Bean nutrition, a recipe, and a book

At a cook out, I’ve always liked the beans better than the hamburger. They have a more complex flavor. There’s a reason for that. Beans are packed with good things. Beans are one of my favorite plants to study because they contain a wide variety of water soluble compounds. Since the chemicals are water soluble, they are easy to get out of the beans without complicated processes, making them wonderful plant for college students to work with safely. I’ve  studied velvet beans and you’ll find them in Natural Attraction.

Beans contain all sorts of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, and there are a wide variety of amino acids in beans.  Nutrition chemists don’t just look at amino acid content when evaluating the nutrient content of beans. They also look at how animals absorb the nutrients. Yes, that means they look at animal excrement and see how much of the amino acids are in there. The more in the excrement, the less nutritional the beans. Cooking beans makes the amino acids more easily absorbed. Believe it or not, even how the beans are stored and processed affects the amino acid availability. Beans stored dry and then cooked are more nutritious than those stored or canned in water.

Besides amino acids, beans contain “phenolics,” a fancy word for specific kinds of antioxidants that are regarded as healthy to hearts and might prevent cancer. Red beans contain more of these chemicals than white beans.

Of course, beans are known to increase flatulence thanks to their fiber content, which gives intestinal bacteria a work out and they in turn produce gas. This can be decreased by taking an enzyme that will help break down the starchy part of the beans.

For a recipe for red beans and rice, and a peak at an exciting new Young Adult multicultural novel by author Kelly Cain, please go here. And congratulations Kelly on your book ALTERED out today.


Spiderwort Chronicles

Tradescantia ohiensis

This spring I visited a prairie and snapped this photo of the lovely spiderwort. They’re blooming again as the photoperiod matches that of late spring. Spiderworts can detect radiation. When exposed to energy that can break chemical bonds– ionizing radiation –the stamen hairs turn from blue to pink.

Spiderworts belong to the Tradescantia family and are native to the U.S. Although they don’t look at all alike, they’re related to Wandering Jews, plants that contain the neurotransmitter dopamine. Here’s another photo. What do you think? Are those stamen hairs blue?

photo (13)

Almost Jimsonweed

A Datura but not Datura stramonium
A Datura but not Datura stramonium

I was excited and a little scared when I found this plant on my walk through the neighborhood. It looked a lot like Jimsonweed (locoweed), a plant discussed in Natural Attraction. My mind was racing with the possibilities–a poisoner lived here! As many know, Jimsonweed can be a killer with ingestion being either recreational or accidental. Jimsonweed seeds contain the toxic tropane alkaloids atropine and scopolamine. These chemicals are similar to cocaine and can also be found in hedge bindweed. Jimsonweed poisoning symptoms are said to render the victim “blind as a bat, mad as a hatter, red as a beet, hot as a hare, dry as a bone, the bowel and bladder lose their tone, and the heart runs alone.” Users can have hallucinations and trouble urinating (along with extreme thirst). Many deaths come from mistakes in judgement, lack of coordination, and recklessness following ingestion. Kidney failure can occur.  The toxins can be absorbed through the skin, but poisoning is more likely if they are ingested.The high is said to be not fun at all.

The plant in the photograph is not Jimsonweed. Upon closer inspection, it’s a relative known as Moonflower. Some gardeners are enthusiastic about this plant, but it’s poisonous too. Like Jimson weed, it’s a Datura. Since I already had an incident with a dog and a poisonous plant, I’ll walk on by when it comes to this Datura. That’s what the plant is saying by even making such a poison.

Michigan & Blueberries & Jam


A quick trip to Michigan took me to the top of Mt. Pisgah and landed me so many blueberries that I tried canning for the first time.

Extra blueberries meant blueberry jam and ice cream topping.
Extra blueberries meant blueberry jam and ice cream topping.

