Monday, November 17, 2014

Shiitakes for supper!

“Have you seen all the mushrooms growing?” asked my husband Ralph.

My answer was no. A flurry of recent computer-related obsessions had prevented me from paying much attention to my spouse’s mushroom-raising project. However, now that he’d mentioned it, my curiosity was piqued. Abstracting myself away from the clutch of technology, I followed my fungi-enthused partner outside.

Sure enough, just beyond the back door was a stunning crop of shiitake mushrooms sprouting from a row of spore-inoculated oak logs.

Multiple mushrooms growing on multiple logs

Although the four- to six-inch diameter by three-foot-long chunks of wood had been propped against the house for the past 19 months, they rarely produced more than the occasional mushroom. Now, however, instead of just one or two shiitakes growing out of a single length of wood, multiple mushrooms protruded from about a dozen different timbers.

A shiitake almost as big around as the log it on which it grew 

“They really like the cooler weather,” mused my husband, the amateur mycologist.

Originally from Asia where they are considered symbols of longevity because of their many health benefits, shiitakes have been cultivated by Chinese and Japanese farmers on logs for more than 6,000 years. (‘Shii’ means tree, and ‘take’ means mushroom.)

With their woodsy flavor and meaty texture, these brown-colored mushrooms are rich in protein, iron, potassium, copper, calcium, magnesium, niacin and other B vitamins. They have antiviral, anti-cancer and immune-boosting properties as well as the ability to lower cholesterol and regulate blood pressure. Because of their many attributes, shiitake mushrooms are proclaimed by many to be one of the world’s healthiest foods.

A plate full of just-picked shiitakes ready to cook

It’s not surprising that my health-conscious, garden-loving spouse is drawn to these mycological storehouses of medicinal properties. Ralph has been passionate about growing shiitake mushrooms since the mid-1980 when he took a three-day mushroom-growing course with renowned mycologist Paul Stamets at his Washington state company, Fungi Perfecti.

(Below is an introduction to growing shiitake mushrooms from the Fungi Perfecti website,

Returning to our then Cape Cod home, Ralph used spores purchased from Stamets to inoculate several oak logs cut from trees on our wooded property. Within 16 months, he was able to harvest his homegrown mushrooms to add to stir-fries and other recipes. He continued to harvest the tasty and nutritional fungi on Cape Cod until our move to Florida in 1987, but he didn’t start cultivating the spore-born fruit right away. It took about 15 years before Ralph once again tried his hand at growing shiitakes. His current crop is one of his best yet.

Mushrooms growing out of logs propped up and leaning every which way

Growing shiitake mushrooms in Central Florida requires drilling 5/16-inch holes four to six inches apart in hardwood logs and filling them with spore-inoculated plugs purchased from a reputable supplier. Once the plugs are tapped into the holes with a hammer, an application of hot wax seals the opening. We used a paintbrush to apply wax melted in a thrift shop crockpot for this part of the process.

Two of the tools used to inoculate oak logs with mushroom plugs:  A thrift shop crockpot and drill with 5/16" bit

After the plugging is complete, the logs are stacked in a shady place and watered 2 to 3 times a week for 10 to 15 minutes at time. If all goes well, mushrooms will begin to appear in 6 to 8 months with the inoculated logs continuing to produce intermittently for several years. The word, “intermittently,” is key. In Ralph’s years of experience, shiitake production has been anything but reliable.

As I stood outside admiring the current crop of health-friendly shiitakes, I couldn’t help but wonder why some of the logs were producing while others were not.

“Why do you suppose that is?” I asked my knowledgeable spouse.

Ralph responded with a sigh.

“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s a mystery.”

With gardening, I suppose there’s an element of mystery no matter what crop you grow. With shiitakes, the appearance of fleshy brown mushroom caps protruding from logs is more than a welcome surprise. It signals the start of many delicious meals.

“I’m guessing mushrooms will be on the menu tonight?” I asked with a smile.

“Absolutely — tonight and tomorrow and for as long as the logs keep on producing,” Ralph replied.

