JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from Polly's Bend, Garrard County,
in Kentucky's Bluegrass Region, USA

May 11, 2006

EATING VIOLET LEAVES AND RHIZOMES
One morning this week I accepted the task of pulling weeds, which were mostly violets, from the landowner's flower garden. Well, you know that my sympathies lie with the weeds -- especially when they're violets -- and not those alien, genetically manipulated, too- gaudy ornamentals most people like in their gardens. The situation was saved once it dawned on me that here was my chance to eat all the violets I wanted.

Previously I'd dabbled in violet eating, throwing a handful of flowers and leaves into the occasional salad, but I'd never had enough violet plants to really explore their full culinary potential. That morning I left my garden work with a garbage bag bursting with about a bushel of violets, and now I'm a violet-eating expert.

The violet species I dug up was the Common Blue Violet, VIOLA SORORIA. The plants were past their flowering stage so what I got consisted of heart- shaped leaves on long petioles, with pencil-thick rhizomes, and fruits. You can see the species at http://www.ct-botanical-society.org/galleries/violasoro.html.

I dumped about half my booty into a 5-gallon bucket, filled it with water, then during most of two hours of listening to All Things Considered on Public Radio I sat in the sun preparing them. I removed the leaves from their petioles, then the petioles from their rhizomes, and most of the roots from the rhizomes (rhizomes are rootlike, modified underground STEMS). I discarded the petioles and roots and set aside the leaves and rhizomes for the next day's campfire breakfast.

When egg-fixing time came I snipped two big handfuls of violet leaves into the skillet's hot oil, added a little salt, and sautéed the leaves. Like spinach leaves, they promptly wilted to a small fraction of their original size, so I threw in two more big handfuls. Once they'd all become mushy like spinach from a can I mixed eggs into them.

Well, that dish turned out pretty well. I think that if you'd use any good spinach recipe, particularly one for a casserole or omelet, you'd get a delicious dish if you substituted violet leaves and most people might not even notice that they weren't eating spinach.

After maybe ten minutes of being boiled, the rhizomes were ready for testing. They were a little more firm than boiled potato, but not at all crisp. They were just slimy enough that I couldn't keep from thinking of okra. Their taste reminded me a little of Jerusalem artichokes. If you've ever eaten that enlarged part beneath a well-cooked okra fruit, where it joins its semi-woody stem, it was something like that. It had a good texture and a good, wholesome taste, though I have to admit I'd rather have homegrown potatoes.

So, I'd say that violet leaves are excellent salad makings, are completely interchangeable with spinach as cooked greens, and if you're hard up for a starchy food providing a few calories during hard times, the rhizomes are worth remembering. The leaves are said to be rich in vitamins A and C.

Cleaning and de-rooting those rhizomes was time consuming, however. A lot of work resulted in just a little food.

Don't include fruits with your leaves, even if they are green, for they can be a bit woody. The flowers can be added to your salad, however.

Having said all that, I have to admit that in the end I prefer just growing my greens in a garden and letting the pretty violets grow wherever they will.

*****

BOBOLINK
Out in a hayfield next to the house where green grass stands about knee high I'd been hearing a bubbly birdcall reminiscent of the Red-winged Blackbird's, but not quiet the same. You can hear it yourself at http://www.wildspace.org/media/sounds/bobo.wav.

I had a hunch what it was, so I wasn't surprised when Monday at dawn as I jogged down the road, in tall grass about 20 feet away, there perched a chubby- looking blackbird with a white back and a golden nape. It was a Bobolink. You can read a lot about Bobolinks and see a picture of one here.

I haven't seen many Bobolinks, mainly because they nest farther north, and overwinter farther south, than my usual haunts. In the US Southeast they're seen only during spring and fall migration. They spend winters in South America and their summers in Canada and the northern states -- with central Kentucky just south of their summer distribution. A map showing this is at http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm03/ra2003_red/ra04940.htm.

You may be interested in knowing that some but not all male Bobolinks are polygynous -- keeping up to four females nesting simultaneously in their territory. Usually it's the older, more experienced males who do this, and they typically pay most attention to their first mate and her nestlings, helping the other females only when there's time and extra food.

