Bidens rebuttal

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Bidens biternata. Image: Wikipedia.

Judging by the cries of dismay in the comment section on yesterday’s post, I believe it is time for a small correction of official Root Simple opinion on the weed Bidens. I didn’t get to see yesterday’s post before it went up and if I had, I probably would have added a paragraph praising Bidens, despite its wicked little seeds. Erik was frustrated when he wrote that post because he had just spent an hour pricking the hitchhikers out of his clothes. I don’t blame him, because the same thing happened to me when I pulled some the week before, and cleanup wasn’t fun. They weren’t only in my clothes–they were buried in my skin! Getting them out of dog fur must be a real joy. This is a mighty persistent weed.

But it is also a popular one. This summer has been an education in Bidens for me–though I did not know its name for a long while.

It was a weed I’d never seen before, which is odd, because I feel like I know my local weeds. This one is exotic to me. It spontaneously erupted in our front and back yards around midsummer. (Was it in the mulch? Carried on a wandering cat or possum or goldfinch?) I was intrigued by its delicate leaves, which appear very genteel and vaguely floral. I was curious as to what kind of plant it was–so I let it be. Eventually it developed small unspectacular yellow flowers. In my mind it was a pretty-ish weed, unidentified, but fairly harmless. I kept meaning to look it up, and at the same time, I pondered pulling it because it was competing for water with my more officially invited garden plants. (Since then I’ve learned that it might give off competitive chemicals, so probably isn’t the best companion to plants I actually want to keep in my garden.)

I am always curious about volunteers in the garden because they’re saying something about the state of the garden. In permacultural terms, the soil calls the weeds it wants and needs. I’m not smart enough to know what the Bidens signifies yet, but I’m keeping my eyes open.

What I could see, though, easily, was the busy cloud of insects buzzing around this mystery plant: honeybees, little native bees and flies and these tiny orange-ish moths that I’ve never seen before. Good pollinator plants remind me of space stations (the kind in movies, that is): complex structures full of vehicles of different sizes approaching, docking, departing, filling the airspace with frantic activity all the day long.This was definitely a good pollinator plant, an important source of nectar in a dry season, so I left all the plants in place.

My only regret came when the blooms were mostly gone and it was time for fall clean-up in the yard. I pulled it. That’s when I discovered that Bidens bite! Those seed clusters, which are beautiful black starbursts on the plants are murder to the unsuspecting gardener. I did warn Erik! I may have failed to tell him about its pollinator feeding qualities–but I definitely told him to be very careful if he pulled any. He just didn’t get how careful!

Only after our encounter with the seed did we finally get serious about ID-ing the plant. As Erik mentions in his post, the Facebook group Plant Identification told us it was some type of Bidens, and after further poking around I’m going to tentatively identify it as Bidens biternata.

Finally, as our commenters noted, it is a medicinal plant (And, as another reader pointed out, Bidens aurea makes a natural red/pink/orange dye). I can’t comment much on it’s medicinal value, because I haven’t done much reading about it yet, but what very little I’ve read already has me wanting to tincture some of it for its antibacterial properties. Unfortunately we’ve just pulled all of it from our yard and sent the plants away in the green bin, but little baby Bidens are popping up already, so I think I’ll let a few of those grow out. I have the feeling that Bidens is going to be a new permanent resident in our yard.

Paper Wasps: Your New BFFs

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We don’t spend nearly enough time admiring the works of nature, because we are too busy admiring ourselves. Sure, humans invented smartphones, but what is a smartphone compared to an acorn? The thing is, the more you learn about nature, the more you learn about it, the more it blows your mind.

All this summer I’ve been fascinated with Polistes dominula, the European paper wasp. In North America there is a native paper wasp, which is quite similar, but the non-native European variant is more the wasp you will  likely be dealing with in urban/suburban North America, because unlike their native counterparts, Euro wasps aren’t shy. They are the ones who will build a nest by your back door, or on the side of your mailbox. Paper wasps build those distinctive, easy to recognize papery nests made of many cells. There are other types of native wasps which build with different materials, such as mud. Honeybee colonies, of course, are made of wax, and in cold climates you’ll never see those just hanging out in the open air. Honeybees like to build inside cavities.

