_intybus)

  • Chicory – the flower and bud are edible, but bitter. The root can (and has) be used to flavor coffee.  It’s probably growing near the road outside your home.

 

  • Lamb’s quarter – found in your yard and around construction sites (or any disturbed soil). The leaves are less bitter than dandelions, but shouldn’t be eaten by themselves.  Toss into something.

    (Courtesy Forestryimages.com)

    (Courtesy Forestryimages.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Broadleaf plantain courtesty wikimedia.org)

(Broadleaf plantain courtesy wikimedia.org)

 

 

 

  • Plantain – not related to the relative of the banana. Again, edible leaves, easy to find, works well in a mix of other foods.

 

 

 

My first morels

My first morels

  • Mushroom – everyone knows mushrooms are edible. Just not which ones.  Please don’t ever eat any, unless you are sure they can be consumed.  Bad mushrooms go from bad tasting all the way to death.  Double check before putting them in your omelet.

 

  • Cattails – not normally found in neighborhoods unless you have some wetland present. The root is—not bitter—very akin to the taste of a cucumber.

After the flavor is gone.

(After the flavor is gone.)

 

This simply scratches the green surface of the many, many edible wild plants growing among us.

 

Try this book if you have any interest.  That’s certainly not the only one if you “hunger” for more.

 

Save a bit of money, increase your knowledge of the plants/food sources around you, and impress (or cause disgust) when you snack on some random plant.

 

The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

The Damsel or the Dragon (with no apologies to Frank Stockton)

It’s almost summer here in the northern hemisphere, though Madison Avenue says otherwise.  Many insects give the lie to that as well.  For other than the absent buzzsawing of cicadas, one might think that it was high summer in SE Michigan.

Perhaps you live in an area graced by dragonflies or what you thought were dragonflies.  Myself, I’ve only determined the difference between what I thought were small or young dragonflies and actual dragonflies for about a decade.  We’re looking at two different genuses altogether.

I’m talking about damselflies.

This is not a dragonfly  (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

This is not a dragonfly (courtesy of wikimedia commons)

The two belong to the same order–Odonta meaning “toothed-jaws” though I can’t find much evidence that either species bite people.

For those interested, both are also classified in suborders: zygoptera (damselflies) meaning “yoke-winged” and anisoptera (dragonflies) meaning “unequally-winged.”  I don’t know if the taxonomist(s) consulted St. Paul when naming them.

So, dragonflies and damselflies are similar, and can be confused for one another, but closer inspection reveals differences just like the annoying conflation that this meme clarifies.

Beekeepers hate it when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn't a bee at all.

Beekeepers hate when someone claims to have been stung by a bee when it wasn’t a bee at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Both species have eyes conveniently located on their heads (Gasp!  Just like us!), but dragonfly eyes touch or nearly touch at the top of the head where damselfly eyes are clearly separated on each side of their head.

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

Dragon eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

damsel eyes (courtesy creative commons)

 

 

 

 

 

 

As might be known, the dragonfly is the bodybuilder of the two suborders with a stockier thorax larger than the abdomen.  Conversely, the damselfly is long and slender with its thorax and abdomen roughly the same size.

Both fly with transparent wings (though I’ve seen damselflies with smoke-black wings) but the shapes differ.  Dragonfly wings are long and narrow and are dissimilar in pairing with the hind wings broader at the base; damselfly wing pairs are similarly shaped, but rounder than their cousins.

Speaking of wings, and an easy identifier (because, let’s face it, are you going to catch a dragonfly and declare, “Why yes, Charlotte, the wings are dissimilar in shape!”?) is wing position at rest.

After cruising some time, a dragonfly will hold its wings out horizontally at rest, resembling a plane.  Naturally, the damselfly is a contrarian and it folds its wings up vertically, perhaps like something out of the Star Wars universe.

God's Biplane (courtesy of me)

God’s Biplane (courtesy of me)

Dragonflies tend to be larger than the other fly; the largest one recorded at 20 cm (about 8 inches for the metrically challenged), but they average 3-10 cm (1-4 inches).  By now you’re expecting smaller records and averages for the zygoptera and you’d be correct.  Ten centimeters was the length of the largest damselfly, though the ones you will most likely encounter average 3-8cm (1-3 inches).