Below are a few links with helpful information about growing shiitake mushrooms including sources to buy mushroom-growing products:

Fungi Perfecti is Paul Stamets' company where Ralph has always purchased any products he needs to grow mushrooms at home

Southeast Mushroom is a Florida-based supplier of mushroom spawn.

FAQ - Frequently asked question answered by the folks at Southeast Mushrooms about the cultivation of shiitakes mushrooms 

Information on mushroom growing from the University of Florida IFAS website 

Monday, November 10, 2014

Talking trash

The first of November was a windy day not just in Central Florida, but also throughout much of the Eastern half of the country. A few days after the gusts abated, my daughter Jenny called from her home in western Massachusetts. to share a comment made by our 3-year-old granddaughter.

“Maya was looking out the window as the wind was blowing the leaves all around,” Jenny explained. “She said, ‘Look, Mama, the leaves are flying.’”

I love hearing my grandchildren’s comments and seeing the world through their unfiltered eyes. The thought of autumn leaves flying is both whimsical and true, yet hearing those words filled me with sadness. On the same day that Maya was watching the swirl of leaves from the living room window, I was in my car watching a flurry of plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and assorted other man-made detritus fly across the road as I drove home from Winter Garden.

While we were both looking at windswept landscapes, one saw beauty while the other saw ugliness.

Surrounded by leaves, not litter, Maya and Ella enjoy autumn at their home in Western Massachusetts

Why are the people who live in a state so rich in natural wonders willing to despoil it so thoughtlessly? What makes us so shortsighted and incapable of seeing the effects of our unconcern and carelessness?

The windstorm emphasized that Floridians are near the bottom of the class when it comes to environmental awareness and education. One need only step outside to see proof of our obliviousness. Look down on the ground anywhere within 50 feet of a house, and you will inevitably see some form of garbage. It may be bits and pieces of paper or plastic or, since Halloween just passed, torn-off corners of candy wrappers.

A collection of yard trash left behind by a thoughtless tenant

It’s even worse from a car. Look out the window when you stop at any traffic light or stop sign and you’ll inevitably stare at a pile of cigarette butts clustered along the curb. 

An all too common sight along Florida roads

People who live and drive through the Sunshine State seem just as unconcerned about tossing toxic, non-biodegradable cigarette butts out their window as they are about throwing fast food containers on the ground. To those of us who care about the state of our environment, this lack of concern by others is both infuriating and frustrating.

Sign posted by the U.S. Forest Service in the Los Padres National Forest.

I like to think of myself as a good problem solver. When given a situation that needs fixing, I can usually come up with a solution. But littering has me stumped. For years I’ve tried every tack I can think of to help raise public awareness as well as invoking a hands-on approach to going after the problem personally. I’ve written articles. I’ve picked up trash in public places. I’ve spoken with homeowners individually and approached the county to request No Littering signs. Once, I even confronted a police officer after I saw him throw a cigarette butt out the window of his cruiser.

A cigarette butt tossed out of a car window is an all too common sight

The articles generated support from people already aware and equally as frustrated as I am by the problem of litter. I watched new garbage appear shortly after I picked trash up in public places. The homeowners I spoke with listened, but I doubt if they really heard what I was saying since nothing changed in their yards. The signs were a bust. They failed to prevent drivers from tossing throwaway items from car windows. And the police officer I confronted? He merely stared at me through his mirrored sunglasses and didn’t comment one way or another.

I think of my twin granddaughters growing up in their Massachusetts home where the consciousness of the public about environmental matters is on a much higher plane than in Florida. While the town where Jenny’s family lives isn’t perfect, the people there do seem more aware of cause and effect than do people here.

Is it too late for Florida? I’d like to believe not. But something has to change or our throw-away mindset will continue to destroy the beauty of a state we love.

Clermont resident Roger Butts takes it upon himself to clean up other's trash along county roadsides.  While help from local citizens is commendable, there's too much trash in the Sunshine State to be dealt with by people like Butts alone.  

If you would like to do something about the litter problem in Florida, below are are few links and phone numbers will help:

Florida's Adopt-A-Road program is a way for individuals, businesses and civic groups to keep a portion of a roadway clean.  More information and contact info for each Florida county is available on the website 

To report litter in Orlando: for litter in public right of ways, calls streets and storm water division at: 407-246-2238

For litter on private property, call code enforcement division at: 407-246-4444.

