Food, Feelers, and Fantasy

rweissmugshotThis website is an odd mix of my interests as a writer, entomologist, naturalist, gardener, and educator. You’ll find blog posts about rural New Zealand life, links to my books, and some of my favourite recipes. Feel free to explore, drop me a line, and sign up for my e-mail list.

Spittlebugs

Spring is spittlebug season. Just about the time I want to start picking and dehydrating the perennial herbs, the spittlebugs descend upon them. In bad years, it makes harvesting herbs a slimy task.

Spittlebugs are also known as frog hoppers. As adults, they are cute, squat, dun coloured insects with spectacular leaping abilities. They really do resemble frogs (with a little imagination).

It’s the nymphs that have the disgusting habit of spitting. Well, it’s actually not spit at all. The foamy slimy ‘spittle’ is a combination of fluid from the insect’s anus, and slimy gunk from glands on the insect’s abdomen. The insect sits head downward on the stem of a plant and exudes the ‘spittle’, letting it pour over its body and cover it completely. The resulting mass keeps the young insect protected from enemies and from drying wind and sun. Gross, but effective.

Like humans, who usually stop blowing bubbles in their milk as adults, spittlebugs leave off spittle production when they grow up. As adults, they use their hopping ability to avoid predators.

Some species of spittlebug can become significant agricultural pests, stunting the growth of herbaceous plants and some forestry trees, but in the home garden, they’re usually not much more than a minor nuisance.

A New Weed!

I found a new weed in the garden the other day. I don’t know whether to be excited or dismayed.

This one is beaked parsley, also known as bur chervil (Anthriscus caucalis). This weed is native to Eurasia, where it appears it is pretty much ignored. It’s listed by the UK Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs as an indicator species for high value arable margins, but beyond that, it rates little mention in its homeland. It is apparently neither particularly tasty, nor poisonous. It is apparently not used for any medicinal purposes. It’s just a plant that’s neither particularly common, nor particularly rare.

Nor is it mentioned often in the many countries where it is a weed. If it is mentioned at all, it’s usually lumped with its close relative, wild chervil (Anthriscus sylvestris), which appears to be more of a problem. It apparently prefers riparian zones, but is quite happy to live in drier areas, too.

The seeds are covered in curved spines and hairs that cling to fur. The plant almost certainly arrived in New Zealand on the back of an imported sheep.

With so little information about the plant available, I am naturally intrigued. What secrets is this unassuming plant harbouring? Its family–Apiacea–includes such well-known plants as carrot, poison hemlock, fennel, parsley, coriander, dill, caraway, parsnip, celery, anise, lovage, and many others. Many of these plants produce defensive compounds, some of which are incredibly toxic to humans, and some of which are sequestered by caterpillars in the genus Papilio (swallowtail butterflies) for defence.

So I can’t help thinking that bur chervil might harbour some interesting chemistry and ecological connections, if only someone would have a look.

 

Am I Weird?

Stepping into my office the other morning, I had a moment of clarity, in which I saw my desk as a stranger might.

It was pretty scary.

The most obvious thing was the computer. Okay, that’s normal. But that’s where normality ended.

Strewn around the computer there were papers. There were notes for a non-fiction book proposal that included calculations for the intrinsic rate of increase of pea aphids, notes about parthenogenic reproduction, and a list of potential titles, many of which included the word ‘alien’. There were also a smattering of papers and notes from the workshop I attended last weekend, a note about my son’s shoe size, and the beginning of a short story set in New Zealand’s not so distant future.

That’s not too weird, though the story is a little bizarre…

Making a lump under the papers were three D&D dice. I use them for my students–they can roll the dice to choose a random writing prompt from the list of 500 prompts I’ve made for them. Honestly, I don’t roll the dice to see if a character lives or dies in a story (though that could be fun). The dice sit on my desk between classes because they’re fun to roll around in my hands while I’m thinking.

Well, that’s not too strange…

Also on the desk was a stem of the storksbill I’d blogged about the day before. It was still there, though I should have thrown it on the compost when I was done with it. It was interesting to look at…

And nearby was the Weeds of New Zealand book that I’d used for reference when blogging about the storksbill. I’d gotten sidetracked after the blog post was written, and spend a good half an hour perusing information about weeds. I left it sitting out because, you know, everyone needs a weed book on their desk.

And here’s where the tableau on the desk got…um…interesting…

Two dead bumblebees nestled together near one corner of the computer. They’d been there for days–ever since I found them on the floor and noticed that one of them had a drop of venom on her stinger. I put it under the microscope at the time for a photo shoot, but then kept the bees on my desk as…as…well, for no good reason really, other than that I enjoyed looking at them, especially as their parasites (mites) started to abandon their dead hosts and crawl all over my desk, questing for a new bee.

That’s not weird, right?

