from the woods near Natchez, Mississippi, USA
June 20, 2004
So often the most vivid moments of one's life are compounded of two or more events taking place at the same time. That's the way it was Wednesday when I went plum picking as a storm came up.
The storm was one of those dramatic ones that rolls in from the west with plenty of thundering, and during the calmness proceeding the storm leaves on trees go limp and flip over looking silvery. On the horizon there's a solid dark sheet of blue-gray rain but, above, the rounded clouds have upward-swooping sides, like the ones Michelangelo painted with cherubs sitting on them looking down at us, their legs dangling over the clouds' edges.
I've had lots of modems get zapped so as soon as the thunder started I pulled all the plugs. Usually during storms I do odd jobs around the barn, but this storm was so spectacular that I wanted to be in the open where I could experience it like a symphonic concert. I wanted to feel the thunder rumbling through my guts, and I wanted to feel every molecule of the first chilly breezes on my overheated skin. Therefore I decided to go check on the Chickasaw Plums, PRUNUS ANGUSTIFOLIA, I reported on as flowering in this year's March 7th Newsletter.
Back then I was tickled to discover "just two little, white blossoms inside an intricate tangle of spiny, dark stems." Now the thicket was lushly green with leaves, and some of the trees bore heavy crops of cherry-red, cherry-size fruits. A big rattlesnake has been seen hanging out around there, so very gingerly I insinuated myself among the spiny stems, as alive as I could be to the snake danger, the scratching of the spines on my bare back, shoulders and chest, and to the approaching storm, the falling rain of which now could be heard moving across the Loblolly Field.
Those glossy, red fruits hung among green leaves were as pleasing to look at as a healthy child with a smile. The very instant I picked the first plum, a big raindrop splattered on the bald spot atop my head and a kinky puff of wind dragged a spiny stem across my back and arm leaving little beads of plum-red blood.
Before long I had all the plums I could carry in my hands, and spiny plum branches lashing in the wind were flailing me. Lightening was hitting awfully close and the rain was so cold it didn't feel good. My glasses were wet and foggy so I worried about not seeing the rattler as I worked myself out of the thicket. For a while all my thoughts were rattlesnake, too-close lightening and too-cold rain.
But, I made it. I dried off and got warm again. And then I ate those plums.
PLUMS OR CHERRIES?
Ripe Chickasaw Plums are so similar to average cherries that the question arises: What's the technical difference between a plum and a cherry?
One distinction is that plums have a single, shallow "furrow," a sort of crease, running from the base to the top, while cherries don't. Plum skin sometimes but not always possesses a whitish "bloom," while cherries don't. A few plum types have tiny hairs on them, but cherries never do.
Last Sunday morning right after I sent out the Newsletter I mounted my mountain bike and hit Homochitto National Forest's one-lane gravel roads. It was about 90° and very humid, and in the bright sunshine the last thing I expected to see was a Bobcat, LYNX RUFUS. However, maybe I saw exactly that. I'm sure that about 20 feet in front of me a very large, long-legged, bob-tailed cat crossed the road in a pouncing kind of run. The problem is that I didn't see any spots. The cat looked wet, and gray-brown. In fact, it looked exactly like the Lynx in my mammal fieldguide. But Lynxes are mainly Canadian, just entering the US here and there in the far north. I read that Bobcats have about a dozen subspecies, and sometimes the coat tends toward gray-brown, so maybe that's what I saw. I just don't know.
Seeing a Bobcat in an isolated part of a national forest wouldn't be terribly unusual, though I think having one cross the road at 10 AM on a sunny day in June is a bit special. Anyone out there with thoughts on this matter?
Some Bobcat pictures and information about them are at http://bss.sfsu.edu:224/courses/Fall00Projects/lynxrufus.html. A long description of Bobcat life history is found at www.coryi.org/lifehistorybobcat.htm.
THE FLEHMEN EXPRESSION
Many years ago I lived in Oglethorpe County, Georgia with a lady and a bunch of goats. I really miss those goats.
I got to thinking about those days as I was looking for information about Bobcats. I read that Bobcats sometimes give the Flehmen Expression. I could visualize that exactly because our Georgia goats would do the same thing, and I always laughed my head off when I saw it.
The Flehmen Expression is the way an animal looks when it uses its smeller in a particular way. Certain animals, especially felines and ungulates, possess a smelling organ called the vomeronasal organ, or sometimes the Jacobson's organ. When an animal possessing the organ uses it, typically it curls its upper lip in a manner that brings the organ's receptors into contact with the substance being smelled. The curled upper lip makes the animal look as if its laughing or giving you the razz. I'll bet deer hunters sometimes see deer doing it. I wish I could find a picture of a goat Flehmening, but you can get an idea of what it looks like when a horse does it at www.bfkd.de/caro/auftritt/Pferde/Geschichten/Kinesiologie.html and there's a Woolly Mountain Tapir Flehmening at www.tapirback.com/tapirgal/tbtap036.htm
I only recall male goats doing it, usually after sniffing the still-warm pee of a nanny, occasionally even before the pee hit the ground.
