A holiday indicator




The colorful leaves of poinsettias are called bracts. 

The bracts can  be pH indicators.

To test this, I took a leaf from a stunning red poinsettia, shredded it, placed it in 20 milliliters ( 4 tsp, 1 tbsp) of rubbing alcohol, and heated it for 30 seconds, I separated it into three portions and put a splash of white vinegar in one (for the acid) and baking soda in the other to make it alkaline. I left the third untouched as a control. Here are the results:

Poinsettia leaves in acid, alkaline, and “control” solutions.


It isn’t as stunning as you would see with red cabbage but if you know anyone disappointed that they aren’t getting a chemistry set for the holidays, it’s a cheap thrill. At least for nerds like me.

Poinsettia plants originated in Mexico. They are named after the botanist who introduced them to the United States, Joel Robert Poinsettia. He dug up Mexican “weeds” growing along the side of the road and brought them back to South Carolina in the mid 1800s. Poinsettias are by far the most widely sold potted plant in the United States. The most popular colors are red, white, and pink in that order.

During the holiday season, give your poinsettia plenty of water and sun. Don’t let it sit in water. Move the pot out of the foil and onto a saucer or poke holes in the foil and let it drain into a saucer. They hate drafts and cold windows so protect yours and the blooms will last 6-8 weeks.

After the holidays, you can cut back on the watering and fertilizer and let it go dormant. Water if it gets droopy but no more. Resume fertilizing in late March. Put it outside during the summer and pinch the tips in August to encourage branching.

To get a poinsettia to reflower you have to keep it in total darkness  for at least twelve hours and if you can keep it in the dark between 5 pm and 8 am. It will take a while. “Start this around October 1st and continue until color shows on the bracts; usually around early to mid-December. Any little exposure to light can prevent flowering. Covering the plant with a light-proof bag and placing it in a closet might work.”http://extension.illinois.edu/poinsettia/faq.cfm

They aren’t really poisonous but contain latex-like sap that can cause allergies and be irritating to pets. There’s no reason to avoid them and you can even experiment with them. Enjoy!






Christmas Tree Confessional

I have a fake tree. This is quite a confessional from someone who dislikes plastic bags and eats organic foods. I’m plastic averse so why do I have a fake true? Here’s why: Let’s be honest. Christmas trees are not a sign of life–they are dead–chopped from their roots. I figured this out at a young age as I walked home from first grade in a snowy Michigan January and there were the trees, out for the trash. The beautiful evergreens were green no more. I tried to save one, keeping it in the backyard and packing snow around the trunk. No good. It browned. I know that are all sorts of reasons why a real tree is better. It doesn’t matter. I don’t have one. If you do, I don’t judge you. I have a relic from my childhood tat I drag like a discarded tree.

My artificial tree is old. It needs each branch inserted into the trunk. Putting it together is such an ordeal that DH balks and complains bitterly before starting the assembly. And since he’s a perfectionist and I’m an analytical chemist–a profession that requires you to be only as perfect as you need to be to get the job done properly and no more–we can’t work together. The task falls to him. It is not a joyous occasion.

This year, as I was not helping put the ancient tree together, I asked myself what species of tree this was. The box says its Houston Pine Blue. Apparently, this is a species only found in fake Christmas trees although the blue pine exists in the wild. My tree doesn’t resemble a blue pine. It doesn’t even have a pine look about it and it is not at all blue. In trying to ID this fake tree, I looked up how to identify evergreen trees. Here’s what I found out:

Spruces can live for hundreds of years. They have single needles on a little peg and when plucked the needles are firm and can be rolled between your fingers.

Each short, fat needle sits on a woody plug–it’s a spruce!

Fir trees are almost synonymous with Christmas and the balsam fir is a best seller for trees and wreaths. Fir trees are fast growers and add a “whorl” of upright branches each year. They have single needles that are stiff and not on a peg. The needles can’t roll. They’re slippery. (The Douglas fir is a unique type of tree and not a real fir.) And fir trees have smooth bark.


If you look closely at this fir you can see that the needles are flatish.

Pine trees have needles in clusters of 2, 3, or 5 and also have woody cones. The Scotch pine is the most widely sold Christmas tree.

Needles in clusters=pine


My tree has short, un-clumped needles. It’s not a pine. It’s a fir or maybe a spruce. It has branches that turn upward like a fir. However, if you look closely at the needles, you can see what might be a brown peg. The stem isn’t smooth. It’s wire wrapped in rough plastic, although some of it is smooth near the base. The “tree” is like a spruce in that it will live for a hundred years or more –some of that will probably be in a landfill. I’m calling it a firce or maybe a spir because it  looks like both.

