Monday, September 29, 2008

Along came two spiders - and not the itsy-bitsy variety

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 29, 2008)

The eight-legged crowd apparently considers the area directly outside my office window to be prime real estate.

During the past two weeks, two spiders -- a black-and-yellow argiope and a golden silk spider -- have staked their claim on this shaded bit of airspace. Both constructed intricate webs that link the underside of the soffit to the picture window, as well as to various garden plants. A cherry tomato's spindly vine acts as an important anchor for each web.

I'm accustomed to looking out of my office window and seeing butterflies, birds and bees. I'm used to following the antics of gray squirrels and catching the occasional glimpse of brown and green anoles as they leap from leaf to leaf.

Every now and then, I watch rabbits nibble succulent blades and field mice bravely dart across a stretch of mulched ground. But in all the time I've lived here, I've never had the opportunity to observe outdoor spiders in their natural habitat on a day-by-day basis.

That is, until now.

The first observation I've made since the spiders set up house is that both are huge. There's nothing itsy-bitsy about them. Imagine a toddler's hand with splayed fingers. That's about the size of the golden silk spider, also known as a banana spider or golden orb weaver.

Actually, two golden silk spiders have taken up residence outside my window -- the gigantic female and her diminutive opposite-sex counterpart. The female spider is six times larger than the puny male. He's so small and nondistinct that I didn't realize he was living in one remote section of the female's web until several days had gone by.

The web, woven by the female, is an asymmetrical orb that spans a 6-foot wide stretch. When struck by the sun, it shimmers with a rich yellow sheen like spun gold. It is from the web's glittery appearance that Nephila clavipes gets its common name, golden silk spider.

I've watched as strong winds have whipped through the golden silk spider's web and as the irrigation sprinkler has sprayed across it, but neither damaged the web. That's probably because the silk produced by these giant spiders is stronger than Kevlar, the fiber used in bulletproof vests.

While the golden silk spider and its web are certainly marvelous in a look-but-don't-touch sort of way, the black-and-yellow argiope and its web are similarly stunning. There's a tiny male argiope living on the outskirts of the female's circular web. Like the golden silk male, he's also a scrawny critter.

The black-and-yellow argiope, Argiope aurantia, is also known as a "writing" spider because it weaves a bold series of connecting white "Xs," called a stabilamenta, in the middle of its web. The female arachnid places herself near the top of the stabilamenta, where she patiently waits for prey to fly into the sticky substance.

While the noticeable crisscrossing pattern acts as a warning to birds that might destroy the web by flying into it, the pattern doesn't seem to prevent mosquitoes, beetles, moths, grasshoppers, flies or bees from becoming ensnared. Recently, I watched as the spider caught, wrapped and consumed a black beetle and medium-size fly. The entire catch-and-devour process was completed in minutes.

Watching these two amazing critters from the comfort of my indoor viewing station has been entertaining and edifying. Some people like to go to movies, sporting events, shows or parties for enjoyment; I sit back in my swivel chair and watch spiders and other wild critters go about their daily lives.

I don't know why these two huge but harmless spiders chose the 8-foot span in front of my office window to set up house, but I'm glad they did. Our country might be in the midst of a major housing downturn, but in my neck of the woods we're caught in a web of explosive growth. The residents may have eight legs, but they keep the mosquito population at bay. That's a sticky situation I wouldn't want to do without.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Appreciating family and recalling tree-climbing days - all because of avocados

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 22, 2008)

If Timmy were here, he would have shimmied up the avocado tree in Paul and Jean Hays' backyard like a monkey.

My limber son has no compunctions about scaling tall trees without lower limbs. He would have climbed up into the high branches where clusters of the green-skinned fruit hung, plucked those dangling delicacies and plunked them to the ground. That's what he did last year, and Paul and Jean were appreciative.

"He reached all the avocados we couldn't reach," said Paul, a retired Quaker Oats employee who moved to Royal Highlands with Jean 11 years ago. "He must have helped us collect hundreds of avocados."

But my 26-year-old son isn't here this year. About six months ago, he moved to Seattle to help his 91-year-old grandmother with her own set of gardening, household and yard chores. His departure left behind a cadre of friends like the Hayses, people who had come to appreciate and depend upon Timmy's generous, gentle and quirky nature.

In lieu of my son's assistance, Paul e-mailed me last week, hoping that my husband might share Timmy's tree-climbing ability.

"I will be calling you regarding the avocados soon, if Ralph is still willing to get the big ones from the top," he wrote.

Recently, I stopped by their south Leesburg home to scope out the situation.

"Goodness," I told Jean and Paul, as I looked at the tall avocado tree in their well-manicured backyard. "Timmy climbed that without a ladder?"