Elsewhere in FL, from a cell phone dial #DEP or 877-272-8335 from a landline

In each instance, they'd like to know the vehicle tag number and description, as well as what was dumped, when and where.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Cuddly? No. Cute? Yes!

It’s small, green and cute in an amphibian sort of way. The green treefrog, Hyla cinerea, is a native species usually found near any permanent body of water.

Peek-a-boo, I can't see you.  Everything must be fine.

Lately, I’ve become fascinated by these 1- to 2.5-inch long cuties after noticing how many green treefrogs take daytime naps in the wetland plants that grow along the edges of our lake. My observations began during my morning rowing sessions.

One of my favorite things to do when I’m on the lake is to glide slowly along the shoreline, scanning the reeds, weeds and shallow water for different signs of life. In the clear water, I often see fish, turtles and aquatic insects, while wetland plants yield a wide range of critters. Spiders, grasshoppers, dragonflies and damselflies, small birds, the occasional snake, anoles, butterflies, moths and caterpillars all find shelter and sustenance in the verdant growth sprouting out of the shallow water.

A large triploid carp chomps on a bamboo leaf that has fallen into the water

One of my first sightings of a green treefrog was on the leaf of a duck potato plant. As its Latin name,Sagittaria lancifolia, suggests, duck potato has lance-shaped leaves. However, what the plant’s botanical name doesn’t indicate is that the green hue of those large pointy leaves is practically identical to the color of a green treefrog’s skin.

"I'm hiding!" says the little green treefrog 

How clever of the nocturnal frog to select such a well-camouflaged spot for its daylight siesta. Since that first sighting, I’ve seen numerous other treefrogs snoozing on the lance-shaped leaves. While I’ve also found Hyla cinerea resting on grasses, trees and on the leaves of other wetland plants, in our lake at home, duck potato leaves are by far the preferred spot for green treefrog repose.

While also posed on a duck potato leaf, this little fellow looks like he's about to change positions

Although the body of a green treefrog is predominantly green, it has the ability to change colors from bright green to a duller green or even to gray, brown or yellow, depending on its surroundings. 

This little green treefrog has turned partially brown to better blend in with its surroundings 

Adhesive disks on the tips of each appendage enable these smooth-skinned, four-toed critters to cling securely to a wide range of surfaces. In addition to trees, weeds, leaves and reeds, green treefrogs can also attach themselves to glass. 

A sticky disk on each toe enable the green treefrog to cling easily to a wide range of surfaces

At nighttime when houses lights are on, green treefrogs can often be found clinging to windowpanes where they can make an easy meal of small insects attracted to the light.

In addition to gnats, flies and mosquitoes, a green treefrog’s diet includes beetles, beetle larvae, stinkbugs, crickets, caterpillars and any other small invertebrate they can catch with their long, elastic, sticky-tipped tongues.

A green treefrog's diet consists of a wide range of insects 

Although I’ve watched green treefrogs catch insects on a window, I’ve never seen one find food in the wild. I have, however, watched an online video of a treefrog catching crickets as well as a wonderful clip of a green treefrog vocalizing.

Below is a wonderful short video of a green treefrog calling 

For a small amphibian, a green treefrog makes a big sound. It’s able to do that because it has an expandable vocal sac under its throat to amplify air. The sac, made of an extremely thin membrane of skin, distends dramatically when filled air. In the video I watched, it looked like a giant bubble extending from the frog’s throat almost as big as the amphibian itself. With so much amplification, it’s no wonder the green treefrog’s song is loud.

I’ve always loved the sound of treefrogs singing. Now, in addition to enjoying the song they sing to attract mates and define territory, I also have the fun of searching for the well-camouflaged creatures as I patrol the lake’s perimeter by boat.

This darker colored green treefrog looks like he's ready to leap

But don’t think you have to be on the lake to find green treefrogs. Sometimes they appear in the most unexpected places. The other day when I opened my mailbox, a tiny treefrog was sitting in the far back corner of the box. I took out the mail but the left the frog. Life’s full of surprises and equally full of simple pleasures.