I’m not alone in my fake-ness. Over the past forty years, there has been a shift towards artificial trees in the US.  Allergies are the most often cited reason that people give for having a fake tree. Ease of use and affordability are other reasons why we’ve embraced fakes.

For me, the hugging of fakes is half-hearted. I’m not proud of my fake or that I even use fake pine scent to try to make it seem more real.

Do these needles look flat to you? The scientist in me wants to accurately classify this fake tree.

And on top of that, nothing coordinates on my tree. I have ornaments from my grandmothers, my parents, and most decades since. Christmas, like other holidays, is not something I care to stress about. I enjoy the history and memories hung on my tree. I also hang candy canes on it even though I call sugar poison. Ah, it’s a time to abandon principles in favor of comfort. At least, for me.


These German celluloid/mica angels are probably from the 1940s, although celluloid was developed as early as 1869– so they could be older.

You’ve heard my confession. Perhaps some day I’ll join the new trend of renting a live tree. Tell me about your tree!


My Odd Talent: Finding 4-leafed clovers


Here’s my first 4-leafed clover of the year. It’s gnarled and misshapened but there it is. I’ve given up picking them and just photograph them now, for you see, I have this odd talent of finding them. One time I even found two on demand when my grandsons wanted some.

Perhaps it started when I was a baby. I have some four-leafed clovers taped into my baby book, a gift from my Aunt Lois. Maybe it goes along with my being an analytical chemist. We do find needles in haystacks.

Clovers are a variation of  the Shamrock, which represents the Trinity of St. Patrick. Add another leaf to the Trinity and you have a Celtic symbol of luck and safety; the four-leaf clover was held in high regard by the Druids. They saw it as a charm that could bring luck and help the finder spot danger. According to Celtic legend, one leaf is for faith, one for hope, one for love, and one for luck.

Am I lucky? Like everyone else, I am lucky in some things and quite unlucky in others. I don’t gamble and my risks are calculated. Risky chemists don’t last long. I don’t think my gift of clover has given me anything more than an interest. Perhaps I’m good at spotting danger but once again, I contribute that to being a chemist. I do enjoy my “gift” though and of course, since I am white and Dutch, this 4-leafed white Dutch clover could be a personal symbol. I even have some Celtic blood.

It is estimated that in nature about 0.01% of all white clovers are four leaf clovers. The remaining 9,999 are the traditional three-leaf variety. Many people have noticed that lucky clovers can be found in the same place. There is a debate about if the mutation that gives the extra leaf is genetic or induced by the environment. Many scientists hold the idea that four-leaf clovers are a rare recessive mutation.

Some people have found thousands of four-leaf clovers in their lifetime and others have never seen one.  But even the traditional three-leaf clover can bring luck to homeowners wishing to cut down on lawn care and its expense. Dutch White Clover (Trifolium repens) can add many nice qualities, a touch of sweet aroma and flare to a grass lawn. The fragrant flowers can range from white to pink and are most profuse in the spring. The leaves are lost each winter, meaning that if you find a four-leaf clover, you might as well pick it. That clover won’t be there next year. Clover lives through the winter in the form of shallow roots that do not like a dry winter. At least that’s one reason to cheer for snow.

Clover doesn’t need fertilizer because it can fix nitrogen. This means it can take nitrogen gas from the air and make it into fertilizer for no cost at all. Clover plants have long roots and a lawn that includes clover does not need aeration. Clover is pest free and competes well with weeds, making herbicides obsolete. It even repels chinch bugs! Clover attracts bees and beneficial insects and is a perfect companion for a back yard garden because clover near apple trees, squash, cucumbers and melons will help with pollination. It does not need mowing as often as grass.   It grows to 4-8 inches tall and then stops growing. Clover likes plenty of sun and will grow rapidly with a dose of phosphorus now and then. If you don’t want bees, mowing more often will keep bees away.

Once established, a clover lawn will tolerate drought.   This means that it will stay green even in dry weather. Clover does not show dog urine spots. However it is not considered tough enough for play areas. On the other hand, children can spend countless hours in a clover lawn as they search for four leaf clovers and make clover flower crowns and necklaces on lazy summer days.