Maybe another reason I've not seen many Bobolinks is that since around 1900 in eastern North America their numbers have been in decline, largely because now we have fewer hayfields for Bobolink nesting sites. Also, in the hayfields that remain there's been a shift from timothy and clover hay crops, which Bobolinks like, to alfalfa, which they don't. Finally, nowadays farmers harvest their hay earlier and more frequently, and use bigger mowing and raking machines, which kill nestlings and young.

*****

GARLIC MUSTARD & OTHER VILLAINS
We have a lot of Garlic Mustard, ALLIARIA PETIOLATA, around here. It's an introduced, biennial plant often seen along roadsides, at the edge of woods and other such places. You can see a selection of pictures and read a good bit about it at http://www.uwgb.edu/biodiversity/herbarium/invasive_species/allpet01.htm.

I've always enjoyed meeting up with Garlic Mustard, if only because of the novel fact that it's a member of the Mustard Family whose crushed leaves really do smell garlicky.

The other day I dropped a line to the Kentucky State Nature Preserves Commission asking if they'd like for me to volunteer to keep an eye on a preserve near here. Two folks replied and both hinted broadly that something always needing to be done is to pull up Garlic Mustard by its roots and carry it far away in plastic bags. One gets the impression that Garlic Mustard is to Kentuckians what Kudzu and Cogon Grass is to Mississippians.

Later another mail was issued to all volunteers asking for help at another preserve protecting the "Federally Endangered Braun's Rockcress" by... pulling up Garlic Mustard.

Garlic Mustard wasn't the only villain targeted in that letter, however. They also needed volunteers to protect the "federally endangered Short's Goldenrod" at a state park by pulling out Musk Thistle and Queen Anne's Lace.

*****

BLACK-LOCUST HAY FEVER?
Our Black Locusts are still gorgeously white with an abundance of flowers. I'm surprised that these blosoms have lasted so long. Probably it's because our weather lately has been uncommonly cool and cloudy.

The other day Ruth came down with a fit of sneezing and a scratchy throat, and she pretty much blamed it on the Black Locusts. One can hardly blame her, for that day not only where all the locusts aglow with blossoms but also their perfumy fragrance lay heavily on the landscape, below some trees the ground was snowy with fallen blossoms, and bee buzzing up among the blossoms could be heard twenty feet away. The Black Locusts were simply calling attention to themselves.

But, causing hay fever? I doubted it. Pollen causing hay fever, I reasoned, is from wind-pollinated plants. All that bee-buzzing proved that Black Locusts depended on insects for pollination. My guess was that Black-Locust pollen was too large, heavy and sticky to make its way into people's noses and lungs.

On the Internet I found a site rating hundreds of plants as to their ability to cause hay fever, giving them either a "strong" or "light" classification. Black Locusts were rated as "light." A lot of grasses, which are wind pollinated, were "strong."

The index, or entry, page for that site is at http://www.crescentbloom.com/Plants/Lists/Hay%20fever%20pollen/default.htm.

Unfortunately for you who haven't discovered the charm and utility of scientific names, the plants at that site are indexed by those names. Thus to see how Black Locust was rated, on the Index Page I needed to click on "Index to anemophilous plants (Q to Z)." That provided the listing for Robinia pseudoacacia, which is Black Locust's scientific name. This is a kinky system, but it was hard to find any better one.

That word "anemophilous," by the way, can be understood by examining its roots. The ancient Greek "anemo" refers to wind or inhalation, as in the wind- measuring anemometer, so anemophilous plants are those fertilized by wind-borne pollen. What bee-buzzed Black Locust is doing on the list I don't know. As I said, it's a kinky list.

So, I'd judge that our Black Locusts were not guilty of causing Ruth's sneezing and itchy throat that day. In fact, later it developed that she had a simple head cold -- which she gave to me.

Anyway, I find that often people blame the wrong plants for their hay fever. One of the most egregious instances comes in the fall when those beautiful fields of goldenrods are blamed. But goldenrod pollen is very big and gummy, and hardly likely to get into anyone's nose.

