Least Favorite Plant: Euphorbia tirucalli

When we bought the glorified shack which is our house, it came with a collection of trees I’d never plant including a twenty foot tall, multi-trunk, Euphorbia tirucalli also known as the “pencil tree.” In most places Euphorbia tirucalli, which hails from tropical Africa, is only a house plant, but here in frost free Los Angeles, the damn thing can grow to massive proportions. Merely cutting a limb of this toxic tree produces drops of sticky white latex capable of raising welts, should it contact the skin, and clouds of eye searing sawdust. We had our eccentric tree trimmer, who would sometimes show up as late as 9 pm, chainsaw in hand, take the sucker out. I’m especially glad I removed this living Superfund site after hearing a story neighbor Pilar told me this morning.

A woman, getting out of a car, caught part of the Euphorbia tirucalli tree on her car door, breaking a branch and causing some of that toxic sap to fall into her eyes. She started screaming in pain immediately and could not see. Pilar rushed her to the emergency room where she spent several hours hooked up to apparatus that flushed out her eyes. Thankfully she escaped any permanent injury.

Ironically, for such a toxic plant, it has many uses, both historical and proposed:

  • Plant blogger Mr. Subjunctive included it in his list of useful houseplants to fend off zombies with over at Plants are the Strangest People.
  • It’s been proposed as a cancer cure, I suppose because it’s so nasty that you’ll forget you have cancer.
  • Africans use it as a mosquito repellent and fish poison.
  •  Petrobas, the Brazilian national petroleum company, is investigating the use of the latex as a fuel source. Tap into the trunk and perhaps we can propel one our rapidly gentrifying neighborhood’s many Priusi. 
  • The Purdue University Center for New Crops and Plants Products lists off dozens of uses for the plant including this gem: “In Tanganyika, the latex is used for sexual impotence (but users should recall ‘the latex produces so intense a reaction … as to produce temporary blindness lasting for several days.'”

Using temporary blindness to cure sexual impotence, ain’t exactly a compliment to one’s partner. Spammers take note: you’ve got a new plant product to push.

For medical information on the eye damage caused by Euphorbia tirucalli  see a case study here:: http://www.hkcem.com/html/publications/Journal/2009-4/p267-270.pdf. And, as that case study points out, remember to wear eye protection when you take this plant out of your garden.

Lessons In Beekeeping: Remember To Wear Boots

 Bees in a wall

This weekend I assisted beekeepers Maurice and Roger in relocating a very large beehive from a wall in an abandoned shed in the Hollywood hills. First we had to do quite a bit of demolition work, removing shelves and an old workbench. Then we carefully peeled back the wall paneling, to expose the bee’s comb. We smoked the bees to calm them down and proceeded to cut the comb out, putting the honeycomb into a five gallon bucket and the “brood” or baby bee comb into frames that went into the bee’s new hive box. We filled up ten frames of a “deep” hive box with brood comb. Once the comb was in the box, we sprayed the remaining bees, still clinging to the wall cavity, with sugar water. The sugar water keeps them busy cleaning themselves, temporarily immobilizing them and allowing us to scoop them up and pour them into the deep box. We took a couple of breaks to allow worker bees in the field to return to the hive. As they returned we sprayed them with sugar water and poured them into their new home. It was a long day. Demolition work started at 9 am and it was 5 pm by the time we put the box in the car to be taken to their new home at Maurice’s apiary.

What you can’t see in this picture is all the rat poo

Bees are very gentle creatures, except when you disturb their home. I got stung a bunch of times around the ankles and am now hobbling around the house. Like an idiot, I wore tennis shoes instead of work boots. I won’t make that mistake again!

Didn’t get any more pictures after this point as things got kinda intense

If you’re interested in learning more about how to rescue and keep bees, watch some of the videos featuring our bee mentor Kirk Anderson on the website of the Backwards Beekeepers at beehuman.blogspot.com.

