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

June 22, 2006

PEACH BRANDY & THE PUMP HOUSE
Last week the waterpipe from the pump house at the spring sprung a leak. For several days Lucian the multi-talented carpenter and I dug through an awful mess of gummy mud and limestone rocks.

In one of our pits we dug into copper tubing that didn't seem to have a reason for being there. We asked around and the best guess was that it was left over from the days when Ruth's ancestors distilled peach brandy for shipping down the river. Years ago the hayfield next to the house was an orchard.

So, the questions arise, How could country folks make peach brandy, and how is brandy different from all other alcoholic drinks?

Knowing the etymology of the word "brandy" helps a little. The word derives from the Dutch "Brandewijn," which means "burnt wine." It's wine that's been distilled by burning a fire beneath the brew. This reminds us that wine isn't distilled at all, just fermented. And fermentation is a very simple process.

In fact, I used to make wine from Dandelion blossoms just by filling a big, old-time crock with water, sugar and Dandelion flowers, and letting the mixture ferment, hoping the right yeasts were already there, and usually they were. Instructions for homemade wine are at http://winemaking.jackkeller.net/basics.asp.

Distillation is a process that concentrates the alcohol content of any fermented solution, such as my Dandelion wine. It's based on the fact that alcohol has a lower boiling point than water (about 175° F for alcohol compared to 212° for water). When alcohol-rich steam from cooking fermented mash passes through coils of copper tubing being cooled by spring water, it condenses inside the tubes and drips out the pipe's end as an alcohol-rich distillation. That was what Ruth's ancestors did (and mine, too, making western- Kentucky moonshine), and it's not really a very complex undertaking at all. If you can't visualize the distillation process you might check out the Wikipedia page describing it at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Distillation.

So, brandy is distilled wine. The basic brandy, called pomace brandy, is based on grapes. All other kinds of brandy, including Peach Brandy, are fruit brandies. You can read an awful lot about brandy at http://www.tastings.com/spirits/brandy.html.

Kentucky isn't known for its brandy but it certainly is for its bourbon. To qualify as a bourbon a liquor must be made from at least 51% corn and has to be aged for a minimum of two years in new, White-Oak barrels that have been charred inside. No flavoring can be added. You can read a lot about bourbon at http://www.straightbourbon.com/whatisbourbon.html.

*****

POPPY FLOWERS
Among the brightest, prettiest blossoms in Ruth's garden right now are the poppies. This week I scanned flowers from those plants and put together a new "Understanding Poppy Flowers Page," which you can view at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_poppy.htm.

Of course everyone wants to know if you can get opium from garden poppies. True poppies are members of the genus PAPAVER, and there are about 70 species in that genus. The poppies in Ruth's garden and nearly everyone else's are species other than Opium Poppies, PAPAVER SOMNIFERUM. The growing of Opium Poppies was made illegal in the US by the Opium Poppy Control Act of 1942. Ruth has at least two garden poppy species, the Corn Poppy, PAPAVER RHOEAS, and the Tulip Poppy, PAPAVER GLAUCUM.

At the bottom of my new Poppy Page I show a fruit, or pod, from one of Ruth's plants with black splotches on it. Those splotches are where insects have punctured the fruit's skin causing the plant's milky juice, or latex, to exude. When the latex dries, it turns black. On an Opium Poppy that black, dried, poppy-fruit latex is opium. Morphine is the habit-forming drug extracted from opium. There's a well illustrated and fascinating page on opium production in India at http://www.uwmc.uwc.edu/political_science/opiumprod.html.

Could you get high on the black stuff scraped from Ruth's poppy pods? It's hard to imagine that there'd be enough opium from these low-latex-producing garden varieties, plus I just don't know whether garden-poppy latex contains the alkaloids needed for hallucinating. I read on the Internet that they don't, but who knows? I'd be hesitant to even try it, for poppy latex contains much more than just hallucinogenic alkaloids, and one never knows what they'll do to you.

Also, some of us think it's not a good idea to mess with your brain by inducing hallucinations in the first place.

*****

BLACK SWALLOWTAIL CHRYSALIS
Tuesday I picked up a piece of plywood with a butterfly chrysalis (KRIS-uh-lus) stuck to it with cobwebby silk. An immobile chrysalis develops between a metamorphosing butterfly's caterpillar and adult stages. In other insects this stage is often referred to as the pupa. However, butterflies are so special that their pupal stage has its own name.

I wasn't sure what kind of butterfly would emerge from the chrysalis so, as usual, I Googled it, using Google's image feature. I searched on the keyword "chrysalis" and after viewing two or three pages of thumbnail photos saw exactly what mine looked like. It was the chrysalis of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, PAPILO POLYXENES. You can see my own scanning of the chrysalis, which is nice because it shows fine details of the developing adult inside, including veins in the expanding wings, at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/chrysali.jpg.