Blueberries are known for lowering blood pressure, slowing cell damage, and improving insulin levels by keeping fat cells small. However, canning them with sugar as in jam changes their chemical composition, converting the chlorogenic acid, which imparts some of the good properties of blueberries (and might cause weight loss) into eleven different compounds. Cooking and sitting in a jar on the shelf also lowers the resveratrol in blueberries. This chemical is abundant in grapes and some claim it increases testosterone and can cut the risk of gastrointestinal cancers, although studies disagree.  Some food chemists recommend putting canned jam in the freezer to retain the health benefits. My jam isn’t as nutritious as fresh blueberries but it was fun to make and is so good that we had peanut butter and jam sandwiches for dinner.


Black Nightshade & A Dog

Black Nightshade
Black Nightshade

Here’s a plant that you’ll not find in my yard–only in a book. Black nightshade contains atropine, a toxin. A while ago I had a collie that developed a medical condition. Her eyes rolled back in her head. She acted wobbly and goofy. Brain tumor, I thought. I took her to the vet who couldn’t diagnose it. He suggested a specialist far away. The thing was, the dog was happy, as if she was drunk. I didn’t want to do anything since she was happy and old. It didn’t seem worth the trip. One day I watched her wander around the yard, which is large and not always well kept. She ate some plants growing under the deck. Yup. They were black nightshade. Out they came and the dog recovered.

Strawberries: does size matter?

My cousin brought me some tasty strawberries from Michigan that got me wondering, why are grocery store strawberries so big? The answer is pretty simple, big strawberries are easier to pick. That’s about it. Strawberries are picked by hand and less labor is involved and fewer strawberries fill up a container when they are big.

Strawberries and other colorful berries are good for us because they contain chemicals that can reduce inflammation and lower the risk of many diseases including cancer, cardiovascular troubles, and obesity. The main chemicals associated with these healthful properties are also what give strawberries their color–anthocyanin pigments–but there are over 25 compounds in strawberries associated with health promotion. The content of these compounds varies with the type of strawberry. One study done at Universita Politecnica delle Marche in Italy found that wild strawberries, which tend to be smaller and softer, contain on average, more healthful chemicals with the strawberry Elsanta falling short compared to the wild types. The new variety Romina (developed in Italy) was more nutritious than Elsanta. But does size matter? I can’t come to a strong conclusion except that maybe yes, if the berry is also on the wild side. I’d say that eating a variety of sizes is preferable since nearly every type has its chemical perks. And when it comes to strawberries, small and squishy is nothing to be afraid of. photo-77


Milkweeds and butterflies

two butters Milkweed loss in the US has affected monarch populations so I tried to grow some from free seeds. It wasn’t that easy. I managed to get one scraggly plant. But that was all it took. Three years later, I have a patch. Yes, it attracts monarchs and all sorts of butterflies. The flowers smell luscious–like lilacs. Here’s a Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and maybe a Great Spangled Fritillary (Speyeria cybele). Milkweed contains carenolides, toxic steroids with a bitter taste. Predators that eat insects which have eaten milkweed sicken, throw up and avoid similar insects in the future. Monarchs eat milkweeds as larvae and sequester the poison for their remaining lifespans. Milkweed is poisonous to cattle, pets, and people. The milk or latex is harmful to your eye. How did I not know this? In any case, smell them, enjoy the butterflies, but watch out for milkweeds.

Paeonia Season

photo-70 Is there anything so lovely as a peony in May? I live in a 100 year old house and have several peony bushes. They were at the height of popularity 100 years ago. There are numerous species of Paeonia. The plant originated in China but is firmly established here in the U.S. these days. These gorgeous blossoms have been around for over a thousand years.

Ants are attracted to their nectar and help the flowers bloom.  Some sources say they don’t require ants to bloom, but my dad once sprayed his peonies and they didn’t bloom that year. So don’t spray them.

Like all plants, peonies create a host of molecules that would be very difficult to make in the lab. According to Takayuki Shibamoto and co-workers, peony compounds are effective against Helicobacter pylori, a dangerous bacteria. Yellow flowers from tree peonies can enhance skin flexibility and are rich in vitamins, and anti-oxidants. 


Peonies are true northerners, requiring “chilling time” before blooming. We can think of them as our reward for those cold winter nights when it seemed as if the bleakness would last forever.