Polistes dominula really like our front porch, and every year we host a colony out there. The nest rarely exceeds the size of a tennis ball. This year, though, it is more than twice that size. This is our fault. We did not knock down the previous year’s empty nest, so they were able to reuse it and get a real jump start in terms of colony size. (Generally they don’t like to reuse nests, but can do so– in this case the queen started a new nest next to the old nest and annexed it as she built).

img_7454So the population of wasps is accordingly quite large, and perhaps a bit worrisome to visitors, who make it up our stairs only to be confronted with a large wasp nest by the door. Yet we have not had any bad encounters with our waspish neighbors. In fact, we’ve never had a single problem with our porch wasps ever, not one sting, despite the fact the like to nest a couple feet from our front door, despite the fact I hang laundry all around them, despite the fact that Erik’s favorite chair is just beneath them

They truly are peaceable creatures, which is why it saddens me when I hear that someone panicking about a wasp nest, calling the exterminator or heading off to the big box store for a can of poison. When I hear about this, I always want to bring up a few points:

  1. Paper wasps are, as I’ve said, peaceable unless their nest is disturbed. The process of trying to get rid of them is what makes them ornery.
  2. They should not be confused with yellow jackets, those reviled picnic crashers who are attracted to meat and like to hang out on the lips of your soda can. Those guys live in underground nests. Your resident paper wasps will not hassle you if you’re doing backyard grilling or enjoying lemonade on the porch. They don’t like our food.
  3. Wasps are seasonal creatures. They build their nests in the spring and the colony disperses in the fall. You can solve your wasp “problem” by simply waiting it out. If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you! Wait til they die off in the fall, knock the old nest down, and next spring, keep your eye out for any single wasps trying to establish nests in your space. That would be a queen trying to start a new colony. It is a lot easier to discourage a single wasp than to wait and deal with a full populated nest. But I never discourage them, because…
  4. Wasps are a gardener’s best friend! Sure, ladybugs are cute and all, but wasps are stone cold killers working for your benefit, like your own army of mini Dexters. Their favorite prey is caterpillars, e.g. your arch enemies the cabbage lopers and hornworms, but they are also fond of aphids. They swoop down on garden pests like tiny eagles–or flying monkeys–or homicidal Amazon drones– and drag their ravaged bodies back to the nest to the nest to feed their babies. Only the larvae are carnivorous. The adults live on nectar, so wasps are both pest hunters AND valuable pollinators. You want a healthy garden? Host a paper wasp colony.

These are my arguments for adopting a tolerant attitude for paper wasps around your house. Here are some more cool things to know about them:

Only fertile queens survive the winter. The rest of the colony disperses and dies. The fertile queens mate one last time in the fall, and then find some little nook in which to hibernate over the winter (this is amazing to me and I haven’t found any details about it yet.)  In the early spring she emerges and builds a tiny nest, like maybe six cells, to generate a first generation of workers to help her out.

These workers are female, as with the bees, and as soon as they hatch they get to work on enlarging the nest and feeding and tending the next generation of workers. So when you look at a paper wasp nest, this is what they are doing. The wasp nest is a fairly mellow place compared to the extremely crowded, restless interior of the honeybee hive. If you watch a wasp nest, mostly they just seem to be hanging out there, while a few come and go. What they are actually doing, as far as I can figure, is slowly masticating wood pulp to make new cells, or stuffing caterpillars down larvae mouths.  They are daylight creatures, so during the day the nest will only have a few wasps on it, whereas in the evening they will all come home and every inch will be covered with huddled bodies.

I’d love to take a closer look at all this, but as mellow as our relationship might be, I’m not sticking my nose inches from their nest! Someday, though, maybe we can set up a spy camera.

Here is one of those jaw dropping natural science facts: wasps choose the destiny of the developing larvae in the nest– whether will they be workers or “founders” — that is, fertile wasps. They influence this by vibration, by drumming with their antennae. These vibrations alter the gene expression of the larvae, pushing them one way or the other.

