Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Drunken Wasps?

I made the brew yesterday: yeast, beer and blended grapes. It fermented all night, sitting on a heating pad. Then I put it in a wagon and rolled it to the crop garden at the UC Botanical Garden. Then I went to book group, hoping some butterflies would find it and get drunk. At book group I saw a buckeye and a termite fluttered over the table for a moment, while everyone admired the glittering wings. After book group, I took the butterfly watchers to the mashed grapes. But we only saw wasps. Oh well.

Friday, October 22, 2010

My Movie is on Netflix!

Now everybody can watch a great butterfly movie. In the Company of Wild Butterflies is now available through instant view from Netflix.


My brother, who made the film, said, " I would have never made it to Netflix without you." We are a great team. I had to convince him to make the movie, but once he got started he had a great time.

Lots of incredible closeups and lots of great info.

Pictured here is a Gulf Fritillary on Passiflora subpeltata. I love the lavender halo in the white flowers, and the Gulf Fritillaries love to lay eggs on this plant.

Don't forget! Watch In the Company of Wild Butterflies! Then rate it! It is excellent!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Butterfly Papercrafts

This is one of the papercrafts that I have had published in the Butterfly Gardener magazine. It is a popup card. When you open it, the cabbage white butterfly hovers above the field of nasturtiums. I do the prototype, then my daughter, Danielle, does the design work. Included with the papercraft is a curriculum component, so anyone working on the craft also learns a bit about butterflies. In this case, the craft is about starting a butterfly garden by planting seeds.

I have also designed several other crafts on butterfly topics. One is a caterpillar, another is an egg. Each one includes a little bit of information to make learning easy. I wish I could find a publisher and get the whole series published as a booklet. But no luck so far. If you have any ideas, send them my way. Thanks!

I'm Rich and Famous!

Okay, so I am only famous. Well, not really famous, but better known than I used to be. Martin Snapp, a columnist for the Berkeley Voice, included me in an article titled, "Cal Grad to Travel Across India." Here is the column:


That is not really what I said, but I suppose that is more entertaining than the actual actual quote. Somehow, drunk butterflies seem to fascinate people.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Arisaema tortuosum--Whipcord Jack-in-the-Pulpit

The seeds of this plant are an amazing deep red, but the flowers are even better. I am going to have to get another picture in the spring.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Clethra macrophylla--Clethraceae

This is a rare plant now in bloom near the entrance at the UC Botanical Garden. It is not covered in Hortus Third and is difficult to find on the web. It is a lovely tree and seems to be thriving. I wonder why it isn't planted more often......?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


Is a palm tree a tree? How do you define a tree? Some people think that if it is taller than they are, it must be a tree. Others think that if it doesn't branch, it isn't a tree. Whether the palm is a tree or not, it is a rather odd monocot, more closely related to grasses and lilies than to oaks and cherries.

Humans have used palms since forever! In the middle east, date palms were cultivated 5,000 years ago. These plants have been used for food, but they also provide many other products: rattan cane, raffia, carnauba wax and oil.

Coconut palms provide us with fruit used to make macaroons and coconut milk. In addition, palm wine can be made from the sap of this tree. To get the sap, a flower bunch is removed and a bucket is placed under the remaining stump. Because of yeast in the air, you can have wine within two hours! Wow!

It is a bit more difficult to get sap from a Chilean Wine Palm. The tree has to be cut down, and the top is pointed downhill. The leaves are removed to get the sap to flow from the trunk. To keep the sap flowing, razor thin layers are removed from the trunk every day. This worked fine for the indigenous peoples, but when the conquistadors arrived, they were greedy and destroyed whole forests. Now it is an endangered species. The good news is that this large, wide trunked palm loves bay area weather. Maybe you would like to plant one. Palms work especially well near a pool where you want a tropical look but don't want leaves clogging up the filter.