You can read about Eastern Black Swallowtails here.

*****

WHITE MULBERRIES FRUITING
Our White Mulberries, MORUS ALBA, are bearing abundant fruits. What a pleasure each morning seeing those small trees' boughs absolutely bustling with birds.

Red-winged Blackbirds, Song Sparrows, Mockingbirds, Bluebirds, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Starlings, House Finches, Robins, Cedar Waxwings... They come singly and in flocks and one feels in watching them that they arrive in a festive mood fully conscious that they are experiencing something beyond the ordinary, a banquet set out just for them.

For, in Nature, food resources generally are sparse, and wild creatures much of the year are often barely finding enough food to keep from starving. When you see a banquet all set out the way these White Mulberries are doing it, that's something special.

Yet, White Mulberries are introduced, weed-trees from Asia. Our native mulberry in the eastern US is the Red Mulberry, but it is more typically found in woods. These White Mulberries are fencerow and weedy-field trees. White Mulberry trees are like Red Mulberries except that the Whites are smaller trees with smaller, much less hairy leaves. The fruits of White Mulberries start out as greenish white, turn red, and then when they ripen turn dark purple or black. Most fruits on our trees right now are red. The juicy black ones don't stay long until they are eaten -- and I have eaten my share. You can see leaves and a fruit at http://www.invasive.org/browse/detail.cfm?imgnum=1380437.

Watching those birds in our mulberries is like watching birds at a birdbath during a drought. You just feel good seeing such unrestrained enjoyment and appreciation.

*****

COAL FOSSILS
Someone must have kept a pile of coal where I decided to place my garden, for when I was digging up the soil there I unearthed many chunks of coal. I put them into a bucket and now when I want a slow fire I burn them.

The smoke from my coal fires stinks, smelling mightily of sulfur. That's to be expected, since it's known that coal mined in nearby eastern Kentucky and in my home area of western Kentucky contains a high sulfur content, and therefore contributes greatly to acid rain if the power plant burning it doesn't employ scrubbers in its smokestacks. Coal mined out west generally possesses a lower sulfur content and thus is preferred by power plants, since it's cheaper to clean.

The other morning while preparing breakfast over my campfire I began cracking open some coal chunks looking for fossils. Since coal is the remains of plants and animals living millions of years ago (ours lived between 323 and 290 million years ago), coal is very fossiliferous. However, during the process of changing from swamp muck to rock typically the fossils have been squeezed and distorted to the point of no longer being recognizable. Still, sometimes you find something.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/06/060622.jpg you can see two chunks I cracked open. In the center of the top chunk there's a quadrangular item with a narrow band across its middle. I think that that is a section of stem from something like a modern-day horsetail. 300,000,000 years ago spore-producing horsetails were among the most important plants of the coal-producing swamps covering what would become Kentucky. The Smithsonian provides a wonderful picture showing what a Coal-Age forest looked like at http://www.nmnh.si.edu/paleo/PaleoArt/Techniques/pages/reconstuct9.htm.

The bottom coal chunk in my photo displays two fossil items looking like blades of grass. I know they're not blades of grass, however, because whatever produced the fossil lived around 300,000,000 years old, while flowering plants didn't arise until around 30,000,000 years ago, and grasses are flowering plants.

Something else the bottom chunk in my picture shows is a yellow crust. That's sulfur. No wonder my coal smoke is so stinky.

*****

POISON HEMLOCK HAY
You might remember that when I arrived here as we got out of the car the very first impression was that the cold, wet air smelled like greasy cornchips. Later I realized that the odor emanated from Poison Hemlock growing in profusion all around the house. At that time the hemlocks were only about knee high with no hints of flowering. Now they are about eight feet tall. They reached their peak of flowering a couple of weeks ago, and now are mostly fruiting.

You should have seen the slopes and valleys when the Poison Hemlocks were at their peak of flowering. In some places there was an acre or more of them in almost pure stands. The Poison Hemlock's flowers are similar to those of Queen-Anne's-Lace -- tiny, white, and held in flat-topped clusters. The millions and millions of little white flowers against the almost- too-green landscape was very picturesque and peaceful looking.

Yet, as I pointed out in my May 4th Newsletter, these plants are deadly poisonous. You can see the plant and read about the symptoms of hemlock poisoning at http://cal.vet.upenn.edu/poison/plants/pppoiso.htm.

When I saw our neighbor cutting his hay and incorporating Poison Hemlock into his cuttings I felt obliged to let him know what he was doing.

"Nah, that's Sweetfern," he replied. "No problem at all." When I told Polly's Bend's former farm manager what was going on, he said it was Wild Parsley. That's a better name than Sweetfern, at least, since Poison Hemlock is in the Parsley Family.