The dragonfly appears to have the damselfly “beat” in most categories.  However, an adult anisoptera only lives two to three weeks, whereas the daintier damselfly can last up to six months.

If you’re not bored by this point let me drop just a couple of more comparisons for you and send you on your way.

Dragonfly                                                           Damselfly

  • flyer                                                             percher
  • round eggs                                                  cylindrical eggs

The dragonfly can fly forward at about 100 body lengths per second (that seems wrong, doesn’t it?), backward at 3 body lengths per second, and can hover for close to a minute.

Both insects breed and live around freshwater and will eat whatever insects are available.  Both are preyed upon by birds, frogs, fish, and larger flies.

Still after more than 40 years on this planet, I find it thrilling to spot a dragonfly cruising around with more precision than even our best drones.  The almost clumsy and yet gentle flight of the damselfly evokes wonder.  The panoply of colors that abound in these too orders is likewise exhilarating.  Don’t let the seeming commonplaceness of these insects dull your sense of awe.

"Common" blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

“Common” blue damselfly (courtesy creative commons)

So the next time you see some iridescent flying thing that’s either too large for a bee or too slow for a fly, try to get a fix on it and tell whether its the dragon or the damsel.

And no, they can’t sew your lips shut.

“…Dragonflies draw flame…”  –Gerard Manley Hopkins

 

 

The Great Expanse

The Great Expanse

This month’s challenge is written by a guest, Mozghon Rajaee, a grad student at the University of Michigan and a friend of mine. This month you’re challenged to look up–way up!–past the trees to the night sky.  Night sky viewing can be done any time of the year, but with summer vacation here, it might be easier to involve the whole family.  Get outside and stay away from the streetlights.

***

Several years ago someone asked me if I knew what the current phase of the moon was.  Since I was working as a naturalist at that time, it was expected that I knew the answer.  It turns out that I had no idea. Do you have any idea what the current phase of the moon is? What constellations are visible this time of year?  Nowadays, the necessity of watching the moon and talking about fortnights is less relevant, but it used to be how we told time—holidays were (and some are) marked by moon phases (a fortnight is the time from a full moon to a new moon, and vice versa).

Photo by author

Photo by author

The longest day of the year, or the summer solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, is coming up June 21.  It marks the time when we’re most tilted toward the sun.   Constellations get a bit more press because of the Greek mythology associated with them, for example, but it’s not so easy to look up to the sky and identify constellations. Here in southeast Michigan this is a challenge as we are faced with not only cloudy skies, but also light pollution.  Light pollution is exactly how it sounds—it’s light that shines out toward the sky or beyond the necessary area for people to see, creating a haze that lights up the sky unnaturally.

Light Pollution comparison--Utah (courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Light Pollution comparison–Utah (courtesy Wikimedia commons)

Go outside on a clear night, if you’re near businesses or homes with a lot of lighting, or even if you’re just in a metropolitan area, you’ll notice that it is difficult to distinguish stars and planets in the sky because of the light pollution. The inability to see stars is surely an annoyance, but there are also ecological concerns. For nocturnal animals or for all animals that depend on the amount of light and darkness in a day, altering the night sky can have a significant impact on feeding, migration, and breeding. Birds, insects, bats, frogs, turtles, and even squid are thrown off by artificial lights. A few years ago Michigan created an International Dark Sky Park, the Headlands, one of only 15 that exist in the world. The park is a 600-acre plot of old-growth forests outside Mackinaw City, and has a low-light, clear view of the sky. The county has even passed an ordinance to keep light pollution low in surrounding areas. While a visit to this Dark Sky Park would be grand, you should still be able to go stargazing in southeast Michigan or your neighborhood—just search out areas of low light or more seclusion. If you want to go stargazing and actually recognize constellations and spot the Andromeda Galaxy, there are books and tablet/phone applications that can help you.  Just surveying the sky and observing seasonal changes can be a great exploration.