Oryza sativa--Rice--Poaceae

Rice has been cultivated for thousands of years, first in Asia, then in India and Africa. As you can see from these pictures taken in the Crop Garden at the UC Botanical Garden, rice doesn't need to be grown in a paddy. However, the water in the paddy makes it difficult for weeds to grow and vermin to steal the grains. And the rice is cool with growing in a huge pond. So it is actually less labor intensive and more productive to grow rice in a paddy.

The history of sake is a bit shorter. The rice wine was first made in Japan about 2,000 years ago. It is so much easier to make wine from grapes, because they are so sweet, and it is the sugar that the yeast turn into alcohol. In addition, the bloom on the grapes is yeast, so no additives are necessary! How did people change the starch in rice to sugar when they first started making sake hundreds of years before Christ was born? They used enzymes in their saliva. After the rice was harvested, they gathered the village around a wooden tub, and everybody chewed up the rice and spit it out. People gototo great lengths and do disgusting things to get drunk!

People in Peru traditionally used a very similar method to make chica from corn. After grinding, they chewed the corn and turned it into flattened balls. After the starched changed to sugar, it was ready for the addition of yeast and fermentation.

Sambucus mexicana--Blue Elderberry--Caprifoliaceae

This is not the best time of year to view the elderberry trees, but this one in the California section of the UC Botanical Garden still has a few leaves, so you can see the leaves are pinnate with about 9 leaflets. This species has pale yellow flowers in late spring and dark berries in late summer. Bees love the flowers and birds love the fruit. Humans also use the flowers and fruit. The flowers are used to make tea, syrup or fritters. Ancient Egyptians used them to heal burns. The fruit is especially good in jam and wine. Early Indians used them to make beverages. In both the old and new world the wood was used to make a wind instrument like a flute. The word "Sambucus" comes from the name of the musical instrument, "sambuca."

In the 1600s, the British started used elderberries to make wine. They said it would cure colds and prolong life. Apparently there was some truth to this notion. The berries actually contain antioxidants, anti-inflamatories. They also support the immune system. Most interesting are the anti-virals. Antibiotics have been a part of the modern medical arsenal for some time, however, anti-virals been more difficult to develop and more recent. But they have been available all along in the form of elderberries. It has an enzyme that inhibits the flu and other viruses by removing spikes from the individual virus particles, thus making it more difficult for them to pierce cell walls. Amazing!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Opuntia phaeacantha--Prickly Pear--Cactaceae

Cochineal is a a scale insect that eats only Opuntia. It also produces a red dye that is designed to deter predators. Humans, however use red dye to color their world. The Maya and Aztec peoples used it for thousands of years. When the Spanish arrived in the 15th century, they were bewitched by the deep red color and it became a big export. Cochineal was used the color the red stripes on the US flag and the red coats of the British army. More recently, cochineal was used to make McDonald's milkshakes look pink and Compari look red. Some companies like to use insect dyes because they are natural. But more people are allergic to cochineal than to coal tar dyes. So many companies use artificial dyes.

Opuntia can be used to get drunk. The fruits, or tunas, can be used to flavor cactus margaritas. They can also be used to cure a hangover. An extract from the pads, or nopales, inhibits the production of inflammatory mediators, which in turn reduces the symptoms such as dry mouth, nausea and lack of appetite. Some species may also be useful in treating diabetes.

Opuntia species are native to the new world from Canada to South America. One species is endangered in Florida, another is an invasive exotic in Australia. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum, has been used to control Opuntia in Australia. The same moth is considered a threat to Opuntia species in Florida and Mexico.

At the UC Botanical Garden, there are several species of Opuntia, some in the New World Desert, some in the California section. I didn't see any in bloom today, but some of the fruits are ripening.