Paul assured me he did, and knowing my son, I can picture it. Think Tarzan -- a young man wrapping his legs around the trunk as he maneuvered upward. Timmy's that kind of guy. Just after turning 18, he spent four months hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Given the choice of tree limb or lawn chair to sit upon, Timmy would choose the tree every time.

"I'll have to come back," I explained to the Hayses after picking a couple dozen avocados that could be reached from a 6-foot ladder. "I'll bring Ralph or my daughter with me next time. Either of them could climb up and get the ones on top, but I'm afraid I can't do it."

My visit to the Hayses' house made me realize that my tree-climbing days are a thing of the past. I used to be like Timmy. There was a time -- granted, it was a LONG time ago -- when I, too, shimmied up bark-covered tree trunks to perch upon branches hidden by leaves. There were no avocado trees in Pennsylvania, but we had plenty of oaks, sycamores, willows and crab-apple trees. I remember perching in the crab-apple tree in our backyard to gather pocketfuls of the small, tart fruit.

Crab-apple trees are prolific bearers, and so are avocados. One mature avocado tree will provide a family with all the fruit they can eat, plus plenty to give away. The avocado Timmy's friends have is a Hass avocado, a type predominantly grown in California. The Hass fruit is much smaller than Florida varieties, and it has a thick, bumpy skin that's dark green.

Florida varieties have a thinner skin that is smooth and a much brighter, lighter green. But no matter which kind is grown, avocados seldom ripen on the tree. They need to be handpicked after reaching an appropriate size and then ripened inside on a windowsill or pantry shelf.

Jean and Paul received their tree as a gift shortly after they moved to Royal Highlands. It was only a few feet tall when their friend gave it to them, but now it's about 20 feet tall and quite broad.

"It took a couple years before we got any fruit at all," recalled Jean. "But now, it yields more fruit than we could possibly use."

If Timmy were here, he'd not only help Jean and Paul by reaching into the uppermost branches of their tree, collecting the fruit and distributing it to friends. He'd whip up a large batch of guacamole to share with everyone, too. My tree-shimmying days may be a thing of the past, but I can still cook. As soon as my daughter or husband takes over Timmy's job and picks the rest of the Hayses' fruit, I'll get busy in the kitchen. One large bowl of guacamole coming up.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Web is handy when all you can get live is pity-Scrabble

Simply Living

(First appeared on September 15, 2008 in Orlando Sentinel)

I've been playing a lot of online Scrabble lately. Instead of moving wooden tiles by hand, I've been sitting in front of a computer screen typing word plays on a keyboard. I had no idea online Scrabble could be such fun.

Thanks to the broad reach of the World Wide Web, any time of the day or night, someone somewhere shares my enthusiasm for creating bingos -- that's Scrabble terminology for high-scoring seven letter words. About a month ago, I joined ISC -- International Scrabble Club -- and now have at my fingertips an endless supply of word-loving compadres.

Since I began playing, I've competed against people from throughout the United States and Canada. My most distant opponent lives in Kuwait. I lost that game.

Knowing how much I love Scrabble, my daughter's boyfriend, Brett, a tournament player and Scrabble Club organizer who lives in Massachusetts, suggested I try playing online.

"It's easy," he said, but I didn't believe him at first.

Experience taught me that most new computer programs involve a steep learning curve. The idea of adding yet another task to my already heavy computer load seemed too overwhelming to consider.

So I didn't.

For several months after Brett's suggestion, I continued to beg my 16-year-old son to play with me. Every now and then -- emphasis on "then" -- he relented and played. It felt more like pity-Scrabble than anything.

"All right," he could have been thinking. "I might as well give her a little attention. She's been asking me to play with her for weeks."

Despite his lack of gusto, those games were always fun. Toby is a terrific player and, while his teenage ego requires him to believe he is far better than me in just about everything, when it comes to Scrabble, I feel we're well-matched. But time takes its toll and after he refused my umpteenth request, I reconsidered Brett's suggestion.

One day I took the plunge.

"Show me how to play online," I asked my youngest child.

As a young math-loving, chess-playing person, Toby has an intuitive ability to understand such things. For several years now he has been a member of ICC, the chess equivalent of online Scrabble, and both programs operate similarly.

After a few basic instructions, I was ready to begin. I picked out a "handle" -- the online name I would use -- and selected the type of game I wanted to play. My choices included the number of minutes I wanted each match to last, whether I wanted to be penalized for using nonacceptable words and whether I would play against anyone or only players who met certain pre-selected criteria. So far, so good.

That first game remains a blur. I recall being scared I would do something wrong. I was confused in the beginning and I'm pretty sure I lost. Fortunately, Toby stood by to guide me along.