An Earth Day Rant

There’s a logical fallacy called argumentum ad novitatem or the appeal to novelty, i.e. if something is new and clever it must be worthy of attention. It’s the fallacy that the mainstream media inevitability falls into when discussing bicycles. Witness an article in the LA Times, Going Beyond the Basic Bike, wherein we learned about the treadmill bike pictured above–a bargain at $2,011–the kids can use it in a science fair project to simulate inefficient energy transfer! But they’ll also have to bust out the Foucault and Baudrillard to explain how a simulation of running becomes a means of locomotion. [Update: a reader points out that the treadmill bike is a joke–kinda proves my point considering that the LA Times took it seriously.]

The article goes on to, I suspect, regurgitate a press release the Tribune Company received from the inventors of the StreetStrider, “Only $1,699” with “special financing available.” I bet the folks at Goldman Sachs are busy packaging that financing right now.

Then we have the RowBike, created by Scott Olson, “inventor of the Rollerblade,” the RowBike is yours for a cool $1,188.

Memo to the Times: I can guarantee that anyone foolish enough to buy any of these things will soon relegate them to the dusty rear of the garage along with other late night infomercial impulse purchases.Now, can we please, for once, have a review of a practical, inexpensive commuter bike in a mainstream publication? Even the bicycling magazines get caught in the novelty of $30,000 carbon fiber road bikes. Can we treat the bike reviews with the same level of seriousness and utility that we do cars and computer reviews? Can we drop all the other “green” argumentum ad novitatem, such as endless stories about vertical vegetable gardens and algae energy schemes while we’re at it?

Chicken Coop Complete

Homegrown Neighbor here:

As you may recall, I volunteer at a local high school where we have been working on building a chicken coop. Last fall we started taking apart the remnants of the old coop. It has been a long, slow process, but I am proud to announce that we are finally finished. The students did a lot of the work themselves and many had no building experience when we started. It was pretty great to watch them figure out how to use a drill.

The coop is big, 10 feet by 20 feet. The first four chickens have moved in and are very happy in their new home. These first four chickens needed a home and the school was happy to provide them one. In the future we hope to have up to twenty chickens at one time.

There is a spacious fenced in area for them to roam in during the day, with a big old oak tree providing valuable shade.

And the usually surly teenagers really enjoy the chicken’s hilarious antics. While digging in the orchard we unearthed some grubs and took them to the hens. One chicken grabbed the first grub and proceeded to run around the perimeter of the coop with all of the others following after her and periodically pecking at the prize in her beak, trying to steal it. Finally, the teenagers found something at school that they find worthy of their attention- chickens.

Poison in the Compost

No, not that Poison

I’ve blogged about the dangers of  herbicides in compost before, but it’s worth repeating. Mother Earth News has been doing some excellent reporting on two herbicides, clopyralid and aminopyralid, that can decimate your garden for years should your compost get contaminated by them. I received the following note from Mother Earth news:

“As the garden season ramps up, we at Mother Earth News want to let you and Homegrown Evolution readers know that you may want to screen any hay, grass clippings or compost you bring into your gardens, to assure the materials are not contaminated with persistent herbicide residues (most often clopyralid and aminopyralid). As our reports included below indicate, these chemical residues can kill plants or severely stunt their production, costing gardeners money and time.

What do you need to know about contaminated compost?

  • Affected plants show signs of curled, cupped leaves, wilting new growth and poor germination in tomatoes, peas, beans, lettuce and other garden crops.
  • The chemical residues causing the problem can be present in grass clippings, in manure of livestock that has eaten sprayed plant matter or in compost made from contaminated materials. These herbicides do not biodegrade during composting and can persist in your soil for several years.
  • Contaminated materials have been found in municipal, organic and conventional bagged compost.
  • To prevent contamination, ask questions before buying manure or compost that contains manure. If the seller doesn’t know if it’s safe, don’t buy it, or use this cheap and easy home test to be sure it’s safe.
  • Anyone who suspects they have detected contaminated material should notify their local Extension agent and news media, as well as Richard Keigwin at the EPA and the product manufacturer (if purchased).”

I’ve done the home test linked to above and so far I’ve not found any problems. My friend Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms has done the same and also found no herbicide residues. That being said, it pays to be careful. And let Mr. Keigwin at the EPA know that, as organic gardeners, we’d all apprciate that these poisons not be used in the first place.