Do you think only male treefrog live in a mailboxes...

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A dragonfly for Halloween?

It's almost the end of October so I suppose it's fitting to post a picture I recently took of a Halloween Pennant Dragonfly (Celithemis eponina) posing daintily on the curled tip of a spiderweb-adorned cattail.

Named for its orange and black wings (the Halloween part) and a propensity to flap in the breeze like a flag while attached to bare perches (the pennant part), the Halloween pennant dragonfly is a familiar sight on our lake.

I especially like this picture, however, not so much for the dragonfly - lovely though it is - but for the curled tip of the slender cattail reed upon which it chose to perch.  Something about that spiral curve sets my heart aflutter.  Combined with the Halloween pennant's pretty profile it becomes a special end-of-October picture.

Taking flight

It was early morning.  It was chilly outside, which made the mist hang heavy over the still water.  I was sitting in my rowboat along the shoreline at the lake's north end about 50 feet away from where our resident pair of sandhill cranes spend the night when all of a sudden the birds took off.

They do this every morning.  They spend the night on a tiny island in the lake, then in the early morning just as the sun is beginning to rise above the treeline, they preen their feathers before flying off.

This morning, however, I was in the right spot at the right time to catch these beauties just as they were lifting off.  It was my birthday and of all the presents that day brought, none filled me with as much joy as this one picture capturing a moment long to be remembered.

Some of my photographs, including "Taking Flight" are now available - for sale through Fine Art America.  You can purchase pictures in assorted sizes on a wide range of products including Greeting Cards, Art Prints, Canvas Prints, Acrylic Prints and Metal Prints. Matted and Framed Prints are also on the site.

This is a new venture for me so I would sure appreciate any feedback or comments about the site, its ease of use and the pricing.  Thank you!

Photography Prints

Monday, October 27, 2014

A day when doing nothing is more than enough

A great way to start the day

Ever since the beginning of the month, my husband Ralph has been asking me what I want to do for my birthday. My answer has been consistent:

“I’m thinking about it,” I’d say. And I really was.

I thought about when I was out for my morning row and when I was drifting off to sleep at night. I even thought about it off and on during the day while making dinner, washing dishes or driving around town doing errands. I thought about it often, but I had no answer.

Then one morning it came to me. I don’t want to do anything. More specifically, I don’t want to do anything that involves doing things I don’t really want to do.

For instance, going away is an option Ralph has mentioned. He loves the beach — a bit more than I do — and whenever we spend time there, we enjoy the ocean and our time away from the unending demands of home. With that in mind, I considered a trip to the beach for my birthday or to any of several other not-too-far-away places where it might be fun to go.

But even a short trip involves the gathering together of stuff, packing and unpacking, then doing it all over again when it’s time to return. It involves sleeping in a different bed and cooking in a different kitchen and driving in a car with a partner who doesn’t much enjoy driving in a car for any distance longer than 20 miles. All things considered, going away just seems like too much effort for too little return. Nope. I don’t want to go on a trip for my birthday.

We always have fun at the beach but going anywhere involves so much packing and unpacking as well as travel time, which is not nearly as fun as actually being there

There’s a certain allure to seeing a movie and going out to dinner.

For most people, a restaurant meal and theatre ticket is a solid, sure-to-please present, and I’d like it too — if the picture I saw were a romantic comedy. So I checked my local multi-screen cinema, which is less than 20 miles away, and although the schedule on their website lists 25 pictures currently playing, none of the movies fit the bill. If frightening flicks, tragic love stories or mutant Ninjas were my thing, I’d have plenty of choices but finding a well-written, feel-good movie with a happy ending is much more difficult. Apocalyptic-terrorist-thriller-blood-and-gore films dominate the cinema scene. Romantic comedies? Not so much.

Why aren't there more movies like When Harry Met Sally?

That leaves going out to eat. A restaurant meal is usually relaxing, assuming you share the meal with an amenable companion. However, my husband is not what you’d call a restaurant aficionado. He likes to eat certain foods prepared in a particular way. Unfortunately, his idea of a perfect meal — with rare exception— doesn’t match that of any local restaurateur. After years of trying unsuccessfully to find a nearby dining experience he’d enjoy, I finally gave up. We eat at home now, and that’s fine with me. I like our way of eating too.