If I’ve got my facts right, the males are produced only with the purpose of breeding–like honeybee drones, they do not work. The wasp queen is mobile, so she can choose to mate with males in her own nest, or to go out on the town looking for love– and more often she chooses non-nestmates. Which I understand, because more than likely their nestmates leave the toilet seat up all the time.  Freewheeling males attract fertile queens by staking out key landmarks, such as trees, and marking the leaves and stems with scent. I believe they prefer Drakkar Noir.

I’m feeling a little bittersweet, sitting on the couch, admiring our wasps and knowing that their days are numbered by winter–even a winter as insubstatial as the one we have here in LA. The other day something unusual happened at the nest: suddenly, most of them were airborne and swirling in circles around our porch. This is something I’ve never seen before. I only noticed because I heard the “tip-tap” of wasp bodies hitting the glass of our front door. At first I thought they might have been attacked by a bird or something, and were all riled up, but after watching for a while, I realized they didn’t seem angry, and in fact, it reminded me of something the honeybees do called orientation. Whenever a new batch of workers is hatched in a hive, they all flow out of the hive and circle around it in a big cloud for a few minutes. They are learning how to recognize the hive so they can locate it when they go out in the world. It looks crazy for a couple of minutes, and then ends as abruptly as it started. It was the same case with the wasps– the party (?) lasted for only 15 minutes or so, but was pretty impressive while it lasted. I imagined it might terrify some folks, who would assume the wasps were swarming and up to no good. I wondered if perhaps they’d just hatched their batch of males for their fall mating, the last party of the year. Maybe those males were orienting, or maybe they were all dancing their last, joyous dance before the quiet of winter sends them all to sleep.

For a complete run down of the wasp life-cycle, the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web provides a really detailed read.

The Blue Bear

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When I was a baby–perhaps for on the occasion of my first or second birthday, no one remembers anymore– my great-grandmother, my mother’s grandmother, gave me this stuffed bear, which she had made herself. Now, almost 50 years later, I am faced with the task of sending Blue Bear off to the landfill.

My relationship with Blue Bear is an odd one. He was never one of my favorite stuffed animals, and yet I have kept him with me all these years, while the others have fallen by the wayside. He was never particularly soft or cuddly–though age has softened him, as it does all of us– and he did not meet my arcane childhood standards of cuteness. I had my favorites; he was not one of them. I never even gave him a proper name. But he formed the reliable back center of my stuffed animal arrangements, and also made a pretty good pillow for reading.

What my young self did know, however, was that he was handmade expressly for me and that was nothing short of miraculous. I did not come from a crafty family. The kind of emotional weight that I’ve attributed to the gift accounts for his longevity. I’ve dragged him along with me for all these years. Mostly he has spent his time on a closet shelf, ignored but kept, because great-grandma made him so how could I throw him out?

My great-grandmother’s name was Caroline Folkestad, née Thomson. She was born in 1884 in Denmark. I don’t know when she came to the U.S. I don’t know how she met my great-grandfather, Halvard. He was born in Norway in the same year. Did they meet over there and come to the U.S. together, or did they meet in Wisconsin, where they spent most of their life? Or did they even settle in Wisconsin at first? Our family is not big on genealogy or family stories, so I don’t know.

I do know Halvard was a Methodist minister, and so Caroline was a minister’s wife, and that gives me some sense of how she spent her time when she was not crafting bears. Did she make many bears over the years as gifts for friends, family, parishioners–or was Blue Bear sort of a one off?

She was 84 or so when she made that bear, and that is impressive in itself. It was the late 1960’s, and the materials she chose to construct him are representative of the period. His polyester fur, originally brilliant aqua blue, like a swimming pool on a sunny day, and his bronze-tone plastic button eyes are glimpses into the color palette of my childhood. In addition, he used to have bright red felt or something similar lining his ears, but that was chewed off by unknown agents long ago. Yet I still remember the brilliant contrast between the red ears and the aqua blue fur.

bearslumpWhile Blue Bear was a fixture in my bedroom growing up, I barely remember great-grandmother Caroline. Certainly I was too young to remember her giving me the bear. She lived in Wisconsin, and we lived in Colorado, and visits were infrequent. Caroline’s son, my mother’s father, died of cancer when I was only three. So I’m sure she and Halvard came to Denver for the funeral, but I don’t remember that. But that adds one more thing to the very short list of things I know about her: minister’s wife, born in Denmark, made bears, buried son.