Rhododendron kiusianum section tsutsusi

The nectar of rhododendrons is toxic. Somehow the bees can deal with it, but the humans cannot. In 401 BC, Greek soldiers ate honey from wild hives near the black sea and became sick for several days. That was just an accident. But an event in 67 BC was more like chemical warfare. Pompey's Roman armies were tempted by the same kind of honey in the same area, but this time the honey was deliberately placed by the enemy. Pompey's soldiers were so sick that they were easily killed. In 946 AD, the foes of Olga of Kieve were defeated by mead made from toxic honey.

Toxic honey has also been used in religious ritual. If you eat just a little, you hallucinate instead of getting really sick. In the 7th century BC, bee priestesses or "Melissae" revealed the future under the influence of maddening honey according to the Greek poet Homer. They ate "meli chloron" or green honey to put them in a spiritual frenzy and inspire their prophecies. Was it just toxic honey, mead made from toxic honey, or mead spiked with toxic honey? No one knows for sure.

In the 18th century, toxic honey, or "miel fou" was shipped from Turkey to European taverns where it was mixed with Ale to give it an extra kick. I guess it is no longer available, though. I couldn't find any rhodie honey on Goggle shopping. (Sacred Plant)

I don't really think of this as Rhododendron season, this R. kiusianum is in full bloom now at the UC Botanical Garden.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Artemisia absinthium--Wormwood--Asteraceae

Imagine France during the Bell Epoque. In the nightclubs, one stylish drink was absinthe. The ritual was important. The clear green liquor is poured into the bulb at the bottom of a stemmed glass. A flat sugar spoon is laid across the top of the glass. The water is poured over the sugar and into the glass. As the water hits the absinthe, it changes from clear green to cloudy and the green fairy is released. Absinthe has the flavor of Liquorice, but the famous ingredient is wormwood, which contains thujone, a neurotoxin. It was thought that it was thujone that caused absinthe drinkers to hallucinate and become delirious. But really, no one know what it actually was. At any rate, people blame absinthe for the sinister quality of Edgar Allen Poe's short stories. Perhaps it was the absinthe that caused Vincent Van Gogh to cut off his ear. And the poet Paul Veraine binged on absinthe before setting his wife's hair on fire. Recent research indicates that absinthe had little thujone and that it could not have caused the problems. Some believe that the spirit was adulterated with copper sulfate, a pesticide, or copper acetate, because it was cheaper to creat the green color that way, and perhaps the copper caused people to go crazy. Perhaps it was more of a political thing. Maybe the politicians wanted to ban absinthe because it was a big part of the counterculture. Or maybe the wine makers wanted to sell more wine. Anyway, it was banned for many years, but it now legal again.

Humulus lupulus--Common Hop--Cannabaceae

Humulus lupulus is native to Europe, but other species are native to North America, South America, and Asia. Hop is in the same family as marijuana, and like marijuana, it is psychoactive, just not so strong. It makes people feel sleepy and relaxed. Seems like it is a good thing to add to alcohol, because alcohol can sometimes cause people to become violent. Beer is just better!

The hops adds flavor to beer and adds a calming element to the drink. It is also a preservative and keeps the beer from going bad. Even a beer with a low alcohol content can keep for a long time if it is flavored with hops.

Hop is a vine, hops are the female flower clusters used to flavor beer for thousands of years. Currently, crops are grown in Asia, Australia, Europe and the western US. The flowers are dried before being used in brewing.

Mostly hops are used in beer. But they are also used in soft drinks in Sweden and Latin America. A hops pillow is sometimes used for insomnia since hops can make people feel sleepy and relaxed. It is used in some deodorants to kill bacteria. And the dried flowers are decorative and can be used in a bouquet or wreath.

The young shoots of the hop plant can be eaten as a vegetable. The spears are eaten much like asparagus. If you want to grow hops or use hops, just look online. Many different products are available.

Beer was first made thousands of years ago, and the use of hops is hundreds of years old. It is a product of enduring appeal.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Vitis labrusca cv. Tokay--Tokay Grape--Vitaceae

Vitis labrusca is native to the eastern US and is the source of many cultivars, including Concord grapes. Grapes have been made into wine for thousands of years. It is very easy to make alcohol using grapes, because all the necessary ingredients are there. The white bloom on the fruit is yeast, and the grapes have plenty of sugar. So when they are crushed and sit in the sun, they turn into wine.