"Quick! Quick!" I panicked right after the game began. "How do I rearrange the letters on my rack?"

"You can move them with the mouse or right click alongside the rack and they'll be rearranged automatically," he responded calmly.

Although I didn't think it would happen, I started regaining my composure by the fifth or sixth move. Virtual Scrabble began to make sense. I've learned more new words in one month than in all my previous years of playing and I eagerly anticipate the day my rating breaks 1,000. Toby says I'm addicted and he's probably right. The other night I woke up from sleep and was unable to lie back down without words flashing through my mind, my body restlessly tossing and turning.

"I'll get up for a little while," I told myself as I wandered down the hall toward my office.

"Maybe I'll sign on for a few minutes just to see if anyone's playing."

At 3 a.m., three wins, one loss and four bingos later, I made my way back to the bedroom. I'd gained a few points and added the words "sware," "cadi," and "fou" to my burgeoning vocabulary. I also fell asleep as soon as I hit the bed and slept like a baby. If that's what being addicted is all about, sign me up. Wait -- I'm already signed up. Good, then let the games begin.

Monday, September 8, 2008

The ordinary becomes extraordinary through Florida visitors' eyes

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 8, 2008)

Sometimes we forget how extraordinary our surroundings are, and it helps to look at the familiar through another person's eyes. That happened the other day when a young couple from Spokane, Wash., accompanied their relatives on a visit to our nursery.

While their companions concentrated on choosing the best plants to provide a privacy screen, the young couple -- they couldn't have been more than 21 or 22 -- took in the semitropical, Central Florida surroundings with childlike curiosity.

Their first question -- "Are there alligators in the lake?" -- was a typical, first-time-in-Florida query. I would have mistakenly pigeon-holed them as non-outdoorsy, timid types had they not followed up with another question.

"What kind of spider is this?" they asked, pointing to a spiny-backed orb weaver that had strung an intricate web between an irrigation spigot and bamboo cane.

I could tell by their voices, postures and rapt attention these two were not intimidated by nature's minutiae. I love it when I meet people like that. Too often, adults -- even some children -- are so frightened by spiders, snakes and other creeping, crawling critters that they lose all perspective and act irrationally.

We all know sane, peaceful individuals who turn into screeching killing machines when they encounter one of nature's smallest creatures. Instead of learning about these fascinating and often beneficial critters, they go ballistic. They grab whatever object is handy -- shoe, bug spray, shovel or fly swatter -- and go into destroy mode.

Fortunately, that was not the case with my Spokane visitors. They were eager to learn all they could about the unfamiliar.

Looking more like a miniature crab than an arachnid, the spiny-backed orb weaver's compact, oddly shaped black-and-white body is distinguished by six pointy, red spines. Although quite small -- less than one-third-of-an-inch long and barely a half-inch wide -- this harmless, insect-eater's bizarre appearance differentiates it from other spiders.

Because it is frequently found in gardens -- as I am -- I've grown accustomed to seeing this spider and rarely pay it much attention. But the young couple paid attention. The backyard beauty that I had come to see as ordinary was far from common to these Pacific Northwest residents.

"I've never seen anything like it," said the woman as she peered at the spider waiting mid-web for a mosquito to trap.

That could have been the end of it -- one weird-looking creature to demonstrate the unique Southern landscape. But at that point, another insect caught their attention. They reacted with simultaneous squeals of surprise.

"What's that bug?" they asked, pointing at a large, fuzzy-looking orange thing scurrying across a sandy stretch of ground.

"Oh," I responded matter-of-factly. "That's a velvet ant. Be careful. They sting."

My response may have been understated, but there's nothing run-of-the-mill about a velvet ant's appearance. Like the spiny-backed orb weaver, this is a one-of-a-kind critter in Florida's insect world.

Nicknamed "cow killer," this colorful member of the Mutillidae family is a good example of a look-but-don't-touch critter. Although it resembles and moves like a cuddly wind-up toy put into motion, the inch-long insect is really a wingless wasp with a potent sting. According to legend, a velvet ant's venom can kill a cow, and while that's probably a stretch, I'm not about to put it to the test.

From a respectful distance, we watched as the bright-orange-and-black insect followed a fast-paced path to an underground burrow, where it was most likely bound to either lay eggs or find food. It must have been a female ant, because its elusive male counterpart has wings and is slightly larger.

For a few minutes, the three of us stood side by side, captivated by the velvet ant's determined trek through blades of grass and over bumpy ground. I don't know what my visitors were thinking, but I could tell they were fascinated. So was I.

It's easy to take things for granted. Repetition has the tricky ability to rub the shine off novelty. When I moved to Florida, I was completely awed by torrential downpours that ended as quickly as they began and by the sight of rain pouring down on one side of the lake and not the other. Eventually, I grew used to these things.