The neighbor did admit that his heifers haven't produced as many calves as he'd expected and the manager said that Locoweed was causing problems hereabouts, making cattle stand spraddle-legged with their tongue's hanging out. Well, Poison Hemlock causes abortions in livestock, and Locoweed is mainly a western plant I've not seen here, but Poison Hemlock is incredibly abundant and farmers are making hay out of it.

According to the manager, as late as the year 2000 his "Wild Parsley" was absent here. Poison Hemlock is known to have been in this region for many years, and the mystery is why all of a sudden it has undergone this amazing population explosion.

My guess is that farmers here are going to lose a lot of livestock before some non-Kentuckian with a briefcase finally convinces them that what's growing so audaciously in their fields is the same plant that killed Socrates, and can kill horses and cattle just as easily.

*****

HACKBERRY NIPPLE GALLS
Several Hackberry trees stand next to the old farmhouse I'm in, and many of their leaves are just loaded with Hackberry Nipple Galls, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/pix/hacknipp.jpg.

Hackberries are common trees throughout most of eastern North America, and this gall occurs abundantly on them.

Hackberry Nipple Galls are made by small, winged insects about the size of aphids (0.08-0.2 inches or 2-5 mm long), and closely related to them. Their name is PACHYPSYLLA CELTIDIS-MAMMA. The adult Pachypsylla overwinters in tree-bark cracks, then mates in the spring. Females deposit their eggs on the undersides of expanding leaves. Immature forms of the insect known as nymphs hatch in about ten days and begin feeding. This feeding process causes leaf tissue to grow rapidly into a pouch or gall surrounding the insect. Inside the gall the developing insect spends the summer passing through several stages (instars) before emerging as an adult in the fall.

You can see more Hackberry Nipple Galls and the insects that make them at http://hortipm.tamu.edu/pestprofiles/other/hbpsyllid/hbpsyllid.html.

This is a good time of the year to be looking for galls, of which there are many, many kinds. You might enjoy viewing my own gall page where I profile several common gall types made by several kinds of insects. It's at http://www.backyardnature.net/galls.htm.

*****

HAPPY WITH THE FORUM
Today our new message board at http://cybermessageboard.fatcow.com/backya2/   has 22 registered members and 131 postings. We've had some great postings.

Char4511 told us about Yellow-bellied Marmots in Washington State. Wren in southern Louisiana got a good exchange going about alternative lawns. Anita in Oregon told about a Red Fox who mounted a 5-ft-high board to get into a bird feeder. Pam in Colorado remembered a farmer's Percheron mares who aborted after eating fescue grass infected with an endophytic fungus. Bob Mc introduced himself as a "68 y/o mountain bum. Amateur wildlife photographer/ videographer. A 'hunter with a camera' in the mountains of northern California."

This is an auspicious beginning. Thanks, everyone.

*****

GRANDMA TAYLOR
Those of you who have been with me for years know that when I lived out of state and made my yearly visits to Kentucky it was to see and stay with my Grandma Taylor in Calhoun, in western Kentucky. Last Sunday morning Grandma died. Though that little corner of Kentucky is thickly populated with uncles, aunts and cousins, Grandma was my last close relative.

It's only recently that I began realizing one way Grandma contributed to my being the kind of person I have become. Her contribution escaped me for a long time because Grandma and I disagreed on some important points, and it was easy to focus on our differences. Grandma was hard-core Southern Baptist, so our opinions on race, the nature of the Creator and some other things conflicted. We never fought, but we have sat at the table with our jaws set as if we were biting nails.

But, the way I figure it, anyone born in 1911, who started a family during The Depression and raised seven children -- the last two mostly by herself -- can be excused for not believing as I do. She clearly never had the time or resources to develop a worldview based on the implications of the size and complexity of the Universe, of the behavior of subatomic particles, of organic evolution, and the genetic heritage and history of humans.

In fact, when I think about it, Grandma accomplished precisely what I aspire to do.

That is, she absorbed what information and insight she could during the times during which she lived, in the community in which she found herself, and then she lived according to the principles she recognized. Well, I try to do the same thing. It's just that I have access to different information and I define my community differently. Grandma and I have always agreed that if you say you believe in something, you are obliged to live accordingly.

Under difficult conditions, Grandma fought her way into a hard-headed religiosity swinging the dual clubs of Bible verses and Billy-Graham pronouncements pretty much as I have bashed my way toward a homebrew spirituality wielding the cudgels of science and natural paradigms.

In a way, then -- different as we have been -- Grandma and I are essentially the same stuff, the same melodies the Creator has played in different keys.

It's more than even that. My experience with Grandma has made it easier for me to see and believe the thing that Nature is always saying through Her passion for diversity: That even opposites can enrich one another, and be worth caring about.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter subscribers,

Jim

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