It is not only humans that get drunk on wine. Butterflies do, too. An acquaintance who grew up on a vineyard told me that the butterflies in the area sipped the fermented juice from the grapes that fell to the ground, and that they had a difficult time flying after that.

Wine has been used in religious ceremonies for thousands of years. Bread and wine was served at the last supper, and Jesus asked his disciples to use bread and wine to remember him. In the Jewish religion, a blessing over wine sanctifies the Shabbat.

Vitis vinifera, the common grape vine, is native to the Mediterranean. It is cultivated throughout the world.


Several types of bananas grow behind the tropical house at the UC Botanical Garden. Some in the genus Musa. And at least one labeled Eusete. That genus is not listed in Hortus Third. I do find the red banana, Ensete maurelli, on the web. Perhaps the plant is mislabeled.

Bananas are one of the few fruits that will ripen without being pollinated. Those that are pollinated develop large seeds with make them difficult to eat. The flowers hang in a huge inflorescence. An old one is in the second picture. The flowers mature row by row, each row covered by large bracts before it is ready. Then the bananas hang in rows, pointing upwards.

We think it as a "banana tree," but if you look, you will notice that the "trunk" is made up of the leaf bases. So it has no woody trunk, and is not really a tree.

Other parts of the plant are also used by humans. The banana leaves are used as plates or to wrap food for grilling in some areas, especially in the southern portion of India. The fiber is used for textiles, especially in Japan. The plant can also be used to make paper. The sap can be used as glue.

Remember the song, "Mellow Yellow" by Donovan? It came out just three weeks after Country Joe McDonald declared that he got high smoking banana skins. This accidental synchrony probably helped both their careers and the belief that bananas are intoxicating. However, if you listen carefully to the words, you'll find that the song is about sex not drugs. And Country Joe was dropping acid at the same time that he was smoking banana peels, so he was confused about what caused him to feel different. I guess you don't think straight when you have acid in your system. Funny thing, though, the morning after Country Joe announced at a concert how effective bananas are, the fruit disappeared from grocery stores. So many disappointed hippies!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Leymus condensatus--Giant Ryegrass

Maybe there is real rye someplace at the UC Botanical Garden, but I don't know where. Is it Lolium? Secale? I can't figure it out. But we do have a California native rye. Leymus is susceptible to to ergot just like rye used for food. Ergot is a fungus that makes people feel like they are flying if eaten, but is even more effective as a hallucinogen if it is applied to mucus membranes. Witches did this starting in the 1400s. But when people eat it inadvertently, bigger problems arise. Some researches think that the Salem Witch Trials were a result of ergot poisoning. Perhaps after a wet winter, people ate bread made from infected rye. The ergot can cause people to tremble, writhe, spasm and seize. They scream and dance because they feeling like they are burning. So maybe they seemed like they were possessed or like they were witches. Then others were perhaps not so seriously infected, but still poisoned enough that they were irrational. So my guess is that both the accused and the accusers were sick. But no one really knows.

Sassafras albidum--Lauraceae

Sassafras has several different leaf shapes, much like mulberry; ghost, mitten, football. Can you find all three in the picture? It also has an interesting history. A pharmacist invented root beer in 1870. It has many ingredients, but the sassafras root contributed one of the main flavors. He was trying to create a miracle drug, but sassafras is a carcinogen, and is no longer allowed in consumables. When root beer was first created, it was a "small beer," and had a low alcohol content like all small beers. At that time, the purity of water was always in question, and people used small beers instead of water. The alcohol content killed germs so that the water was safer to drink for people of all ages. Back then, a parent would have been crazy to give their kids plain water instead of beer. Now a parent would be considered crazy if they served alcohol to their offspring. Times change!