Saguaro NP (Photo courtesy of author)

Saguaro NP (Photo courtesy of author)

If you’re trying to make out dimmer stars, sometimes it works best to view it in your periphery. (Biology tidbit: This utilizes averted vision through the biological make-up of your eyes. Your eyes have two types of photoreceptors: cones and rods. The cones, which allow you to see in color, are located in the center of your retina and are not very sensitive to light.  Rods are located on the periphery of your retina and are extremely sensitive to light, but only give you sight in black and white.  Once you let your eyes adjust to low light, it’s the rods in your eyes that allow you to see at night and make stargazing possible.  Using these mechanisms, if you look at stars straight-on, they may not seem as bright as when you view them to the side of your vision.  Give it a try to see if you notice the difference!) Here are a few extra tips to make for the best sky-viewing: Make sure you turn off as many outside lights as you can or at least move away from street lights.  Give your eyes some time to adjust to darkness; it usually takes about 20-30 minutes.  The more your eyes adjust to darkness, the more stars you’ll be able to see.  Look at some books or pictures of constellations before going stargazing; you just might recognize a few! As fun as a full moon is, the bright light makes it difficult to stargaze, so keep track of the moon and take advantage of new moons!

— Mozhgon Rajaee is a graduate student at the University of Michigan studying environmental health.  Her research has focused on health in a small-scale gold mining community in Ghana and policies on environmental quality around schools in Michigan.

Aqua + Terra=Wetlands

Fortuitously, I spotted on my calendar that May is American Wetlands Month (by the decree of somebody).  This is also a time of year, when in the northern climes at least, there are more wetlands present than later in the year.

Snow melt and spring rains create a soggy landscape for us.

Some areas tend to be wetter than others, some permanently so.  In fact, for a bit of land to be considered a wetland it must have standing water for at least seven consecutive days.  That means that that low spot on your driveway that holds water for three days after a rainstorm doesn’t count.

However, the “pond” down the street that is dry and cracked by July does.

 

In the Midwest, wetlands contain the most biodiversity over any other type of ecosystem.  Mammals like beavers, muskrats, and water shrews tend to be year-round residents.  Birds of all feathers rest, feed, nest, and breed in wetlands.  Amphibians and reptiles spend their time slithering, sunning, swimming, and jumping in the water, on logs and rocks, and nearby land.  Fish are…well, fish are where fish should be.  Countless invertebrates dwell below the water’s surface and on the plants and land and in the sky above.  Lastly, many specialized plant species can only be found in wetlands.

Lake Huron pitcher plants

Wetlands serve a purpose beyond their beauty.  They provide what is known as ecosystem services.  In a crass so-called economic age, we sometimes have to assign a dollar value on the things that nature provides for free.

Wetlands purify and filter water.  They can trap and neutralize something as disgusting as sewage waste and can decompose toxic substances, too.

As was seen with Hurricane Katrina (and others) in the American South, wetlands provide a buffer against flooding and erosion.  They hold water during drier times as well.

Wetland plants cycle nutrients through the ecosystem and provide food and shelter to all kinds of creatures.  Additionally, they add oxygen and are part of the flood control built in to wetlands.

Lastly, wetlands provide numerous recreational activities from hunting and fishing to photography, canoeing and kayaking, hiking, and simply enjoying the space.

According to a late 2013 AP article,

The eight-state Great Lakes region — extending from western New York to eastern Minnesota– was the only section of the U.S. where coastal wetland acreage increased during a five-year period when scientists took extensive measurements with satellites and field photography.

The gain was modest — 13,610 acres, an area not quite as large as the New York City borough of Manhattan. Yet it happened as the rest of the nation’s coastal wetlands shrank by 360,720 acres. The loss amounted to less than 1 percent of the U.S. total, but continued a longtime negative trend.

Historically, 75% of wetland loss in Michigan can be attributed to agriculture.  Though nationwide, industry, commercial and residential development have contributed to their drainage and disappearance.

Michigan had an estimated 11 million acres of wetlands prior to European/American settlement.  Now we’re down to about 3 million.  That’s not a few dead frogs.

Wetlands can be classified into five kinds (these are freshwater only–you salties have some different kinds particular to you).

IMG_0728

Not a Michigan wetland.