Last year I dug up a number of Daylily bulbs along the road. The county road-crew mows the plants several times a year and sometimes they grade the banks, too. The grading just spreads bulbs on up the road and they sprout the next spring. The frequent cutting keeps the plants runty, but some of them manage to put on a few flowers anyway. This year the plants resulting from the bulbs I replanted last year are big and healthy, with large, gaudy flowers. It's nice to see their orange blossoms above the purple verbena below them, and the violet-flowered morning-glory on the fence all around them.
At first I was disappointed that my bulbs produced double-flowered blossoms. I prefer the old-time kind just because I don't like how nowadays they're breeding everything to be big and splashy, with the result that all the different varieties are starting to look the same. Anyway, I've realized that one good point about double-flowered Daylilies is that they make better eating than do the simple-flowered ones. Similar to the horticultural roses I told you about a while back, in double-flowered daylilies the matchstick-like stamens are converted to broad, colorful petals. This means that when I eat them I don't need to remove the stiff stamens because they're replaced by succulent, edible petal tissue.
The flowers last for one day. On the morning after their day of flowering I pick up to a dozen shriveled- up blossoms, chop them in a bowl, throw in a handful of fresh basil, chop in two large green onions and a good bit of garlic, add about ¼-cup of both cornmeal and flour, and two eggs, mix it all up with enough water to make it gummy, and fry it. Who knows what the resulting creation is called -- "Daylily Flapjack" might be an appropriate name. I slice it, add some fresh tomato, spritz it with vinegar, and that's my breakfast nowadays. If I had lemon juice that would be better than vinegar.
You can guess that at my nature site I've set up a new Daylily-Flower-Structure page where you can see basic Daylily-blossom anatomy and an example of something that's part stamen and part petal. It's at www.backyardnature.net/fl_dayli.htm
Yuccas around here are flowering, too, issuing chest- high panicles of white, two-inch-long flowers (5 cm) above knee-high tufts of stiff, swordbladed leaves. You can see a typical backyard yucca in flower at www.lotf.com/plants/shrubs/yucca.htm
The best I can figure out, the Natchez area has no native yuccas. However, yuccas have been planted by so many people for so long that today they show up in surprising places, including deep in the forest where you wouldn't expect a non-native plant to thrive. The Mississippi Plants Checklist for Yucca Species at www.herbarium.olemiss.edu/echecklist.php?genus=Yucca lists three yucca species for Mississippi.
Maybe the most commonly encountered species here is YUCCA FILAMENTOSA, sometimes called Bear-Grass. It's easily distinguishable from the other species because a few very distinct, stiff, hairlike "filaments" project from the margins of its stiff blades, as if the margins were fraying. Our other two species don't have filaments. This yucca has no trunk, or just a very short one.
Another species is YUCCA ALOIFOLIA, along with the next species sometimes called Spanish Bayonet. The margins of this species' blades are "spinulose- serrate" -- saw-toothed, with the teeth ending in tiny, slender tips. This species has a thick trunk six feet or more tall and probably is the only Mississippi native of the three, growing wild on the Gulf Coast's sandy shores and a bit inland.
The third species is YUCCA GLORIOSA, whose blade margins bear neither filaments nor teeth, but the plant does have a thick trunk like Y. aloifolia's.
Yucca flowers are also edible, though I've not tried them. I read that they can be added to salads raw, or variously fried or cooked.
One memory I treasure from my traveling days is of camping once in the desert of southern Arizona when the Joshua Trees were in full flower, and they were were so beautiful at night beneath a full moon. Joshua Trees are Yucca brevifolia. Our yuccas are modest cousins of those majestic beings.
BIRDING IN MEXICO
In 1996, during the four months right after I left Belgium and right before I moved into the Mississippi forest, I backpacked through Mexico birding. Now I'm enjoying gathering my notes and sketches from that trip and I hope eventually to have them all posted on the Internet.
The notes from my first stop on that trip, which took place among the sand dunes of northern Chihuahua about half an hour by bus south of Juárez, are now accessible. If you enjoy birding stories and my kind of rambling writing, please take a look at this first posting and let me know if you enjoy them. They are at www.backyardnature.net/mexbirds/01dunes.htm
Last week I wondered if any Newsletter readers identified strongly with a particular plant or animal -- their "totem."
Someone chose the horse. "Like the horse, I can be hard-working yet playful and spontaneous, quiet but loud enough to get my point across." Another identified with the turtle "because when things get tough, I withdraw into my own little space and recoup my spirits until they are strong enough or it's safe enough to come back out again, relying only on myself in the interim and not wanting others around me." There was the Weeping Willow "... stuck in mud but able to withstand the strongest of winds. Providing a home and protection for many. Most often found standing alone, in it's own graceful way." And someone else identified with "the old dog ... under the shaded porch, the pinnacle of thrones and gates for any guard. ... A hard character... laughing, tearing, bleeding and healing... "
Speak of diversity! How different we humans are from one another. Humans are by far the most fascinating and mysterious of living things! The Creator has gone diversifying untold numbers of blossoming variations on the wildflower theme, on the bird theme, on the crystal theme, on the music theme, and She's doing the same thing on the human-character theme!