In the following clip from When Harry Met Sally, Harry explains to Sally why she's a "high maintenance" woman.  What is not said is that being "high maintenance" is not restricted to females alone...

So what did I do on my birthday? Exactly what I said I’d do. I did only things I enjoyed.

I got up early and went for a row while the lake was still thick with morning mist. I watched the sunrise over the trees, went for a meandering walk through the woods and took dozens of pictures. I ate delicious meals that Ralph and I prepared together and while we ate, I watched chickadees, cardinals and a tufted titmouse at the birdfeeder.

A cheery little chickadee

I allowed myself time to escape into a good book, to sip tea and to talk to my children on the phone. In the evening, I cuddled with my husband on the couch as we watched some favorite shows and before going to bed that night, I went outside to see the stars to catch a glimpse of the waxing crescent moon.

The crescent moon

Birthdays have always been special to me but that doesn’t mean special days have to involve fancy gifts, getaways or elaborate dining experiences. Sometimes the best way to celebrate is to savor the moment and let your heart swell with gratitude for simply being here in this amazing world. For me, on my birthday, doing nothing is more than enough.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Twice the excitement when two eagles visit the lake

I don’t usually see bald eagles on our property. They aren’t regulars like the great blue heron, white egret or the resident pair of sandhill cranes. Nonetheless, every now and then, an eagle drops by to survey the surroundings. It’s usually perched on the bare branch of a dead tree standing along the shoreline of the lake.

Twice during the past year, I was lucky enough to spot an eagle bathing in the shallow water — an activity I had never seen before — and one time I chanced upon an eagle attempting unsuccessfully to snatch a small duck out of the water.

The lake is a perfect 'tub' for an eagle's bath

A bit of feather fluffing and preening proceeds a good bath

On each of those occasions, I saw only one eagle, but just the other day, two bald eagles were in the lake at the same time.

Twice the delight!  Two eagles in the lake at once

It is not uncommon to see bald eagles in Florida. The Sunshine State is home to approximately 1,400 nesting pairs of the majestic birds, third in the United States only to Alaska and Minnesota in eagle populations. When I’m out driving — especially if I’m anywhere near a landfill — I watch for eagles. I look for a large bird with a white head, sitting upright on top of a utility pole, and quite often I spot one.

Eagles can often be spotted sitting atop utility poles in Central Florida

Despite being our country’s national emblem, emblazed upon the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 to symbolize freedom, strength and longevity, not everyone thinks the bald eagle is the most qualified bird to hold such a position of honor. 

Benjamin Franklin would have preferred the turkey to represent the United States instead of the bald eagle

“For my own part, I wish the bald eagle had not been chosen the representative of our country,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in a legendary letter to his daughter penned a year-and-a-half after the Great Seal was adopted. “He is a bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead tree near the river, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labour of the fishing hawk, and when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for the support of his mate and young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes it from him.”

On several occasions, I’ve seen eagles do precisely that — let an osprey do the hard work of catching a fish, only to suddenly swoop in and steal the food away in a fierce aerial flight.

In the same letter, Franklin also accuses the eagle of being a “rank coward” because small birds defending their nests often chase it away. Although I’ve seen that happen too, I’m not sure I would characterize the eagle’s behavior the same way Franklin did.

A couple months ago, I watched several crows dive-bomb an eagle perched in a pine tree. The eagle tolerated the crows’ assaults even after they escalated and became more menacing. Finally, the eagle had enough and flew away.

Eagle being attacked by a crow

Letting the crows know he doesn't like being harassed

Tired of being subjected to continual assaults, the eagle decides to fly away

Instead of acting cowardly, it seemed as though the eagle’s retreat demonstrated avoidance rather than a lack of courage. It reminded me of how I feel when I’m sitting quietly in the woods watching wildlife until mosquitoes find me. I tolerate the bugs for a while, but eventually they become too annoying. I pick up my gear and move to a different spot.