Marshes are essentially flooded grasslands with perhaps a few trees per acre.  They contain standing water anywhere from an inch to several feet.  So, find out the depth before you go trudging out there.

Swamps are the woodier cousins of marshes as they are flooded woodlands with many more trees per acre.  Up until the last ten years I didn’t know the difference between swamps and marshes and used the terms interchangeably.  You can no longer use ignorance as your excuse.

Bogs are closed systems where rainfall is the only “new” water that enters.  Bogs are highly acidic (unlike fens, which are alkaline).  Sometimes they have open water and others are covered with saturated peaty soil topped with a lovely layer of sphagnum moss.  If you want to find carnivorous plants, bogs are the place to be.

Don't try this without a net

Don’t try this without a net

Vernal ponds, most likely there’s one in your neighborhood if you have some green space are temporary and almost always dry by high summer.  If you look carefully you might find fairy shrimp flitting around in the water or salamanders lurking nearby.

Grand Ledge, MI

Vernal pond, Grand Ledge, MI

The Great Lake states also have coastal wetlands, too.

Given the copious, emergent vegetation, wetlands can be difficult to explore at times.  But if you can find a clearing you should be able to observe fish, crustaceans, amphibians and reptiles, birds, mammals, and terrestrial and aquatic insects.  It’s worth the effort.  Next to Atlantic tidal pools, Great Lakes wetlands are my favorite ecosystems.

Obviously, get outside, explore your wetlands.  They might not be there come July.

“…Snow on snow…”

Yesterday was the winter solstice, so that means here in the northern hemisphere daylight will eke out a tiny bit more time everyday. Perhaps paradoxically, that also means that the temperatures will stay lower and snow will begin to accumulate in the northern climes if it hasn’t already.
Southeast Michigan has had some cold days and nights and about four inches of snow in my neighborhood, though it’s down to about one on the ground due to the rain from the last two days.
This month’s challenge is about solid water aka snow. If you live far enough north (or south) you should see some falling during the winter months.
Water in itself is a fascinating substance. When H2o molecules bond, they form 105 degree bonds which allows for quite a bit of molecular space. What does that mean? Simply put, solid water is less dense than liquid water–hence ice floats. Check it out the next time you put ice in your beverage.
Turkey(s) in the snowFor snow to form you need two things: atmospheric moisture and temperatures close to freezing. I guess some people have said that it can be too cold to snow, but that’s nonsense. As long as there’s enough moisture in the air, snow can form.
Most snowflakes are less than a 1/2″ across but some can be as large as two inches (I always called the larger, fluffier flakes “goose feathers”).
Snow is white because the way that the ice crystals form there is a relatively large amount of surface area to reflect sunlight and visible sunlight is white. However, in glaciers, blue is a prominent color, and in deep snow too.
When you go outside to explore the snow this month pay attention to your voice and other sounds. Snow absorbs sound, so your backyard and neighborhood will have a different aural quality if enough snow falls.
As I’m reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder to my eleven-year-old daughter currently, I learned that a blizzard, which engulfed the town the Ingalls lived in, by definition is a heavy, blowing snowfall that lasts for at least three hours. The Ingalls and neighbors endured three days of blizzard  sometime in the late 19th century.

White pine seedling in snow

White pine seedling in snow

If, in your travels in the winter, you happen to get stranded or lost, dig yourself a hole in the snow. Snow happens to be a good insulator and the layer closest to the ground is usually around 32 degrees, which is still cold, but it could be warmer than the 25, 18, or 3 degrees above the snow pack.
Another wonderful thing about winter is the ease in tracking animals. The nature of snow allows for evidence of birds and mammals to be left behind for you to follow or attempt to investigate what kinds have been around.4302872146_ee4d9cc484
So, ignore the cold (safely), play in the snow. Track animals, build a snow cave, pack a snowball. Go outside.