*****

PICTURES OF LOCAL GEOLOGY
Just south of where US 27 crosses the Kentucky River between here and Lexington it cuts through layers of limestone where you can see a dandy geological fault. Faults are fractures in the earth's crust where one side of the fracture has been displaced relative to the other side. You can see a picture of that fault near the bottom of my Sedimentary Rock Page, along with a description of what the picture shows, at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/rox-sed.htm.

While Natchez friend Karen was here she spent a lot of time looking for fossils. You can see a picture of the one that made her heart beat fastest -- what we're assuming to be a gargantuan Ordovician-age crinoid stem -- at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060511.jpg.

We weren't sure whether one fossil-like thing we found was really a fossil. Tentatively we're calling it a collection of worm-made tunnels in 500,000,000-year-old, ocean-bottom mud turned to rock. If anyone can suggest a better identity please contact me. You can see this at http://www.backyardnature.net/g/wormhole.jpg.

By the way, there's a fine website dedicated to the fossils of Kentucky at http://www.uky.edu/KGS/fossils/.

At that site, you can access pictures of fossils organized by type, age and region. The page showing our Ordovician Period fossils is at http://www.uky.edu/KGS/fossils/ordov.htm.

*****

TWO NEWSLETTERS?
Most Newsletter subscribers received two of each of my last Newsletters, the two I've issued from this new address. I'm sorry about that and I'm unclear as to what has happened. I'm guessing that it's caused by a malfunctioning anti-spam-sending program used by the local Internet provider. I'm using a different provider with this Newsletter so here's hoping you receive only one copy of this one.

*****

NOSTALGIA, WISTFULNESS, OR WHAT?
These days as the spring bird-migrants arrive, familiar birdsongs are settling onto the landscape. As I type this an Indigo Bunting sings his heart out in the Broom-Sedge field across the hedgerow, and this strikes a chord deep within me. The song brings to mind long summers when I was a kid on the Kentucky farm. Hearing it now I almost see, almost smell and feel, the big, flat, heat-smothered fields of soybean, corn and tobacco around our house, where Indigo Buntings always sang from nearby power lines.

I've been regarding the feelings these callings elicit as nostalgia. However all the dictionary's various meanings of "nostalgia" appear to embrace a yearning to return home. In fact, the word nostalgia is based on the ancient Greek "nostos" meaning "a return home."

However, hearing the Indigo Bunting right now, though stirring up powerful feelings and associations, doesn't really make me want to return home. Therefore, it's not nostalgia this birdsong calls forth.

The thesaurus reminds me of the word "wistfulness," which at first glance seems to be my bunting feeling. However, the dictionary says that wistfulness is "Feeling or evincing yearning with little expectation of gratification" and the word is derived from "wishful."

The problem with "wistfulness," then, is that it also implies that I'm wanting something -- "wishing" for it. But, again, the fact is that this birdsong-feeling I'm having isn't making me want anything. I'm just happy to hear it, and to associate a lot of good memories with it.

After fiddling with the thesaurus for some time I'm thinking that maybe in English we just don't have an appropriate term. "Sentimental," "romantic," "dreamy," "emotional," "longing" ... none hit the mark.

Maybe the lack of exactly the right word reflects a feature of our English language. That is, English is the tongue of a target-obsessed people. We tend to think that everything exists for a purpose. Most of us can't get our heads around the notion that maybe it's enough for some things to simply exist as themselves in their own places, no strings attached.

"We/a see/a, etc.", Newsletter reader Leona in Missouri writes me that her Indigo Bunting is calling. She describes her birds as "filling the misty mornings with song, and they don't quit, they survived and they are again with us. I am getting so old and creaky I just sit and listen, and sitting, one eventually sees the singers."

Leona and her Indigo Bunting and me with my Indigo Bunting all singing and sitting, beautifully. And maybe the neat thing is that we don't really have a name for this thing we're doing.

The Tao says that that which calls itself the Tao is not the Tao. Maybe not having a name for this bunting thing, Leona and I are onto something real.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at www.backyardnature.net