NATCHEZ NATURALIST
NEWSLETTER:
from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA

September 7, 2003

RIPE MAYPOPS
Each morning a bit before sunrise I ride my bike down to Roxie Road where I jog. During recent days I've kept my eye on a Passion Flower vine, PASSIFLORA INCARNATA, growing luxuriously on the roadside fence. This amazing plant, a native species also known as Maypops, is fairly common around here. Even though the vine often grows as a weed, its big blossoms (1.5-2.5 inches wide, 4-6 cm) are among the most gorgeous of our native plants. You can see a close-up of a blossom and an explanation of its complex anatomy near the top of my page at www.backyardnature.net/fl_test.htm.

It's not the blossoms I've been interested in seeing, however. They've been around from June through August. What catches my attention now is the fruits, which look like large, green hen-eggs affixed with a little stem. The thing is, you can eat those fruits. You can see what both flower and fruit look like at http://waynesword.palomar.edu/images/passio5b.jpg

If you collect the fruits when they're too green, inside they are white and pithy, and the taste is bitter. However, if you wait until the fruit's skin begins showing a few spots and a slight yellowness, and the flesh is a little yielding, then the insides are filled with small, soft seeds contained in wet, translucent, packets of sweet-tasting goo.

This gooey stuff is very fragrant and sweet. It's hard to believe that you can walk up to something lying on the ground -- for the fruits fall off once they're ripe -- break open the leathery shell, and scoop out something edible that tastes so good.

The main problem most people have with passion-fruit goo is that it's filled with so many seeds a bit smaller than grape seeds. I just chew the seeds and swallow them. They're soft and don't taste bad, and if you eat the goo from only a few fruits it won't hurt anything.

Passion Flowers are members of the Passion-flower Family, a family whose approximately 400 species are nearly entirely limited to the world's tropics. We have two species here, which are thus remarkable in that they thrive in the Temperate Zone. In traditional Mexican markets I love to buy Granadillas, which are baseball-size fruits of the Brazilian Passiflora edulis. They provide more edible material per fruit than ours, but ours may taste even better.

*****

SMALLHEAD DOLL'S DAISY
Along roadsides and in fields right now there's a diffuse, waist-high "weed" with stiff, slender branches ending with daisy-like blossoms -- which means that the blossoms consist of slender, white rays issuing from a yellow center. The blossoms are a little over half an inch wide (15 mm). This is the Smallhead Doll's Daisy, BOLTONIA DIFFUSA, seen at http://plants.usda.gov/cgi_bin/plant_profile.cgi?symbol=BODI

Daisies and plants with daisy-like blossoms are members of the huge, mostly fall-flowering Composite family, which means that the blossoms are actually composite constructions consisting of many flowers arranged so that they function as if they were one flower. The daisy's yellow center is made up of several yellow "disk flowers," while each white "petal" is actually a white "ray" flower. I explain the structure and types of composite flowers at www.backyardnature.net/fl_comps.htm

This "doll-daisy" is very similar to the many asters which are such an important element of our fall flora. Asters belong to the genus Aster, but this is the genus Boltonia. The big difference between asters and Boltonias is that the tops of aster fruits, or achenes, are generally equipped with many tiny, slender, white bristles, which serve as little parachutes enabling the achenes to disperse on the wind. In the genus Boltonia, instead of the achenes being topped by parachute-bristles (the books call them capillary bristles), they usually have 2 upward- pointing needle-like "awns," like stick-tight seeds, which help the achenes get distributed by sticking to the fur of animals.

There's a close-up of a cross-section of this flower at www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/hdwimages1/boldif2.gif

*****

FOXTAIL GRASS
Right now in many weedy places one of the most easily recognized of all grasses is appearing. It's foxtail grass, genus SETARIA. Foxtail grasses are known by their flowering parts, which are gloriously fuzzy with short, slender, soft bristles. You especially notice foxtail grass when sunlight slants in low backlighting the fuzzy inflorescence, or it's a dewy morning with glistening dewdrops suspended in the fuzz. My own most glorious foxtail moment occurred only last year during my bike ride from Kentucky to here. One early morning on a country road just outside Guthrie, Kentucky the roadside was populated with foxtail that was not only sparklingly dewy but also backlighted by brilliant, golden sunlight, and it was all so pretty that I just had to stop and look. You can see a typical foxtail at www.celestine-india.com/pankajoudhia/Images/setaria.jpg

My father and grandfather cleared swampy land in western Kentucky to make the farm on which I grew up as child. At first few weeds competed with the soybeans, corn and tobacco we planted, but I still remember a certain summer in the late 1950s or early 60s when Giant Foxtail, Setaria faberii, a fast- spreading introduction from China, invaded our farm and choked out acres of crop. In places foxtail was so thick in the fall that the combine couldn't get through it and those spots just had to be abandoned. I carry a powerful visual image from those days of a moment when one morning my father in desperation reached down to pull up one of the millions of plants, but it was too firmly rooted and my father pulled too roughly, so the plant's strong stem-fibers cut deeply into his hand, causing a deep wound that remained festering and bandaged for days.

On our land here the main foxtail is the much smaller Yellow Foxtail, Setaria lutescens, with a short, stiff spike. In North America about 14 foxtail species are found in the wild. Often it's a component of cut hay. Foxtail Millet, Setaria italica, was cultivated by our ancestors, its relatively large, edible seed being found in stone-age archeological ruins along Swiss lakes.