My single memory of her comes from a later visit to Wisconsin. I may have been five or so. I have just a few memories of that trip, disjointed and frozen in amber.

1) I had a Little Dot comic book (presumably purchased to keep me quiet on the trip) which just fascinated me.

2) I had to sleep on a couch under the gaze of a stuffed moose head, which was absolutely terrifying. Clutching the Little Dot book helped the terrors to some extent.

3) I remember meeting my great-grandparents at what I assume was their front door. I remember that I stood the height of my great-grandmother’s very ample bosom (she being short and I being tall) which was encased in a curious old fashioned dress with many tiny buttons running down the front. Her arms were soft and pillowy and her hands and arms were covered in spots. I’d never seen age spots before. She had a kindly face, but it was covered with so many wrinkles! Halvard was much the same, fascinatingly wrinkly and spotty, but more lean. He had a gap in his teeth which made him whistle on “s” sounds, like parodies of old men in old-fashioned comedies: “Ssssssscuse me, ssssssonny.”

My parents were very young when they had me. My grandma Folkestad, my mother’s mother, I realize now to my horror, was not much older at that time than I am now. So this was my first encounter with real elders.

I don’t believe I ever saw them again. Caroline died in 1974, a couple of years after our visit, and Halvard followed her in 1977, and all I have of her are my genes, those memory fragments and the bear. I don’t even remember her voice.

Which leads me to musing on what we leave behind, on the ephemeral nature of memory and experience. Some families are big on family lore and stories and those get passed down and repeated over the generations. As I’ve said, my family is not like that, on either side. But I don’t think my family is atypical in our a-historical ways.

Perhaps part of it is the immigrant mindset. The generation who came from the Old World (in my case, Ireland and Scandinavia) seem to have been eager to leave their past behind. Their kids, the second generation, cried “Westward, Ho!” and cut whatever tenuous roots their parents had planted in the Midwest. They had their eye on the future. So I can’t be surprised that we have no tradition of family lore or ways of honoring our ancestors.

I wonder what knowledge of an individual life endures more than two generations out. We pass out of memory so quickly, yet day to day, we live under the comfortable illusion that we’re immortal, and because of this we obsess on all these little conflicts and worries and daydreams which will be forgotten sooner than even we are.

And then, there is the bear.

Blue Bear is hand stitched, so for all I know, he is the last remaining scrap of Caroline’s handiwork, the last evidence of her intentions and skills and creativity (other than myself, I suppose–but you know what I mean.)

Still, fifty years is a long time, even for polyester fun fur, so Blue Bear is disintegrating. In the end, I suppose, time decides things for us this way. But I made things worse by washing him. His head and one arm came loose, revealing that he’d been stuffed with strange scraps and lumps of polyester wadding of different colors. His body material is so fragile at this point I can’t even consider trying to Frankenstein him back together.

KonMari would say it is time to let him go. She would send him to the landfill without compunction. I wince at sending him there, both out of sentimentality and because, being made at the forefront of the polyester revolution, he will never return to the earth. For that same reason, I cannot bury him or burn him. I seriously would give him a “viking funeral” if I could– but LA’s air is bad enough already without me burning plastics in the backyard.

Oh, if only he’d been made of wool! It would be so easy, then. But none of my childhood toys were made of wool. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of any toy I owned which was made of natural materials. Somehow Blue Bear, as a 100% polyester toy, represents my abundantly plastic childhood.

I’m not sure when the world became so very plastic– perhaps the 50’s? Wherever it started, it certainly accelerated through my lifetime. The majority of my childhood was spent immersed in plastic. I ate off of plastic plates set on vinyl tablecloths, slept under poly quilts and 50/50 blend sheets. I think back on my groovy synthetic clothing, my bean bag, my Biggie comb, my Breyer Horses and my Barbies. It’s all buried somewhere now, part of the immortal treasures of the 2oth century, my own King Tut’s Tomb.