I even grew used to rainbows. Imagine that -- taking rainbows for granted. But it happened. A little bit of time and a lot of repetition turned the extraordinary into the ordinary.

That's why I'm glad my mind-set has been rebooted. I don't know how long this fresh outlook will last, but thanks to two crazy-looking bugs and a couple of curious tourists, I'm enjoying a fresh perspective -- seeing my surroundings as if for the first time.

Florida's a wild and crazy place filled with some weird and fascinating creatures, and I'm here to enjoy every minute of it.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Have some patience -- and the best pineapple you ever tasted

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 1, 2008)

We just finished eating our third freshly picked pineapple of the season. Delicious.

Homegrown pineapples are not only sweeter and more flavorful than their store-bought counterparts -- they are ridiculously easy to grow. Just cut the leafy crown off a purchased product -- you have to do that anyway when you're slicing it up -- and instead of tossing it into the trash, plant the crown in the ground. You don't need special soil or miracle fertilizers.

Pineapple plants like ground that is sandy and well-drained -- probably the same kind of dirt you have in your backyard.

Before planting, some people say you should either cut away any existing flesh or, at the very least, make sure all soft fruity parts are completely dried out. It's probably good advice, but I'm too impatient to wait several days for a callus to form and I'm too lazy to strip away existing soft flesh. I prefer the "hurry-n-bury" method -- quickly cut off the crown and rush outside to anchor the stiff, spiky leaves in the sandy soil.

One thing that shouldn't be hurried is deciding where to plant your pineapple. While the severed crown may be only six or eight inches tall and about half as wide, remember: it is going to grow.

As the plant develops, this Brazilian native will extend its leaves upward and outward. At maturity, a single crown will require a space that's about 3 feet wide by 2 feet tall. And consider those leaves. Pineapple leaves look and feel like green, serrated swords. Ouch!

The first time I planted a pineapple crown I placed it in a convenient spot right along our front walkway. Mistake. As the plant grew, so did its pointy sharp leaves. Make sure you place your young starts a good distance away from where any bare-legged people might pass by.

Homegrown pineapples are tasty, but people who insist upon immediate gratification should avoid growing these relatives of bromeliads and Spanish moss. It takes a minimum of 18 months, often longer, for fruit to develop. Even then, after all that waiting, you only reap a single edible pineapple from each crown planted. But that's all right. One bite into a slice of the pale yellow fruit and you'll be glad you waited.

Homegrown pineapples are so flavorful chiefly because gardeners have the luxury of waiting until a fruit is completely ripe before twisting it off its stalk. Commercial growers can't do that. Like most fruits grown for market, pineapples are harvested well before their prime when their waxy outer rinds are still a dark murky green. This common practice may extend the fruit's shelf life and prevents spoilage during transportation, but it doesn't do much to enhance the pineapple's heady essence.

Until I grew my first pineapple, I didn't know its bumpy outer skin turns bright yellow when the fruit is ripe. From years of shopping, I'd learned that (A) a golden tint to the rind is good and (B) leaves that are brown and shriveled are bad. The entire rind on a naturally ripened pineapple is the color of summer flowers -- sunflower yellow or daffodil bright. Add in the seductively sweet scent that accompanies a mature specimen -- an aroma that evokes images of a tropical beachside paradise -- and you can imagine how rewarding it can be to grow your own.

It's not only people who appreciate the taste and smell of this herbaceous perennial. Opossums, raccoons, squirrels and foxes share a fondness for the ripening fruit. With their sharp teeth, wild animals can do what people cannot -- chew their way through the tough outer skin to get at the juicy inner flesh.

That's what happened to the first pineapple I picked this year. I eagerly watched as the rind became more yellow each day. After about a week of anticipation I asked my husband, "Do you think I should pick it today?"

"Give it one more day," he suggested confidently. So I took his advice. And he must have been right because that night, a sharp-toothed furry critter confirmed his assessment by taking a large bite out of one side of the fruit. Sure enough, when we picked the slightly gnawed fruit the next morning -- after cutting around the gnawed spot and giving it a good washing -- we were awed by its sweet, juicy flavor.

I don't know why the animal stopped at one bite but I'm glad it did. Sharing is important, but when you've waited more than 18 months for a few mouthfuls of flavor, it's hard enough to divvy up the bounty with your family, let alone with an opossum or raccoon.

Pineapples are a never-ending pleasure. Each harvested fruit provides a crown that starts the whole process all over again. All it takes is one store-bought fruit to begin the cycle, so give it a try. The next time you buy a pineapple, don't toss the top -- plant it instead. It's a sweet and easy thing to do.