******

WHITE COCCOONS ON TOBACCO HORNWORM
Earlier I reported that Tobacco Hornworms were enjoying my tomato vines, and that I'd watched a flesh fly laying eggs or larvae on a caterpillar's skin. Wednesday I noticed two more ill-looking hornworms. One had that bruised, moist look of a caterpillar who had been harassed by a flesh fly, but the other looked completely different. It was normal except that it was covered with 34 little white cocoons about 1/8 inch long (3.5 mm) and shaped like wieners. These cocoons were not made by flesh fly maggots but rather by one of many species of Braconid Wasp. My scanned image of the same cocoon-covered hornworm I saw can be viewed at www.backyardnature.net/pix/braconid.jpg.

Braconids are small wasps, and you can bet that my hornworm with 34 cocoons stuck to him will not metamorphose into a sphinx moth, for recently that caterpillar has been tunneled through by at least 34 little maggots who ate much of his interior body. Braconids, along with very closely related Icheneumon Wasps, are important in controlling caterpillar populations. You may have seen them sold in gardening magazines as biological control agents.

During the last couple of weeks I haven't seen a single hornworm who wasn't obviously dying from either a flesh fly or Braconid visit. In the spring when my tomato vines were small and every leaf and bud was a treasure, I may well have presented what hornworms I found to my favorite Fence Lizards or skinks, but right now, by leaving my hornworms alone, I think of myself as feeding the Braconids and flesh flies who next year will help keep down my hornworm population.

*****

DOVE HUNTING SEASON OPENS
Monday was the beginning of Dove Hunting season here. I didn't know that until that morning when as I jogged down Roxie Road a friendly neighbor pulled up next to me, rolled down his window and with his shotgun lying in the seat behind him told me so as I trotted along. He wanted to be in the fields with his gun cocked when the sun's first rays cut through the fog.

I suspect that I'll be rubbing shoulders with hunters until next February or so, so I'd like to be clear about my attitude toward hunting and hunters. Nearly everyone seems to assume that I, being a hardcore vegetarian, regard hunters as my mortal enemies, but that's hardly the case.

The main hunting in this area is for deer. Since the larger predators, mainly wolves, have been exterminated here, if hunting didn't remove deer, then the deer population would explode. And, to me, starving deer seem much worse off than shot ones.

It's true that I regard anyone who enjoys killing animals to have a poorly developed sensitivity to life. However, there are plenty of things to which I am apparently insensitive. Some would consider my hermit ways to be proof that an important part of my own humanity is underdeveloped. I haven't met too many perfect people.

To me the important point about hunters is this: At least they have come to terms with what killing an animal is all about. I regard this as a much more enlightened state than simply eating animals without thinking about the creature who was killed in order to provide the food eaten. I regard walking into a supermarket and buying ground-up animal flesh neatly packaged under cellophane and stickered with a price as profoundly more obscene than blowing out the brains of any animal in the woods or fields.

If I have a choice between being around a hunter or an average person who simply pays others to kill and prepare their animal-based meals without reflecting on what actually is going on, I generally prefer the hunter.

That being said, if I have the choice between being with a typical hunter and being alone -- I'll generally prefer the latter.

*****

COMPUTER, COMPOST, BULLFROG & ART
This week I've had awful computer problems and I'm still not back to normal. For most of four solid days I've struggled to patch together parts from three old computers to make something that works. This Sunday morning I'm still having problems, needing to pound the table to get an image onto my screen.

Thursday I took a break from my computer woes by going to say hello to the compost heap. I found it happily cooking along at an interior temperature of 138° (59° C). For a while I just stood there reflecting on how my activities could be so disrupted by a few electrons inappropriately digitally distributed, yet simply by lying there, all along this compost heap had been accomplishing exactly what it wanted.

My first thought was that, by keeping things simple, that heap had managed to reach a kind of Buddhist perfection. Its high cooking temperature resulting from the breakdown of complex organic materials into basic soil-building nutrients and particles seemed to me a kind of biological equivalent to the path to nonexistence and Nirvana. But then I remembered that, actually, a compost heap is quite complex. Its proper function depends on the well-timed interaction of trillions of living individuals and thousands of kinds of individuals, from bacteria to millipedes.

In fact, it occurred to me that nothing is really completely simple. For example, This week Larry Butts up near Vicksburg sent me a picture of a bouquet he'd created for his wife. It was wonderful, containing thistles, honeysuckles, and lots of other "weeds" and wildflowers from along his gravel road. One might say, "Oh, it's so pretty because he's simply stuck a bunch of pretty things together," but a closer look reveals that the arrangement was successful largely because it adhered to certain laws of proportion based on complex geometry, and color esthetics that were actually quite subtle -- whether while creating the arrangement Larry knew that his choices were sophisticated or not.

Likewise, some would say that in terms of maturity and sophistication no human society has ever surpassed that of China's ancient T'ang Dynasty. Among the most treasured relics of that society are haiku by the great T'ang poets. And what, at first glance, is more simple than a haiku? Here is one I recently wrote while sitting next to our pond:

A silent bullfrog...
Of what good is such a thing
Just watching me sit... ?

At first glance, it's childishly simple, saying almost nothing. Yet, if you reflect on it awhile, maybe you can see that this poem invites questioning of the definition of "good," and one's own expectations. Maybe even it reveals something about me as I question these particular things in this particular manner... all in 17 syllables!

It's as if in life at first everything is simple, but then you see how complex it is, but if you live long enough and if you mature enough, eventually you find simplicity in that complexity, but expressing that simplicity is not simple at all, for that, maybe, is the domain of art...

Anyway, if during upcoming weeks I miss putting out a Newsletter or two, it's because my old homebrew computer has finally bitten the dust, and I'll be back online eventually -- unless I lose track of time while keeping my compost heap company.