Not every lawn has clover these days. Until the 1950s, clover was included in lawn seed mixes as it was regarded as a prestigious lawn plant that was soft to walk on and easy to care for. It became a weed when it was considered “just out of place texture wise”, not green enough, a source of stinging bees and slippery when wet. But don’t let these views scare you. Many people still view them fondly and with nostalgia.

If you like mixed textures in your lawn or if you are tired of mowing your grass and looking to cut back on work, clover would be a wonderful addition to your grass lawn. Seeds sprout best when raked into a bare spot. Water until the clover sprouts but after that it should be problem free. White Dutch clover is well adapted to our region. The best time to plant is April and May. (Perhaps Tulip Time would be an appropriate time to toss about some seeds of Dutch White Clover.) I have them and yes, there are bees but if you are looking out for 4-leafed clovers, you can look of for bees as well.

There are clover species native to Iowa that can be planted to provide animal habitat and enhance the educational value of your land.   These include the White Prairie Clover, Purple Prairie Clover, Silky Prairie Clover, and Round-headed Bush clover. Some of these get 3-4 feet tall so you might not find them suitable for a lawn but they can be planted as ground covers.

Believe it or not, some cosmologists think that the universe has the shape of a 4-leaf clover. Clovers bring luck, diversity and Oneness with the Universe.


Here’s my favorite photo, for if you look closely, you’ll find two clovers next to the ball.

clover ball11391451_10152950639760665_4536817017500334325_n




Iowa Corn–Unstoppable


School’s out here in Pella and summer unofficially begins. In Iowa, we will watch our corn grow from the tiny shoots pictured above to up to 12 feet. Imagine every one of those tiny plants as 12 feet tall.  It’s supposed to be “knee high by the 4th of July” but is often much taller than that.

Iowa grows about 2.3-2.4 billion bushels of corn per year. (A bushel is 56 pounds.) It’s not sweetcorn. Much is field corn and used for ethanol production, sweeteners, and most of all, animal feed. Ninety-five percent of animal feed is made of corn. Citric acid, used as a food preservative, food additive, beer additive, component of soaps and detergents, and to make artificial lemonade, can also be made from corn. Iowa produces the most corn of any state in the U.S. and about 10-20% of the corn produced is exported.

Like other grasses, corn contains p-coumaric acid which can act as a mild antibiotic and reduce the chance of stomach cancer.

About eighty-eight percent of corn is genetically modified. (2012 statistic)

Herbicide use on field corn has increased as weeds have become resistant.

Agricultural income in Iowa is around 5 billion dollars a year.

What are my deep, dark feeling about corn? Well, it’s green and that is good. But I’m not from Iowa originally and I have always found it sort of scarier than hell. Yes, it’s true. There is so much of it and it is absolutely everywhere. It even makes it more humid here in Iowa. Honestly, do we need so much of it? It’s a thing you can’t escape. Yes, it is pretty when it sways in the wind and even kind of pretty when it’s dried for harvest. (see below). But if ever there was a zombie plant, it would be, yes, it would be corn.One minute it’s so small and cute and the next minute it’s huge and being sprayed with crop dusters. It’s everywhere. It’s in everything. If I eat high fructose corn syrup I get insanely hungry. Zombie. Believe me.photo-175***


Bison Legacy

photo 3-8
Look how deep the roots grow.

In Natural Attraction, Clementine, posing as naturalist Calvin, travels west and wonders where the bison are. Eventually she finds some, and Buffalo Bill as well. The sad fact was that even in 1871, the bison had been hunted into near oblivion, in part to discourage Native Americans, and to provide entertainment for tourists. The good news is that we now have a Bison Legacy law that protects North America’s largest land mammal.

The Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge is about a half hour from my house. It’s a wonderful day trip where you can view herds of buffalo and elk, walk trails, and visit the information center. We can’t undo the past but we can learn from it and take steps to appreciate the depth and breath of life on Earth.

photo 1-21
Display at the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge in Prairie City, Iowa
photo 2-23
Do you have what it takes to be a naturalist?
photo 2-26
A friendly volunteer shares a moment with a young visitor.

Leap Year and Forget-Me-Nots

Forget-Me-Not-2_small.jpgphoto from here

There’s a connection between Leap year and Forget-Me-Nots. It’s said that Forget-Me-Nots should be given to friends who depart on a journey on Feburary 29th.