Over on the other side of the computer was a dead German wasp in a plastic bag. She was in the bag because I’d just taken her out of the freezer. Um…yeah. She was clearly a queen looking for a good nesting site (and she was a non-native pest that I’m deathly allergic to), so when I found her in the house, the only sensible thing to do was to kill her. But there was no point in wasting her. I popped her into the bag and into the freezer to kill her without damaging her, thinking I’d pin her later and keep her for teaching.

That’s definitely not weird. Everyone stores bugs in the freezer, right?

And thankfully out of sight inside a folded piece of paper was the dead mosquito I’d brought back from Auckland because it was a species I don’t see much of here, and when I saw it land on my ankle to bite me, I thought it would be a good specimen to keep.

Weird?

*Sigh*

It was definitely time to clean the desk before someone came to visit.

Storksbill

Continuing my springtime obsession with weeds…

Most of my weeds are most weedy in the vegetable garden. That’s where my tolerance is lowest and the weeds’ damage is worst. In fact many of the plants I consider weeds in the vegetable garden are quite welcome in the paddock—yarrow, clover, plantain, and nearly all the grasses. And in the lawn, I don’t worry about weeds at all—as long as it’s green and can be mowed, it works for me as lawn.

But there are a few weeds that are worse in the paddock and lawn than in the garden.

Musky storksbill (Erodium moschatum) is one of them. In the vegetable garden, the weed is aggressive and quick-growing as you would expect from a weed, but it’s pretty easy to pull out. It doesn’t resprout easily from the root, and doesn’t send out underground runners. It seeds prolifically, but the seedlings are easy to deal with along with all the other weeds.

In the paddock, however, it’s a different story. Theoretically, it’s a fine fodder plant when young, but once it sets seed, it can start causing trouble.

The long spiky fruits that give the plant its common name can work their way into animals’ flesh. I have, fortunately, never had to deal with storksbill fruits stuck in any of my goats, but it’s not something I ever want to have to do.

Keeping the storksbill out of the paddock requires constant vigilance. The plants grow quickly, and seem to go from tiny rosette to fully fruited overnight. And because I can never catch them all, for every one plant I pull, two seem to grow in their place.

In the lawn, those spiky seeds form just below mower height (instead of at about 50 cm like they do elsewhere), making barefoot walking in the heavily infested parts of the lawn an excessively exciting experience.

All in all, as weeds go, it’s not the worst. I can’t say I appreciate its charm, because it doesn’t really have any. It doesn’t appear to have any particular use (and I suspect it arrived here accidentally), but the seed heads do have a weird goofiness to their look that I have to admire while I yank them out of the ground.

Spring Cuteness

‘Tis the season for growth and new life.

Unfortunately, that means lots and lots of weeds, birds nesting in the shed (and pooing on the car), and slugs multiplying like mad (and decimating the newly-planted lettuces).

But it also means the occasional cuteness overload, like this guy.

This newly-fledged magpie has been hanging out in various locations around the yard as he learns how to get around and hunt for himself. He’s quite tame at the moment, and you can even give him a little scratch without him fluttering away. I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s dive-bombing the cat with his cohort of teenage magpie thugs, but at least for now, he’s terribly cute.

Danger! Keep out!

I was driving to town with the kids this afternoon, and we got to talking about dreams. After concluding that dreams were seriously weird, and even more so considering they come from inside our heads, I said, “Yeah. A brain isn’t a place you want to go walking around alone in after dark.”

To which my daughter’s response was, “I don’t think I’d want to go wandering around there at any time.”

And it struck me that there lies the crux of being an introvert. We go walking alone in our brains, in spite of the fact it’s not a nice neighbourhood.

We go walking alone there, where anything could jump out at us, and probably will. We walk through alleys smelling of rats and urine, where all the stupid things we’ve ever said slouch in shadowy doorways drinking out of bottles in brown paper bags.

We walk through busy thoroughfares where our own doppelgangers repeat every public embarrassment we’ve ever committed over and over and over without pause.

We walk into brightly lit rooms where we are handcuffed and a poised and confident extrovert asks probing questions about why, exactly, we decided to wear our “Nerd is the new Sexy” t-shirt to the bar on Saturday night.

We step out onto the street, thinking the way is clear, and the bus carrying every one of our personal inconsistencies and incompetencies runs us down.

We pass a parked car with tinted windows, and the door opens. Out steps our younger self. She looks us up and down and sighs. “I thought by now you’d have done something with your life.” She rolls her eyes and stalks off.

We walk past a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. On the other side is the hitchhiker we didn’t pick up last August, the crying child we didn’t comfort two years ago, the Salvation Army bell ringer we didn’t empty our pockets for on December 23, 1989.

The mind is the seedy place we introverts are drawn to in the dead of night, when the happy extroverts are tucked safely in bed or walking brightly lit streets with a crowd of friends. It’s a bad neighbourhood, but it’s our own, and maybe we think we can fix it up if only we visit it frequently enough.