My great-grandmother Caroline, on the other hand, was born into a world which did not know polyester or plastic. In fact, rayon and polyester don’t appear on the scene until the 194o’s, so she was over 50 when she first encountered fibers based on petrochemicals. Yet at the end of her life, she stitched a toy for her great granddaughter out of entirely out of these novel, man-made materials. At that time, those bright colors and new textures represented modernity, a break with the past, the thrill of the future. It probably all seemed very hopeful.

And so anyway, I’m trying to figure out what to do with this bear.

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Tolkien and Trees

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The cypresses of Point Lobos

I love trees. Some of my earliest memories are of trees, and my passion for them and fascination with them only deepens with time. In addition to being a literal tree-hugger, I’m also a bit of a geek (no, tree huggers are not geeks–technically they are eccentrics) so you can imagine how delighted I was when I discovered that the Godfather of Fantasy, J.R.R.. Tolkien, was an unabashed partisan of trees.

A couple of quotes from him regarding trees are making the rounds on the internet, but I’ve learned to distrust popular quotations. They are often misattributed or downright made up. So I searched his edited letters for references to trees.

There are many–he always mentions trees when he describes places, has funny things to say about artists who can’t draw trees, and has many trees of significance in his books, which he mentions in passing, but the following are the more direct defenses of trees:

#165 To the Houghton Mifflin Co. , 1955 :

I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human maltreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals.

#83 From a letter to Christopher Tolkien, 6 October 1944:

It is not the not-man (e.g. weather) nor man, (even at a bad level), but the man-made that is ultimately daunting and insupportable. If a ragnarök would bum all the slums and gas-works, and shabby garages, and long arc-lit suburbs, it cd. for me bum all the works of art – and I’d go back to trees.

#339 To the Editor of the Daily Telegraph

[In a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 29 June 1972, entitled ‘Forestry and Us’, there occurred this passage: ‘Sheepwalks where you could once ramble for miles are transformed into a kind of Tolkien gloom, where no bird sings…’ Tolkien’s letter was published, with a slight alteration to the opening sentence, in the issue of 4 July.]

30 June 1972
Merton College, Oxford

Dear Sir,

With reference to the Daily Telegraph of June 29th, page 18, I feel that it is unfair to use my name as an adjective qualifying ‘gloom’, especially in a context dealing with trees. In all my works I take the part of trees as against all their enemies. Lothlórien is beautiful because there the trees were loved; elsewhere forests are represented as awakening to consciousness of themselves. The Old Forest was hostile to two legged creatures because of the memory of many injuries. Fangorn Forest was old and beautiful, but at the time of the story tense with hostility because it was threatened by a machine-loving enemy. Mirkwood had fallen under the domination of a Power that hated all living things but was restored to beauty and became Greenwood the Great before the end of the story.

It would be unfair to compare the Forestry Commission with Sauron because as you observe it is capable of repentance; but nothing it has done that is stupid compares with the destruction, torture and murder of trees perpetrated by private individuals and minor official bodies. The savage sound of the electric saw is never silent wherever trees are still found growing.

Yours faithfully,
J. R. R. Tolkien

I say amen to that last paragraph!

And finally, as an interesting aside which may be of more interest to fantasy geeks than straight-up tree lovers, here he is on the Ents:

#163 To W. H. Auden, 7 June 1955

…Take the Ents, for instance. I did not consciously invent them at all. The chapter called ‘Treebeard’, from Treebeard’s first remark on p. 66, was written off more or less as it stands, with an effect on my self (except for labour pains) almost like reading some one else’s work. And I like Ents now because they do not seem to have anything to do with me. I daresay something had been going on in the ‘unconscious’ for some time, and that accounts for my feeling throughout, especially when stuck, that I was not inventing  but reporting (imperfectly) and had at times to wait till ‘what really happened’ came through. But looking back analytically I should say that Ents are composed of philology, literature, and life. They owe their name to the eald enta geweorc of Anglo-Saxon, and their connection with stone. Their part in the story is due, I think, to my bitter disappointment and disgust from schooldays with the shabby use made in Shakespeare of the coming of ‘Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill’: I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war…

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The Ultimate Earth Bed: A Mattress Made of Sand

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Michael and Stephanie’s sand bed.  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed

In 2013 I wrote a post called “A Homemade Mattress?” It was just an off-the-cuff complaint fest on my part, but the response to it revealed a vast population of deeply dissatisfied bed users out there in Internetland. It remains one of our most visited posts, and the lengthy comment section is filled with tales of people who, in desperation, have made, modified or improvised their beds in an effort to avoid the mattress industry entirely.