The pretty perennials which are able to grow in the shady and wet places in a garden are associated with other legends as well. It’s said that they were the flower of Henry IV when he was sent off to exile. They are alleged to be the flowers that remind old folks of their young lost loves. Religious lore says they got their name when God named all the plants and animals and nearly forgot them because they were so small. It’s hard to imagine them being forgotten, as these plants are pervasive. Perhaps their tendency to spread is why they are a symbol of everlasting love.

They are members of the Borage family and used in some medicines including those for eczema, ADHD, and milk production. They can be found in over the counter skin care products. However, they contain Pyrrolizidine alkaloids that can drop a mouse dead in five minutes so don’t try self-medicating. Related plants are bluebells and Hounds tooth (burs). They are the State Flower of Alaska.

Here’s hoping you have a wonderful Leap Year and remember those you wish to and forget the rest!

Sex Lives of Reindeer

I’m sure you were all sitting around wondering about reindeer sex today. Or maybe just I was. I realized that I knew nothing about real reindeer, not even that they are more correctly called caribou or that their eye color changes in the winter. The scientific name for reindeer is  Rangifer tarnadus. They are found in the arctic tundra but once lived as far south as Germany and Maine. What happened? They were hunted into oblivion in these populated regions.

Caribou herds can contain “tens of thousands” of reindeer so they are never alone.They make a clicking sound when they walk when tendons rub against bones. Both male and female have antlers. As with other ruminant animals, reindeer have a rut where the males battle it out for the privilege of mating with a group of females. The rut occurs as daylight wanes, usually in October and calves come in May-July. During the rut, the males lose weight from all the fighting etc.and after the rut, their antlers fall off. It would seem that realistically, December would not be a great time for an exhausted male reindeer to pull Santa’s sleigh. So next time you think about Dancer and Cupid, keep in mind, they are probably girls and probably pregnant.





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.

Butterfly Release

I had six caterpillars on my milkweed and I put two in a jar with some milkweed and brought it in my breezeway. Both formed a chrysalis, one a few days before the other. After about ten days, one butterfly emerged.

The chrysalis turned dark and you can see the butterfly inside.
The chrysalis turned dark and you can see the butterfly inside.

The first one came out of the chrysalis yesterday about 4:30 pm. The wing pattern showed that it was a girl!

On Sunday afternoon about 4:30 pm, she came out!
On Sunday afternoon about 4:30 pm, she came out!
She crawled out of the jar.
She crawled out of the jar.
Wings need to dry in the sun, so I devised this to get her into a sunny and dry spot.
Wings need to dry in the sun, so I devised this to get her into a sunny and dry spot.

As shadows fell, she was still clumsy so I made her a room for the night.

I put her in her room in my breezeway and covered her with a laundry basket. In the morning, once the temperature was above 65 F, I brought her outside to greet the sun. Before I could snap a photo, she climbed to the phlox, took a sip, and soared away into the morning.
I put her in her room in my breezeway and covered her with a laundry basket. In the morning, once the temperature was above 65 F, I brought her outside to greet the sun. Before I could snap a photo, she climbed to the phlox, took a sip, and soared away into the morning.

The second butterfly was a girl too. She came out at 9 am Wednesday and by noon was flying around the yard. This video shows her taking her first drink of nectar.

Models and Mimics: An Excerpt from Natural Attraction

Tajen by my son-in-law Zach.
Taken by my son-in-law Zach.

Excerpt from Natural Attraction

Genus Ithomiinae A group of butterflies found in neotropical regions and studied by Bates as he explained biological mimicry. These small butterflies have stark black markings with bright orange, yellow, and/or blue coloring. Toxic or unpalatable to birds. The Model.

Leptalis nehemia A neotropical butterfly in the Pieridae (cabbage butterfly) group, also   studied by Bates. Although tasty, this little one resembles the Ithomiinae and thus avoids predation. The Mimic.

Complex North American examples of mimicry include the Monarch (Danaus plexippus, the Model) and the Viceroy (Limenitis archippus, the Mimic). This mimicry is complex because the Mimic is a bit bad tasting; not helpless, really.

At the next rehearsal of the sideshow, Madame made an announcement.

“We need a narrative. We will be working from a script in the future.” She put her hand to her forehead. She was holding a sheaf of paper. “Ah dear, me. Shakespeare had it easy. I’m overwhelmed with responsibility but even with my day-to-day pressures, I managed to create a masterpiece. It’s all an audience could want. Not too intellectual. Simple words. I incorporated the freaks and mining. It’s a melodrama with a sad ending and a fine cautionary moral. We’ll sell handkerchiefs to accompany it. I have it here. You must study it and perform it tomorrow evening.”