Tree Rat, Acrobat

Some hunters might say that the white-tailed deer is autumn’s animal icon. Others, perhaps the Canada goose, maybe the bears that begin to gorge for a long winter’s nap, but I say the ubiquitous tree squirrel is the keystone of autumn.
Who else scurries around creating middens or caches of pine cones (red squirrel) or buries nuts of all kinds (gray squirrel, fox squirrel) around your yard, your neighbor’s yard, and someone else’s two blocks over?
The tree squirrel has to be one of those animals that are so common they become invisible—except when we’re swerving to avoid crushing them under our car tires. They are found all over the world though not in Australia, Madagascar, and Antarctica.
These rodents have earned the ire of people because of their mildly destructive habits in tearing up gardens, stripping tree bark, and raiding bird feeders, and in my case, chewing up my bike seat after a red squirrel was trapped in my shed for two days.
They’ve earned many names here in North America: tree rat, puck-o’-the-pines, fairy diddle, and bannertail among others. The Ojibwa people (who resided (still do actually) in Michigan called them kitchi-adjidamo meaning big squirrel. The genus Sciurus comes from Greek and it means shadow tail.
Here in the U.S. the biggest is the fox squirrel and the smallest is the southern flying squirrel. While Pakistan holds the record for the largest existing species: the woolly flying squirrel.
Michigan is home to three tree squirrel species, the fox Sciuris niger (photo courtesy of wikimedia commons), Sciurus_niger_(on_fence)the gray (which can also have black fur) S. carolinensis, 6576b69f35c2d7137efd49accc70-grandeand the smallest of the three, the red, Tamiasciuris hudsonicus.red-squirrel-2 In addition, we have the southern flying squirrel, and farther north, the northern flying squirrel, fortuitously enough.
Tree squirrels can see in color and have a very strong sense of smell, which scientists previously thought that meant they could locate sources of cached food, but that seems to not be the case.
There is more than one coloring pattern for all North American species which confused the early naturalists.
All tree squirrels (at least in North America) share the following characteristics:
• They have whiskers (referred to as vibrissae) used to help them in dark nests and tree cavities
• Their front feet have four digits and the rear five
• While observing squirrels climbing, pay attention to their rear paws; they can turn their ankles a cringe-inducing 180° to allow for hanging, eating, and speedy vertical descent from a tree.
• The characteristic bushy tail serves as shade, protection from the elements, balance, and communication
• Different squirrels have different diets, but all overlap somewhere in the following: nuts, acorns, pine cones, insects, buds, berries, fungi, nestling birds, bird eggs, and corn
Tree squirrels have an aesthetic appeal, but their newborns do not. Blind, hairless, and with ear flaps closed, they are rather ugly (yes, it’s a judgment) until the fur comes in. They are born in litters of one to five with two to four being the average. The gestation period is 44 days for gray squirrels and 44-45 for foxes.
Squirrel romance is limited to the brief conjugal encounter as there is no bonding between parents.
Tree squirrels tend to live about 4-5 years, but cars (as many of us can testify) tend to shorten that length considerably. Disease and starvation beat out automobiles as vehicles (heh!) for death. Severe cold weather is handy at culling, too.

Random squirrel facts
• They can run 16.7 mph on flat ground
• They can swim, dog-paddle style, for short distances
• They are “seed predators” (cue scary music).
• They don’t hibernate, if you hadn’t noticed
• They are diurnal. When was the last time you saw a squirrel traipsing around at night?

I have alternately loved and hated squirrels. I used to hand feed a red squirrel at my maternal grandparent’s island home in Canada as a child. I also remember being about 14 years old and sneaking up behind a squirrel next to a silver maple in the front yard of my childhood home and pulling its tail.
I also remember a few times of cartoonishly chasing squirrels off of my backyard bird feeder before I invested in a baffle.
So, go out in the brisk weather, observe these familiar rodents. Pay attention to the arched pattern the body and tail of the fox squirrel as it hops across your lawn. Can you spot the red squirrel scurry atop your power lines to a tree? Are there more black varieties of gray squirrels than gray around your home?
Go out, come back and report.

I used a couple of good resources for this post. North American Tree Squirrels by Michael A. Steele and John L. Koprowski wrote a more “sciencey” book, but it is still readable by the educated reader. Squirrels: A Wildlife Handbook by Kim Long is lighter on the science and covers much of the folklore about squirrels. Together, you would probably have all the knowledge you need about squirrels aside from your own observations.