It seems many of us are sick of sleeping on these expensive, over-engineered contraptions stuffed full of petroleum-based foam and doused with fire retardants. Worse, these beds are not even all that comfortable, or don’t maintain their firmness for long, and just make the whole experience a little more squalid, when we can’t stand them any longer, we have to drag them to the curb and send them off to clog the landfills for the next few hundred years. No wonder so many of us search for alternatives, from hammocks to Japanese style futons to homemade straw mattresses.

Recently a friend and frequent Root Simple commenter who goes by the handle “P” here, sent us an intriguing note. Like us, she lives in the Los Angeles area, and like us, she’s been obsessed with the idea of a mattress alternative for a while. Then she got a lead on an exciting bed option, and she shared it with us, saying basically, “I know this couple that you have to meet. They’ve made a bed out of sand!”

So we went to meet Michael Garcia and Stephanie Wing-Garcia and their sand mattress. They live just a few minutes from our house, in a big, sunny apartment full of beautiful things–and they sleep on a king sized bed which consists of a low wooden platform, a pair of twin-sized canvas mattress casings filled with ground white marble sand, which in turn are topped by an inch thick natural latex mat and a layer of sheepskin.

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Peeling back the layers: platform, 3″ deep sand filled mattress, 1″ natural latex and sheep skin on top (not pictured).  Photo courtesy of The Ultimate Earth Bed.

They love their bed. The idea for it came them in a flash of inspiration, and it has changed their lives. Stephanie credits the bed with healing the excruciating chronic back pain which she’d been suffering from for seven years.

It’s a great story, and they’re great people– which is why we recorded them for our podcast. They will be on tomorrow’s episode, so stay tuned for more! (The podcast is now up–here’s the link)

But in brief, and as sort of a preview, here’s few points which we’ll be covering in more detail in the podcast:

  1. Sleeping on a firm surface is a well known solution for tricky backs. Many people find that after an (admittedly uncomfortable) period of adjustment, the body seems to stretch and realign against the resistance offered by the firm surface. Using sand as a substrate provides an incredibly firm sleeping surface which is just a tad more forgiving than sleeping on the floor. The top padding provide insulation and a little bit of cushioning for the joints.
  2. The clean, dry crushed marble they’ve sourced makes a bed that is non-toxic, inflammable, allergenic, bug-resistant and deeply recyclable. If the mattress casing can be washed or patched. The sand can be washed or returned to the earth. It is an elemental bed. And theoretically it would last a lifetime.
  3. They’ve found a side-effect to sleeping on the crushed marble sand is that it seems to be curiously grounding and sleep-inducing. They fall asleep fast and sleep hard. I will say that I noticed that while I was sitting on the bed during our visit. Though I was drinking caffeine and conducting an interview–things which would ordinarily have me jacked up like a Chihuahua–I felt like I could just stretch out and take a a quick nap right there.
  4. Erik and I are intrigued with this idea, and are tempted to compare sleeping on this surface to barefoot running. (We’ve done the barefooting, but haven’t tried a whole night on the mattress.)  Both may be uncomfortable at first, but they build resilience, and perhaps, healthier bodies over time. In both cases, we have been told we have to buy complicated “supportive” contraptions made of cushioning foam and polyester fabric to have a good run, or a good night’s sleep. More and more we’re questioning whether that is a good idea.
  5. Michael and Stephanie loved their bed so much that they started to make sand beds for friends and family. The response has been so positive that they’ve started a company called The Ultimate Earth Bed, so that now they can share their idea with you, too.

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