Saccharum sp--Sugar Cane--Poaceae

At the back of the Tropical House at the UC Botanical Garden grows a small bunch of sugar cane. That grassy stuff in the pic may look 2' tall, but it actually is 20'. It gets really big. This grass is native to Indonesia, and Christopher Columbus introduced it to the Caribbean. The climate there was perfect, and it grew well. Eventually, plantations were established. At first, it was the sugar that the Europeans wanted. The cane was harvested and crushed. Then then juice was boiled to reduce water content and produce sugar. After the crystals were extracted, molasses was left. The molasses was considered a waste product until people realized that it was fermenting in the sun and a new alcoholic drink was born: rum. Rum was very popular with the British Navy, because it was cheaper to produce than brandy, the previous favorite. They couldn't put water on the ships, it went bad too quickly. So they drank alcohol instead.

At the same time that sugar cane plantations were being planted, the Spanish were taking gold and silver from the new world to Spain. The pirates intercepted the ships to steal the gold and silver, and sometimes food and drink. The pirates also drank rum, but they didn't limit the
quantities the way the British Navy did, so they used the rum as a way to recruit new people.

Sugar was part of the triangle of trade that was going on during the US colonial period. The sugar was shipped to England, along with tobacco and cocoa. There, they sold the sugar and bought manufactured goods. The manufactured goods were taken to Africa and traded for slaves. The slaves were taken to the Caribbean to work on the plantations. The shippers made money at every stop.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Juniperus horizontalis--Juniper--Cupressaceae

Remember the movie, Casablanca? "Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine."? That was Humphrey Bogart speaking of Ingrid Bergman. "And you must remember this: a kiss is just a kiss, a smile is just a smile." What a song!

Anyway, gin is usually made from fermented wheat or rye, which is distilled and then flavored with juniper berries and other herbs and spices. Originally, the juniper berries were used because they were believed to have medicinal properties. American Indians used them as a diuretic, and to treat stomach aches and colds. In ancient Greece, they were used to increase physical stamina. I guess they thought it worked like steroids! They were also used to treat rheumatism and arthritis. Some websites say it suppresses the appetite, some say it stimulates appetite. Scientists in Britain have found that it reduces blood sugar and can be used to treat diabetes. Juniper is a conifer, and its berries are the only conifers parts that are used for flavor. Juniper berries are also used to flavor meats and vegetables.

Gin was popular during the prohibition because no aging was necessary. If you are trying to hide production, you don't want casks sitting around in a huge warehouse. So why was it called bathtub gin? Seems like everyone thinks it was because it was made in bathtubs. I used to think that, too. But no. It was because it was put into tall bottles, that needed to be topped off with water, and they wouldn't fit under the sink faucet, so they topped them off in the tub. Live and learn!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Agave tequilana cv Limeno--Agavaceae

Tucked away between the office and the arid house at the UC Botanical Garden is this variegated form of the agave used to make tequila. The alcohol is handmade by people who have tended the plants for generations. They have to know when the sugar content has peaked; at that moment, the plant is removed from the ground and all the leaves are removed from the plant. The core that is left (which weighs about 100 pounds. The plant in the garden is a baby!) is shredded and fermented. The alcohol produced is then distilled and aged to create Tequila. The workers who tend the plants also have to know how to harvest the pups without damaging the plants. The pups are then replanted and grown for about 10 years to attain adequate size for harvest.

Ever wonder about the worm at the bottom of the bottle? That is a marketing scheme created in the 1940s to get people to drink more tequila. Men seem to need to get drunk to consume the worm. And they need to consume to worm to prove how big and strong they are. So worms lead to more tequila sales. Great trick, huh?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Lady Caterpillar in Malva Crispa

This is a better picture of the lady. It could be a painted lady or a west coast lady. It looks big, just about ready to pupate, so I think even though most of the food plant is gone, it will be okay. I bet when I check on it next time, it will not be there. Time to wander and pupate!