Below is a video of the eagle under attack by the crows

The day when two eagles visited, smaller birds weren’t harassing them, and they weren’t attempting to steal prey away from another predator. Instead, I think they might have been involved in pursuits of a more amorous nature.

In the south, bald eagle mating season takes place from September through November, and part of the courtship rituals involves the pair perching, bill stroking and overall body stroking with the bill.

When I happened upon the two eagles, they were facing each other in shallow water. I don’t know what they had been doing before I saw them, but my observations included some intense bald eagle eye contact, face-to-face activity followed by pair perching in the pine tree.

Love in the lake?  Perhaps...
One tree, two eagles

I’d love to think that seeing two eagles — possible mates — by our lake foretells more frequent eagle sightings in the future. However, I’m realistic enough to know that’s probably not how it will be. 

Happenstance led me to each eagle encounter in the past, and that’s most likely how I’ll experience them in the future. Whether it’s about specific wildlife or life in general, so many wonderful moments result from being in the right place at the right time.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A gentle reminder...

“Breathe in…Breathe out…Move on.”

Printed in black letters on white poster board, the small handmade sign sits on the dashboard of my car. It faces the steering wheel, so whenever I’m in the car, those six words are always within view.

A gentle reminder...

I had the idea to make a sign with the phrase after listening to a song by the same name on Jimmy Buffett’s 2006 CD, Take theWeather with You. Although I wouldn’t go so far as to call myself a Parrothead — a diehard Jimmy Buffett fan — many of Buffett’s songs have made their way onto my personal playlist of all-time favorite tunes.

Buffett's album cover

Buffett co-wrote “Breathe in, Breathe out, Move on” with Coral Reefer Band member Matt Betton as a tribute to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans nine years and one month ago today. In a promotional interview for the release, Buffett referred to the song as “a quiet gesture” that says “We’ve gotta deal with it and move on — no matter how bad it is.”

Although I’ve never had to deal with devastating hurricane damage, like everyone else, I’ve had my share of difficulties. If given half a chance, I know how easy it is for daily woes to escalate into depression and stress. Even with a reminder posted on my car’s dashboard — and another on the window sill by the kitchen table — I sometimes find myself regressing into a tangled web of what-ifs and if-onlys.

Fortunately, to free myself I need only look up. It may take more than one glance but eventually, the simple message works its magic. I refocus my attention and allow my wandering mind to snap back in place. “Breathe in,” I tell myself. “Breathe out. Fretting won’t solve the problem. Let it go. Move on.”

Over the past couple years, Buffett’s words have become something of a mantra to me but it’s hardly the first time I’ve depended on visual reminders to reorient my mindset. During my early 30s, I made a batch of small calligraphy signs stating, “Accept Pleasure” and posted them around the house. At the time, I was deeply enmeshed in raising three young children and far more occupied with giving time to others than in finding time for myself. My two-word message was a reminder that to be a good giver you must also learn how to receive.

During my late 40s and 50s, the phrase, “The best is yet to come,” was my beacon, shining a light on a future bright with possibilities. I didn’t need any signage for that middle age mantra. I simply repeated the phrase often and each mention filled me with hope.

These days, as I’m about to celebrate the third year of my sixth decade, I’m more in need of peace than encouragement or support. I’m tired of being upset, of worry and woe. If a songwriter’s simple phrase can offer me solace, I’m going to embrace it as best I can.

Toward the end of Buffett and Betton’s song, the lyrics sum up my current philosophy:

According to my watch, the time is now
The past is dead and gone
Don't try to shake it, just nod your head
Breathe in, breathe out, move on.

Below is a letter I received in response to this column:

Dear Sherry,  Loved the column today not that I don't feel the same about all of your columns.  However, today touched a soft spot that had nothing to do with hurricanes but with just living life the best you can no matter the circumstance.  I'm in the middle of my 7th decade and can see, quite well, the possible end of things a whole lot better than when I was in my 50's.  So, the breathe in, breathe out, move on sentiment and the final stanza of the Buffett/Betton song made me make my own sign as you can see from enclosed photo.  It has a place on my kitchen counter and I'll probably make one for my own car. Thanks, thanks, thanks,  Nan Rigotti