Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Hoppy time

Two centuries ago, the beginning of September was hop-picking time in our town. Vine-like herbs that can grow as much as a foot a day, hops bear cone-like fruits widely used in making beer as well as medicines.

Hops not only flavored but preserved beer, critical in the days before refrigeration. Back then, beer was not looked upon as the stuff of guzzlers but as a nutritious beverage that was long lasting and safer than water, which might carry diseases and parasites.

Many small farmers here grew hops as a side crop. It did not require much space because most of the growth was vertical – up poles (“hop” is from the Anglo-Saxon, hoppan, to climb). The area of the farm set aside for growing hops was called a “hopyard.” Small farmers picked and baled the fruits or “strobili” to ship to mills and drug manufacturers.

The hop, by the way, is closely related to marijuana. In fact, as one authority reports, “counterculture entrepreneurs have apparently succeeded in grafting hops tops on marijuana bottoms and getting a ‘heady hop.’” However, to maintain good health and stay out of jail, drink your hops, don’t toke them.

(Photo shows hops climbing a pole at the Hazel Farm in South Ryegate, Vt.)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Butterflyways

Nature can be remarkably adaptable. Many examples have been documented of how wildlife has profitably used modern eyesores. Old cars dumped offshore create artificial reefs where fish, mollusks and crustaceans thrive. Once-rare peregrine falcons make their homes on microwave relay towers.

Now, one of the ugliest wounds man has cut into the landscape has been found to have its good side, too. Butterflies love interstates.

“Highways are of major importance for butterflies,” reports Jeff Boetner, a University of Massachusetts entomologist, who discovered that Silvery Blues (pictured), Common Ringlets and other species are extending their ranges, thanks to the interstate highway system. As one observer put it, “viewed from the perspective of a butterfly, an interstate highway is just an endless, sun-drenched field.”

This is especially true of roads that have been planted with wildflowers, a project many states have taken on more aggressively than our own. Be they herbs or shrubs, plantings help reduce the ugliness of expressways; if they provide food and shelter for wandering butterflies and birds, so much the better.

Now if our winged friends could only learn to fly above – not through – the traffic…

Monday, August 08, 2005

Arboreal love songs

The trees are alive with the sounds of cicadas, summer songs that prove that sweet notes don't necessarily have to be pure notes.

These big-bodied bugs live high in the trees, seemingly celebrating the years -- from two to 20 of them -- they were burrowed underground. There, the nymphs had sucked root juices and hibernated until, one evening, they emerged as large brownish-black bugs and flew to the nearest treetop.

As the sun rises and the day warms, the male cicadas' odd songs grow stronger. No sound better symbolizes a hot summer day than the crescendos of their overhead buzzing. Each of some 75 species found in the East has its own time of day for singing and its own particular note -- in some well-cicadaed parts of the tropical world, people tell the time of day from the different species' songs.

Unlike crickets, which make their sounds by rubbing their legs against their bodies, the cicada sings with a membrane, vibrated by muscles, on its thorax. The arrangement is not unlike a drum without drumsticks. In fact, the cicada's sizable body is largely hollow, acting as a sounding box that helps throw the song hundreds of feet through the trees. The males join in a chorus to increase the volume.

The aim, of course, is to attract females. One might say the cicadas are drumming up a summer love. It is their last fling, for soon they'll die. But they'll leave behind eggs of cicadas that will sing to us again, two, five, 13, maybe even 17 or 20 years from now.

August, the Eighth

Some people go out of their way to be remembered after they’ve gone. For instance, when he gave the beach to the town of Ridgefield, Conn., the late Francis D. Martin required it be named Martin Park.

But few people have succeeded at being memorialized better than Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor. He took a month long known as Sextilis, and changed it to Augustus in his own honor. He probably did us a favor, however, since Sextilis means sixth. Augustus’s predecessor, Julius, had reformed the calendar into a 12-month affair in which Sextilis became the eighth month, and which he should have renamed October, which means eighth. But Julius had made the eighth month the 10th month, and had left its name October. Thus, we would have had two months that were eighth, even though one of them was 10th.

Caesar Augustus did something else useful. Julius had made the month 30 days instead of 29. Augustus decided that he should be the equal of Julius, honored in the previous month’s name, and he swiped a day from February to add to August.

Good move! Who wouldn’t want more August and less February?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Beauty and the bugs

In fields and wetlands throughout the Northeast, Galerucella calmariensis and its cousin, Galerucella pusilla, are chowing down, guests of federal and state governments.

These two European beetles were invited over to do battle with a beauty that botanists believe is a beast. The Purple Loosestrife, whose tall wands of richly colored flowers are so plentiful at this time of year, was imported more than a century ago to grace our gardens. Like many another newcomer, the plant found North America much to its liking, so much so it is now choking out native species and altering vast wetland habitats.

In Europe, Purple Loosestrife is naturally controlled by leaf-eating insects like Galerucella and probably by other plants that aren’t as easily overcome by its dense colonies. Scientists spent years studying the beetles and believe importing them will not harm any other species. Let’s hope they’re right – not everyone is convinced that introducing alien insects is wise. What’s more, beekeepers love loosestrife because of the nectar it provides at a fairly dry time of the floral year.

Odd, that a plant causing such a commotion bears a name that recalls its old use as a peacemaker.